Educating Mind and Heart in an Era of Upheaval

By Frederick J. Streets ’75 M.Div.

I did not attend divinity school to confirm my call to ministry.[1] My church experiences growing up and my sense of call to the parish ministry motivated me to attend seminary. My assumption then was that a theological education would prepare me better to preach, offer pastoral care to a congregation, and lead the parish as a representative of the institutional church. My divinity school education included the academic and critical study of theology, religion, and the Bible—and, just as important, the development of practical skills through church internships and clinical pastoral education (CPE), each offering the knowledge and competencies I would need as a congregational minister. This was the platform from which YDS launched me into the real world of being a parish minister over 40 years ago. I was prepared to serve a model of the church that existed in a world that I thought was predictable.

A divinity education helps students form confident identities, experience belonging, and envision the work of healing relationships in creative ways that address individual needs while finding common ground in a community or a nation. These are not naive or pollyannish expectations.

The Search to Belong

The situation is drastically different today. Seminary education happens now in far more uncertain social and global conditions, defined by pandemic, political polarization, social unrest, and global climate change. Many students arrive with a profound sense of anxiety about our world’s future as they discern their life’s direction. Many come to seminary today in search of their identity and a sense of belonging, not only a vocation and calling.

A crucial task of theological education is that it speaks to students’ heads and their hearts. The academic study of religion and the practice of ministry beyond the academy should be equally valued by a divinity school’s faculties and students. What is at the core of higher education is also at the center of a divinity school learning experience: a wholistic approach to preparing the student for the world. At their best, divinity schools address the religious, spiritual, and cultural particularity and diversity of its students and their relationship to the larger world—enabling them to stand in their traditions of culture, ethnicity, religion, and identities while they learn how to engage postmodernity. Helping them graduate with a sense of self-determination and belonging and ownership of their divinity school experience becomes the foundation upon which they can contribute to building a democratic and multicultural society.

The Paradoxical Human Condition

This dual aim—educating mind and heart—has enormous repercussions for our society. Our common life is filled with people committing various forms of violence and promoting misinformation, contributing to the diminishment of critical thinking and the destruction of life. It exposes a dismal failure of society to work through its conflicts, contradictions, or to endure any experience of paradox, tension, or a diversity of views. A divinity school education is equipped to promote a tolerance of the paradoxical human condition of rationality and intuition, faith and reason, truth and skepticism. Divinity school traditions allow the exploration of the spiritual, ethical, and pastoral as well as the intellectual and physical dimensions of our human experience. This is urgent to the future: a divinity school educational approach that fosters inquiry holding together the relationship between thinking, knowing, doing, and being. We cannot just think our way into a better way of life, we also must feel it to imagine it.  The false division between reason and emotion, between science and intuition, dangerously confines us. Living, learning, and thriving is a relational dynamic. It is logical and empathetic. Navigating, negotiating, and succeeding in our world today, with its overemphasis upon a one-dimensional technical means of learning and relating to one another, requires a wholistic approach to learning. This increases our chances of drawing one another into the common task of imagining and creating a better society.

The Future at Stake

Today’s divinity school atmosphere must work to ensure that creative tensions—the inevitable competing and conflicting values and beliefs carried by all students, faculty, and other members of the campus community—are allowed to exist, even flourish. It should help its members sort through those values and beliefs in ways that allow for their growth. A divinity education aims to help students form confident identities and experience belonging—help them envision the work of healing relationships and institutions by addressing individual needs while finding common ground in a community, a culture, or a nation. These are not naive or pollyannish expectations of a divinity school education. The future wellbeing of our society and world requires nothing less than this commitment.

The Rev. Frederick (Jerry) Streets ’75 M.Div. is Associate Professor (Adjunct) of Pastoral Theology at YDS, where he has taught since 1987, and Senior Pastor of Dixwell Congregational Church in New Haven. He served as Yale University Chaplain and Senior Pastor of the Church of Christ in Yale from 1992-2007.

[1] I use the terms divinity school and seminary interchangeably to designate a broader graduate theological school and professional education. In the U.S. today, many of these schools are a part of a university.