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"Tender Hearts, Tough Minds, Trained Hands"

 

Walter B. Shurden

Callaway Professor of Christianity

Executive Director, The Center for Baptist Studies

Mercer University, Macon, Georgia

 

An Address Delivered at the Convocation of McAfee School of Theology

24 August 1999


I was ten years our of my theological education before I ever looked up the meaning of the word "seminary." But I am glad I finally got around to it. Coming from a root word which means "seed," a seminary, according to my old Webster, is "an environment in which something originates and from which it is propagated." "An environment!" "An environment in which something originates!" "An environment in which something originates and from which it is propagated!"

So what do we want to originate at McAfee? Do we want the same thing that came in the front door to exit by the back door? Do we want to graduate the same people we matriculate? Of course not! We want some seeds planted in this environment! We want graduates capable of more than reciting theological slogans and code words--whether conservative or liberal words. In short, we want something to originate in this place. But what?

TENDER HEARTS

First, tender hearts. Theological education, in whatever context, must address the education of the heart. We want people to be genuinely, authentically and thoroughly touched by Jesus of Nazareth. We want students to hear something the world needs to hear; we want them to experience something the world needs to experience--the sound of sandaled feet walking beside them. We want them to know the exclamation points of encountering the Holy in life.

For the last twenty-five years Protestant theological education in America has been chasing "spiritual formation," trying to catch up with the Catholics on that score. Whatever else "spiritual formation" is, it has something to do with vital religion. It has something to do with meeting the Holy in life. "Spiritual formation!" Those are two more words for a really good case of religion.

An old dictum in some professorial circles goes like this: "Know your stuff; know whom you are stuffing; then stuff them!" It sounds good, but it is almost all wrong. There are at least two problems with it. One, "stuffing" people theologically is neither a creative nor a long-lasting education; it is static indoctrination. If all you want to hear is what you have always heard, you would do better to save your money and time, return home, and send off for one of those discounted Internet theological degrees.

Second, and more to my point regarding educational stuffing, students are not tadpoles, all head and nothing else. Theological education is too often perceived in exclusively rationalistic categories. Some people claim to know the "truth," and they would have it "stuffed" down your minds and throats at McAfee. This approach to education views the professors as the "stuffers" and you students are the "stuffees."

But theological education--good theological education--is more than stuffing students with the right stuff. Theological education must provide an opportunity to trust moments of mystery and seasons of silence as well as hours of logical and rational thinking. We are taught the things of Christ by the inexplicable mysteries of doxology as well as the neat formulations of theology.

And here is a Baptist irony. No person among Baptists in the South has been a more zealous advocate of the education of the heart for the last thirty-five years than Professor Glenn Hinson, longtime professor at Southern Seminary and only recently retired from Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond. And yet no person has been more buffeted and harassed by "tadpole theological education" in the last twenty years than Hinson. And yet he has put several generations of seminary students in touch with the classic spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, contemplation, and silence. These are disciplines which nurture the heart for ministry in the name of Christ.

When I was on the faculty at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, with Professor Hinson, he once told me that if the campus of Southern Seminary could be rebuilt, the chapel, not the library, should be placed at the center of the campus. What was this internationally known professor with two Ph.Ds and numerous books to his credit saying about theological education?

He was saying that faculty and students would do well to experience together in worship what they with tongues tied try to explain in the classroom.

He was saying that stuffing students with theological stuff is not enough.

He was saying that developing a good case of religion--a mature faith he called it-- is as much the task of theological education as is critical thinking and rational reflection. Whatever else you are when you leave this environment, I hope you are the kind of person that others will call to their bedside to word their prayers for them in their desperate and dying hours.

Another dimension of what I mean by the phrase, "tender hearts" is that theological education simply ought to help people care. It ought to help them care about starving folk in Ethiopia and imprisoned folk in Ireland and sick folk and naked folk and homeless folk and AIDS-infected folk and handicapped folk and bruised folk of all kind. We can stuff you with doctrinal stuff all we wish, but if you do not come out of McAfee more tender and compassionate than when you entered, something is askew. Tests of doctrinal orthodoxy--that is, theological stuff--are neither as biblical nor as important as the tests Jesus gives in Matthew 25:31-46. There are only six questions on Jesus' test, and they have to do with hunger and thirst, strangers and nakedness, sickness and imprisonment.

TOUGH MINDS

So, we want a tender heart to originate in McAfee. We want hearts made vulnerable to the Spirit of the Holy and hearts made sensitive to the agonizing pain of God's creation. But we also want "tough minds" to originate here. Intellectual gaps cannot be filled with devotional material. And if you try that approach, thinking people will dismiss you as Exhibit A of a cultural lag.

I intend the phrase, "tough minds", to relate both to the process and content of theological of theological education. But always and everywhere process is the more important of the two. Without apology, defensiveness, or any inclination to minimize the education of the heart, you are here in this environment to love the Lord your God with all your minds. The goal of theological education is to develop rather than simply to stuff the mind. McAfee wants to develop minds which can subject the Bible, the contemporary church and popular society to a battery of probing and penetrating questions, minds with "thinkers" as well as "memorizers," minds which can dissect as well as recite. What we want from theological education are minds capable of questioning presuppositions as well as listing and regurgitating them, minds which know when an adjective or adverb has transformed a half-truth into a blatant prejudice.

Go back and examine the early histories of Baptist colleges and universities, including Mercer University, and you will confirm what you may have heard: they were founded in order to educate the clergy. But read very carefully and you will also discover that this did not intend, much less mandate, a narrowly defined ministerial education. It meant an education within the context of the broader liberal arts, more concerned with how one learns than with what one learns.

In this connection I would be remiss if I did not say that I hope that one of the things you learn at McAfee is A LOVE FOR THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, the sheer brilliance and beauty and importance of words, phrases, and sentences. What some doubtless learned in college literature courses, some of you, I hope, will learn at McAfee. On the one hand, love of language appears to have nothing to do with theology; on the other, it has absolutely everything to do with talk about Almighty God.. Words--especially theological words--work best when they sing and fizz and give flight to ideas. Draped in power and beauty and pathos, sentences, carefully crafted, authentically spoken, communicate far more than wooden ideas; these sentences lift and they empower; they give hope and they heal hurts, they point the likes of us frail and fragile souls to everlasting arms and cosmic generosity.

To be so complicated, education, including theological education, is relatively simple. The purpose is to help someone read critically, think logically, communicate effectively, and act compassionately. The process is designed to set you free from the restrictions of culture and prejudice, to enable you to become life-long learners, ultimately to help you become your own teacher.

One of the highest tributes you will pay your professors here at McAfee is your unconscious imitation of them. Before very long, without knowing it, or even recognizing it, you will be gesturing like them, using their favorite words, pursing your lips like them, holding your heads like them, and some of you will even try to look like them. That unconscious imitation is, I take it, nothing other than profound gratitude for their influence on your life.

But there is one tribute you can pay them that is even higher and nobler than that of imitation. The highest tribute you can pay them is to become not their disciples, but yourselves. The process of your theological education is designed to move you from a clone to an authentic self, from a student to teacher.

The phrase "tough minds," as I said above, refers to the content as well as the process of theological education. A seminary is an environment in which something originates. What originated for me at seminary was A NEW VISION OF LIFE, a vision of life consisting of ambiguity and complexity, at times even downright absurdity. It was a vision of life that mortally wounded and redemptively replaced a naive college certainty that had rounded off all the jagged edges of life.

I cannot pinpoint who taught it to me--I rather think it was part of the general environment--books I read, professors I heard, friends I talked with--but somewhere in that environment of theological education I came to believe that faith is not only the reception of unearned grace but also the courage to go on in a messy world without absolute certainty. Words like "inerrancy" never made any sense after that. Faith, said Carlyle Marney, is the inability to walk away from, even when you are not sure.

One thing more about this new vision of life which includes ambiguity and complexity. I never got the slightest hint that this new vision of life, often riding the backs of giant question marks, stripped life of passion and umph and commitment! The exact same people who placed ambiguity on my theological plate also put commitment and caring and passion there.

To this very hour, one of my most indelible images of theological education is Bob Soileau, our heretic in residence at New Orleans Seminary in the 1960s, lecturing in Systematic Theology class--arms outstretched like a jumbo jet and finger tips slightly shaking, face red with conviction, and syllables precise and powerful so as not to risk misinterpretation. You may not have agreed with him. But you simply could not leave saying that it did not matter to him. It mattered! And under God he wanted you to know that it did!

In his later life, Martin Luther remarked that during the first year of monastery the Devil is very quiet. Maybe so, but often by the third year of theological education, the Dragons begin to roar in faithful minds. But faith is the inability to walk away from, even when the dragons roar.

TRAINED HANDS

Return again with me to the original question: "What is it that we want to originate in the McAfee School of Theology?" I have answered with "tender hearts" and "tough minds." But very briefly, I would add a third. We also want "trained hands" to emerge from this theological environment.

Tender hearts and tough minds--piety and intellect--are not opposites, but twin commitments to outfeel and outthink the world around us. Thinking and feeling, however, must issue into action made effective by honed skills. We have not been placed in the world merely to experience spiritual ecstasy or to store up biblical knowledge. We are here as the Body of Christ to act and live in the name of the Nazarene.

Back several years ago when the "Honk if you love Jesus" bumper stickers were popular, a clunker of a car was hobbling down the interstate. Bent up, broken down, with several colors of paint on it, it was dutifully puffing down the road. The bright new bumper sticker on the rear bumper read, "If you love Jesus--Push!" Honking really is not enough! Praising really is not enough! Describing really is not enough! Sooner or later the people of God must do something, and they should do it skillfully and competently. The seminary graduate who is remote from life, uncommitted and uninvolved--allegedly neutral--is a luxury the church can no longer afford. Commitment and involvement include competency for the tasks at hand.

Theological schools can never become "How To" factories, sanctuaries of a shallow pragmatism which simply seek to "train." What is needed is more than an illustration for next Sunday's sermon, or ten tips on how to grow a church, or how to conduct a staff meeting on Monday morning.

For most of my teaching career I have endured both implicit and explicit criticisms of serious theological education which go like this: "Give us something we can preach." "Give us something that works!" I was helping to lead a continuing theological education conference one time at a seminary. On the way to the conference hall I was accosted by a jesting but cynical participant, also on the way to the meeting hall. "Well professor are you going to give us seminary stuff or something we can use?" he asked with a grin on his face. "Something you can use," I shot back. "An updated bibliography!"

Yet for all my impatience with these critics, I understand something of the point being made. Theological education must have an end in view.

It is not enough to be able to tick off the names of all the theories in the psychology of religion. Sooner or later someone must be equipped to help troubled souls sleep and laugh again.

It is not enough to know the names of Origen, Anselm, and Abelard and all theories of the atonement. Sooner or later somebody must preach persuasively and effectively the love of God to the grieving lady on the third row whose only son is dying with leukemia.

It is simply not enough to praise God personally or corporately. Sooner or later somebody must build a bridge between the Transcendent and those little ships of humanity with torn sails and lost rudders out in the turbulence and storms of life.

Now we cannot do any of this without hearts touched by compassion and heads that have wrestled with the ambiguities involved. But neither can we do it without hands made skilled by practice.

Part of our problem in the church comes precisely at this point. Some preachers, for example, have nothing to say and they say it marvelously! Others have much to say and they say it pathetically. The first should have spent more time in the library; the second more time in the preaching lab.

Take a hint for your theological education. Pursue what you resist. Some of you will want McAfee to be a glorious revival meeting--you are heart people. Some of you will revel in the books and the library--you are head people. Some of you cannot wait to do the practical things. You are the hand people. Pursue what you resist. Your loves will take care of themselves.

"Tender Hearts." "Tough minds." "Trained Hands." Those phrases do not exhaust the meaning of your years at McAfee, but they may point the way to a theological education that will help you "not walk away from" an intimidating future of twists and turns. God bless you and academic year 1999-2000 at the McAfee School of Theology.

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