A Telos for Theological Education and Worship

Samantha L. Miller

My last piece in Catalyst explored the gnostic tendencies of our currently over-Zoomed lives and asked questions about the use of so much virtual modality for theological education and worship. I suggested that we use this moment to think about the purpose and ends of theological education and worship, to note what we think we are doing and how the form matters. Here I take up my own challenge and offer some musings on just what the purpose of education and worship is.

One thing I know education and worship are not is mere “content delivery.” I have heard the phrase “deliver content” a lot this fall as we at various places work on a flexible model to “deliver content to students in whatever form they prefer it.” There are a lot of issues with this idea, but I’ll limit myself to one: education as content delivery. I teach theology, the fundamental subject of which is Jesus. Aside from the question of what it means to study Jesus at all (see another earlier piece, “To Be Dazzled by God”), I do not believe I can merely deliver Jesus like handing over a pizza (and does this mean I should ask my students for tips? As a system, that seems problematic at best). There are aspects of content I can deliver and students can receive, such as the order of the books of the Bible or the main arguments of the Arian controversy. I can even stretch and say that as a church historian I have a bit more content to transfer from my head to my students’ heads than my systematic friends do. But at the end of the day, I do not believe that this is all I am called to do.

Theological education aims at the contemplation of God. It aims at furthering the kingdom of God. It aims at forming students into the likeness of Christ. It is true that these goals are harder to list under “course goals” in the syllabus than “students will demonstrate knowledge of the major figures and events of church history” (in part because they are harder to assess in ways the institution recognizes), but they are in my mind as I design that syllabus. In order to further the kingdom of God, to aid my students’ formation, and to add to the greater contemplation of God, I teach my students to think in particular ways. I question their assumptions and work to build new ones. I ask them to listen to each other, fellow saints and sinners, with compassion, mercy, and intellectual rigor. My students gain skills and ways of thinking that help them build their neighborhood in the kingdom. They practice virtues like courage and humility and patience. Even the discipline of doing their work is a practice of saying yes to the right things and no to distractions. My students are learning to contemplate God and to glimpse God’s glory.

As for the purpose of worship, my favorite understanding comes from Marva Dawn: being useless before God for an hour (A Royal Waste of Time [Eerdmans, 1999]). Worship also works to form us into the image of God. Worship is stepping into the heavenly realms and glorifying God with the angels and archangels and saints. Worship is a practice that also shapes our assumptions about the world, about God, about the way we live with God in the world. It works on us to make us desire the right things. Finally, it brings us together as a community around the throne of God as a sacrament. The gathered worshipping community is a sign and foretaste of the gathered worship community in the heavenly realms from all times and places.

None of this is content that can be delivered. All of this is shaping and molding work, or even resting work, which cannot be done merely through a screen. This is work done in conversation, over time, with other humans, in the midst of life. Shaping a whole person into the image of Christ requires the whole person and not just an image and voice on a screen. Not that I do the shaping—Christ and the Spirit do the shaping—but any part I get to play still requires the whole person. If people are more than walking brains, then our formation is about more than the content in our heads. The contemplation of God is about more than what we know; it is about our whole disposition, about practices that shape our desires, about being with God as we are. Furthering the kingdom of God includes knowledge about that kingdom and even knowledge about our world, but mere knowledge will not open a seam that the kingdom is already trying to burst. We need ways of living for that. Being a sacramental foretaste of worship requires other humans being useless before God together, not more content or even more action, but more inaction and humility.

I do not have a solution for how to do these things safely in a pandemic. The pandemic is revealing our assumptions about theological education and worship. We have an opportunity to articulate the telos of these when we are able to gather safely again. Yet our return to “normal” could take some time, some semesters. Perhaps in the meantime we can remember these purposes and get creative about how we teach, learn, and worship at this time. Can we try to do more than deliver content on Zoom?

Posted Dec 07, 2020

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