Fresh Alignments with the Spirit

By Jennifer A. Herdt

We cannot think well about the challenges facing schools of theology in the U.S. without thinking about the context in which we are situated, and taking a long and broad perspective on that context. What are its major features? We confront long-term declines in church membership and participation, aggravated in recent years by the disruptions of the pandemic. We confront, too, the reality of deep political polarization, the resurgence of white Christian nationalism, and the widespread popular association of Christianity with the political right. Globally, we witness a rise of ethnonationalism, which is one expression against forces of globalization and against flows of migration unleashed by rampant inequality, centuries of neocolonial extraction, and the ravages of climate change. Ecological crisis and degradation are likely to become, if they are not already, the primary cause of war and migration around the world. We live in a time, too, of rapid growth of Christianity in Africa, in Latin America, and in China, despite harsh repression. The global story of Christianity today is not one of demographic decline but of growth.

There is much to be said for having students with a wide range of vocations sitting side by side in classes and in common rooms and refectories, holding one another accountable to different publics. 

Neocolonial Entanglements

How should institutions of theological education situate themselves with respect to these trends and conditions? Professor of Divinity Ted Smith of the Candler School of Theology has proposed a framing that I find quite illuminating.[1] He traces the ways in which the unfolding history of American theological education is bound up with the character of American churches as voluntary associations. Seminary education has not been about the training of civil servants for state churches but about equipping dynamic leaders of congregations and denominations always jostling for hearts and minds. American theological education has long had a strong sense of dynamic mission. This was deeply bound up with westward expansion and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, with the vision of marching across the continent, planting seminaries ever further west, and then about winning the world for Christ, sending missionaries out into colonized territories around the globe. 

The entanglement of our institutions in neocolonial empire is embedded in our DNA and is something with which we must wrestle. Yet the Holy Spirit has been at work even in the midst of structural sin and domination. The faith of colonized peoples is no less genuine or vibrant for the fact that it was planted by paternalistic colonizers. Everywhere, we see creative appropriations and re-interpretations of Christianity wherever it was preached in ways that sought to serve domination and exploitation. 

New Questions for Old Texts

All of this has—should have—very significant ramifications for institutions of theological education in this country today. Yes, we need programs that better equip pastors to manage church finances, to use space creatively, to know how to start or close churches, to be more entrepreneurial, to lead congregations composed of people from a host of denominational and religious backgrounds or lacking any basic religious formation, or congregations that may be increasingly interfaith and increasingly composed of seekers. And this requires serving our graduates in new ways, as they discover needs they did not realize they had while completing their degree programs. Our own students themselves very often come to us with little knowledge of their own traditions, little by way of faith formation or developed spiritual practices or resilience.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. More fundamentally, we should be grappling with the ways in which Christian scriptures, theologies, and liturgies have been used to exploit and dominate peoples, to support racist ideologies, and to justify extractive dominion of the earth and its creatures. This means transforming our methodologies in ways that shift our attention from the centers of power to the margins, from the Global North to the Global South, from the elite to the common, from whites to people of color, from the human to the more-than-human world. These changes are already underway: new questions brought to old texts, new archives opened up beyond the texts of the elites, ethnographic approaches, attention to material culture, environmental humanities approaches. These are all ways not simply of diagnosing how Christianity has been put in the service of unjust domination, but also of beginning to right the wrongs. These transformations equip us to be tuned in to the work of the Spirit in the world. And it is only as we align ourselves more fully with the work of the Spirit that we will be able to meet the deep spiritual hunger that persists amidst circumstances of secularization and institutional decline.

Beyond Parochialism

These methodological transformations are changing and renewing our disciplines from within, even if those disciplines retain their old names. Forms of curricular organization must change as the work continues. Locating World Christianity in its own separate curricular area, for instance, may be a passing necessity in order to build up faculty presence and curriculum, but over the long haul this is untenable: our study of scripture, of systematic and practical theology, of ethics, of history, must all break out of parochial concentration on Anglo-European texts and traditions. Just so with attention to gender and sexuality, the environment, and the more-than-human creaturely world—we need individual specialists on our faculties, but we also need these themes to permeate our curricula. 

In a world of increasingly fuzzy religious identities, more robust attention to the theology of religions, as well as greater understanding of other faith traditions, are also imperatives. The political and environmental challenges that we face require the cooperation of all people of good faith, not the erection of fences to guard purity of identity. It will be a major challenge among Christian-identified schools to do this in ways that do not merely tokenize or instrumentalize other faiths. Partnering with institutions identified with other faith traditions may be one productive pathway, with virtual technologies enabling us to bridge physical distance and link classrooms, faculty, and students. When it comes to both global Christian and multifaith education, we must center encounter and engagement. We merely reproduce neocolonial logics if we focus on delivering our knowledge and expertise to under-resourced global populations or on delivering textbook information about other faiths to our heavily Christian student populations without proximity to adherents of such traditions. Our domestic students remain by and large comfortably parochial. They need to be challenged to break out of the perception that the world revolves around the U.S. 

Flexible Envelopes

What might this mean in terms of degree programs? Happily, the M.A.R. degree is a very flexible envelope. It is easy to introduce new concentrations, as we at YDS have done in recent years in the areas of Religion and Ecology, Latinx Christianity, and Practical Theology. The M.Div. degree can expect smaller growth as there are fewer congregations in need of pastors. On the other hand, the need for chaplains is growing, and the M.Div. degree provides a splendid foundation for a host of non-traditional ministerial vocations. There is much to be said for having students with a wide range of vocations sitting side by side in classes and in common rooms and refectories, holding one another accountable to different publics. Rather than introducing new degrees, we might find that certificate programs help to equip students for chaplaincy, nonprofit leadership and the like, serving to support enrollment in the M.Div. degree. 

It will be an uphill battle, however, to sustain M.Div. enrollment, or indeed, enrollment in theological education across the board, when students find themselves needing to go into debt in order to prepare for vocations that will not situate them to pay off this debt. Enhanced financial aid support is therefore one final imperative that I will underscore. I am proud of YDS for fully covering the cost of tuition for all students with financial need, and indeed for giving all of these students a small stipend over and above the tuition award. But more is needed. Living costs continue to push students into debt, and three years of living costs is a significantly heavier burden than two. We cannot allow debt to drag down vocation. Here, too, we have a call to align our own energies and priorities with the work of the Holy Spirit, as we live into our vocations as institutions of theological education in the 21st century. 

Jennifer A. Herdt, Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at YDS, has published widely on virtue ethics, early modern and modern moral thought, and political theology. Her books include Forming Humanity: Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition (Chicago, 2019), Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices (Chicago, 2008), and, most recently, Assuming Responsibility: Ecstatic Eudaimonism and the Call to Live Well (Oxford, 2022). From 2013 to 2021 she also served as academic dean of the School. This essay adapts remarks she made in October 2022 during a YDS panel on “The Future of Theological Education.”

[1] Ted A. Smith, The End of Theological Education (Eerdmans, forthcoming 2023).