But as occasionally stimulating as they are, they can often be nauseously depressing in unequal measure.
There is a peculiar rule in the economy of academic theology. I’ll get to what it is in a moment. This rule is unalterable. It has always been present, and in other generations would barely be worth mentioning. Indeed, to do so one might be accused of banality, of crudeness, of spelling out the obvious. Today, of course, the situation is different, and this rule, this fact, must once more be placed front-and-centre at the many seminars and conferences and book launches and wine receptions that academic theologians tend to attend. These kinds of mass scholarly gatherings are not all bad. Good times may be had at a fair few of them in pockets and flashes, here or there.
But as occasionally stimulating as they are, they can often be nauseously depressing in unequal measure.
On 2 Feb 1939, as ambassadors of the Third Reich were duping Europe with smiles on the inevitable march to war, a theological student and pastor, Gerhard Lehne, wrote a letter to his former teacher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He spoke not of the increasing anxiety within and beyond the German borders, but of something far more eternally significant: the perennial importance of theological education, how it ought to be done, and how truly essential the how really is. Reflecting on his time at Bonhoeffer's famous Finkenwalde seminary, he said:
However, the problem is that – contrary to popular belief – theologians also happen to be humans. This inconvenient fact means that what is ‘appropriate’ within one’s theological study cannot be divorced from the business of everyday living. Precisely because the theological content we wish to learn and teach is so incredibly vital, the atmosphere in which it is done is essential to it.
Usually, a budding theologian is left to do all that ‘life’ stuff outside the classroom: life = ‘extra-curricular’. The result of this strange equation? Lop-sided, self-appointed academic theologians, who often end up being more of a hindrance to the Church than a help (did I say that out-loud?). But didn’t someone once say something in a letter somewhere about watching one’s life and doctrine, as though the two were, sort-of, linked? The question is, how bold are we actually willing to be in imitating Paul’s (or Jesus’) more comprehensive approaches to theological education? Some institutions patchily try to plug this gap, often with good intentions, lethargic results, and pragmatic excuses. “Yes, yes; we know, we know; theology and formation, etc. We agree; we agree. But at the end of the day, people need to learn the stuff, they need to be assessed, there are only so many hours in a day, and isn’t the Church supposed to do the pastoring?” Such an attitude is entirely understandable, but it is not one that can claim to be truly committed to theological education. Because theological education makes no sense if it’s not entirely formative, and it makes no sense if it does not lead entirely from (and to) the mission of the Church.
What is perhaps missing is the kind of all-inclusive and demanding nature of a Finkenwalde. At an urgent time in which pragmatics should really have been first on the agenda, it refused to separate duty from community, faithfulness from encounter, piety from play. Such a place is what many young theologians of this generation are crying out for. Air to breathe; intellectual rigour that does not quench the Spirit; a call to culture and discipleship; a love of beauty and mission. And ‘last, not least’, a humble yet decisive leader at the helm; non-coercive yet unwavering in conviction; commanding in vision yet lovingly committed to the freedom and flourishing of each and all. Is such a place really possible? Lehne’s letter no doubt idealises Finkenwalde. It reads like something of a theological utopia, a Rivendell before Mordor. We know, of course, it had its problems, such as the inevitable goldfish-bowl syndrome, and others. We also know that it’s utterly inimitable, that it started at a very particular time for a very particular purpose by a very particular person. One does not simply set up a Finkenwalde on an idealistic whim. However, I still wonder if much of the vision of such a place could still inform the way theological education is done in all sorts of other contexts.
Why is it that a place like Finkenwalde might be occasionally remembered (even rose-tintedly) as though it were a place like Rivendell? Perhaps a ‘Rivendell’ is actually something that theological education could hope to be: a place to prepare the disciple for the perilous journey ahead, whether a theological life in the academy, the pastorate, Jupiter, or wherever else they end up. The important thing about such a place is that, however experientially beneficial it is, however refreshing, however stirring, it cannot keep you there forever. Indeed, to stay there would mean you hadn’t really learned the most important thing to be learned there: that you ultimately need to go. Indeed, to be there is to be going. Like the fishermen who dropped their nets, like the students on the Emmaus road, like the hearers in the hall of Tyrannus, things are supposed to happen afterwards. The focussed season of learning (though it never really stops) should be a time of challenging and building-up in the context of real peace and joy, where all of life is permitted to encroach, so that the theology that is learned is both lived and life-giving.
Such places of life-exulting learning (whether they contain elves or just regular human lecturers) are intended for a greater purpose beyond their own blissful walls. Theological education ought to equip disciples in the best way possible, not only with concepts, not only with books, but with supplies which might get them through a famine, with unique weapons of awareness that might keep them alert to hidden dangers, and with deep words of encouragement which truly equip them in storms to come. This is all bound up in the kind of comprehensive environment in which theological training ought to occur.
Even if we dare not set up another Finkenwalde today, we might learn something from its rigorous conflation of sacrificial discipleship, baptised imagination, rigorous learning, earthy delight, and unashamed faith – a place where life (all of it) and theology (all of it) lived happily together, the one advising the other. It could be naïve to imagine that such a place were possible in theological education today; but might it also be the case that those with the power to do it perhaps lack the courage to try?
You might not have noticed, but we’ve been away for a bit. It’s all a tad embarrassing. We last promised that “it’s going to be a bit quiet for 1/2 weeks” - and now (several months later) we’ve finally made a return. How much procrastination could possibly explain such tardiness?! Well, that’s the thing. There was no procrastination; just a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Ok, fine, not quite, but verily we say unto thee: it’s been a really difficult time. Not least because the whole idea of doing a ‘Christian blog’ in the first place is actually rather confusing. We’ve struggled to come to terms with what that means and what our own ‘vision’ for it might look like. There have been lengthy Skype conferences, protracted written exchanges, numerous text messages going backwards & forwards, etc. We’ve even had a couple of spats (that’s right: spats!) as well as disagreements. We have - in no uncertain terms - wrestled with God having provoked us to run this blog.
It would now be all-too-easy to publish our next piece with nary a hint that anything’s been remiss. We do not want to do that. If this blog is truly our “friendship made public”, then it’s incumbent on us to show our workings. If in the process something of God’s goodness is displayed, or something worthwhile is said about what it means to run a ‘Christian blog’, then we’ll count that as an enormous boon. So grab a cup of tea and join us as we gaze at our navels / work it out together. Aaron’s up first with a great opening salvo.
Trust us, this should be worth your time...
Well, we weren't lying! Within a few days we'll be returning to regular functions - frequent new posts and videos, just like the old days, but better.
The first post will not only be about what on earth happened to us over the eight months as well as what explains our absence, but about the nature of theological friendship in the first place. Part of our remit here at TLD is that we're here to make our friendship public and introduce you to the table. When we return, we're going to take a long look at what that even means.
So start thinking & reflecting now: what is theological friendship? is it special in any way, different from friendship in general? are there any pitfalls or dangers to it? how might scripture be used to illuminate the subject? have you any experience of theological friendship? if so, what was (or is) it like and have you any wisdom about how best to go about it? if not, why not, what has stopped this from happening and what do you think might help to make it easier?
All coming soon. It's hopefully going to be good stuff, guys - and we're really looking forward to chatting to you again :) (And if that's piqued your curiosity, click through to read a few quotes from the new piece!)
First - apologies for reaching out to you in such an obnoxious manner. No doubt you're tired (as we all are) of the whole 'Open Letter' trope. It's been exploited so many times that it's basically a parody of itself. The author pretends to speak to you, even though - let's face it Stephen - you're not really there. You're not exactly going to read some poorly written Z-List blog, are you? What's more, the true purpose of this facetiousness is plain to everyone: the author puts forward a cover of close proximity whilst in reality he's actually talking to everyone else. (Hi guys... This is Awkward.)
I chose this format because [a] it's fairly readable as formats go; [b] you're trending on social media and I feel a genuine need - as a Christian leader & teacher - to make some form of response, however imperfect; and [c] who knows? It might get me famous in that leechy, makes-you-feel-a-bit-dirty kind of way.
Three young(ish) English theologians. Aaron; Owen, and Nathan.
We love theology.
We love the Church.
And we love Jesus.
"Together - through the ages of the world - we have fought the long defeat".
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