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Seminary Education and Koinonia: Part 1

By April 26, 2012 2 Comments

In one of my classes this week, a student raised a series of poignant questions about the relationship between the formation of the practical theologian or pastoral caregiver and the formation of a seminary community. Perhaps because my institution is in the midst of curricular review, because mounting challenges to theological education can no longer be ignored, and because he was raising new questions in response to my book (The Church and the Crisis of Community), they keep filtering up into my conscious awareness. The questions can be boiled down to this: What would seminary education look like if the reality of koinonia shaped relationships inside and outside of the classroom? What if our awakening to this reality actually shaped seminary ethos? 

To follow my own advice to dwell in our questions, complex and impossible as they may seem, today begins a series of reflections in my blog postings, a kind of wandering into the darkness that seems to cloud seminary education these days—and by this I mean, the very real questions about faithfulness and sustainability of current ways of doing theological education. While by no means attempting let alone expecting to answer these adaptive questions, I do hope that a kind of wise, engaging communal discourse might arise for us who care deeply about the church and the formation of its ministers.

So here goes . . .

As I briefly mentioned in my last blog, the origin and telos of human life is koinonia. The church participates in and witnesses to the realty of koinonia—our union and communion of love with God, with one another in the church, and indeed with the whole world in, through, and on account of Christ. This koinonia is not only an objective reality accomplished for us in the Incarnation of the Son of God (and by incarnation, I am including Jesus’ death and resurrection); it is not only a reality that will be fulfilled in the eschaton when God is all in all; but also, it is the very work of God in the here-and-now—a work that we are called to live into, by the power of the Spirit.

The church’s koinonia with God through Christ and by the power of the Spirit springs from the fount of grace. There is nothing we can do to create it or thwart it our union with God. As Karl Barth says, “The love of God always throws a bridge over a crevasse.” Moreover, our koinonia with God through Christ cannot be separated from our koinonia with one another in the church. To exist in Christ is to exist with each other at an ontological level (not just at a sociological, psychological level). Our life together is one of the greatest possible intimacy and differentiation, the kind of intimacy and differentiation that corresponds to (but does not replicate) the relationship in the triune God.  And frankly, we don’t get to choose who exists in koinonia with us. In koinonia, there is no slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female. Koinonia is not an affinity group, a group of people who look alike, think alike, share a similar socio-economic status, etc.

With just that much said (and there’s much more to koinonia than this), we might consider some core commitments for seminary education:

  • Together the community of staff, faculty, and students ought to reflect the grace through which we are united to Christ and each other. Homogeneity and pressures to conform to the majority culture contradict koinonia. A commitment to global, ecumenical relationships ought to be evident in our admissions policies, hiring practices, and course offerings. A commitment to intentionally including a variety of theological perspectives ought to shape the curriculum as a whole. What about a commitment to creating safe, learning environments in which students can share their experiences and perspectives without fear of condemnation?
  • The silo-ing of professors and even students from one another—whether that emerges from certain guild mentalities, the four-fold division of labor, or more likely, high anxiety and competition—contradicts koinonia. For faculty, creative, genuine collaboration in teaching, research, writing (which can be seen as suspicious in comparison to monographs) ought to be encouraged and supported at the institutional level. Without attending to the dimension of faculty ethos, we are undermining our attempt to educate students who lead in fostering communities of care and mission in today’s world. In other words, this hidden curriculum will undermine and maybe even overpower our written curriculum.

More to come in two weeks . . .


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Theresa, thanks for beginning this. I keep my hand in seminary education, so I'm very interested. I believe the issue of "silo-ing" is huge. There are ATS and AAR and academic market reasons to want specialists as professors, even narrow specialists, besides the usual inter-departmental "don't touch my turf" issues. When I was teaching liturgy some decades ago at New Brunswick, the OT professor did not like the amount of Old Testament interpretation I had built into my course, upon which material I did not take the position of an "amateur". The regnant patterns of academia don't help.

    I also wonder how often seminaries are true worshipping communities, and when and how their theology arises out of their common worship life? Think of Harvard in the very early days, when there was no firm boundary between worship, theological investigation, and teaching.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Good post, Theresa! The tensions you note are palpable indeed with–IMHO–something of a generational divide, too, among those who can remember the days when professors scarcely knew their students' names (and the students didn't care so long as they learned a lot from respected scholars) to today when students need to know you love them before they're willing to learn from you. Eager to read more of your musings!

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