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Disrupting the Learning Neighbourhood: digitality, decolonisation and the future of the theological college

ABSTRACT: This paper explores how digitally-mediated theological learning disrupts the theological college, by challenging its educational and formational neighbourhood to be hospitable to ‘elsewhereness’.

Published onJul 13, 2021
Disrupting the Learning Neighbourhood: digitality, decolonisation and the future of the theological college

I

It is no longer novel to speak about the crisis of the theological college, particularly in the Global West and North. In their recent book, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference, Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun paint an all too familiar picture of the external and internal crises that embattle the theological colleges in which many of us teach. Externally, theological education has suffered from shrinking demand, and a correspondingly shrinking reputation. With most mainline Western churches in decline, the need for large cohorts of academically trained ministers – whether lay or ordained – has faltered. Even where there is a need, the population from which theological students can be drawn is dramatically limited, and among this limited population the thought of ‘going to Bible College’ is less revered than it once was.

As serious as these external crises are, Volf and Croasmun suggest that theological education’s internal crisis – the ‘serious illness that affects its own body’1 – is far more corrosive. This crisis is the deficiency of its descriptive and normative dimensions. The descriptive deficiency is seen in increasing disciplinary specialization that unwittingly obscures the main object of theological study – which is God and all things in relation to God. The normative deficiency is seen in the failure of both conservative and progressive theological activity to fund a truly and divinely transformative vision of life. Both deficiencies are in evidence in theological colleges, as they seek to elbow out space for themselves in the educational marketplace.

One need not agree with Volf and Croasmun at every point to acknowledge that the general tenor of their assessment is sound. Theological colleges are facing a crisis of identity: what are they? What are they to teach? What kind of ‘product’ are they to produce? And, perhaps most pressing at all, since teachers need to teach someone, where will students be found?

At this juncture of crisis, the opportunity and possibility of digitality has appeared. Could this be the answer to the challenges faced by many theological colleges – to put their teaching online and broadcast learning to a greater audience? In this mindset, digital theological education is often seen as a ‘saviour’ of the enterprise of the theological college, bringing new cohorts of students within reach, and giving even small institutions the opportunity to benefit from global pockets of Christian growth. Digitality, in this mindset, brings – or at least attempts to bring – that most elusive elixir of stability.

However, in this paper, I would like to turn this expectation on its head. The effective use of digital tools in teaching theology should disrupt the theological learning neighbourhood, not bring stability. In the following sections, I will seek to explore how and why this is the case.

II

First, we need to explore what is meant by the term ‘learning neighbourhood’. Here, I am picking up an idea mooted by Claire Annelise Smith in her chapter in Proleptic Pedagogy, an edited volume which gives an account of the development of teaching and learning at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas. While the phrase itself was used only once in her chapter, the idea of conceiving the learning environment as a ‘neighbourhood’ is central. For her, the ‘learning neighbourhood’ fosters a view of learning that acknowledges the complexity and diversity of the learning space, and the multiple participants who encounter one another in that space to generate genuinely transformational learning.

Grounding her educational vision is a robust sense of the foundational importance of hospitality. As she puts it, ‘Implicit in the neighborhood of the educative space is that it needs to be a hospitable space that mirrors God’s community through which we experience God’s hospitality.’2 Theologically, we could root this in the primacy of God’s abundant grace – an important theme in my Wesleyan tradition – from which the entire sweep of creation, redemption and sanctification overflows. We learn to know God and all things in relation to God only because and insofar as we are invited to participate in God’s gracious reality.

What this points to is that the kind of knowledge that we are dealing with, and seeking to inculcate, in theological colleges is relational knowledge. Whereas the caricature of the theological student has for many years been a lonesome figure in an ivory tower, pouring over dusty books, today’s theological student – and, arguably, every good theological student throughout history – is in fact a member of a relational ‘learning neighbourhood’, in which encounters with God and others are privileged and prized. As Graham McFarlane puts it, theological knowledge comes out of ‘personal engagement, relational inquiry’:

…it comes about and continues to arise as a result of ongoing living in and for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, out of our obedience to our Savior and under the empowering agency of God’s Spirit. Such living causes discussion by people like us, who, in declaring Jesus to be Lord, experience a very distinct and shared lived-in reality.3

It is thus both impossible and undesirable to separate theological learning from the relational context in which it is both discovered and articulated. This is not to suggest that theological knowledge is a mere product of that community, which is to push the sociology of religion too far. Theological learning that is truly theological takes seriously the fact that human relationality derives from God’s prior abundance; and so when it comes to reflecting on the shape and purpose of God’s called-out community in the world – the ecclesia – we have to do with a community that has divine origin. However, since we are not infallible in our identification of that divine origin, genuine hospitality towards the whole neighbourhood as a context for learning is required. God can indeed be present to us unawares: ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’4

Embracing the learning neighbourhood is thus a theological mandate, predicated on the ineffability of God, who cannot be fully grasped by us, yet who is graciously self-revelatory in relationship with us.

III

It may feel that this has been a long preamble. However, if this last point holds – that embracing the learning neighbourhood is a theological mandate – then the heavy lifting of this paper has already been accomplished. The gift of digitality to the theological college is to extend its hospitality and expand its neighbourhood.

This requires some further explanation. Typically, the theological college has been seen as an oasis of learning, training and retreat. Many colleges reach back through the centuries to hold onto a pattern of a religious community, with a distinct rhythm of prayer and shared life. They are places where students and staff worship, work and study together.

The growth of part-time and distance or remote students has thus been a source of consternation. On the one hand, these study modes present a realistic and accessible form of theological education and vocational training. Without them, many theological colleges would be closing their doors for lack of students and finance. On the other hand, though, the movement away from the norm of full-time residential study challenges the integrity of the theological college as a learning neighbourhood. The learning neighbourhood can no longer be thought of as bounded by the theological college’s physical site. Whereas once this was the neighbourhood, with staff and students often living full-time in college accommodation, it is now much more likely that both staff and students are present in the college’s learning neighbourhood only intermittently.

In some colleges, such as the ones in which I have worked, there has been an intentional attempt to redraw the boundaries of the learning neighbourhood to include remote and part-time students. This mirrors the emphasis in higher education more generally on student experience, providing a warrant for theological colleges to refocus on the entire student population, not just the few who make it into halls of residence. Undoubtedly, the arrival of digital technologies has aided this: even before the Covid-19 pandemic, I was regularly gathering theological students via Zoom for seminars and teaching sessions, providing access to a geographically distant student body. The learning neighbourhood, from this perspective, is now a neighbourhood that is constituted by the students themselves, not by the college.

But at this juncture there is a choice. Do we in theological colleges seek to use digital technologies simply to extend the offer of our rhythm of life and learning to students beyond our gates? Or does the hospitality of our learning neighbourhood extend even further? It seems to me that this further step is desirable, and indeed, is mandated by the gospel. As Smith puts it, ‘We recognize that our neighbors are not only those within the household of faith, and particularly our own manifestation of it, but also those along the way of our physical and virtual worlds.’5 If learning is relational, and relationality – in its divine origin – is generous, then the theological learning community will have porous boundaries, open and responsive to ‘those along the way’ whom we and our students encounter. These neighbourly interactions, far from being peripheral, are in fact integral to theological learning, because – and here is the main point – the object of theological study is God and all things in relation to God. God’s relational generosity precludes a tribal view of the learning neighbourhood.

What this does, happily, is reorient the focus of the theological college. Focusing on the learning neighbourhood, as we have done above, turns our attention outwards, to the world, for the flourishing of whose life theological study is undertaken.6 Such a turn is not in itself novel, since many theological colleges do in any case understand themselves to be serving the ministry and mission of God’s church in the world. However, the burden of my argument is that theological colleges will most authentically serve this mission and ministry when they find ways of embracing what we might term peripheral encounters – and the questions those encounters raise – within the work of their learning neighbourhood.

IV

Digitality – as a context and tool for those marginal encounters – is thus to be seen as a welcome disruption to the theological college’s learning neighbourhood, rather than as a means of generating stability by replicating the college’s internal rhythms elsewhere. The rationale for digital engagement, at least as I see it, is thus decolonial, in that it erodes the hegemony of the gathered physical learning community as the privileged arbiter of theological knowledge, opening up the learning neighbourhood to the divine gift of ‘strangers’ who may be angels unawares.

Digital disruption takes many forms for the theological college. On the educational side, the availability of online asynchronous learning disrupts the sense of the gathered classroom, and the possibility of such learner-paced instruction unsettles received forms of instructor-led learning. Theological colleges, of course, are places of community and formation, as much as academic learning, and here the impact of digitality is particularly disruptive. On account of a prevailing suspicion that digitally-mediated encounters are somehow less real and embodied than analogue encounters, formation and discipleship can often be viewed as part of the ‘value added’ of the residential theological college experience. This, of course, is detrimental to remote students and staff members, who are thus disenfranchised from formational encounters, and automatically undermines the unique contribution of a theological college education. Digitally-mediated discipleship and formation requires a recalibration of the worship, prayer and accountability structures of the theological college. The disruptions continue: digital books and journals disrupt the acquisition policies of physical libraries, and even the fabric of physical buildings is disrupted as colleges attempt to make space for hybrid learning, professional filming, and video conference calls.

While all these considerations may be disruptive, it is my contention that the consequent reorientation of the learning neighbourhood of the theological college is both worth the disruption and in fact mandated by the gospel, with its centrifugal trajectory. Foremost among all these disruptions, digitally-mediated theological education breaks down the carefully patrolled boundary of the theological college context, allowing teachers and learners alike to entertain ‘angels’ unawares.

For me, part of the inspiration for this paper came from an unexpected role change earlier this year, when I was asked to take the lead for my college’s online learning management system. This system, a customised version of Open edX called TheologyX, had been developed over the previous year to provide Cliff College with an alternative to its previous Moodle online learning environment as well as, more importantly, to provide a digital environment for engagement with our global partners in theological education. The vision for TheologyX is of a global community of theological and educators – a community of practice in which digital competencies in theological and vocational pedagogies are explored, shared and developed. In this role change, I became responsible for curating a conversation with teachers and learners who were not based in my context, or in my theological college – people who would perhaps never set foot in Cliff College, and yet who were participating together with us in the enterprise of the knowledge of God and all things in relation to God. The digital environment provided a table around which these voices gathered, turning the previous ‘broadcast’ mode of our College’s international work into an intercontextual seminar.

Intercontextuality is one of the greatest disruptive gifts of digitally-mediated theological learning. As the field of discursive studies has shown us, contexts are not discrete units but are porous, simultaneously incomplete in themselves and excessively flowing over into other contexts. This, which Medina calls 'constitutive intercontextuality'7, enables the kind of approach that sees these differing contexts as a large, extended, sometimes dysfunctional family. Importantly, intercontextuality is both descriptive – recognising that in the digital learning space our diverse contexts are more immediately present to us, if just out of view – and also performative – recognising that our more obvious contextual locatedness breaks down the hegemony of any one context, and so decolonises the production and dissemination of knowledge. 

Medina's terminology is again revealing. He speaks of the false dichotomy between the view from here – which, for me, is the hegemonic imposition of colonial knowledge structures – and the view from nowhere – the fool's errand of seeking an a-contextual, disembodied perspective on God, the universe, and everything in it. Medina's third way – not a compromise, but a step beyond this dichotomy, is the view from elsewhere. To quote, the

view from elsewhere calls attention to the critical and transformative potential of the eccentric speech of those who have a frontier identity and speak on the border...It is our responsibility as speakers and community members to open up discursive spaces for new voices and to facilitate new discourses that can break up silences and empower marginalized voices.8

This elsewhereness needs to be understood in two ways: both the presence and importance of those others, the subaltern, the marginalised, the 'not-us'; and the recognition that the view from where I stand is someone else's 'elsewhere'. Nowhere, I suggest, do we perform this kind of elsewhereness in the theological college, better than in a digitally-mediated educational and formational space. For us, in theological education, this is a relational space for disrupting and reconfiguring the status quo of knowledge, in which we must accept the duty to cultivate the disciplines of deep listening, intellectual humility, and theological generosity. These traits are often in short supply, but they are essential if theological education is to take the challenge and opportunity of decolonisation seriously. 

V

It would be a mistake, of course, to suggest that digitally-mediated theological education is without issues. Importantly, there is a need to challenge the popular view that the digital space is somehow more ‘free’ and less ‘franchised’ than traditional analogue spaces, where the dynamics of power are often all too obvious. It is certainly the case that digitality has provided access and opportunity to many who would others have been disenfranchised. However, others have thus been disenfranchised, perhaps by virtue of poor digital literacy or access to technology, while others have been actively harmed by the impact of the consumption of the physical resource necessary for this Fourth Revolution, or by the relational and social changes that have been provoked. These are challenges that the TheologyX project is particularly seeking to address, to ensure that it does not become just another ‘patrolled’ learning neighbourhood, closed to and suspicious of those at its margins.

However, this paper has suggested that the digital disruption of the theological college – particularly in the Global North and West – is a good and timely thing. While it might be tempting for colleges to turn to online learning to provide stability at a time of change, in this paper I have noted that the gift of digitality is to open theological education outwards. Transformative theological learning is not only learning for the margins (the old model of the missionary college) or at the margins (a model that recognises that remote students are studying in their disparate contexts). Enabled by digital disruption that finds ways of empowering marginal voices to be present in the heart of theological discourse, transformative theological learning occurs with the margins. This shift in mindset is neither straightforward nor comfortable, since it relocates the theological learning neighbourhood from the bounded geography of the theological college itself, to the missional context in which God is at large – God’s elsewhereness. I suggest, then, that learning about God and all things in relation to God in such digitally-disrupted ways will help reclaim the purpose of the theological college and recover its contribution to God’s mission today.

Matthaei, Sondra, and Howell, Nancy. Proleptic Pedagogy: Theological Education Anticipating the Future. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014.

McFarlane, Graham. A Model for Evangelical Theology: Integrating Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience, and Community. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Medina, José. Speaking From Elsewhere. New York: SUNY Press, 2006.

Smith, Claire Annelise. ‘Immediacy: The Intersection of Technological and Face-to-face Modalities in Educating a Younger Generation’ in Matthaei and Howell, Proleptic Pedagogy, 70-91.

Volf, Miroslav, and Croasmun, Matthew. For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

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