MY FIRST GUIDED tour of Indianapolis was with a real estate agent, crisscrossing the city in his gleaming black Lexus. He spoke as he drove, filling the air with phrases such as, “Now, this is a terrific neighborhood,” and “You’ll want to steer clear of that one over there.”
As you’d guess, he focused on amenities, or the lack of them: hip restaurants, nearby shopping, nice parks, great schools. Security and consumables, good neighborhoods and bad. A mental map of the city took shape as we drove.
My second tour, just a few days later, was quite different—so different that it changed my life. This time the guide was one of the faculty members at Christian Theological Seminary, the school where I had just been appointed president. She’d lived in the city for more than 20 years, and on her tour, consumables came up now and then, but they took a definite back seat to the creative, groundbreaking ministries going on around town.
Her remarks frequently echoed the real estate agent’s, but from an entirely different angle. She’d say, “Now, this is a low-income neighborhood and a food desert [a section of the city where nutritious, affordable food isn’t readily available]—and right there on the corner is the amazing little church that’s started an organic community garden ministry.” Then a few minutes later: “Now, this is a middle-income neighborhood—and there’s the mosque that’s making a tremendous difference through its youth program.” And so on.
That tour took more than six fascinating hours, and it still only scratched the surface of the creative ministries alive and well throughout the city. Those six hours redrew my mental map of the city entirely and gave me my first glimpse of what it might mean to be a thriving seminary in the 21st century.
THERE ARE MANY ways to begin this story of seminaries and cities. One is with the book of Genesis, a text that depicts humanity as descending not only from Adam and Eve, but also from their conflicted, murderous son Cain—the builder of the original city (Genesis 4:17).
From the outset, then, both light and shadows fall across the Christian scriptural account of the human city, and the resolution of this ambiguity—the redemption of the city, we might say—has a special place in the biblical imagination. The New Testament gospels each begin in the countryside and culminate in Jerusalem, the city Jesus longs to gather under his wings like a mother hen (Matthew 23:37). And the poetic icon for the culmination of creation itself is not a return to a New Eden, but rather a New Jerusalem, a heavenly city descending to earth (Revelation 21:2).
So that’s one way to begin—with biblical poetry about the role of the city in human and divine life. Another beginning is in 12th century Paris and early 19th century Berlin, the two cities where the deep structure of modern Western theological education was born.
Many mainline Protestant seminaries in North America have been heavily influenced by variations on the model developed by the University of Berlin, itself a modernization of the medieval approach pioneered in Paris. Those American seminaries followed Berlin not only in how they categorized theological knowledge (biblical studies, church history, systematic theology, practical ministry) but also with respect to the even more fundamental idea, inherited from the medieval university but now with an Enlightenment twist, that seminary education is primarily a form of developing literate, critical, scholarly expertise.
A great deal of seminary education today operates on something like these basic premises. Over the years, of course, seminaries everywhere have introduced new rubrics and principles of organization, as well as revamped programs of “field education,” “arts of ministry” formation, and the like. But the Paris/Berlin model is still widely discernible, both above and beneath the surface.
Even the phrase “field education” can participate in—and thereby strengthen—the Paris/Berlin paradigm, since it seems to suggest that the rest of a seminarian’s training is somehow not “in the field,” but on retreat from the field, cloistered in a way quite appropriate for scholarly, largely text-based learning.
But it wasn’t always so. The Paris and Berlin models were themselves contrasting alternatives to other approaches to theological education, many of which were based on versions of apprenticeship and what we today might call “experiential learning.” Indeed, countless Christian communities—including many communities of color—continue to employ apprenticeship and experiential learning as their primary modes of Christian formation in general, and leadership formation in particular. In these cases, the category “field education” doesn’t even arise, since the whole endeavor is thoroughly oriented in and toward “the field.”
Bearing this in mind, a third place we might begin this story is with theological education in the earliest decades and centuries of the Christian movement. Apprenticeship and experiential models of Christian formation have roots that go back at least as far as the gospels, where Jesus is portrayed as an itinerant, field-based, improvisational teacher, a kind of docent and exemplar who shepherds a small group of disciples (“disciple” is from discipulus, “student”) on a journey that is also an apostolic, restorative, educational mission.
In the centuries that followed, early Christian communities soon began describing themselves in terms of the Greek paideia tradition. In ancient Athens, paideia was an immersive, holistic educational process meant to form youth into responsible adult citizens. Through physical disciplines and contemplative practices, including reading selected texts (initially Homer, and later Plato and other philosophers), these youth were to cultivate the virtues necessary for full participation in the self-governing polis, or city.
Christians picked up on this basic educational design, substituting scripture and other theological texts for Homer and Plato and citizenship in the kingdom of God for citizenship in Athens. For a millennia and more, in monasteries and elsewhere, Christian theological education was conceived and carried out as an immersive, formative, Christian paideia—and remnants of this ancient approach are alive and well today.
SURVEYING ALL OF this ground, it’s clear that this is by no means a story with simple heroes and villains. From the Paris/Berlin model, we inherit and should celebrate intellectual rigor, constructive critical thinking, and a deep commitment to ongoing dialogue with other branches of knowledge and inquiry. From the accounts of Jesus the rabbi in the gospels, we likewise inherit and should celebrate small-group, itinerant, field-based apprenticeship. And from early Christian history, we inherit and should celebrate the paideia tradition of holistic, thoroughgoing formation and discipleship.
All of which brings us back full circle to my twin tours of Indianapolis. As we’ve seen, the governing goal of the ancient paideia tradition, the telos toward which the entire education is properly oriented, is wise and capable citizenship in the polis. When Christians adopted this approach, they emphasized citizenship in the kingdom of God—but as we know it, that dawning realm is always local, always here and now, always “on earth as it is in heaven.”
In other words, the city of God is for us only visible and tangible in and through the city of Cain. And so in that sense, insofar as 21st century theological education is shaped by our inheritance of the Christian paideia tradition, it should properly take place for the sake of the brick and mortar, flesh and blood cities we call home. Or better, it takes place for the sake of wise and capable participation in God’s redemption of the city, the already ongoing advent of a new realm, a New Jerusalem, a new polis—or a New Indianapolis, as the case may be.
But if this is the governing goal, we’ll have to take a page out of Jesus’ playbook and learn through small-group, itinerant, field-based apprenticeship, balanced by time for reflection and integration. Texts and textual analysis will continue to play a crucial role, but the heart of this kind of education is looking and listening, discerning and engaging the local ministries in which the Holy Spirit is already present and active.
Conceived in this light, the familiar scholarly disciplines—including their critical methods—become aids for this discernment process: scripture as spectacles for seeing God’s work in the past and present; church history as the narratives through which we might trace out divine signatures in different times and places; theology as the rigorous, beautiful ideas that help bring us back to our senses, so we might notice what we would otherwise miss.
Take the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, for example, that supposedly most abstract and abstruse of all Christian ideas. As a tool for discerning God’s work in our local habitats, the doctrine positively comes alive in the most tangible, practical ways.
Where shall we find the triune God at work? Since Christians confess God as Creator, we’re wise to explore the civic nooks and crannies where creativity flourishes: art studios and community gardens, social entrepreneurial startups and vibrant music festivals. Since we confess God as Redeemer, we’re wise to spend time among the lost and the least—the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, the stranger—and those who serve them. Since we confess God as Spirit, we’re wise to seek out those Pentecostal places, both within us and without us, where life breaks forth out of death, order out of chaos, communication out of conflict and division.
The more I get to know my city with these principles in mind, the more my mental map of the place changes and grows, and the better citizen I become—of Indianapolis, yes, but even more of the kingdom of God at hand here and now. To the extent that we facilitate this kind of learning at Christian Theological Seminary, training church and community leaders to discern and participate in God’s unfolding work in our local context, we become a seminary for the city.
We take that six-hour tour together, again and again. We live out an immersive, itinerant, improvisational style of teaching and learning, with instructors curating and facilitating experiences as much as conveying information. We take up an intentional convening role in the city’s common life, hosting crucial civic conversations, and always inquiring after how faith can illumine the vital issues of the day.
The good news is that, like many North American seminaries, at CTS we have been incubating seeds of this overall approach for many years. One professor teaches a course on Christianity and criminal justice that meets in a local correctional facility, with inmates comprising half the class and CTS students the other half. Another professor offers a seminar on forgiveness that meets in a CTS classroom—and yet is nonetheless immersive and itinerant, since she deliberately shepherds her students through the topic’s challenging interior, existential wilderness. And our premier scholarship program, The Discipleship Project, is based on a model of 12 students working and learning together with two faculty mentors, including extensive site visits to vibrant ministries near and far.
Mind you, not one of these examples involves any compromise in analytical rigor or critical thinking. On the contrary, in our experience this kind of embodied, incarnational learning only ups the intellectual ante, even as it provides students and faculty alike with a vivid repertoire of practical, inspirational role models and case studies.
Looking ahead, the challenge for North American seminaries will be to allow these kinds of seeds to flourish and transform the garden. Every seminary has its own strengths, as does every city—so this approach can only be radically contextual, always tailored to the local scene. No two six-hour tours will be exactly alike.
But becoming a seminary for the city (or for the town, or for the rural area) holds great promise for the next chapter in North American theological education. It sets the right goal—citizenship in the city of God, as manifest in and through the city of Cain—not only for the seminary but also for the Christian church in all its forms, and most of all for our participation together in God’s redemptive, ongoing, local life-giving work.
Matthew Myer Boulton is president and professor of theology at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.