The Vocation of the Theological Teacher
L. Gregory Jones and Stephanie Paulsell (eds.)
The Scope of our Art is a collection of fourteen articles which explore the spiritual dimension of the theological teacher's role from a range of perspectives. It emerged from an initial gathering of the contributors, who are all theological teachers themselves, followed by their ongoing conversation. They work in a variety of theological schools, all of them in north America, and represent diverse theological and denominational commitments which are reflected in their contributions. So, as the introduction says, 'There are many important agreements among these essays and many spirited disagreements.' Each essay addresses a different aspect of the theological teacher's vocation, and they are grouped in three sections: Formative Practices of the Theological Teacher's Vocation, Theological Teachers in their Classrooms, and Theological Teachers in their Schools. The title comes from Gregory Nazienzen: 'The scope of our art is to give wings to the soul'.
As with any collection of essays the quality varies somewhat and one or two are a little opaque. However, most maintain a high level of clarity and usefulness, and some are positively rich. Since the focus is on the American context the content is at times less relevant to Britain, but the broad themes and issues raised are widely applicable.
Some of the most effective contributions look at particular problems faced by the theological teacher. One considers the sense of regret that may be felt by those who find themselves teaching in 'the outback; 'Negotiating the Tensions of Vocation' is the subject of another; and, significantly, two contributors look at the problem of busy-ness caused by the constraints of the profession and the demands of family life. One of these is entitled, 'Contemplation in the Midst of Chaos', and concludes, 'While chaos can threaten sanity and survival, chaos is also a state in which the opportunity for grace reigns supreme.'
Among other highlights, at least for the present reviewer, is 'Writing as a Spiritual Discipline', which points to the necessity of both audacity and humility in writing — 'Audacity, for attempting to write anything of God at all; humility, because all one's attempts … will never be wholly satisfactory'. And it also emphasises the need for love in writing — 'The very best writing emerges from generosity; the desire to meet and nourish another.' 'Reading as a spiritual discipline', identifies three types of reading: academic, which is about questions of fact; Proustian, whose purpose is to stir the reader's own memory and aesthetic sensibility; and Victorine (the term derives from Hugh of St Victor), in which the readers seek to be conformed to what they are reading — 'Victorine readers, then, read with the knowledge and love of God always before them as the point and purpose of their reading'. 'Teaching as a Ministry of Hope' looks at the damaging effects of Western, specifically North American, culture on modern students, and sees theological education as a ministry of hope, which both explores their disillusionment and seeks to give something — the gospel — to replace it with. The final chapter, 'Attending to the Collective Vocation', discusses, among other things, the importance of congruency between the vision and values of the teacher and that of the school in which he or she teaches.
All of the above is too brief an appreciation of a book which deserves attention from those engaged in theological education. Given its diversity, probably nobody will agree with all that is written, but it is challenging and stimulating, forcing us to rethink our approaches, commitments, values and vision. It is worth the effort.
Keith Ferdinando, November 2004
Dr Keith Ferdinando is the author of The Triumph of Christ in African Perspective: A Study of Demonology and Redemption in the African Context (ISBN 9780853648307 / 0853648301, Paternoster, 1999). He taught mission studies at London School of Theology for several years before returning to Africa full time in 2006 to continue his work in theological education there with AIM International at the Faculté de Théologie Evangélique au Rwanda.Eerdmans | Order from www.christianbookshops.org