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March 2, 2011

Jason Byassee: For virtual theological education

The first of two posts on web-based theological education. We will post a rejoinder next week.

Recently, a board I serve on that decides theological education matters for my United Methodist conference was asked to allow candidates for ordination to receive up to two-thirds of their seminary education requirements online. The déjà vu’ish part of the resolution was that only a year ago we were asked to allow candidates to do a third of their seminary studies online. In two years,  they’ll be asking us to allow four-thirds of M.Div. requirements to be met online.

What gives?

For some this is the decline and fall of theological education as we know it. Intelligent commentators for a very long time have decried online education as disembodied, Gnostic beaming of information into brains, and deadly for the church. Surely, on Christian grounds, you can’t learn together without eating together, worshiping together, crying together? I remember one Anglican professor friend saying of his own particular specialty: “I refuse to teach my course on embodied theology online!”

So why did I vote with the majority to allow two-thirds of the requirements for an M.Div. to be completed online?

One, this pedagogical shift is about much more than the inevitability that comes with technological change. Lots of things seem “inevitable” that Christians should nevertheless oppose. But this is different. The online education offered in many places today may be -- often is -- better than that which people can get in person. As it stands, a student can rush in late to his or her part-time M.Div. evening course,  dash to a seat, not participate at all in class, and then head home at 10 p.m., drained. Or a residential student can show up for a lecture with 120 close friends and not participate all semester any more than the ceiling tiles or the threads in the carpet (but increasingly he’ll be on Facebook the whole time anyway). Online, on the other hand, a student can take a class and be asked directly by her instructor to contribute on a particular topic. Online courses are never “locked.” Students can be asked to participate on a blog with one another even while the professor sleeps. Or the teacher can break students into small groups and watch all engage with one another simultaneously (try pulling that off IRL). At some point the technology gets so good it starts to feel irresponsible not to use it.

But what about the longstanding objections noted earlier, of disembodied, Gnostic visions of knowledge? I will still maintain that the best setting in which to grow in wisdom and love with God and neighbor is interpersonal, face-to-face meeting punctuated by worship, meals together and service. And yet such meetings are not always possible. We are embodied beings and bodies can only be in one place. This is why St. Paul so often longs to be with the congregations from whom he is absent in the body. But notice what he doesn’t do: he doesn’t wait to offer them his words until he can be with them. He sends them letters. Letters meant to be read corporately, perhaps even to lead to worship or be part of it. Such letters allow him to engage personally without being present personally. They are a poor substitute in some ways. In others they are superior. We have preserved St. Paul’s letters. Unfortunately we do not have his face-to-face conversations.

Slightly later in church history, Sts. Augustine and Jerome produced some of the most remarkable letters we have. They argue over Bible interpretation, theology, practice, the works. These two giants of the faith go at one another in Rowan Greer’s unforgettable image, “like two scorpions.” Such passionate interaction with such a payoff should still make all forms of Christian theological education. This is not the ad hominem heat of the blogosphere. It is the heat of a holy encounter with God. And notice: we preserve and treasure this correspondence not because it is record of face-to-face encounter. We do so because it is not.

In fact, as Christians, we are a sort of virtual body (this observation I owe to Graham Ward). We are members one another with those we have never met through time and now through space. We long to commune with our sisters and brothers face to face. For most we never will until the final feast. For now we preserve our ligaments by prayer, correspondence and mutual correction.

The church has not been unwilling to make do with less than fully-embodied theological exchange in the past. Why should we be less brave now?

Jason Byassee is a Research Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Duke Divinity School.

15 Comments

Thanks Jason, this is the

Thanks Jason, this is the first reasonable defense of virtual theological education that I've found.

I wonder though, what does virtual theological education do to the formation of pastors. In the abstract I agree that it isn't a necessity to sit in a classroom in order to learn, but is there a difference between acquiring knowledge and discovering how to exercise pastoral ministry before God and for the people? If all we're interested in is the distribution of theological knowledge as a tool or a means to an end, it seems like we're missing the point altogether.

Good question

Good question Mike, I'd be loathe to say one can learn to hold a dying person's hand online! So just like I'd not want a sort of feigned purity to be against online education wholesale, I'd also not want a feigned purity to say education can only be online. One other thought, wherever theological education is heading, it's going to have to be more aligned with the local church, which is where any of us learn to be good ministers anyway by virtue of baptism and growth toward holiness.

Well said, let's keep moving...

Jason, you articulate this nicely. There are several of us who have been involved with online theological education for many years now who have moved WAY beyond this conversation. Hopefully we don't need to re-hash this every 5 years or so.

Regarding Mike's reply, my experience tells me that online education is positioned to be much more closely aligned with the local church than traditional seminary education. If our students aren't required to leave their ministry context for Seminary, they can then be trained and formed in the context to which they are called to serve. What better alignment can there be? I think traditional curricular initiatives have a more ominous struggle to align with the local church than does online theological curricula. However, traditional programs have inertia on their side! :)

Jason, this is very

Jason, this is very interesting. I just read Eugene Peterson's memoir, The Pastor, and one thing that was clear: his formation as a pastor did NOT happen at seminary. It happened in his years as a pastor. Which reminds me that pastoral, spiritual, and Christian formation and theological education are not necessarily the same thing, nor do they need to occur in the same context. I like the idea of distance theological education occuring while the student is eating, praying, and worshiping in a church, not a school. You are right, this isn't necessarily disembodied at all. And I've been in classes with plenty of students who did seem disembodied--their bodies were in their seats, but their minds were someplace else. Thanks for this.

Virtual D.Min. Opportunity?

I've been praying for a virtual option for a D. Min. As a mother of two elementary school girls, there is no workable possibility of leaving for two weeks once a year, let alone twice a year. Even with a very supportive husband and extended family, this possibility seems virtually impossible.

I hope that a seminary (perhaps aided by a financial grant) will create an innovative D. Min. program for women (and men) like me who desire deepened learning within the bounds of family responsibilities.

When that vision comes to pass, I'll be first in line. If that vision needs someone to do the hard work to get it going, I'll be glad to do whatever is needed.

I'd love to see what seems 'virtually impossible' at this stage in my life to become a real possibility through virtual technology.

formation and collegiality

What I find striking about the online classes I've taught is that my students *were* engaged in embodied, incarnational communities, because they were almost all full-time pastors; it's just that the communities they were engaging face-to-face were their congregations and not their classmates. So the challenge I faced in the online environment was not how to foster embodiment per se, but how to foster collegiality - a value that is very important in my tradition. For me personally, the main drawback was that *I* couldn't be a body with them - couldn't watch their faces to see how they reacted to a point made in lecture, couldn't guide and shape a discussion in real time, couldn't smile at them and eat with them, couldn't see in their eyes when they were tired or struggling. Perhaps this is selfish, but it felt like a limitation in my ability not just to teach material but to connect with their lives.

It really does work

I am almost 4/5ths through an online MDiv program which requires 1/3 of hours to be completed in residence and 2/3 online.

We are able to make deep connections with faculty and other students while one campus (twice a year for intensive 2-week semesters) that are maintained and often deepened through our online discussions and learning forums.

We are in regular contact with one another by phone, email and social forums- sharing prayer requests and praises, jokes, resources and all of those things that we find ourselves sharing at chapel or in the library when on campus.

To be totally honest, my classmates are the people I go to first when celebrating, mourning, laughing or crying about the way life is going on any given day.

We are also able to put into immediate practice what we learn in the classroom, often in the same worshiping communities that have nurtured us in our faith journeys and helped us discern a call to ministry.

I know that this way of doing seminary isn't for everyone, but it has been an answer to many prayers for me and my classmates. And for that I am most grateful

A major part of any rite of

A major part of any rite of passage is the "separation" phase, if one follows van Gennep's work, and that phase generally involves sequestration. In the process of becoming a pastor--a professional--there is something to be said for the identity work involved in leaving one's former context behind, entering the liminal state of residential education, and then returning to one's former context in a new role (the "incorporation"/"aggregation"/etc. stage).

Van Gennep is not the gospel (and neither are Turner or anthropology in general), but there are some genuine insights that the discipline can bring to bear... and I'm also reminded of someone's sage remark about the success rate of prophets in their hometowns.

Online education may be a financial necessity--for both future pastors and their schools, and I think what is really driving this is the latter group's need, as schools come under financial stress--but I don't think we should pretend that the critical identity work gets done in two-week increments while one is otherwise still in one's original context.

Call me a Luddite.

Feeding whose sheep ?

Blogging limits ? Over the last 2,000+ years we've sought to remember Jesus: who he was...., what he did, what he said, what he taught, how he created parables beyond any picture or illustation. I was discussing how a Christian seeking to choose a scripture to read at a service of death and resurrection might find guidance in what Luke 24 tells me about the experiences of early followers with Jesus's resurrection, this morning. This fellow has experienced faith in a way that Paul Tillich described in Dynamics of Faith as bordering on intolerance of those who do not know what he knows. As we explored the chapter, which I chose by having remembered a young seminarian using it in recounting her encounter with a homeless man who shared his bread with her, I would not have wanted to to have depended on an email, a blog reading, or an on-line course discussion.
Jesus taught and acted, I believe, with incomprehensible simplicity, directness, and profundity. I don't think there is anything accidental about his breaking of bread, his washing of feet. When I left my full three plus years in residence in divinity school, including 4 quarters of CPE, I had sharpened my hunger to lead by searching for my own way to serve as I could best feed the sheep I could best shepherd. I was not able to be the student I wanted to be. My first churches, my hospitals, my group homes, my treatment programs are still not filled with the kind of sheep I want. I think that choices are multiplied by the reception of the love of Jesus. I often fear that when Constantine made being a Christian kosher and when professional and theoretical formulations of words left me imagining that THEY, the people I wanted to teach, needed to hear about all I learned in theological education, I was clearly throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In the hospital one day before I escaped my "education", an abandoned mother and a nurse sent me a desperate page by beeper to baptize a baby being taken off tube feeding after a year in the neo-natal unit. The baby died before I was able to arrive. At the mother's request, I baptized that baby, more than 30 years ago. I might have invited all those nurses and doctors and that mother and her family to a footwashing. Maybe I'm entrapped by my experience, but we were trying not to be entrapped by that technology. Sterile water in a bottle still washed that baby in a love reaching beyond all that technology.
I heard a prayer say "better to understand than to be understood". Jesus didn't call me to lead by explaining, I'm still a sheep wanting to be understood even as I seek to feed. When I stop seeking as a student they better jerk my orders. The question still rings.... Who do you say that I am ? New means of communication remain subject to our reception of the Word that burned within those followers hearts.

Very interesting!

One observer has said that there are only 83,000 cross-cultural missionaries working in evangelism and church planting.This is less than 20% of the total number of foreign missionaries in the world.

virtually education

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Being understood

Your point "better to understand than to be understood" is well made. My students rarely understand what I'm jabbering on about but I understand their confusion ;-)

Great thing.

Great thing.

I'm also reminded of

I'm also reminded of someone's sage remark about the success rate of prophets in their hometowns

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