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?
I'm now coming to the end of my PhD and it's taken what feels like a ridiculously long time. I've been in higher education for longer than I'd like to actually calculate, and I've been a postgrad for what feels like an age in itself. In the time that it's taken me to complete my PhD - from those very first steps through to this last tired hobble to the finish line - I think (I hope) that I might actually have learned something. And I don't just mean from a dusty old textbook; I've learned some stuff about myself. About who I am and what I'm all about. I believe I've changed since I first embarked upon this journey and I think I'm a different man.
Maybe you've done a PhD too or academic study of any kind, and, possibly, you can relate to what I'm saying about this process of learning? If so, let us know in the comments, on Twitter or on Facebook.
As for me... well, here goes.
Introduction [scroll down for guide]
Here's a strange thing. Academic theology is an internationally renown and scholarly discipline. Hundreds of Universities have theology departments, and if they don't, they're likely doing Theology in some other capacity, perhaps under some other name. There are Professors of Theology. Doctors of Theology. Theology books and Theology conferences. Even Theology playing cards. And, like most other scholarly fields of study, there are Theology journals. Loads of them in fact. Which is great, but, there are two problems with this. First, it's almost impossible to keep count. And second, a lot of the time, the identity and purpose of these journals is not at all obvious. It can be both overwhelming as well as completely confusing.
And yet, strangely, there's not a single guide to theological journals available online.
Sure, this is the Internet. There's probably one somewhere, hidden in some digital crevice. But if, like the rest of humanity, a hapless theology student searches Google to navigate her way through this complex web of publications... nothing. That's right. There's a website to tell you if it's Christmas or not, another dedicated to the sad faces of the UK deputy prime minister, and a video of a man eating roll-on deodorant. (Really quite disturbing by the way.) But not a single guide - as far as I can tell - to help you figure out theology journals. The closest you get is Wikipedia's information dump, found here.
[EDIT: It appears things have changed a little since we originally posted this. The very same Google search now presents you with this very page.]
We here at The Long Defeat want to try something a bit more focused & personal. Specifically, we want to provide an easy-to-access guide that pertains to Christian theology in particular. What follows, therefore, is our Guide to Theology Journals.
Arriving in Oxford, tired, about quarter to eleven, I eventually stumbled upon my youth hostel. I waited for the seemingly labyrinthine check-in process to be completed by the three flummoxed members of staff. Took the opportunity to browse the overpriced postcards, seeing if there was one Molly might like. I was also – thrillingly – on the look-out for a fridge magnet. Don’t ask. Well, you may as well have. Basically, it’s become something of a family custom that whenever I visit somewhere I will return with one such token from my newfound land to contribute to the cosmetic face of our kitchen fridge. It wasn’t like I planned this to happen. I don’t think anyone does. When you buy a fridge magnet for the first time you think it’s just a simple purchase; a one-off novelty; a transaction between you and an anonymous market stall. But you don’t actually realise what you’re getting yourself into. After all, what’s the point of a single solitary fridge magnet from Sharm El Sheikh sitting there on your fridge? It just doesn’t look right; it’s as if you have some kind of exclusive attachment to that one place and no other. So, you think, ‘No. This magnet must be supplemented by further embossed fridge magnets from as many faraway lands as possible. Otherwise, it will cease to make sense.’
It seems a perfectly logical thought at the time, trust me.
Three young(ish) English theologians. Aaron; Owen, and Nathan.
We love theology.
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And we love Jesus.
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