This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.
Recently, I read an article that Craig Dykstra, Senior Vice President for Religion of the Lilly Endowment Inc., wrote over twenty years ago. I came across the article in the course of doing research for a book I’m writing on the future of the Reformed movement. Dykstra’s essay, “Thinking Faith: A Theological Education for the American Churches,”[i] is as relevant today as when he originally wrote it. It represents, I think, a clarion call to everyone who cares about providing people with the spiritual resources they need to live. It is an invitation to pastors, elders, Christian educators, professors, administrators, publishers, judicatory leaders, and others to explore new ways to bring the riches of theological knowledge to a large and diverse public.
Doing this won’t necessarily be easy.
For whatever reasons, we have seen considerable erosion of many of the institutional structures that supported once robust programs of theological education in our churches, especially for adults and youth. Many of the excellent magazines and curricula that delivered solid, thoughtful theological and biblical studies to church members a generation ago have simply disappeared. Meanwhile, although we have seen the development of some excellent programs seeking to bridge the gap between academic theology and congregational life, many of the most interesting and potentially edifying theological insights still have a hard time making it from the specialist journals to the pew.
Many of us look back with longing to the “Covenant Life Curriculum” that came into being in the late 1960s, a series of Christian education resources that placed the biblical and theological wisdom of the leading theological minds of that day in the hands of Christians from every walk of life. I remember a conversation over dinner, several years now, with a business man in Shreveport, Louisiana. He had served on virtually every non-profit, church, college, and seminary board in his region, and he had given unselfishly of himself and his resources to support a wide variety of ministries. I asked him what made him the kind of Christian he was. With his usual humility he deflected the praise before saying that whatever he understood about living a good life, a Christian life, had come to him through the “Covenant Life Curriculum.” Theological education makes an incalculable difference in peoples’ lives.
In contrast to those (and they are many) who say that people today just will not tolerate deep theological thought, Dykstra writes: “My own reading is that religious searching is going public, that there is a new taste for theology in the hearts of many, and a consequent yearning for a theological education, not only in the church, but in the larger context of public life.” To illustrate his point, he notes articles from a variety of “secular” writers about projects among all sorts and conditions of folks to study the Bible or to understand the complex, fast-moving, and pluralistic world we live in from the perspective of faith in God. One of the sources he cites is an essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “Can We Be Good Without God?” by Glenn Tinder, a political scientist, who asks: “If we turn away from transcendence, from God, what will deliver us from a politically fatal fear and faintheartedness?”
Ironically, I frequently find that many of the most inquisitive essays about faith, especially the essays that are unafraid to plumb the depths of thought, are not in church or religious publications but are in periodicals like The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times. I’m not entirely certain what this says about us as Protestant Christians, except perhaps about our loss of nerve to speak thoughtfully about our faith. But I am relatively certain that the presence of thoughtful essays on faith in “secular” journals tells us that people yearn, as Dykstra says, to “think about ultimate things; and to think through penultimate things in the context of ultimacy.”
He explains further: “I do sense a reasonably widespread feeling on the part of many people that the language, assumptions, and convictions of a radically secular culture are simply not rich enough to sustain the sort of life people feel in their bones that they are to live. Still hoping that religious traditions contain wisdom worth mining, many of the most discerning members of our society are asking for help from those who are theologically conversant.”
Joe Nash, a member of our President’s Roundtable at Louisville Seminary, made much the same point last year in one of the “Listening Tour” conversations I had around the country. Joe, an active member of his church in Greenville, Mississippi, asked how we can bring the theological riches we enjoy routinely in our seminary classrooms to a much larger public.
Without the deep resources of faith, the deep resources of a thinking faith, Dykstra observes that “fundamental questions” of life “get trivialized or become difficult if not impossible even to pose.” We need, as Ed Farley put it, “The wisdom proper to the life of the believer.” Dykstra adds that this wisdom is proper to the lives of non-believers too. This wisdom requires deep theological thought, not as the exclusive domain of the academic specialist but as a common inheritance of every Christian. We need this wisdom, not for our own sake, not to satisfy mere curiosity, nor to privately edify ourselves, but for the sake of the world around us, a world which suffers when it does not have adequate spiritual resources to deal with the challenges facing it.
Dykstra unapologetically uses the term “theological education” to describe what we need: “Theological education means participation in an inquiry into the truth and substance of all things in the context of the present reality of God. Theological education means direct engagement with the resources needed for a thinking faith.” By using the term “theological education” he rejects the split we often see between the knowledge and wisdom we all need to live faithfully and that which pastors and other so-called “religious professionals” gain in a theological seminary. We all need the best, the deepest, the most thoughtful resources possible to deal with the moral, social, cultural, economic, political, and ecological demands of our time. “The times we live in require a thinking faith – or no faith at all!” Dykstra writes. “If Christian faith is not a thinking faith, it will not be Christian faith at all. It will be something else – something so flat and barren as to be the spiritual equivalent of despair; or something so external as to have no substantive effect on any dimension of our lives that does require thought.”
Dykstra’s essay left me with a profound sense of possibility, a vital and exciting sense of opportunity that is directly related the palpable need in our society for thinking faith. And, as I said earlier, the essay sounds a clarion call to each and all of us, encouraging us to seize the opportunities of the moment, to act creatively to bring the best resources of our faith to as many people as possible. I invite you to read a portion of Craig Dykstra’s essay [ii] for yourself, and I will look forward to hearing how you respond to it.
[i] Published in the Roman Catholic periodical, The Living Light, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Fall, 1990), pp. 7-16.
[ii] A portion of Craig Dykstra’s essay, “Thinking Faith: A Theological Education for the American Churches,” is included in Chapter 1, “Hunger,” of Dykstra’s book, Growing in the life of faith: Education and Christian Practices, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).