Author: Adam Neder
Publisher: Baker Academic
Publishing Date: November 9, 2019
Pages: 176 (Paperback)
United States higher education is in era of incredible flux, even for the best of institutions. The days of copious numbers of undergraduates are behind us, and most institutions are struggling to keep pace. With this, the pressure is on internally for departments to justify their own existence when budgets are tight and revenues are in question. It is no secret that in many places the areas of science and technology are in high demand (or at least perceived by administrations as being so) and become the priorities for Christian universities. But, in the struggle to keep afloat and to offer new programs befitting an increasingly technocratic world, is there a place—even at Christian universities—for theology to be a topic of study for everyone? The opposition to executing this notion well are legion. In addition to the budgetary questions, the pervasive Protestant notion of the universal priesthood of believers has become a belief in the universal equality of religious opinion: theology becomes a truly democratic discipline in which there is no authority other than that of the soul coram deo. Teaching theology—not just to check a box for graduation, but as a transformative event for the whole of a student’s life—is a real challenge.
In a decade of teaching theology and ethics at seminaries and universities, in large research institutions and at small liberal arts colleges, I have read countless articles and books on the nature of teaching. I have read about a variety of teaching tactics and methodologies. But, until Adam Neder’s book, I had never read a single book on how to teach theology as theology, as a true encounter with God. Theology, at one level, is about the traditions of Christian thinking; for example, literary theories or canons of biological law. But, theology also proposes to speak of God, the one who is not creation. For where all other disciplines propose to speak of understanding creation, theology proposes to speak of the only One who is not creation.
Neder opens with a question of context. When we do theology, we begin from the presumption that God in Christ has already reconciled the classroom of sleepy-eyed students to Himself. There is, to be sure, much to unpack about this, but beginning in this place—with the objective reconciliation of the world to God—means that theology is not simply a technique of mastery, but a humble endeavor which seeks to follow where God has already led. The teacher may not presume to stand over the students, but assumes a common unity with the students as co-disciples to Christ (27). The Holy Spirit, Scripture tells us, is the true teacher of God, such that for a student to grasp the object of theology, it will be done by God and not by clever pedagogy.
This may seem like a cop-out for any educator at this point; as Neder puts it,
The freedom of the Spirit of God implies that there are no fail-safe strategies capable of guaranteeing success in the classroom….and certainly no instruments for quantitatively assessing the effectiveness of our teaching that would appease the accreditors (35).
I will return to this point in a moment, but for now, let us grant that Neder is on to something very important: the teaching of theology is not driven by technique. We have to be careful lest theology become sheer propaganda. We may know how to explain concepts or theologians or the intricacies of doctrine, but only God can convey God.
Theology, if it is centrally focused on speaking about God, cannot be done by hiding in conversations about doctrine, but being open to those doctrines changing us. To be sure, theo-logic can be done by anyone as a rational exercise, but as Neder claims, theology’s object will not be dissected like a butterfly. Rather, we must submit ourselves to the reality of God in affirmation of our limits as creatures “in order to notice the divine mystery is revealed in Jesus Christ” (55). Those in religious studies programs will disagree with this description—that the work of theology is done from a posture of risking one’s own self in prayer before God—but Neder has in this nailed the difference between the study of religion as a descriptive historical work and theology as the study of God.
The teacher of theology is credible, thus, insofar as they themselves are being transformed by God. By this, Neder does not mean that a good teacher of theology somehow begins to sound only like Scripture, but that a good teacher of theology “sound like themselves,” namely, who they have been called to be in Christ as creatures of God (77). This kind of pedagogy means that teachers should model what they hope to instill in their students: awareness of their limits, humility, a willingness to have their authority undermined by God. A good theology teacher becomes transparent to the students, illuminating the object of theology (God) through their own witness in pedagogical form.
This is the point, I think, where theology offers the most to pedagogy in a broad sense. For, as Neder rightly pointed out, accreditors are less interested in transformed students than in effectively communicated information. But, the way that theology is taught—exposing them to their own limits before God, modeling for them teachers who are on the way with them, and offering them wonder alongside habits of reading and thinking—becomes in turn the very kind of education that all disciplines should be envious of—and which accreditors value!
Neder closes his book with a chapter on the practical task of teaching. These are insights gained from a lifetime in the classroom, and include helpful tips such as how to facilitate dialogue. He brings to our attention that the academic study of theology is ultimately in service to another conversation: that of prayer. The final chapter is for all teachers of theology a chastening word: that our discipline and indeed the academy at large prizes certain products, but that theology is invested in the long-haul of cultivating disciples of Christ.
To be sure, this is a work which all teachers of theology—both young and seasoned—should read and digest. But, as contrarian as Neder wants to make the teaching of theology, in the strangeness of its object and the confessional nature of its study, I think that what Neder proposes here is in fact a model for all disciplines within a Christian university. Too frequently, Christian universities are governed by an immanent frame, by a market ethos which emphasizes the ways in which their university prepares students to be more employable or more “effective,” forgetting that tactics fade and paradigms of the workplace are more complex than what is packaged in a powerpoint. The metric of “employability” is vain, not only for what it does to the soul of the student, but for what it proposes about the control education has over markets. What theology offers is far different: an education which is rooted in the wonder of God in all things, an induction into how to ask questions well in the company of others, and an invitation into a life of virtue.
Now that curriculum is one worth building a university around.