Monday, 9 March 2020

Learning about God

On the rare occasion when I teach a group or a class, I tend to impart (relevant) information and invite the learners to ask questions as I go along. Also, I refrain from giving my opinion or indicating my stance unless specifically requested to do so; I see my role as showing learners what positions are out there and their developmental history, and to show learners how to navigate these in some way. This approach usually works and, as a tutor, it’s good when I see the light bulb moment in learners’ eyes as a switch is flicked, and especially pleasing when I sense that the flash has illuminated something that has been troubling a learner for some time. Theology is far from a dry, academic discipline when it addresses questions of ultimate importance in a person’s relationship with God.

But sometimes this impart-and-invite approach doesn’t work. The learners are simply there because they have to be there, perhaps as part of some wider training that they’re doing, and so don’t see the value in the sessions. (Or perhaps I’m just a shockingly poor teacher. One person’s written feedback from a class I took a while ago said, ‘Terry was very poor. Please don’t use him again.’ True, I was inexperienced and probably pitched the session at the wrong level—but, really: ‘Please don’t use him again’? It still hurts, twelve years or so on. Anyway, I digress.) Why is this? I’m going to quote at some length from Adam Neder’s recent book, Theology as a Way of Life:

Many students enter our classes seeking various forms of safety, security, and control. They want a teacher who will offer them sanctuary from the various threats inherent to Christian existence, someone who will alleviate the difficulty by reducing some of the risks associated with believing in God. This desire takes many forms, but two seem especially common.
The first is a search for the security of theological certainty. When confused by the chaos of contemporary life, caught in patterns of doubt, threatened by the existence of intelligent unbelievers, unnerved by the complexity and diversity of the church’s own history of theological reflection, or for countless other reasons, many students seek refuge in a teacher who will tell them what to think. They want an expert who will provide them with definitive theological solutions, someone who will tie up the loose ends and alleviate the various pressures they are experiencing. The last thing these students want is a teacher who requires them to make their own theological decisions—a teacher through whom they come to realize that Christianity is even more demanding than they realized.
For other students, the desire for security takes the mirror-opposite form. Rather than unreservedly committing themselves to a single teacher or tradition, they embrace the safety of ceaseless uncertainty. For these students, theological education becomes a process of endless deliberation. Forever reading, thinking, and talking, they never get around to making decisions. Theological reflection and conversation become substitutes for theological commitment. Protected by the fact that there is always more to learn, another angle to consider, a new position to evaluate, these students retreat into a state of permanently suspended judgment in which they are ‘always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth’ (2 Tim. 3:7). While superficially different, these two outlooks share a common unwillingness to embrace the risks associated with Christian existence.

Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 104–105

It is admittedly easier to be told what to believe—hence the appeal of fundamentalisms, I guess—and there’s a pseudo-profundity and/or a false humility in describing oneself as, say, a seeker or on a journey towards the truth. But Neder’s response to these outlooks emphasises the need for commitment: choices must be made, decisions taken. ‘Real theological education is a process of continual confrontation with God,’ Neder writes (p. 108).

Neder writes from the perspective of someone who teaches theology at university level, but I think the substance of the passage I’ve quoted can also apply to sermons and responses to sermons. When I preach, I want to make a difference to the people in the congregation: to inspire, to encourage, to challenge, all as seems appropriate to me on the basis of the biblical passages I use. But I also can’t help but wonder who simply wants to be told what the passage means without any flowery elaboration; who doesn’t want to know anything substantive about what the passage means as such but is only after ‘practical application’ (‘What it means for me today’); who doesn’t want to be told what the passage means because it might contradict their preferred reading of the passages; and who would prefer not to have a sermon at all. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but teaching and preaching flatten me sometimes . . .

Theology as a Way of Life is a very good book and I’d recommend it as important reading to anyone who teaches theology in any context. Those learning theology will also benefit from it. Neder emphasises throughout that theology is something done in a relationship with the living God, and that includes theology done in a classroom.


  1. Good thoughts Terry. Another book I should probably get around to reading. I've nearly finished 'Four Views on Divine Providence' and will get round to e-mailing you my thoughts some time in the near future I hope.