Once, at a senior ministry project presentation, I turned to Prof. Richard Rosengarten and said, “What’s the difference between a seminary and a divinity school?” “I don’t know,” he replied with a grin, “what is the difference between a seminary and a divinity school?” I was a little embarrassed to tell him that this wasn’t the setup to a great joke, but a sincere question.
After nearly two years of teaching in a seminary context, I’m sorry to say that I still haven’t thought up a good punchline to match that setup (by all means, let me know if you have one). But I can tell you that the most salient difference to me has been how teaching in a confessional context – in my case, a Christian community, but I suspect that many others have parallel experiences working with other religious traditions – has demanded that I teach from a set of deeper convictions than I was accustomed to using before I arrived here.
One of the courses I taught to undergrads at a liberal arts college near Chicago was called, “Does God Exist?” While this wasn’t strictly a “debate” course, my role in that classroom was often to referee a spirited back-and-forth, or to argue for whichever side of a particular topic was underconsidered in the room at a given moment, or to encourage the students to think through (and perhaps from!) an unfamiliar point-of-view. I taught this course twice, and on both sets of evaluations, the students expressed a surprising level of gratitude that I was, in their words, “unbiased” – that I had successfully shrouded my own position on the issues we discussed behind layers of pedagogical performance. Many students claimed that they could not tell whether I was a theist, an atheist, or something in between, though others had their suspicions (and a moment’s Googling would have told them more than enough about my theological perspective).
I still regard this as a genuine achievement: it was called for by the task of teaching those students in that place. Everything that I had been taught about teaching had guided me to teach for student skill-acquisition, and the course objectives seemed to require that I bracket my own convictions in order to make space for them to find their own voices in the classroom. On a fraught topic, as we denizens of religious studies and theology are so often teaching, and especially with younger adults, a professor whose convictions were explicitly present in the classroom might have crowded out the wonderings, the confusion, the doubts that were so useful in the process of their learning. And these are, after all, meaningful norms of thought and convictions of mine with respect to theological education.
Yet the seminary classroom is, in this respect as in many others, quite different. At least at my current institution, students often ask me not only to disclose my own confessional and theological leanings, but to take sides in ecclesial debates and – gasp! – to offer my own judgment on theological problems. As I first began my seminary teaching, I was deeply averse to satisfying this desire: after all, I did not come here to make disciples of myself, but to teach these students how to teach themselves by giving them a familiarity with our traditions of thought, some facility with the ways our disciplines approach problems, and gentle but supportive encouragement to find their own way.
But I have learned that those objectives are not enough. To echo what Spencer Dew wrote in this space a few weeks ago, I have found value in a more authentic presence in the classroom, modeling my own approach to problems with all of the struggles and confusion that I experience as a student of my religious tradition. To be sure, I’m still inclined to return questions from students back to the class, to defer giving anything like a final and authoritative answer (or at least, to get into the habit of doing that regularly). However, I think I have become more sensitive to the moments that call for me to point out which types of answers will be more fruitful, or to warn them about the intellectual and moral dangers that attend the study of religion and apprenticeship to many of our canonical luminaries. I feel more and more comfortable speaking from my personal experience, my deeper convictions, and, yes, offering my own judgments.
The most obvious lesson from this contrast, which I need only observe in passing for this audience, is attentiveness to institutional context: what is appropriate in a secular liberal arts curriculum is quite different from what fits into the mission of an ecclesial seminary. By necessity, many of us spend graduate school keeping our imaginative options open when it comes to our future teaching. As we all know, however, eventually that teaching must be actualized in a context that makes more specific demands of our pedagogical potential. Skilled discernment of context is required of any teacher, and for too long I thought that I had to teach in a way that was “portable” into any classroom – undergraduate or postgraduate, secular or confessional, urban or suburban. In fact, the portability of our teaching increases as we are able to pay more attention and deploy more of our resources to address our current circumstances with passionate clarity.
But I think there was also a deeper reason for my reticence, perhaps endemic to those of us in constructive studies. Despite knowing better, I think I presumed that something about my religious convictions was private and did not belong in the public space of the classroom. In all of my attempts to teach students that Christian thought and practice are publicly accessible – that they interact with forms of reasonableness; that they live and move in a world including other traditions, all of which have porous boundaries; that they have potent political and social implications – I also felt, on some level, that invoking my own convictions would silence student voices. Thus, in practice, I conceded an assumption that religion is a conversation-stopper, even as I set up my students to discover the ways that it need not be. In doing so even when it wasn’t the most appropriate response to the moment, I believe that I underestimated my students’ independence and resolve. Even in my current circumstances, where I speak as a representative of church traditions that nourish our communal consensus, students do not merely defer to me: in the space created by our participation in a conversation that spans centuries, they routinely find resources to challenge and explore what I offer, regardless of its confessional character.
So, perhaps what is called for in the classroom is not rigid observance of a distinction between public and private, but the practice of a certain set of virtues: among others, these might include the prudence and discretion to perceive the relevant features of one’s context, genuine care for the students who entrust their time and attention to us, an empathy that will allow us to see the value in surprising thoughts and concerns, the humility to listen and accept challenges gracefully, and the courage to venture claims about the good and the right. Even if we do such venturing judiciously.