Teaching Theology Isn’t Like Teaching History?
By Dr. Brian Bantum
Assistant Professor of Theology
Seattle Pacific University
In my undergraduate creative writing courses my professors were concerned with cultivating my skills of expression and observation. These were evaluated not on the basis of my knowledge of Morrison or Faulkner or how they drew upon philosophy or critical theory. My knowledge of Faulkner and Morrison were displayed in the incorporation of them in my descriptions, in my prose. During this time I learned that I needed to display my intent, not explain my intent. I needed to move the reader into sympathy, not explain why this character should have sympathy. In my moments of political fervor and explicit idealism the comments were simple: do not tell, show.
As I think about my own preparations as a teacher and as a scholar, I look at the faces of real students for whom I have sole responsibility. I am somewhat struck by how ill-prepared I am to train them to be theologians, to express their lives with God in the world, and how well equipped I am to be describe other people’s descriptions of God.
In my best moments, I hope my own writing and scholarship displays who God might be in the world and who we might be in relation to the one who loves us. But this is sometimes at odds with my own training in graduate school and the demands of my guild. The training of a graduate student is the formation of a teller, an explainer, a scholar of scholars. Scholarly work is the evaluation of texts.
Do not mistake what I am saying. We need those descriptions of other’s descriptions. We need folks to show us the patterns of thought and practice over time. This is part of my vocation and calling. But is this the goal? Is this what I want my students to become? What would it mean to see them as poets? To ask them to develop the eye of writers, observing patterns and details in the most unexpected places? To hope to cultivate in them the possibility witness, whether through words or forms of life, displaying God in the world in such a way that it cuts us and reveals to us who we truly are?
I am now beginning to realize the challenge of teaching theology is not in establishing the relevance of my subject within an array of subjects and disciplines. Writing and reflecting on a syllabus, settling on a set of terms to master is easy. But I suspect theology is more than this. Teaching theology is about cultivating the practice of theology. It is about participating in the formation of students who can begin to see God’s call upon them and movement in the world, and artfully display these perceptions in their own life (and hopefully their own writing!) In part, theology might be about ensuring a proper understanding of historical moments and the progression of thought in the Christian tradition. But what if we imagine our vocation as something closer to our colleagues in creative writing where our goal is not to form knowers, but poets?
I don’t know if my teaching will do this. I hope it will. But I am sure that it is a whole lot harder than what I was trained to do.
Dr. Bantum received his PhD and Master of Theological Studies degree from Duke University. His first book “Mulatto Theology” will be published by Baylor University Press.