Is it possible for theological education to change the ethos from the “rights of the individual” to the “responsible interaction of community”?

We live in a time of emphasis upon rights, individuality, and freedom, but theological and spiritual formation must focus upon the community as the context of the individual. The scriptural voice is rooted in community.

However, the balance between the individual and community has been lost. We live in a “victim” culture, and it appears that seminaries especially, in seeking to address the needs of victims, may have created new victimization, addictions, and dependencies. Self-centeredness may separate individuals from the very communities that can bring healing and hope. I believe, along with Robert Wuthnow, that “the vision of faith was (is) only partially discoverable by individuals; it requires the support and inspiration of a community of believers.” It cannot be accomplished by even mystical “solitariness.” The Hebrew Shema (Dt 6:1-9), sets the pattern for all time-community memory and community solidarity.

Ellen Charry gives warning lest the theme of victimization and individual rights so focuses on self-emancipation that the formation is lost. I agree with Nancy T. Ammerman that: “It is in communities that we truly discover who we are as individuals.”

What Is Community?
The religious individual is ultimately nothing without the community as the transmitter of theological and biblical tradition. The community is imperative in any understanding of the canonical biblical collection. It was a living community that gave birth to the document and a living community must guide its use and interpretation.

The community aspects of theological education are connected to the community contextualization of ministerial practice. Neither the individual nor the Scripture can exist in isolation. Any kind of spirituality is always in relationship to someone else. The call unto God is a call unto one another.

The minister does not live out his or her spirituality apart from the community of which he or she is a part, but rather, within its context. Personal problems in seminary and later will necessarily be worked out within the community, not in isolation.

Christ exists among us as community. The great mystery is that Christ is in the broken community, and through such, reaches to us. I hardly see how it is possible to prepare oneself for ministry or to function in it without an intentional pattern of community identification, whether in study, worship, or any other aspect of the Christian life. The pressure of that community, of course, changes and shapes us. It will greatly affect what we hear and how we hear. If we have sought to be part of an “inclusive” community (and that is what the church is all about), then we will be open to the other even as we listen to the Word that comes through Scripture.

Even the monastic period’s seekers, who withdrew from the community to live as solitaries in the desert, discovered that their withdrawal was a perilous adventure. It was necessary to turn to “spiritual directors” or “spiritual friends” in order to recapture and to maintain the relational health that delivers from the perils of isolated individuality.

This question of community is all the more urgent in the light of the changing patterns in theological education. How does one establish a sense of community in a fluid environment with commuting students, distance learners, and the increasing number of people—students, adjuncts, and professors—who never, or seldom, set foot upon the theological campus?

Trying to carry on theological work in isolation contributes to the unhealthy climate of excessive individualism.

What Is Individuality?
Our time is characterized by what Nancy T. Ammerman called “a pernicious modern individualism.” In religious circles, we have even justified such through the authority of “the priesthood of the believer.” However, Ammerman pointed out, this was intended as “a communitarian statement of ... equality before God.”

Individualistic focus may be even more intense on some theological campuses than it is within the culture at large. This is understandable when one reflects on the makeup of seminary recruits, a number of whom appear actually to have suffered abuse and victimization. Mixed with the motivations for attending seminary is the secret hope of discovering therapeutic healing and meaning. I can illustrate this from two case studies.

In the first, I was leading a divinity school seminar on spirituality. The format was for three-hour sessions. Usually I reserved some thirty minutes at either the beginning, middle, or ending of the three-hour session and the students provided presentations and participatory dialogue during the rest of the time.

On one occasion I scheduled the beginning thirty-minute segment as a transition to a new context and to develop the servant theme, especially from the Servant Poems in the Second Isaiah portion of the Old Testament and from routine New Testament contexts. Suddenly there was an angry explosion. Two women students were adamant that they would never be involved in a servant ministry and were enraged that such a theme should be under discussion. We devoted the entire seminar to a very difficult discussion, participated in by all present, as to what a servant ministry might mean. The two women were so defensive that from their point of view, Second Isaiah’s Servant passages were not legitimate Scripture.

In the discussion that followed, I learned something about the personal woundedness that made them frightened and defensive about such a theme. It enabled all of us to be more supportive and empathetic. Nevertheless, it illustrates the great danger in the kind of individualism that demands that various institutions such as church and seminary be constantly involved in catering to one’s personal therapy. How can a person with such needs ever establish the true relational ties of community that best facilitate such therapy? How can such victim-focused identity contribute the kind of ministry that enhances healthy community?

The second illustration relates to two different institutions where theological students were in violation of law, had been caught in dishonest statements relating to their entrance into the schools, and disciplinary action was warranted. Both students did well academically, but faculty were reluctant to certify them for graduation because of ethical and legal issues. Both students threatened legal action on the basis of female harassment. This made it very difficult for faculty to take the necessary action that, to their credit, they ultimately did. In both instances, however, the chaos was created on the basis of “personal rights,” and there seemed to be little concern for the well-being of the community itself.

Theological institutions often find themselves in a defensive position because of an excessive climate of protective individualism. In a Theology Today editorial in July 1994, Thomas Long attributes much of the difficulty to the church itself that, he says, has created consumers in religion when the Bible asks for pilgrims: we have surrendered to a “self-serving product-oriented view of religion.” He is concerned about a marketplace that is guilty of “tailor-making” religion. This same culture gets transmitted to the seminaries and mandates acquiescence.

Finding a Synthesis
Is it possible to move from the radical ethos of the rights of the individual to the responsible interaction of community in theological preparation and practice? Perhaps the more desirable alternative is to move to some synthesis that combines both elements. We approach this from the standpoint of the freedom that the individual emphasis claims and from the interrelationships that true freedom or autonomy sponsors.

But freedom and power for the self are not one and the same. In an important biblical sense, no one is absolutely free. Freedom comes in the choice of allegiances. True freedom comes in captivity to God, who is the true liberator. To be captive to God is in some sense to be captive to others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer followed the thesis that only in relationship with the other is the individual free. Therefore, while we work with students in order to alleviate the anguish and woundedness that many have experienced, we must also create appetite for a credible freedom. Freedom that seeks only one’s personal well-being is never credible. The conclusions of Sidney G. Hall in Christian Anti-Semitism and Paul’s Theology are applicable here: “Although self-determination is always an essential ingredient of liberation, embracing the interrelatedness of one’s own freedom with the freedom of others should always be a tenet of liberation.”

Freedom thus has a commonality that brings people to the kind of community in which “you must do this for me” is replaced by “we should all be free.”

Theologically, this will mean, as Edwin S. Gaustad wrote, yoking “responsibility and freedom ... as productive partners.” Too many who have claimed freedom have fled from responsibility. Theologically, this returns us to the consideration of the autonomous and the corporate. The tradition of autonomy, prevalent in the so-called “free-church tradition,” falsely understood, may have given false credence to the idea of the autonomous individual.

Covenant is a biblical word, but autonomy is not. Covenant always implies an interdependence and mutuality of well-being. Autonomy does not. Autonomy, when used in the sense of radical independence, approximates the basic sin of hubris, a self-centeredness contrary to the nature of Christian relationship. The biblical quest is for mutuality, not independence. If “autonomy” is used, it should be within the context of a responsible freedom under the Lordship of Christ within the context of the larger body.

The popular American individualism of the twentieth century is a distortion of biblical and theological understanding. The theological school will do well to create a program that contributes to the transition from the rights of the individual to the responsible interaction of community. Only by doing so can it prepare healthy individuals who will be able to facilitate a healthy community that most closely approximates “church.”

This article is abridged from a chapter in an unpublished manuscript by Ralph H. Elliott, and printed with permission. Elliott was a professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at several institutions. Most recently he served as provost of the Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Rochester, New York, and then as interim president, Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He has been a trustee of the University of Chicago Divinity School since 1978.


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