Toward a Renewed Idea of a University Divinity School

Edgardo Colon-Emeric

For the past three years I have had the opportunity of leading teams of theological educators to Central America as part of a program for training Methodist pastors for the countries of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. As you might expect, most of the teaching occurs in classrooms, but every few days the whole school goes on wheels. Students and faculty ride together in vans and buses to expand our context. We have held Scripture classes at the foot of Mayan pyramids and preaching classes next to a (we hoped) dormant volcano.

On one occasion, we held classes at the University of Central America (or UCA, as it is better known) in San Salvador, where six Jesuits priests and their two housekeepers were killed by death squads on 16 November 1989. For those of you who do not know, Central America was a place of political and religious persecution during the 1980s. In those troubled years, priests and theologians were singled out for torture and assassination for teaching the radical idea that God loves the poor but hates poverty. At the site where the Jesuits were martyred there is now a shrine, and among the relics from this massacre is a blood-stained copy of a book by Jürgen Moltmann titled The Crucified God.

I am a member of the theology faculty at Duke Divinity School, one of the leading theological schools of The United Methodist Church. At Duke I have access to a world class library, internationally renowned colleagues, and bright, enthusiastic students. Frankly, I cannot imagine a better place to teach theology. But holding classes in the airy catacomb of the UCA raised many questions for me as a Christian and as a theological educator.

What would it mean to belong to a faculty that includes martyrs? What if the qualifications for advancement, promotion, and tenure were measured not by publications but by persecutions? What if our yearly report included not only lists of donors but of confessors? What if, instead of decorating our halls with the portraits of distinguished deans, we displayed the pictures of the broken bodies of Jesus’ witnesses? What questions like these amount to is a challenge to the idea of a university divinity school.

In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman memorably describes the essence of this particular kind of institution as “a place of teaching universal knowledge.” This is in many respects and admirable definition. Newman’s emphases on the teaching of all subjects and on the importance of the church for the coherence of this intellectual enterprise speak a challenging word to modern universities that increasingly resemble R&D labs with classrooms on the side.

The martyrs’ shrine at the UCA raises an issue that is crucial for education: location, location, location. The essence of the university may be the “teaching of universal knowledge,” but this teaching occurs in a given “place.” In the context of Central America, embracing place as a constitutive component of the goal of higher education is impossible without embracing the lowly. Ignacio Ellacuría put it this way, “The university should become incarnate among the poor, it should become science for those who have no science, the clear voice of those who have no voice” (“A Christian University for the Poor,” in World Christianity in the Twentieth Century: SCM Reader [ed. Noel Davies and Martin Conway; London: SCM, 2008], 164).

Ellacuría understood that becoming incarnate in the UCA in the ’80s brought severe persecution. “If our university had suffered nothing during these years of passion and death for the Salvadoran people, it would mean it had not fulfilled its mission as a university, never mind displaying its Christian inspiration. In a world where falsehood, injustice, and oppression reign, a university that fights for truth, justice and freedom cannot fail to be persecuted.” Ellacuría was one of the Jesuit priests martyred in 1989. The place where we teach “universal knowledge” matters.

In many ways, North American institutions of higher education have modeled themselves after the University of Berlin. Reasonably enough, university-affiliated divinity schools have located themselves at the crossroads of Berlin and Aldersgate, or Berlin and Canterbury, scientific knowledge and denominational identity. The excellences and strengths of these social locations are evident, as are their limitations. Our divinity schools have struggled with maintaining roads connecting them to Kampala, San Salvador, or even East Durham.

The shrine at the UCA raises questions for institutions like my own beloved Duke Divinity. It is not enough to have a chapel at the heart of the university. Where are the poor? Where are your martyrs? Who is it that is teaching “catholic” knowledge and to whom and for whom? The renewed idea of the university divinity school is cruciform. To quote Luther, the “cross tests everything” (crux probat omnia). All of our fundraising, research, and teaching are measured against the hard wood of the cross, the open wounds of the crucified, and the bleeding bodies of his friends. The future of theological education might involve not more high speed modems but more rugged vans and buses.

Posted Oct 14, 2013

One response to “Toward a Renewed Idea of a University Divinity School”

  1. Mike Gorman says:

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece, Edgardo. I know there are theological schools, including Duke, making efforts in this direction. Thank you for taking the lead.