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low-cost tip #3 toward more and better theologians

Low-cost tip #3 toward more and better theologians: stretch critical thinking skills for all ages in congregations.

No one should go off to seminary without having done SOMETHING like reading the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Thomas in translation (a translation by someone other than Elaine Pagels), reading one Elaine Pagels popular book on Gnosticism, and then discussing in a supportive group whether Pagels' characterization of these documents is helpful and where it seems at least a bit off.

That's just one example, which I picked because I've found that too few people in congregations feel empowered to examine the evidence, talk about it with other people, and come to a conclusion when they have a theological question. There are lots of less arcane-sounding examples: for example, take the oft-quoted statement that "Matthew is the 'most Jewish' of the gospels," read Matthew and, say, Luke, and talk about: a) what does it mean to be "more Jewish" or "less Jewish," b) how, if at all, does this statement help us to better understand Matthew and Luke, and c) is this really something that's helpful enough to be worth repeating?

We should be helping one another do this kind of thinking as a whole church.

If seminary is the first place a postulant is asked to engage critical thinking skills, s/he will not be able to make the most of seminary.

And if a congregation doesn't do this, they're prone to being misled by every fad and every person willing to claim authority, however poorly informed s/he is.

So let's try this on as a minimum standard: mature disciples read their bibles, think and talk with one another about what they read, and use their brains plus what they read to test theological claims. And I'm not just talking about adults; children are fully capable of doing this too. A Sunday school class could:

  • Start with the questions, "Do you think Jesus was ever angry?" and "What do you think might make Jesus angry?"
  • Read one of the stories of Jesus overturning tables in the Temple.
  • Ask whether Jesus was angry in this story and why.
  • Ask the class questions such as: "Do you ever feel like this?" "What makes you feel like doing this?" "Is it OK to be angry?" "How do you want to react the next time you're really angry?"

Voila! Critical thinking, bible study, and original theological reflection! So much better than trying to tell kids what they ought to think and then having them glue cotton balls on pictures of sheep. And this very exercise, perhaps with a few more long words, has been helpful in a lot of adult classes and retreats I've done.

Some congregations do this, but I've found many that don't, or that do it only in programs such as EFM, which will only reach a tiny minority of the congregation. That's not healthy.

Introducing people to these skills is not the job of seminaries; it's the job of every Christian community. And if every Christian did this kind of "read-think-share-think some more" work from, say, third grade on, the quality of seminary education would improve dramatically, as seminaries would be freed to spend those precious and limited hours of instruction on the things they're uniquely placed to do.

Cost to your parish/diocese: $0. Cost to seminaries: $0.

January 12, 2010 in Churchiness, Religion | Permalink


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Agreed. I was asked to lead a Bible study by a group of church leaders last fall. After meeting with them for an hour we couldn't agree on the format for the study, I wanted to stress critical thinking and basic bible knowledge, while they wanted to push this new "curriculum". There is no point in going in further in a study of the word unless you can grasp those basic fundamentals...

Posted by: Andrew | Feb 8, 2010 3:19:49 PM

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