Monday, 2 February 2009

Ten virtues for theological students

The ancients understood education as inculturation (παιδεια) into a life of virtue (αρετη). The main point of my recent satirical post was to suggest that theological education should similarly be understood as formation in virtue, rather than (as is too often the case) an inculturation into the vices of academia. In that post, I highlighted ten vices of theological education. And due to the number of emails I’ve received in response (partly from students who felt a little chastened or disillusioned, or that I was being too cynical), I’ve tried here to sketch out a contrasting list of ten virtues. Obviously this isn’t meant as a complete list (much less an autobiographical list!) – it’s just a parallel which makes explicit what was implicit in the earlier post:

1. Patience: In theological education, the process of learning is more important than the specific opinions you might acquire as a result. You can’t learn everything at once; just relax and enjoy the ride.

2. Breadth: In theological education, the connections between disciplines are often more important than the content of any single discipline in isolation. The development of wide-ranging interests – and the capacity to engage in wide-ranging discussions – is more valuable than the selection of any narrow specialisation.

3. Curiosity: One of the goals of theological education is to cultivate a lively sense of curiosity; the student who sticks only to the curriculum will not learn much. So resist the temptation to become too disciplined – and be sure to “waste” plenty of time reading novels, listening to music, and aimlessly enjoying the company of friends.

4. Clarity: In theological discourse, a single lapidary statement is better (and more difficult to achieve) than twenty pages of jargon.

5. Attentiveness: In theological education, even the most brash and opinionated among us are given the opportunity to cultivate a childlike fascination with the views of other people. Without attentive fascination, one’s capacity for surprise is diminished; and the essence of theology is surprise.

6. Love: Theological formation should be driven by a love for truth, not by animosity towards untruth. Truthful theology always involves polemics – but since truth takes form as love, it can never be used as a weapon to wound another person. Where this occurs, truth becomes a falsehood.

7. Friendship: Education is always competitive to some extent; but your peers should be viewed as friends and companions rather than competitors. In theological education, friends are your best unofficial teachers: one often learns more from them than from any of the curricular activities, or any of the professors.

8. Simplicity: The goal of theological education is Christian proclamation. Students sweat and labour for years through difficult texts and languages and ideas – only so that their preaching can one day seem easy and effortless and spontaneous. Preaching is not like mathematics: you do not “show your steps.”

9. Truth: Ambition for the comfort and respectability of a career is a deadly temptation which the theological student must resist. One can serve the idol of career only by compromising the call to speak the truth – that is, by sacrificing one’s entire theological vocation. Theological education is not about garnering academic favour, nor about treading the eggshells of correctness and respectability; it is about loving the truth and speaking the truth faithfully, while “taking no thought for tomorrow” (Matt. 6:34).

10. Prayer: Prayer is the theologian’s most fitting and most distinctive activity. A theologian who does not pray is a grotesque aberration – like a literary scholar who doesn’t read, or a music teacher who cannot play an instrument. Above all else, “the theologian is the one who prays” (St Evagrius).

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