Theology As a Way of Life
On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith
- ISBN: 9780801098789
- Published By: Baker Academic
- Published: November 2019
It would be easy to write a lament addressing the myriad challenges of teaching Christian theology today, especially within higher education. Religion and its specialties are regularly offered up as prime examples of supposedly “useless” majors and degrees, ones allegedly without remunerative careers or perceived practical value. And at intentionally Christian universities, where one might assume greater student interest in Christian theology, the reality is that interest in theology is well outside the experience even of those who have been reared within a Christian family and church. There are many reasons for this, among them the decline of traditional catechesis and other early exposures to Christian theology. That theology courses abide at many Christian colleges (such as the one I lead) is usually a function of those schools’ missions prompting them to include at least one required class in Christian basics (often a combined introductory fly-over of Old and New Testaments, Christian history, and basic theology). But whether they would survive without the requirement is an open question.
This is, of course, distressing to those of us for whom theology is an intellectual and spiritual delight, a discipline with potential to affect the way one lives, works, thinks, and connects with others and society, as well as by reference to God (as Christians understand God) speaking to who we are and why we are.
Adam Neder’s concise and compelling Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith certainly recognizes this context, and undoubtedly that context motivates and informs the case he makes for teaching theology well. But it refrains from any lament. And it is not a pedagogical how-to that aims to overcome those challenges (although its final section does include some practical observations). Neither are its five chapters limited in application merely to those who, like the author and this reviewer, are in academic settings. Indeed, one of the book’s strengths is that it is worthwhile reading also for those who teach theology in other contexts, professionally or otherwise. It is as appropriate for an adult-class church-school teacher or catechist as it is for a seminary professor. Neder’s plain-spoken, plain-language approach reinforces this.
Neder elevates the discussion of teaching theology above sorts of students or teachers to refocus on the purpose of teaching theology and what responsibilities the teacher of theology bears (and doesn’t bear). He draws especially on Karl Barth, Søren Kierkegaard, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but not in a way that would be off-putting to those who would see those theologians as wrong or insufficient in areas beyond the subject at hand.
The undergirding assumption of the book is that the starting point for all Christian theology is that “We are who we are because Jesus is who he is” (6). That Christological truth, Neder notes, transcends (but does not necessarily contradict) James K. A. Smith’s emphasis on our being what we love—with that love shaped by our habits and liturgies in life. People (ergo our students) discover who they are and what it means to be human via Jesus Christ. People become themselves by finding their being in him. And the work of Christ reconciling humans to God is a complete and completed one that prompts a response but is not dependent upon it.
This both empowers the teacher of theology and provides relief from the burden one might wrongly take upon oneself. Certainly, the purpose of the teacher is to expose the student to this truth. But Neder (with Kierkegaard) is adamant that merely conveying the facts and history of theology (i.e., knowing theology) is insufficient and ultimately an empty undertaking without connection to how this changes a person (i.e., knowing and following God). There is a decision implicit in this study of God, and (as Blaise Pascal would likewise have observed), a choice to avoid or delay a decision is—at least for the moment—a decision not to believe. But it is the Holy Spirit, not the teacher alone, who works that change in God’s own time. The author observes that “teachers are incapable of engineering faith in students. By the grace of God, our teaching sometimes participates in the movement of disturbance, awakening, and renewal through which students come to see and embrace who they are in Christ. But we are never in control of this process” (32).
The ethos of the theology teacher is one which must be grounded always in Christ and be reflected in how the teacher lives and teaches, according to Neder. The primary attribute reflecting this is the modeling of humility, avoiding the vanity of being a spiritual guru or oracle, of readily admitting not having full understanding, of openly acknowledging the possibility of error, and of not confusing pursuit of truth with pursuit of one’s own importance. How the teacher of Christian theology reflects Christ will determine that teacher’s effectiveness.
There is nothing “safe” about studying God if one is open to the truth and acknowledges the decision necessarily implied as one does so. If one believes what one is teaching, then God is present in the classroom, and educators should teach with that presumption. Neder writes: “Few things are harder than remembering that God is alive and active in our classrooms, and few things easier than teaching as if he is not” (101). The avoidance by students in seeking to know and understand God—either by seeking to be told what is so by the teacher or by embracing the “safety of ceaseless uncertainty” (105) is to walk away from the necessary danger and risk, struggle and fight to know God. The teacher cannot do this for students or force them to do it. The teacher can, however, lead and provide the space, conversation, and example to follow. Neder concludes his book by offering what he believes are the best attributes of teachers of theology, along with observations of how students respond.
This is an exceptional book, concise yet rich with wisdom. It provides a much-needed re-grounding in the reasons we teach theology, and a reminder of how the subject and object of theology changes lives of student and teacher alike.
Alexander Whitaker is president of King University in Bristol, Tennessee.Alexander WhitakerDate Of Review:May 17, 2021