Jason Byassee: For virtual theological education

Maybe the body of Christ has always been both virtual and physical.

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.