What if theology were about God, not just the history of ideas about God? And what if ministry training was about pursuing God and not just knowing things about God or acquiring skills related to the public tasks of ministry?
I had the opportunity to hear Esther Meek speak last night. She is a philosopher who has written great books on epistemology (how we know what we know), Longing to Know and Loving to Know. She follows the work of the scientist Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), who criticized his own guild’s notions of what counts for knowledge. In short, he demonstrated that the model of critical thinking advocated by modern science actually could not account for what really happens in the process of scientific discovery. In fact, the ways we come to know things in science are like the ways we come to know anything else like riding a bike or playing the piano or painting a portrait.
Meek carries Polanyi forward in beautiful and delightful ways, suggesting that coming to know is not fundamentally informational, but transformational. We come to know as we desire or love, as we take care or seek attunement with what it is we do not yet know. For Meek, Polanyi is the clearest guide away from what she calls the Cartesian straight line of “I–>it,” or what I like to call a subject-object orientation to the world. As modern Westerners, we can hardly help ourselves from thinking in these terms. We’ve been culturally hardwired to perceive knowing this way by the flow of Western philosophy from Plato all the way through Descartes, and because of the recent dominant position of science in our society and educational centers. But as Polanyi demonstrates, this way of conceiving knowing has been incomplete and has kept us from counting some things as real knowledge.
Meek’s presentation was introduced by a young man, a recent product of a seminary education, who talked about his experience (common to many), of learning all kinds of information about God, but finding himself and some of his colleagues more distant from God. I recognized this story in my own and in my days as a faculty member dealing with students struggling with their faith in the face of a learning environment characterized in many ways by suspicion. For a long time, seminary education has functioned in ways that suggest knowing is primarily informational, not transformational.
When I accepted my current job at Rochester College, I wanted to see if we could conceive of ministry training in different ways. I’ve written about this before, but recent conversations with students combined with returning to Meeks’ work over the past few weeks has brought me to talk about the difference of what we’re about from a little different angle.
The focus of our program is God. Not just information about God. Not that information is unimportant. We still read Volf and Brueggemann and Bosch, etc. (If you doubt our rigor, you should talk to second year students right now who are complaining to God about having to make more bricks with less straw). But the point of the program and of each course (ideally) is to pursue God. And this way of knowing doesn’t distinguish between theory and practice so that pursuing God is only done in the private recesses of an individual’s devotional life. But we assume that God is at work in the world, between and among us. This is something we do with others in the world. Each course, I hope, is designed to make us attentive to our ministry situations in such a way that the possibility of the very presence of God is at stake in our knowing. We engage our congregations and their immediate contexts questing for clues and signs of the living God. Though it hadn’t occurred to me to say it this way until recently, our program is based on the premise that longing for and loving God is indispensable to coming to know God (not just knowledge about God).
This is why online learning is so important to us. Online is not just an information delivery strategy. And there’s nothing inherently transformational about the online classroom. But learning together online keeps us in ministry contexts where we can pursue the living God with others. We don’t expect that the four walls of a classroom are the best place to pursue clues related to God’s living presence.
It’s also why we do cohort learning that is formed around a rule of life, or communal spiritual practices. We think knowing is not primarily the product of suspicion or skepticism, but of love and longing. That knowing God is not the result of just having information about God, but attending to the world with others around a particular way of life.
I would hope that our students could say by the end of our program, that everything was the done in pursuit of God. That everything, everything, encouraged longing for God. That we never, ever, let them take their eye off the pursuit of a living God. And when knowing God through loving God is the primary pursuit of ministry training, I am convinced that transformation is the result.