Thursday, April 21, 2005


Liberal and orthodox books. Er, what?

I just read the article by C. Drew Smith on "Reading Liberal Books at Church-Based Universities", available on the SBL Forum. I am writing this as a sequel to my previous Instant Messaging and distant degrees post.

I think that the passage
But rarely do we take up the hard task of helping students learn to think theologically. [...] As theological educators, we are compelled to guide students to develop a practice of thinking critically about their faith.
is very right. While the second part is maybe (maybe) especially applicable to teachers of a Church-based educational institution, the first part should be true of every institution offering theology courses.

Now, of course one should see this in the context of a clear educational path: I do not think one can really "learn to think theologically" in just 3 or 4 years of courses covering everything from history, to ancient languages, to philosophy, art, liturgy, etc. But the basis of that learning should become sound. It is a perhaps unique opportunity to give students a path to maturity: a path, in general, toward the attitude to "become lifelong learners" and, specifically for believers, toward the search for a faith growing more and more adult.

So, on the one hand, a sophomor course like the one mentioned by professor Smith should not be too ambitious: the risk is, for example, to create mostly confusion in the mind of people not used to the arguments being discussed. It takes time and application to be able to understand different positions, or different cultures and times (if you want an easy example, try to read the Summa Theologiae, which was written first and foremost for students, to your own theology students), especially when the milieu in which students grow in is not particularly familiar with theological debates and culture (which is something that - in my experience - is true almost everywhere today). The risk I mention is not (or not necessarily) a risk for the faith of the students: it is rather, I think, a learning hazard. It is as if one tried to master philosophy just by reading what All The Important Philosophers™ said: in the end, unless carefully followed, one would not be able to discern anything, and everything would probably collapse into a cauldron where apples, oranges, and all the fruits of this world (and probably others) would happily mix. Above, instead of "Philosophy", one could of course have e.g. "Church History", or "Christian Doctrine".

But, on the other hand, it does not seem that pre-limiting a theology-related course content in too strict a way is satisfactory, either. Would you be happy if the students of your early Church History course would not know at the end of your course what Augustine's position on Pelagius really was? And what Pelagius really said? And why knowing this is important? But we can't teach everything, we need to make selections!, say the professors. That is patently true. Here's the point, then: your students, unless carefully followed, will not be able to understand that you did make selections, and the reasons you made the selections you made. They may even end up thinking that what they studied, and that they perhaps learned very well, is a comprehensive summary of what is there to know on the subject of the course. It is as if one tried to study Italian literature (to take something I am vaguely familiar with) reading only secondary sources and, since we do not have a lot of time at hand, only Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio (and we will skip the most complex Canti of the Divina Commedia because they are just that, that is, complex). This is what one of my old professors labeled as "recounting the fable of literature". Again, instead of "literature", one could put e.g. Textual Criticism, or New Testament. Does this mean that one should try to put more stringent limits to the content of a course? Maybe. In our (U London, external studies) examinations for Church History to 461 CE (only 461 years to study, right?) one could probably focus on just the first 250 years or less, select 4 questions at the exam that only deal with, say, the Apostolic Fathers, Justin, Cyprian, and Tertullian, and be done with it (maybe with excellent marks). Does this mean that the student did well in exam? No. It really does not. But that is what we (students) are advised to do: in the study guides, it is often explicitly said that, if one wants to get good marks, it is probably better to focus on just a few topics: a selection of the selection (which will be further selected, often arbitrarily, when students decide which textbooks to read and which not - assuming they have and know how to use a bibliography). To the teachers, it does not seem to matter if their students do not know in the end what is Nicea, or Chalcedon, or the filioque controversy and, again, why it is important to know about them. Is this because their students are external? Regardless of the answer, yes or no, the real point is, quite naturally, to define the real meaning of the course as an educational device. To say the least, it seems to me that this way of teaching does not "help students to learn theologically".

What I am saying here is most obvious, then. I do not think that a teacher can believe to have fulfilled his role (or "mission", if you like) of being a teacher without clarifying and giving (partial, perhaps) answers to the above, which means at least to follow in some way those, who count on him or her to "learn to think theologically". But you cannot have your cake and eat it too! says, and perhaps rightly so, Danny Zacharias over at Deinde, when considering his experience with distant students. But if he is right, I would not offer in the first place a degree about which it is specifically said that "There is only one University of London degree, and it is awarded both to students attending in London and to External students." Tim says that I was probably wrong when I singled out external students in my previous post, because a student is a student is a student, and all have common needs and rights: well, I would so love to be proved wrong.

Fact is that, to me, the points made by C. Drew Smith about "liberal books" (or "orthodox books", for that matter) are certainly not applicable to my external studies. A small test for "in situ" teachers: in the bibliography for the Philosophy of Religion course, which I took last year, one can - and that's very good!, I myself quickly add - find Mackie's The Miracle of Theism: try to assign it as required reading to your first year theology students, but do not otherwise specifically deal with it; then ask them to explain, perhaps in written form, perhaps during an exam, their critical thought about what Mackie said.

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