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Tear Down That Wall

Author Timothy McNinch
Published July 30, 2020
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Addressing the Jew/Gentile divide in the infant church, Paul writes that Christ “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2:14 NRSV).

What exactly did Christ demolish? We can get a glimpse into what Paul had in mind by looking at the Greek phrase, to mesotoixon tou fragmou. The first word, mesotoixon, means something like “in-between wall” (in English, the related term, “mezzanine,” means the story between the ground level and the first floor). The second word, fragmou, is the root of the English word “fragmentation.” So, this mesotoixon tou fragmou is a dividing wall of fragmentation, an artificial boundary that keeps people apart.

You might picture the Berlin Wall, which once separated East and West Germany, or the Partition Wall, which Israel has erected to contain and control the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank. Both are walls that divide communities into isolated fragments. In the context of Ephesians 2:14, I suspect that Paul had a specific dividing wall in mind: the barrier that separated the “court of the Israelites” from the “court of the Gentiles” in the Jerusalem temple. In Christ, Paul says, this fragmenting temple wall has metaphorically come down, so that Jews and Gentiles have become one community in which the treasures of grace are not restricted to insiders only (Eph 2:18–22).

This image from Paul’s epistle resonates with me as I think about what it means to bring theological education out into the public. Seminaries are often thought of as professional schools in that they provide knowledge and practical training to those preparing for the specific profession of being a pastor or priest. While this is true in some sense, the “trade secrets” taught at seminaries were never intended only for clergy. Theological education was always meant to be disseminated to audiences beyond pastors and ministry leaders—to doctors and accountants, teachers and social workers, lawyers and electricians, scientists and stay-at-home parents.

Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Part of the problem is that when we treat seminary as a type of professional school, we can end up erecting a “dividing wall” that keeps deep, theological reflection contained (or at least bottlenecked) among scholars and clergy. The effect of this dynamic is an insider-outsider fragmentation when it comes to knowledge of the Bible, doctrine, church history, ethics, and pastoral care. Ministers are looked to as experts rather than leaders; keepers of knowledge rather than publishers of knowledge. Certainly, clergy benefit from professional training, and faith communities benefit from having trained clergy. But that training is insufficient if the theological content of their education stays confined to the pastor’s study.

The dividing wall is even higher between institutions of the church (including seminaries) and the wider public. Since the vast majority of trained seminarians spend their professional lives in churches, the knowledge they are able to share is often received by only the most eager and engaged laity, who are themselves a shrinking population within a shrinking institution. Theology (broadly speaking) has become the strange dialect of a small community, a kind of accent too thick to be comprehended by most of our neighbors. We have lost the ability to “speak God” (to use Jonathan Merritt’s phrase) in the vernacular of our communities.

For the wider public, our modern-day “Gentiles,” their understanding of God, of Scripture, of the mission of the church, is shaped almost entirely by hearsay, social media, and the pop-theology of mega-church mega-authors. And who can blame them? We have built up a wall that keeps the deepest, most relevant theological explorations constrained to a small portion of our communities.

This situation calls for a change in our model, a new burst of imagination, for what a seminary is and does. I think that two related strategies are important.

First, we need to stop envisioning our seminary students as “experts” in training, and begin to treat them as “translators” in training. In seminary, students are exposed to a world of thoughtful scholarship. This scholarship is often mind-blowing, faith-challenging, worldview-reframing. We teach our students how to understand this material, how to write with an academic voice, and how to properly cite their sources. But how often do we hear from our alumni that they struggle to communicate these ideas and experiences in ways that don’t come across as hifalutin, complicated, and boring to their parishioners?

Church members are eager for a practical, pragmatic, down-to-earth spirituality that helps them know how to live in God’s world. They are less interested in knowing the technical distinctions between homoousias and homoiousias than they are in understanding what difference those distinctions make for how they live and serve. We need to teach our seminary students how to get from the “what?” to the “so what?” (as the Candler Foundry’s director, Dr. Ryan Bonfiglio, is fond of saying), and we need to give them the tools to help their parishioners experience that inspiring move as well.

Of course, some of this work of training translators is being done in preaching courses. But the scope of that small slice of seminary education is still usually limited to the sermon oratory, a form of communication with decreasing impact in our society, which is becoming ever more visual, collaborative, and dialogical in its culture of communication. A reimagined seminary would train students to translate their learning in every course of study into vernacular speech and via multiple learning styles, with essays, artistic projects, church curricula, podcasts, and small group discussions supplementing (or in some cases taking the place of) traditional summative assessments like exams and academic papers.

The Candler Foundry’s “Courses in the Community” are an important experiment along these lines. In these courses, seminary students learn alongside community participants from local congregations. I was a teaching assistant for a recent Course in the Community called, “Written in Stone? Exploring the Meaning and Ethics of the Ten Commandments.” It was gratifying to hear the seminarians learning to converse about some complex issues in biblical studies right alongside nonprofessionals. For the seminary students in that course, it will not come as a surprise to them when they find themselves serving a congregation in the future and have to make sense of, say, the various possible Hebrew meanings of the command, “Do not kill.” Such conceptual translation among regular people has already been a part of their formative training.

In addition to the routine task of communicating in the vernacular in class, for their final assignment the seminary students in this course were asked to create accessible educational resources based on their learning. From them, we received TED-style lectures, small group discussion guides, a week-long devotional guide, even the pilot of a series of puppet videos all about “The Ten Commandments in the Time of COVID-19.” This kind of assignment invites students to wrestle with the task of translation—and it was exciting to see them rise to the challenge.

However, training pastors to be better translators over the wall that often separates the academy from the church is only part of the solution. A second necessary step is to consider how we can work to bring down the further wall between the institutions of the church and the wider public. I think it is important for seminaries to ask how they can supplement their training of clergy with programs of direct communication and education for the public (and by “public” I mean an audience beyond our churches). If the Bible has something to say to the modern world and if Christian Theology is relevant to human flourishing, then institutions of theological education need to be at the table of public conversations. This is not the seat of ideological colonialism and cultural domination—where we have been in times past. Rather, we should seek to be respectful participants in the realm of public ideas, both contributing and listening, teaching and learning.

The easy example here—since I am writing in the midst of a global pandemic, a moment of racial reckoning, and a national election year in the US—is our political conversation. Religion is already an embedded part of that discourse. But too often, unreflective, misinformed, and exclusionary ideas are taken as the normative contribution of religion. How could seminaries play a more public role in helping people think through the theological implications of particular social, economic, and environmental policies?

This could involve producing down-to-earth, sharable media that helps clarify what the Bible says about immigrants (for example) or how to think through the ethics of wearing protective masks in light of the imperative to love one’s neighbor. It could involve developing accessible short courses on how to work for racial justice in a climate of political polarization or how to have a constructive dialogue between faith and science. What if seminaries hosted community conversations about the intersection of religion and politics—not in churches or in seminary lecture halls, but in community centers, art institutes, and public libraries? What if we invited more of our world-class faculty members to supplement their classroom instruction and academic writing with public-facing projects like podcasts, op-eds, or YouTube channels?

The possibilities are numerous, and largely untapped by educational institutions that have patterned themselves after the professional schools of a century ago. If we are serious about the mission of public theological education, then we will need to think strategically and imaginatively about how we can dismantle the dividing wall that fragments those “in the know” from those on the outside, so that theology is no longer the trade secret of a select few, but a shared and evolving resource for everyone.