The Need for Deconstruction in Theological Education

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:18

Much has been said about what happens at the intersection of love, words, and action. Or, rather, the lack of such intersection, as the above quotation from Scripture seems to indicate. Words and actions are often perceived as opposed to each other. Indeed, those in search of love do well to pass by people who spend a great deal of words on it and turn their attention to silent deeds that bespeak love better and louder. While 1 John observes that in human community in general love is better expressed in works than (empty) words—put your money where your mouth is—education in particular can easily get embroiled in a similar dichotomy between words and actions: “So much for learning, amassing facts, pumping your head full of knowledge, but how do you stand up to reality, where it depends on performance? How well will you do?” And, with commencement just around the corner, all the more so in theological education: “So, you have learned what it is to love your neighbor, what Jesus means by living your life for the other? Let’s see how your academic degree lives up to the task!” This brings us right back to the issue of love. 1 John 3:18 impinges on the place of love in theological education. Let us move, therefore, from the observed discrepancy between loveless words and loving action in 1 John to the alleged discrepancy between educational information gathering and the test of the demand of loving engagement in the real world.

Is it true that theological formation lacks muscle power, that it falls short in forming leaders that are ready to apply what they have learned? Do such leaders fail to put into practice self-giving love in the humility of Christ? It all depends. I believe it is entirely possible to prepare students of theology for service in the world in a way that is adequate to the demand. I believe this in spite of the fact that humble self-giving is usually the fruit of a life-long journey and that graduating theology students typically still have a lot to learn about real life. I believe this even though I also acknowledge that the problem of heads full of knowledge with little practice in the realm of love, life, and humility is simply a reality we encounter all too often. I believe it most of all, however, because I see the genuine practice of love happen around me all the time. I have seen many a student graduate of whom I know that she or he has gone through such depth that loving action is the only possible output. What has happened in such a student’s life through his or her personal circumstances, is something that ought to be actively pursued by those responsible for theological education. The incidental existential transforming circumstances should become the intentional structural focus of education itself.

As the situation stands, we still too often witness a dichotomy between head and heart, between learning facts and understanding what the real world requires. No matter how much we are seen to indwell a postmodern era, our education still carries many modernist traits. Learning is often seen as a cognitive enterprise in which students gather data in a predefined mold called “seminary education,” “church ministry,” or some such. We still have this ideal of the human being of the Enlightenment, who, reduced to a disembodied cogito (thinking subject), considers rationalistic engagement with the world the epitome of human existence. Education is indeed called formation, but what really happens is a traversing along a linear predefined path that ends in graduation, commencement, and then ministry. We have turned theological education from discipleship under Christ in a world pregnant with ambiguity and anxiety into a clean manageable process that attempts to arrange the mind instead of transforming the heart.

Another problem is that too often theological education still panders to the need of the theological student who comes to seminary to get affirmed what she or he already knows. Seminary thus becomes an anxiety-reducing event that confirms pre-existent (pre-existent to seminary education, that is) beliefs and entrenched doctrines that churches want the seminary to safe-guard rather that unhinge. Truth is already uncovered and categorized and as such it merely needs to be transmitted to a next generation. It’s a matter of information management. Here too we see a modernistic understanding come in the way. Truth, understood as cognitive content, has lost its bite and transformative power. It has become a fact on a dusty shelf, a bullet point in a classroom slide show. It is gathered in the bag of previously amassed data and will prove a useful instrument once ministry commences. Both seminary and church have a stake in this process. The student is not challenged beyond her already defined capabilities and the church gets a predictable output from the seminary that caters to its own perceived needs. It is for this reason, however, that church, seminary and student stand to lose under this paradigm.

Truth, on the contrary, is both challenging and liberating. Truth liberates neither only from the shackles of oppression nor only from ignorance; it liberates us from ourselves: from our self-confinement and from being turned in on ourselves.  Truth is both cognition and moral insight together. It turns a student away from self toward God, toward the other, toward the world. Now, that is real transformation! But such transforming truth that transforms and turns a person inside-out, cannot be but very upsetting and worrying for the one encountering it. It surely entails more than hurriedly penning down a Power Point slide before the next is shown. Truth challenges students, churches, and seminaries to be different. And since theology students, churches, and seminaries all claim to be about honoring and disseminating the truth, they would do well to pay attention to this challenge, even (or especially) when it makes them uncomfortable.

And this is what I would like to argue: education needs to really transform students as they pass through the educational process. This entails more than a few practical assignments alongside (i.e. apart from) the classroom lectures. No, the education itself, that is, the lecture itself, the very content of what is taught should engender the transformation of the truth encounter. Anything less will not do justice to the goals of theological education. What I would advocate is that in our seminary education we consciously seek to confront students with the unknown. They need to pass through the critical moment of questioning all their previously accepted answers. They need to “un-answer” themselves all the way down to the unanswerable questions of God and human existence. Only through the critical moment of breaking down all the sure foundations can an existential unknowing pass through to a humble knowing. Only through facing our ultimate uncertainties can a genuine encounter with Truth take place. Only through deconstruction can reconstruction take shape. Deconstruction is not destruction; it is a constructive effort of “undoing” before “redoing” can take place. This entails a conscious effort of bringing ambiguity, tension, dialectics, and unknowing into the process of learning. In order to know the God who is, one needs to unlearn the God of dogmatic formulations. In order to let the Scriptures speak anew of God—or better even: to let God address us anew through these ancient writings—we need to undo the stifling molds of predetermined readings determining the outcome of our hermeneutics. There is risk involved, you might say, and I’ll answer that risk is the only pathway to authentic existence. Risk is divine potentiality! In short: education is deconstruction is transformation.

Imagine an Abraham who would have never been challenged by a voice beyond the idols of his fathers. This voice in no way affirmed but rather challenged him away from comfort and a safe environment unto “the land that I will show you”…. A land he never got! Wherever God shows up in the Biblical narrative, people are uprooted, unhinged, shattered, confused, confounded, offended. There is no logic behind this than the logic of the otherness of God. And we think to raise new leaders who already know everything, but just need a honing of their skills? This is begging for discrepancies between learned content and real life practice. This is locking the Spirit out of the entire process of theological education, for perhaps—God forbid—the strange God we worship might throw in a monkey wrench in our well-oiled theological machine.

The reader may retort that I have basically hijacked 1 John 3:18 to provide an opinion about education while missing the point about love the Bible verse is trying to make. Yes to the hijacking, but No to missing the point about love. I think we should relentlessly hijack Scripture at every opportunity to speak meaningfully to reality. In this case, however, the verse’s reference to love has everything to do with the deconstructive-reconstructive transformation I suggest needs to be part of theological education. Just as facts and transformation should not be divorced, truth and love necessarily go together. The encounter with truth, however unsettling, is eventually love-engendering. This is so, in the first place, because Truth is Love, that is, the encounter with truth is always the encounter with the Christ, the Logos, who deconstructs us but also loves us. The deconstruction is the act of love that sets us free from ourselves, from our human logos, from our entrenched positions, from our anxiety-reducing “know-it-all-ness.” The deconstructive transformation I intend, leads from an encounter with the loving truth to truthful loving in ministry and world. Those who have gone through the pain of unlearning and deconstruction, have become humbled. They are learning to listen and approach the other with humility and love.

Thus under my proposal of education as transformation there is an implicit “re-ordering” of love. The very problem of the dichotomy between speech and action, addressed by the writer of 1 John, does not necessarily have to carry over into theological education. Dichotomies between words and actions or between love and thought are avoided where through deconstruction truth’s love can shape both mind and heart of the seminary student. Love and truth emerge when deconstruction is pursued out of love and in search for truth. Speech or education is then no longer divorced from loving action, because education itself is transformative action and active transformation. Such education by its own internal operation allows for truth to shatter the ego and turn that ego outward in love to the world. Action and speech are then truly integrated on the way to truthful and loving being in the world.

If the writer of 1 John was concerned that the “children” he addresses major on love in action, don’t you agree that those who are to be leaders among them should make even more stringent efforts to integrate words and action in genuine love? This love can only be born out of an education that is deconstructive at its core. It is this kind of transformation that creates the possibility of an education that results in active love, for it is itself love in action.

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