Today Fuller Theological Seminary launched future.fuller.edu – a site that is to act as a place of discussion for for the future shape of theological education. It comes on the heels of a “report” they undertook via interviews with different focus groups of people over the course of 2010 (though perhaps calling the results the “Seminary of the Future” is a bit of a stretch. From the looks of the make up of the focus groups, they were largely people directly connected to Fuller. So, “Fuller of the Future” may be more apt).
Future of Seminary?
The first discussion point, “The Ecosystem of Theological Education,” looks at the changes in the institutional, relational, and media systems that are impacting the shape and relevance of theological education. I posted comments directly on the discussion, but they were cut off and my subsequent continuation was rendered above instead of below part 1. So… I thought I’d repost my thoughts here, as they can stand on their own:
You’re right. Seminaries are in trouble.
Gone are the days when we could count theology among the classical professions, alongside law and medicine, a la Schleiermacher. The research university (“multiversity”?) pushed theology out the back door; she is no longer Queen of the Sciences. This poses a huge problem for seminaries as institutions.
Formal clergy no longer have the kind of cultural relevance they used to. Individualism and consumerism in the West in general, and America in particular, have led to a spiritual climate in which the individual can serve as his or her own priest or pastor. Google and Wikipedia are serving to close the information gap between clergy and laity that seminary training once bridged. One no longer needs to undertake seminary education in order to access and interpret broad theological concepts. Add to this the post-modern philosophical turn, which questions the very foundationalism upon which institutions of higher education are presupposed, and the institution of the seminary as a place for theological learning and training has picked up a Jenga-like wobble.
The relational naval-gazing that has allowed the proliferation of seminaries must also stop. There are many seminaries that are facing (or will soon be facing) profound financial hardship. Soon we will see once venerable institutions forced to shut their doors for good unless they can imagine a future in which they condense and collaborate.
These future partnerships cannot be merely financial. They must be pedagogical, geographical, physical, and technological. The future of seminary is contingent upon the individual seminary’s willingness to give much away for the sake of remaining at all.
While information communication technologies and the media they enable are changing at immeasurable speed, it is not primarily the access to information that will impact the future seminary. It is being able to sift through and interpret it. That is where the seminary can stake down its tent in the media world. It can help future theologians, clergy, and the laity develop the ability to perform Kingdom orienteering as they navigate the constantly changing media wild.
In short, we need spaces that are creating “reflective practitioners.” The seminary of the future will realize that these changing ecosystems are reshaping landscapes, not temporarily obscuring familiar terrain. In response, she will focus less on the impartation of knowledge or the passing along of priestly skills, and more on the shaping of people who are incarnating theology everyday. The seminary of the future has the opportunity to situate theology within the praxis of being the people of God.