At Irish Bible Institute we are embarking on a year-long journey of ‘re-validation’ with our partner university. Happily, this means that the university has agreed to renew our partnership for years ahead.
But it is not just re-signing a bit of paper, the process involves (and requires) us to think afresh about what we are doing and why. This isn’t just ticking boxes – our partner is committed to educational innovation and creativity and is pushing us to think afresh from first principles as to what we are doing.
The thing is, most theological colleges have some form of assent to integrative learning. But it is a very different thing to get beyond ‘ink on paper’ to genuine transformative learning that shapes the whole person.
Some paradigms of theological education, historically particularly within universities, aren’t that interested in this sort of learning, particularly if that university is, or has ambitions to be, a prestigious academic institution that prizes a particular type of educational success . This is one reason the Bible College movement began in the UK and Ireland.
It was Lesslie Newbigin who, paraphrasing Luther, talked about the Babylonian Captivity of much theological education. He meant by this the prioritization of a form of objective, scientific learning that imagines theology as an academic exercise of the detached neutral mind. It results in a programme where academic, cognitive success dominates all levels of the student experience – from advertising and recruitment of students, entry qualifications, the shape and structure of the classroom, the content of lectures (primarily information transfer), the setting of assessments, the criteria for grading, right through to qualifications, awards and prizes.
In other words, an Enlightenment paradigm of learning where theology is primarily the study of books and ideas, detached from personal faith, character transformation, practical skills for ministry, prayer, community and Christlikeness.
This is theology as mere acquisition of knowledge, the student as consumer of information, the teacher as expert distributor of information. It is non-relational and I would say, pretty well non-Christian in terms of an authentic preparation for forming people spiritually and preparing them for the demands and messiness of Christian ministry.
No wonder churches have long been sceptical of the value of going to study theology – whether at Bible College or university. No wonder, there is a lot of anti-intellectualism in the church if studying theology means that a student might be brilliant at writing a paper on Barth’s doctrine of election but have little humility and self-awareness or pastoral heart (nothing against Barth, but you get the point).
So, going back to first principles is a very good, and demanding and uncomfortable, thing to have to do. For, if you are like me, if we are allowed to, we tend to keep doing what we know, what we are comfortable with, what has worked in the past, without asking too many tough questions of ourselves and our organisations.
To do this, we are working as a team together through Perry Shaw’s excellent and stimulating book Transforming Theological Education: a practical handbook for integrative learning
At the moment we are also doing a series of consultations with leaders, current and past students and others on some key initial questions. We need to answer these sorts of questions before we get into the nitty gritty of programme design and what modules we will offer and how they will be assessed etc.
Because it will the answers to these sorts of questions that will shape what we do. The biggest obstacle to change in any organisation I think is not being willing to ask and act on questions of purpose.
Shaw talks about the sorts of questions his Seminary worked through in their radical restructuring of their programmes. We are now doing the same:
I wonder what your answers to these questions might be?
What is the ideal church for our contemporary context in Ireland?
[assuming our continued purpose is to serve the Irish church it makes sense to think about what sort of churches are going to be best set to fulfil God’s missional mandate.]
What are the contextual challenges facing churches in Ireland?
- Internal challenges?
- External challenges?
What are the qualities and attitudes and skills of an ideal graduate in this context?
- what sort of knowledge and thinking skills are needed for a faithful Christian to connect with the context and to continue to adapt and grow in a changing ministry environment?
- what sort of character and attitude traits are required for Christian service in this context?
- what sort of skills and abilities are needed so that the gospel can be incarnated in word and deed in the student and those he / she serves?
We are processing these questions and working towards the next steps
Your comments and thoughts are welcome to the mix