Learning Theology With and From the Laity

Author Elizabeth Arnold
Published August 24, 2020
Tags Community Theology

We live in a “Google world.” Have a question? Simply type it into a search bar of your choice, and instantly you have answers.

Search engines are great if you need instructions for installing a kitchen faucet or the phone number for the Chinese place that delivers. But when it comes to exploring questions about faith and theology, (unlike your favorite Chinese restaurant) a search engine approach does not deliver. Instant answers often come at the expense of over-simplification. Where people need deep, critical engagement, the Google culture seems to offer only sound bites and clichés. When it comes to the complex issues and honest questions confronting individuals and faith communities, we need something more than a Google approach.

Many seminaries are beginning to recognize this hunger for substantive learning among the laity. In recent years, several theological institutions have started to produce varieties of “public theological education” which seek to disseminate theological concepts forged in the academic world to the broader public. The Candler Foundry joins this initiative. Offering courses in the community, public lectures, and guided studies taught by faculty experts, The Candler Foundry operates out of a desire to make theological education accessible to everyone.

In modern history, the academy has functioned as a repository of information and ideas. Ministers, theologians, and biblical scholars go to seminary or graduate school and attend to the theoretical and philosophical matters of religion, while local congregations remain committed to the practical application of theology. And so the notion of public theological education initially flows one way: the doors of the academy open wide enough to dispense a manageable amount of information to the laity. People eager for theological understanding and deeper study of the Bible can follow their curiosity, and scholars can share their knowledge with those who have not made its acquisition their professional pursuit.

Most people easily recognize the benefit for the lay learners. That academic research should serve those outside the guild is an excellent model of how professional scholarship should benefit the broader society. But what is not immediately obvious is the way in which the benefit flows back to the halls of learning. Through my experience with The Candler Foundry, I have discovered how those of us in the academy can learn and benefit from engaging the broader public through our teaching.

My experience in The Candler Foundry has emphasized not only the church’s need for seminary-quality learning and content, but also how essential to the academy are the non-academic learners. This was especially evident in a course we offered on the Ten Commandments that was made up of a combination of seminary students and learners from two local congregations.

Tasked with giving a couple lectures for this class, I noticed the quality and effectiveness of my own teaching improved—even regarding the “academic” students—as I was constantly challenged to format the content into an understandable approach. If the “Google culture” often forsakes depth for clarity, then we might say that academic culture seems to abandon clarity in the name of depth. Sadly, transparency is one virtue commonly lacking in academia.

To make content and method more understandable, I had to better understand it myself. When designing a lecture, I had to consider the attorney and the stay-at-home parent as well as the prospective ministers and theologians. A study of the Ninth Commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”) from Exodus to Paul’s Letters could not solely be a historical-critical exposition. That would be teaching about (as in “around”) the commandment, but does that teach the commandment itself?

I had to look closer at the texts, listening to the texts’ words more than my words about them. I came to understand that the Ninth Commandment in all its manifestations throughout the Bible features a conversation between principle and mechanism: What is the good to be achieved and what are the methods for obtaining and maintaining that good? The principle of marriage seeks to establish healthy communities and families, and the commandment forbidding adultery acts as one of the mechanisms that maintains the principle. Once I had this sharper understanding of the text and how it functions, not only could I teach the text itself more clearly, but the students were then better prepared to engage with the matters about the text as well.

In other words, while we say that The Candler Foundry brings critical engagement with religious and theological topics to congregations, those congregations also contribute the impetus for clearer engagement with ideas and texts and subsequent clearer communication of said engagement. Even the students who are able to connect with content delivered with erudite flourishes engage more efficiently with the material when I teach in a more hospitable way.

Hospitality—to put it charitably—is not a subject the academic world has thoroughly plumbed, but it is a subject on which the church brings much wisdom and experience. Throughout both the Old and New Testament, a spirit of hospitality is a mark of an authentic faith community and generosity one of its chief virtues. To be otherwise is to subvert one’s own testimony. While one can certainly identify the church’s many failures to welcome over the centuries (including the present day), a certain amount of hospitality abides even in the opening of the church doors and presenting the elements on the table of the Lord’s Supper. As opposed to the lonely meal of the scholar in a cell, the church compels academic educators to set a table and enjoy a supper with friends.

Hospitality takes humility as its sister quality. Humility acknowledges the importance of the other. Like clarity, this quality is frequently lacking in scholarly circles. People often confuse the term “scholar” with “expert,” and such a one is “an authority” on the subject matter. As such, the purpose of scholarly teaching and writing often seems to elevate the intellectual prestige of the teacher/writer rather than to broaden the intellectual horizons of the listener and reader.

Yet in reality, “scholar” does not mean “expert,” but instead derives its meaning from the Latin scholiere which means student or learner. The very definition of a scholar is rooted in humility: the acknowledgement of one’s limitations and the submission to instruction by others. Humility focuses on the act of seeking rather than arrival, and a true scholar always searches for more meaning, more ways to think, and better ways to communicate. This essential awareness of one’s own lack and the belief that others can be instructive should provide a scholar with all that is needed to practice hospitality towards non-experts.

How does the untrained learner instruct the scholar? Non-academic learners tend to bring their entire lives and selves to the material they engage. Fewer questions are off limits. More connection to personal experience and emotional response are permitted. Professional scholars often assume that these areas must be (or at least seem to be) set aside in the pursuit of academic purity. Initially, it seems uncomfortable to mix sterile method and theory with what are more untidy human reactions.

Yet, for all their supposed loftiness, the study of religion and biblical texts are classified as humanities: those subjects that purposely reflect on the range of the human experience and regard it as important. By incorporating lay learners into our scholarly conversations, we are reminded that human beings and human relationships act as interpretive keys for our material. As we engage in ways that open our subject matter beyond the theoretical, our study of the humanities becomes more human. This opening towards people through intelligible writing and speech, therefore, actually allows us scholars to better grasp our own beloved subject matter and teach it more authentically.

In addition, the laity—while untrained academically—is smart! Most academics operate with a verbal/oral intelligence type, and while this serves us well in many of our professional capacities, it makes the guild fairly intellectually homogenous. When we include the laity in our own learning, we also invite the broader range of intelligences (such as interpersonal and emotional) which artists, therapists, mechanics, and daycare workers use in their own guilds and trades.

And thus, variety is the spice of life and of scholarship. The partnership of the laity and the theological academy diversifies our scholarly palette. Through hospitality and humility, both the professionals and laity can set at the table together. As Plato said that “knowledge is food for the soul,” the church and the academy can each bring their unique dish to serve.