The View from 2040: the Futures of Theological Education
Inaugural Address at the Installation of the 10th President
of McCormick Theological Seminary
The Reverend Dr. Frank M. Yamada
Apostolic Church of God, Chicago, Illinois
February 9, 2012
I have received a lot of advice over my first six months as president of McCormick Theological Seminary. I have asked for more. The most consistent counsel that I have received relates to our gathering here today. When I have asked colleagues about inauguration planning, I have heard a deafening refrain—a resounding chorus of consensus: “Keep it short. Keep it simple.” To which I respond, “I will with God’s help,” but if you have ever known a preacher who is an academic or a scholarly homilitician, then you can attest to the fact that if an inaugural address remains short then it is most definitely a powerful work of the Spirit.
There is tremendous and difficult wisdom in those words, “Keep it short. Keep it simple.” We live in world that has become overly complex. We are living in an unprecedented age, in which the flow of information comes at us with more speed, volume, and force than in any other time in human history. Economic markets have become so diverse that predicting them has become a crap shoot at best, even as world economies have also become more interdependent to the point that the collapse of one threatens the whole. Governments are teetering. Revolutions are going viral. One might say that our society is spasming, “limbs flailing and arms akimbo.”[i]
Even in theological education and our congregations we suffer from this tyranny of the complex. We have highly detailed org charts, mutli-dimensional business models, interdisciplinary analysis of our demographic data, strategic planning processes that carry on for months, and if you are Presbyterian, committee after committee after committee; and all to do what? Teach, proclaim, and live the good news? I can’t help but think that all of this complexity and hyper-activity is our wishful attempt to fend off the uncertainty that haunts us. Is it any wonder that preachers of over-simplicity or false prophets who sell hope cheaply have become such a temptation for people seeking faith today? Our world and our problems have become increasingly complex, even when we understand that “keeping it simple” doesn’t mean positing trite, easy answers.
Keep it short; keep it simple, but not too simple.
Let me also differentiate between keeping it simple and providing a singular solution. There is a difference between simplicity and universality. God’s truth is often simple and clear. Living it out will certainly turn your world upside down, but truth carries with it a refreshing clarity. When a lawyer approaches Jesus and asks how he might inherit eternal life, Jesus did not answer, “Let me propose these 118 theses, all with sub-points, multiple footnotes, and a report from our task force.” Nor did he say, “Well, that is a difficult question, which requires an even more complex answer.” We all remember the story. The answer is remarkably short, simple, and profound: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[ii] Two mitzvot (or commandments), simple truths to follow and by which to live, and a world of profound implications. In fact, if we could only get these two words—not ten, just two—correct, the world would be a vastly different place.
Truth’s simplicity, however, also resists singular answers and unilateral solutions. One might argue that the failure of Western European civilization, indeed its hubris, has been in its attempt to universalize human experience into its own culturally specific categories for understanding human life. In fact, one might argue that Jacques Derrida was correct (I understand that it is ironic to gesture toward Derrida in an address that began with simplicity). Derrida’s works perform over and over again that the history of Western philosophical thought is marked with an incessant tendency to appeal to transcendence—to look for the transcendental signified, the universal, the meta-language, the Ur-experience, the sub-conscious—even when we only experience life in all of its complex particulars and embedded-ness. One might argue that Walmart and its one-stop, one-size fits all mentality toward the consumer experience, is the end product of this kind of thinking—all people and all needs met universally under one roof. Meanwhile, the store universal plows over all diverse forms of privately owned businesses, all in the name of a singular experience, all for the sake of the one.
Keep it simple, but not singular or universal.
Keep it simple, but keep it true.
As we approach the year 2040, we are heading toward a world unprecedented in its diversity. Most census experts believe that somewhere in this time, certainly by the mid-point of the 21st Century, our census will tip, and we will no longer have a racial/ethnic majority in this country. This does not mean that racial inequality will vanish, nor does it mean that we will have brought an end to racism, classism, or inter-ethnic strife. What this reality means for us is that diversity will no longer be an ideal or a grandiose goal. It WILL be a reality. What will we do with this reality? I am guessing that we will not suddenly join hands and spontaneously break out into a chorus of “Everyone is Beautiful” or “Kum Ba Ya.” We will, however, in our bodies and faces reflect a more diverse image of who we are as a people.
However, we cannot understand the realities of 2040 through the lens of a singular vision, as the plural in my title, “The Futures of Theological Education,” makes clear. In fact, our ambitious attempt to make this plural a singular has been our problem. As we heard in Genesis 11 of today’s First Testament reading, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1). We have tended to interpret this story as one of human pride. The human beings, in their attempts to build a tower up to the heavens, the location of the gods, sinfully assert themselves into a realm in which they do not belong. However, even to the contemporary ear, can’t you hear the allure of this first verse? “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” There is something very appealing about this “one,” the allure of the “same,” one nation, under God.
What the biblical text makes clear, however, is that our desire does not align with God’s intention. The LORD says in v. 6, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language…” So what does the LORD do with this one-ness? The text continues, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth…” (vv. 7–8). The LORD disrupts the one and creates many, and thus, we have the beginning of languages, civilizations, and cultures, all in the plural.
Consistently our desire for the one, which mirrors the desire of the human beings in Genesis 11, creeps back in, through interpretation. The history of interpretation of this text reveals our tendency to prefer the singular over the plural. The LORD creates diversity, creates languages, and creates the great cultures of the world. Why? Maybe because God prefers diversity over singularity, a fact that Acts 2 confirms. Notice when the Holy Spirit falls on the disciples, they do not break into a meta-language, a single-tongue, but, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:3–4). The LORD of the earth prefers the plural over the singular, languages over a single-tongue, cultures over one defining culture, and in the history of this passage, we have persistently looked at this wonderful outcome and seen it as the problem that we must overcome.
In fact, our misplaced obsession on the wrong point happens with all of the texts in Genesis 1–11. Rather than focusing solely on disobedience to God’s word in the garden, we instead demonize the naked human body. Rather than focusing primarily on how humankind blames each other even the snake in the aftermath, we make working the ground a curse, we make the inferiority of women and childbearing a female’s just deserts. We even turn the snake into a Satanic and demonic entity. Rather than focusing on the real problem created in Genesis 11—our lack of understanding among each other—as the problem, we have assumed that multiple languages are the barrier to overcome, that the cultures of the world are the result of God’s curse upon us.
This is the problem of the one, when there should only be one who is One, and that is our God. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD, our God, the LORD is one,” “the LORD alone.”[iii] This interpretation exemplifies our unhealthy attraction to the singular over the plural. This obsession is also why we create such non-sensical programs as English-only education. This attachment to one-ness is why liberals and conservatives are polarized in such a way that makes our entire country immobile and un-adaptable, “It’s my way or the high way. It’s our way and not your way.” We must begin to see our future in the plural. This is not something that a simple grammar change, the addition of an “s” on the end, can fix. We must imagine the futures of theological education and the Church-es, lest we die in our lack of understanding of each other.
So even if today I am struggling to follow the sage advice, “keep it short, keep it simple,” I can assure you, as we ponder the futures of theological education, that the way forward will not be simplistic or trite, nor will it be a one-size-fits all universalism. If these options remain the way that we choose, theological education will not be relevant. It will be out of step with a world that has passed it by. Worse, if theological education and our churches cannot adapt to the realities of 2040 in all its complexity, in all of its rich diversity, seminaries are doomed to be an archaeological artifact, a volume best left in the long-term storage section of the archives of human knowledge, thrown in the $1 bin with all of the other bad movies of the 80s.
So what are we to do? Are there solutions that avoid the oversimplification of our complex reality, and can we finally move beyond big-box, universal, one-size fits all answers? I believe that we can. As we attempt to see the view from 2040, as we move into this increasingly complex and complicated world, I do believe that there is hope for our futures. In fact, it is already among us. It is already ahead of us, if we only listen.
We must listen.
In my first six months as president, people have asked me often, “Frank, what is your vision for the seminary? What is McCormick’s vision for theological education?” Honestly, I don’t know the answer to these questions, and for a while this really bothered me. Everyone else seems to have an answer. But if I am really honest, I don’t know how to answer reliably these questions. I do not know with certainty what our world will look like in 2040. It will be different, of that I have no doubt, the statistics do not lie; but how it will be different, and more importantly, how well we will be in alignment with this difference I cannot tell.
However, maybe we have been asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of “What is my vision?” or “What is our vision?” the question needs to be reframed. What is God’s vision? What is God up to in the world? As I begin to change the question, I find that I change. My fretting turns more into a posture of faith—faith not in my own ability to conjure up a successful future (singular) to the world’s problems (plural), but a faith in the one who holds the world’s futures. Because this is God’s work, because God is and has been at work, my thinking can turn to listening. How can I and how can we practice holy and radical obedience through listening, which, by the way, in Hebrew, is the same word, shema. Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel.” Hear O theological education. Hear O Church-es. Listen.
When we listen carefully to what God is up to in the world. There is cause for great hope for our futures. When we listen to what God is doing currently among us, and when we are attentive to what God has already done in us and through us, our vision becomes clearer. Our view of 2040 looks less like a problem to be solved and more like the vision that God has already set before us.
At McCormick Theological Seminary, one of our four core markers is that we are cross-cultural. If we listen to what God is doing with us and what God has already done through us, we understand at least some of our own seminary’s way forward. If by 2040, our country will no longer have a racial/ethnic majority, and I would add we will likely not have a religious or theological majority either, then the good news is, that if we look around, we are already here. Our student demographics already mirror the realities in to which we are heading.
It is not good enough, however, to take what God has done and assume that this is the conclusion, the end of the story, the period at the end of God’s sentence. No, this gift, this grace, presents us with a more significant challenge. How do we live more faithfully into what God has done among us in the past so that we can open our ears to what God is already doing with us for the future? If we listen, we still have plenty of work to do; but there is hope.
How do we move beyond diversity? How do we move past our sometimes awkward multicultural celebration of many tongues, and lip service to various cultures, toward a world that seeks more than translation but understanding? How do we translate the diversity and real learning that happens in some of our classrooms into a society and city where Saturday and Sunday are still the most segregated days of the week? How do we test out with rigor what it is that happens here that allows for conservatives and liberals and everyone in-between to engage each other honestly, faithfully, and certainly not without conflict, but in such a way that we still break bread together, and where we still graduate with each other, all in a world and in a country where our polarized politics threaten to make us an inept economic giant who cannot move? How do we more concretely move from Europe and North America to the Global South, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, with not just our minds and scholarship, but also with our hearts, souls, minds, and strength… and resources?
In fact, if we read Acts 2 more closely, diversity was not good enough for the Holy Spirit either. Note that the crowd gathered in Jerusalem was already diverse,
“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem… (there were) Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs (Acts 2:5–11).”
The Holy Spirit took this diversity and forged something greater, understanding, as the disciples began to speak with other tongues. God’s program for re-educating the world about the new thing done in Jesus was certainly not based in an English-only or, in this case, a Greek-only meta-tongue. God’s program required each of the disciples to proclaim the mighty works (plural) of God in a tongue other than their own. If we took this scripture literally, then we theological educators would be required to learn Korean to teach Koreans; but now I am meddling.
If I listen to the vision that God has already cast in front of us, I see evidence of how many are already moving beyond diversity in representation only to models of building greater understanding through difference.
In our great city of Chicago, we have the example of the Interfaith Youth Core, where young adults from different religions engage society through service, and then reflect on that service from their own religious positions. In the process, young people’s lives are changed by contributing to the common good AND through engagement of authentic religious difference. If we listen, we can hear God already transforming our hatred into service, our religious misunderstanding into works of righteousness.
If we hear the vision that God has already put in front of us, if we listen to what God is already up to in the world, then we will also realize that the census shift approaching 2040 is just the tip of the iceberg. God’s plans are for so much more than diversity. If we listen, we hear other tongues proclaiming the mighty works already happening in our midst.
I believe that I stumbled across such another tongue through a recent book by Chris Anderson, Free: the Future of a Radical Price.[iv] In this book, Anderson traces the use of free in modern U.S. business and marketing. He argues, following a quotation from Stewart Brand, technological activist and self-proclaimed hacker, that knowledge and “information wants to be free.”[v] In fact, there is good data to suggest that this value-laden statement is an empirical reality. As a brief example, think of how quickly our laptop computers have moved from hard-drives that could contain kilobytes or megabytes to gigabytes and terabytes, while the price of a computer is going down. The cost of information is not just heading toward zero, it is racing toward it. I still remember my Encyclopedia Britannica, which also used to cost a pretty penny (or 200,000 pretty pennies), sitting beautifully on my shelf. Then there was the cheaper Encarta on CD-rom. Now there is the completely free, Wikipedia. Information, whether we like to believe it or not, is rapidly moving toward zero.
For those of us in, what Peter Drucker, has called “knowledge work,” this is incredibly exciting and anxiety-producing news. How does one run a theological education institution with raising costs in tuition and bloated budgets in a world where knowledge is moving toward the price of zero? What kind of business model can run on free? Read Anderson’s book if you want to find out his solutions, but suffice it to say, that “free” is not a new idea, nor is it cause for utter panic. In fact, if theological education has a value, it will likely not be in the cost of the knowledge that we peddle, but it will be the way that we create maximum value in a world where people are overloaded with information and where the economy is not a fight for market share but for learners’ attention and time. Attention and time are the great commodities around which some of this new exchange must be brokered.
Theologically speaking, free knowledge should not be a new concept. Indeed, it is at the heart of what we believe in the Reformed tradition. Perhaps one way of thinking of the priesthood of all believers is to re-imagine a way to redistribute power through radical distribution of knowledge —not just the knowledge of Latin for the mass, or the functions of clergy for the Eucharist, or the access to scripture for preaching. I am speaking about a reformation of another order. In a culture where there is not only disparity between the haves and have nots, but also between the knows and the know-nothings, the degree-bearers and the non-degree bearers, should we not think about how we provide access, free access, to theological knowledge in a world that is impaired by theological and religious ignorance and intolerance? The internet and it mass-distribution of bits and knowledge could very well be our modern-day Guttenberg printing press.
If we listen closely, we will also hear the voice of innovation. Now here I do not simply mean technology or online teaching. Facility with technology and aptitude to teach online are not cutting-edge innovations, they are prerequisite adaptations not just for theological education but for all of higher education. The innovation of which I speak involves more exciting revolutions of how to re-think our delivery of theological education; and again, this vision is already out in front of us.
One such example may be Open Courseware 2.0. Stanford and MIT are already offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s). Two Stanford professors offered a Stanford-quality course online with students signing up in the tens of thousands. Can we imagine not just a new MTS, McCormick Theological Seminary, but an MOTS, a Massive Online Theological Seminar, in which free access to theological education would be made available to all who would have the discipline and will to carry the course through to the end?
If we listen more carefully, we might also hear innovation within a musical metaphor. Last night, Dr. Braxton inspired us with the possibility of a theological education re-mix.[vi] I would add to this playlist theological education as riffing or sampling, where we would emphasize not just the reception of the advice of sages, but indeed the open-ended creation from a new generation that uses the source as its sampling starting point, but moves that original tune into a territory that the originator could not have possibly imagined. In this model, lecture is not the end point of knowledge to be rehearsed and repeated, but it is the beginning space of student creation. Short video lectures become the starting point for student riffing assignments, and the classroom becomes the place where students create and share the new knowledge that they have generated. How could students riff Aquinas, Gutierrez, or Cone, re-mixing Torah, so that it speaks again in a way that can be heard.
If all if this sounds exciting and daunting. Good. It should be. The good news is that there is already a generation who understands this vision, who is implementing this vision, and who are hoping to change the world in alignment with this vision. This new generation of leaders in our church and society might just change the world, if we let them.
Let me introduce you to an example of how these things, free knowledge and innovation, are moving in incredibly exciting directions, and all in the discipline of education. You may have heard of the Khan Academy. It has been on almost every network news outlet in the past several months. The Khan Academy is the brainchild of Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT. He was tutoring his cousin in elementary mathematics. He would talk her through lessons online and, at times, would post YouTube videos that she could watch. She told him that she preferred to watch his videos, because she could play them over and over again, learning at her own pace.
Soon, he found that other of his relatives were also watching his videos and learning. Then, there were other people not related to him. More and more began to watch. Tens of hits turned into hundreds, then thousands, and then tens of thousands. His educational videos were going viral and were beginning to be used not only by personal users but by teachers in their classrooms. It was not too long before Khan’s experiment caught the eye of Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation. The Khan Academy now has thousands[vii] of lessons and millions of hits, with tutorial topics ranging from simple mathematics to advanced college calculus. What is even more amazing is that he created these lessons using simple, everyday computer tools, available to everyone, in his small home office, which is actually a converted closet.
If we listen, these amazing revolutions in education are already happening in our very midst. A new generation is already leading us. However, we not only need to listen to this generation—and for those of us who know how our parents listened to us, we understand that we must do more than just listen. We must LET THEM PLAY. Set this generation loose on the churches. Set them loose in the classrooms. If I must be more concrete, give them jobs. Let them lead. We have done our part to lead, and look at what a mess we are in. Set this new generation on theological education and the churches, and I guarantee you that they will transform it.
Re-thinking our relationship generationally requires a new posture. Shifting leadership does not happen easily; however, we have models. Let us not forget that Jesus practiced intergenerational ministry. Just before the Pentecost moment in Acts 2, Jesus hands on his legacy to his disciples, “You will be my witnesses.”[viii] Jesus had done his work, and now he passes it on to those who come after him, a new generation.
The posture required between generations is best summed up in an oral story that I heard recently from the first Asian American rabbi, Angela Warnick Buchdahl, who learned this oral tradition from one of her mentors, Nehemia Pollan. Do I hear a re-mix? She reflected on the power of music, in particular, a type of musical song, a niggun, in this case written by Sholomo Carlebach. What makes these songs work is that “every note… looks at the one that came before it and says, ‘thank you for being my teacher,’ and every note in one of these songs… looks at the note that follows it and says, ‘I give you permission to be even more beautiful than I am.’”[ix] Give this next generation permission to play, and they might not only thank us for being their teachers, but indeed, they might just create a world more beautiful than we could have imagined.
I close with a story, a true story, of a new Pentecost. It is the clearest example for me of how the classroom became a transformative space and learning generated transformation, and I had nothing to with it.
I was teaching a Joshua and Judges course at McCormick during a summer term course in 2010. We were in the last half-hour of the last day of a four-day intensive class. Like most courses at McCormick, this class was very diverse in terms of race/ethnicity, class, gender, and theological disposition. We were walking through the text in Judges 19, when massive conflict broke out on the topic of what else, sexuality. We talked and listened to each other, and then we talked and listened some more. At points, the discussion got very heated, and we refused to let each other off the hook so that we remained in faithful and engaged dialogue. We talked and listened some more, and then we prayed, and did we pray.
We stood in a circle, at first holding hands. One by one we all began to pray, silently and out loud. Pentecostals suddenly began to pray in tongues. Hallelujahs began to ring out. “Praise God” began to fill the room, and, of course, some of our Presbyterian prayed quietly and very still. People were laughing. People were crying. Then we broke out into song, and prayed one last prayer, the LORD’s prayer. Then, we hugged and gave thanks to God for each other. It was one of those moments when you know that the hope that you are experiencing mirrors the joy on God’s face.
Our challenge and our hope lies in how we take our classroom to the streets. How we move from the upper room into the diverse crowds gathered at Jerusalem. How we follow the Holy Spirit’s lead into the vision that God has already set in front of us.
When we see this vision, oh what a view it will be.
[i] This phrase from a 1996 episode of Seinfeld, describing the spastic dance moves of one of the show’s main characters, Elaine Benes.
[ii] Matthew 22:37–40. All biblical citations from the NRSV unless otherwise indicated.
[iii] Deut 6:4. Both the translation, “the LORD is one,” and “the LORD alone” are grammatically correct.
[iv] It is interesting to note that Anderson practices what he preaches. The cost of the book is, appropriately, $0.00.
[v] See Chapter Six, “Information Wants to Be Free” in Chris Anderson, Free: the Future of a Radical Price (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 94–100.
[vi] Brad Braxton, “The Three R’s of Theological Education: A Twenty-First Century Re-mix,” paper presented for the panel, “The View from 2040: the Futures of Theological Education,” on the occasion of the Inauguration of McCormick Theological Seminary’s Tenth President, February 8, 2012, at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago’s Augustana Chapel.
[viii] Acts 1:8
[ix] Rabbi Buchdahl shared this story with at a worship service with the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) presidents on January 27, 2012 at Auburn Theological Seminary. She recounted this oral tradition again in a personal email communication.