That the philosophy department of this West Coast school has positioned eighty students in doctoral curricula of merit ranging from Notre Dame to Oxford in under ten years is nothing short of remarkable. In 20 years philosophic discourse in numerous universities, varied industries and in public squares across the country may will evidence profound change because a strategic business plan was intentionally and studiously applied to academic preparation and placement.
Many academicians dismiss business plans applied to pure intellectual endeavors. In general the academy views business suspiciously. This seems particularly true of constructive theologians working in mainline denominations. Business leaders, bankers, marketing gurus, venture capitalists and the like are often treated as unworthy partners in theology’s lofty enterprise. Still, the success of the previously mentioned plan cannot be gainsaid. Blatancy of intent notwithstanding, these students themselves must obtain a master of arts degree to gain admission at doctoral schools, write respectable dissertations, defend their research and hustle to gain scarce jobs in philosophy departments. Once “in” as adjunct, junior or associate instructors, they must teach well, labor collegially and publish respectable work often — or perish.
What these conservative students do is certainly not less, and must sometimes be more, than what students of secularist, mainline, or nominal religious persuasion do. They study. They work hard. They hustle. They advance. They learn. They publish. They change their minds as they grow in understanding. They pursue excellence of mind as a legitimate expression of faithful service to God. They sacrifice in service to a greater good, be it truth, beauty, justice, holiness or “the supreme harmony of all things.”
That the greater good they serve is a distinctive theological vision enhanced by a business plan is instructive. In this case the “good” is intentionally shaped by a pair of Christian scholars who believe philosophical study is not antithetical to faith and as such belongs not solely in the academy but also in the marketplace of ideas, law, politics and commerce. Two designing scholars then borrowed from that same commercial world a strategy to advance their aims in academia. Now, ten years into the twenty year plan they developed , they have nearly met their goal of “sending 100 master of arts in philosophy into the best doctoral programs in the country” and thence to shape professionals in all fields.
Theologians would do well to imitate, borrow and steal shamelessly from this entrepreneurial approach. Christians need theologians working in local parishes–not merely theologians of the church. By this I do not mean theologians who are members of particular congregations, nor writing more popular works, nor routinely appearing as retreat speakers, guest lectures and preachers. Certainly such involvement by members of the academy is welcomed. Where theologians are able to serve in these and similar capacities in sessions, vestries, adjudicatory bodies, publishing houses, denominational foundations, colleges and the like — good!
But without training a new generation of theologians for pulpit, instead of lectern, the church will intellectually wither and die. Prestigious publishing enterprises like the Ancient Christian Commentary Series (Intervarsity) lay claim to the rich ancestral traditions of the Christendom when, once, theologians were biblical scholars and pastors. Middler seminarians can readily name a dozen or more classic theological tomes written by pastors. Would that they could name a single significant work of constructive or dogmatic theology written after 1950 by a working cleric serving a specific parish.
Still, in the last quarter of the 20th century learned essayists have noted, dissected and opined on the significant and growing gap between academy and parish, seminary and congregation. Some have likened the clash of these two cultures as that of “Berlin” (critical research) versus “Athens” (character formation for ministry). Thoughtful bridge-builders seeking to span this chasm have suggested models for theological education and pastoral training unified around such varied notions as “globalization,” “missional theology,” “feminist practices,” “piety,” “contextualization,” “excellence,” “spirituality,” “mentoring,” “moral formation,” “congregational studies” and “practical theology.” Educational experiments include cohort groups, distance learning and virtual classrooms. These efforts are laudable.
Yet lacking still is any genuine expectancy by recognized theologians of the academy that local congregations can and should become communities of theological reflection with pastors as resident theologians placing historic, confessional and critical resources in the hands of worshiping believers from whom might spring works of great beauty, elegance, fidelity and persuasive power matching — perhaps even exceeding — earlier contributions. Widespread and nearly universal in acceptance is the notion that theologians, not communities, do theology. The commodification of theology is complete. Theologians produce, laity consume.
Until theologians plan strategies for embodying another vision, and once again expect that congregations identify themselves as theology producing communities, the breach will only widen and the church’s theological crisis deepen. Imagine, then, a concerted effort by any of the mainline Protestant denominations that matched the strategic business plan outlined at the outset. Imagine, for example, presbyteries and seminaries identifying students with aptitude for rigorous theological inquiry, then challenging and assisting these same students to obtain advanced research degrees for service in local congregations as pastors. Imagine the resistance among academicians lamenting the loss to the guild. Imagine the fear and scepticism among laity worried they will be bored.
But, imagine the church — with such a business plan in play — 20 or 100 years hence.
William L. Mangrum is pastor, Mendocino church, Mendocino, Calif.
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