Putting words to spirit...
edited: Friday, September 03, 2004
By Fr. Kurt Messick
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Friday, September 03, 2004
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A book review, of sorts...
There are very few books in my life that I intentionally re-read; there are so many books and so little time that it sometimes seems a dis-service to be re-reading things. I have a short list of things I like to revisit - a list of literary and other classics that I try to re-read (sometimes in different edition or translation) once per decade or so. However, this book, 'The Scope of Our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher', edited by L. Gregory Jones and Stephanie Paulsell, is one that I have read four times in the four years that I have had it. I first got a copy back in the fall semester of 2001; I have since re-read it at the beginning of each academic year of 2002, 2003, and have just finished it again in preparation for 2004. This year I face new challenges: I will teaching in three different courses at my seminary (the heaviest teaching load I've had there); and, this will be last year teaching there - possibly my last year teaching theology and spirituality subjects anywhere.
I was familiar with Jones and Paulsell from other works; both have books that are on my shelf in ready location for easy reading. They each have a spirit about their writing that touches me deeply; their sensitivity extends to discerning those other voices that complement their own. This book reaches me in ways I continue to find astonishing - my deepest longing is to be a teacher in the field of theology, and this book discusses that vocation, that calling, in a truly theological and spiritual sense. The title of the book derives from the statement by Gregory Nazienzen, 'The scope of our art is to give wings to the soul.' I have always had a stronger call to the lectern than the pulpit, but lacked words and community in which to work through the implications of this vocation (it is somewhat ironic that many seminaries generally don't do much by way of nurturing potential theological school and seminary instructors, being so focussed on turning out ministers for the church).
The book has three organising ideas - formative practices, the context of the theological classroom, and the context of the theological school (as an institution, distinct from internal classroom issues). Many of the practices for formation as a theological teacher can be broadly applied to ministers and teachers in other disciplines. Looking at practices such as writing, reading, contemplation (even in the midst of chaos and overwork), and basic community and kinship that forms in vocational sharing of identity and purpose. This formation section is introduced by W. Clark Gilpin, who makes a plea for greater connection with the public good in education, as opposed to the insularity that typifies so much of graduate education today.
The exploration of theological teaching in the classroom takes on four dimensions in the essays offered here: teaching as conversation, as a ministry, as the cultivation of wisdom, and a process (dialectical, perhap) of teaching and learning as continuous prayer. As these are teachers writing primarily to other teachers, they look at what they can get from their students as much as to what they can give. There is a community sense that grows in the classroom, albeit one with various dynamics inherent in any kind of situation where there is power imbalance. Also, the intention of students have changed - as Paul Waddell states in his essay, the idea of going to university for intellectual and moral growth would 'sound quaint to most student today,' who instead seek career-oriented courses with marketability.
The final section looks at the place of teaching - alas, not all can get a plum, tenured position in a big name European or Ivy League school. Frederick Norris talks about 'vocation in the outback' - doing theology in non-spotlight locations, which was also true in the ancient church. Norris looks at the example of the Cappadocians, working in places not noted for academic or political prominence. Indeed, Norris proposes that theology teachers might be more apt to be attentive to the needs of God, community and the movement of the spirit when they are located in places that are not so heavily invested in ideas such as 'reputation'. The editor Jones, in one of his own essays, discusses the tensions and discernment of vocation is very clear and wonderful terms - he discusses with refreshing frankness the idea that discernment is not an easy business, and that there will be those persons involved who, 'sometimes for understandable reasons and sometimes for pernicious ones,' stand in the way of vocation. Where was Jones when I was fighting with my church, who dogmatically held that their position on discernment was infallible?
As this is my final year as a student at my seminary, and thus my final year of teaching at my seminary (perhaps my final year of teaching theological subjects anywhere), the texts are all the more meaningful as I try to discern how one can carry on such a vocation in the absence of any school or church setting. I am certain as I continue to think about these issues, this book will be a constant companion. I recommend it without reservation to teachers in theology schools, seminaries, religious studies departments, and those who would aspire to such vocation.
W. Clark Gilpin
Paul J. Griffiths
L. Gregory Jones
Rosemary Skinner Keller
Claire Mathews McGinnis
Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore
Gordon T. Smith
Leanne Van Dyk