Fall 2022 | Audacious Odysseys: Charting the Future of Theological Education

How to prepare future ministers, scholars, and theologically minded public leaders for times like these? Amid the churn of forces—the volatile, unsettled role of religion in secular society, the reckonings around justice, the ordeal of student debt, the politics of polarization—is theological education in crisis? In the bicentennial year of Yale Divinity School, this Reflections issue meets the high-stakes moment with essays by YDS voices who speak to many of the most urgent questions and strategies. There’s no one path forward, but what the writers share in common is a conviction to move into the unknown future with creativity, hope, and audacity. As YDS professor Joyce Mercer ’84 M.Div. puts it, “What’s this rambunctious spirit of God asking of us?”

Cover image: Johannes Plenio/Unsplash

Reflections

From the Dean's Desk

During World War I, George Fairman composed a hit song that used the first words of the chorus as a title: “I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.” There are many people who feel that way today. And understandably: the medical, racial, economic, and political tensions that all of us feel are not simply palpable, they are throbbing. 

Contents

An interview with Joyce Ann Mercer ’84 M.Div.

There’s no crystal ball to clue us in on the theological future. An unpredictable era requires nimble skills from divinity schools, congregations, and practitioners living out a divine calling wherever it leads them.

By John Pittard ’13 Ph.D.

Do AI companions have souls? Should you invite them to church? OK if they receive communion? Theological educators need to start asking such questions. The revolution in AI consciousness is coming.

An Interview with Willie Jennings

Divinity education can help the university sharpen its vision of producing citizens of the common good—and steer Christianity to a dream of grace and liberation beyond white supremacist identity.

By Chloë Starr

The global dynamics of Christianity, now unseating U.S. dominance, have much to teach North American believers about experiences of incarnation, atonement, suffering, redemption, and other marks of the faith.

By Candace Whitman

Renewal awaits mainline Christianity if divinity schools and congregations can keep a gospel admonition front-and-center: Jesus simply bid us to be his disciples—not to be successful as the world defines it.

By Andrew McGowan

Predicting outcomes in religion and society is a hazardous business. The variables are too complex. Prophecy about the future often becomes mere self-fulfilling prophecy. Whatever the future holds, it will still require students learning to think critically, solve problems, collaborate, envision the larger story of faith, and share the gospel in people’s lives.

By Sarah B. Drummond ’93 B.A.

Foundations are shifting in religious life—and they’re not done yet. In the meantime, theological schools and ministers should take care to align their goals as closely as possible with what real people and real congregations need from faith and learning.

By Laura Salah Nasrallah

Many theological schools will look different in a decade or two—some trusting in their own radical evolution by imagining alternative social worlds, working toward reparations, and honoring today’s widely varied student experiences.

By Alison Cunningham ’84 M.Div.

A growing number of YDS students are exploring vocations outside the church, in part because of the shrinking availability of positions in congregational ministry, but also because of their commitment to reform-minded work in the larger society.

By Kazimierz Bem ’10 M.Div., ’11 S.T.M.

A graduate recalls how his YDS education of foundational courses in Bible, theology, and other subjects was augmented by another indispensable element: daily worship at Marquand Chapel. That has made all the difference.

By Kathryn “Kat” Banakis ’03 B.A., ’09 M.Div.

An ecumenical divinity education liberates a minister to work with other faith groups while speaking confidently from her own tradition. The result is new initiatives for local healing—also new insights into her own faith.

By Jennifer A. Herdt

Global conditions of theological schools today call for new alignments with the Holy Spirit, ranging from postcolonial approaches toward traditional texts to flexible congregational skills for future ministers to reductions in tuition costs and student debts.

By Braxton Shelley

Theological schools are ideally placed to produce citizens, ministers, and artists who take with them a renewed sensitivity to form, sharpened habits of attention, and a better handle on the elusive divine presence many locate in human creativity.

By Harold W. Attridge

YDS brings historic twin commitments of intellectual inquiry and practical ministry to new conditions and challenges, says this former dean of the School. Whether the aim is new ventures in Christian community or a constructive response to ecological devastation and political distress, theological education remains a grand adventure (though not for the faith of heart).

By Frederick J. Streets ’75 M.Div.

Educating mind and heart, while sharpening critical thinking, have enormous repercussions in a society animated by misinformation and reluctant to face its violent contradictions.

By Kathryn Reklis ’04 M.A.R., ’12 Ph.D.

My students—young adults who are inheriting a world they imagine will betray them on a planet that cannot support them—are desperate for radically alternative ways to be.

By Tamara F. Ravelo ’23 M.Div.

Statistical organizational declines don’t mean God is on the decline. Thinking and praying about strategy, innovation, and implementation—and serious listening—are next steps for congregations. 

By Tyler Mark Nelson ’24 M.Div.

Theological schools are in a position to instill future leaders with the spiritual gumption to pursue God’s will for social transformation in a climate-changed world.

By Alice Seo Young Hyun ’23 M.A.R.

The future role of the arts in theological education will seek to understand the power of art to stir the depths of spirituality and belief, whether individuals are pursuing faith within religious tradition or well beyond it.

By William Goettler

Transformation is always taking place in the plant world—a lesson for congregations about the dynamics of the future.

By Ray Waddle

Theological schools aim to awaken religious imagination and provide tough-minded preparation—drawing on an anthropology of human limits and potential—that no other institutions can.

Reflections is a publication of Yale Divinity School