I don’t pretend that these are subtly phrased and judiciously qualified; I have developed them as I look for bold ways of breaking my students out of some imprisoning assumptions. But the claims are nevertheless serious, and I offer them seriously to you now, in the hope that they might have legs enough to carry them beyond the peculiarities of the Exeter situation.
And one of the services that the University can provide in such a setting is precisely a resistance to this instrumentalizing: a refusal to allow that the subject matter under consideration lines up so neatly with the needs and plans of the churches
By ‘instrumental’, I mean to refer to processes of learning that simply fill in the gaps within a structure we already possess–perhaps providing information to fill in the detail in a picture we have already drawn, perhaps providing skills to enable us to carry out a task we have already formulated. ‘Contemplative’ education, on the other hand, does not leave us in control in this way, but places us before some subject matter that we do not control, and for which our current categories are inadequate. And I take it as clear that although education for ministry will properly involve a certain amount of instrumental learning–training in the performance of certain well-understood tasks (like taking a funeral or chairing a church council)–if it is to be truly theological, if it is to have anything to do with God, it must always also involve ‘contemplative’ learning.
One contrast that I have found gives me useful leverage over the ‘secular’ versus ‘religious’ contrast is that between the instrumental and the contemplative
One way of putting this is that theological education must always include learning which is not ‘for my sake’ or ‘for the job’s sake’–i.e., it must always involve more than learning that simply fits into the structure provided by my existing state or the job I think I have to do; it must involve the kind of transformative learning that takes place when learners are brought into contact with something that they can’t control, and opened up by it. Theological education must always place any quest for mastery that it contains within the broader context of being overmastered.
In my experience of working on the boundaries between the University and the Church, it seems to me both that the temptation to let the instrumental colonize the contemplative is deeply secularizing (it drags our horizons down until they fit within the boundaries of our own limited world), and that it can be found in all its strength on both the Church and the University sides of the border. The turning of Higher Education into a product, the delivery under threat of litigation of precisely the goods which the customer–student has demanded be specified in advance, is familiar enough. But it is equally clear that a similar ethos pervades much Church-based theological training–and that, at times, the temptation there is even more deadly. The temptation can be to demand that all the teaching which an ordinand (say) receives be useful, that it serve certain clearly specified goals, that it fit clearly within a clear practical strategy and equip the student for pursuing that strategy. Yet even if the strategy is mission, such a thinning-down of learning is still instrumentalizing, still secularizing, still a turning away from that which we cannot use but can only acknowledge.
For all its failings, all its own instrumentalization, the University–at least the one in which I work–still preserves an ethos of learning ‘for the subject-matter’s sake’: attention to the difficulty, the awkwardness, the intransigence, the questionability of the subject matter under consideration: useless learning for delight’s sake. And it might just be that this ethos of continued see the site resistance to total usefulness is precisely what is needed to help save the Church from the secularization of theological education.