In the past several weeks I read on the role of theology in the university – what is its function? Can theology be done in the university? In what way can theology be described as an academic discipline? What is distinctive of academic theology as opposed to ecclesial theology, and should there be a proper distinction that demarcates the two? The questions are complex and the answers are far from obvious. For some, the idea that theology could be done at all apart from the context of the church is an oxymoron at best. To others, associating theology with the parameters of the church is to tie a discipline into a cage in which it does not belong, a stifling of the principle of free inquiry of which the research university has become a symbol. Two paradigmatic answers are Schleiermacher’s and Herman Bavinck’s. The former justified theology’s place within the university by arguing that the Church needs specialists who would research, investigate, and analyze the ‘essence’ of Christianity in a conducive, scientific (wissenschaftliche) sense. ‘Practical theology’, for example, is not that section of the theological curriculum in which preaching or counseling is taught, but rather the theoretical analysis of the norms implicit in Christian ecclesial practice. The irony here is that Herman Bavinck, the champion of orthodoxy representative of Dutch neo-Calvinism, had such an emphasis on theology’s place in the university that he often eclipsed its ecclesial function. Theology’s role in the university, for Bavinck, is not so much to serve the theoretical needs of ecclesial leaders, but to unify the various disciplines undertaken in the university. Theology was supposed to connect, undergird, and ‘sanctify’, so to speak, the other disciplines and to guide their practitioners. As such, theology fits into the university in a way that it cannot in the seminary. The two thinkers, to be sure, thought of academics as a theoretical endeavor, and is best done by those who are themselves practitioners within the church.
I then thought about the implicit views of theology’s role as I considered the Christian universities exemplified in Indonesia. As I thought of this, however, I observe that there is little exemplified thought on what academic theological research is. That is, I wonder if there is an implicit conflation and identification between theology as a research discipline and theology as the delivery of pastoral care there. I’ve lost count of how many times particular educators in Indonesia have accused of ‘academics’ about their lack of a ‘fighting spirit’, a ‘missionary zeal’ or ‘evangelistic fervor’ precisely because their professors spend all their time teaching classes and writing books (those, apparently, don’t really count). University lecturers in theology in these universities are expected to travel, to evangelize, to pastorally care for their students in a way (or to a level) that theological educators are often not. Surely of course, it is part of being a Christian to care for evangelism and missions and pastoral care, but I wonder if at this point there is a conflation between the church and the academy, between the professor and the missionary, between different callings, and thus a failure to understand, say, the Kuyperian notion of ‘sphere sovereignty.’ That is to say, one ought to take every thought captive to Christ, but one does that differently as a professor in a university or as a pastor at the pulpit, from being, say, a statesman or a mathematician. What results is that theological lecturers in universities are treated as if they are the ‘pastors’ of the school – which seems to be internally incoherent – pastors are to be found in churches; not even seminaries posit the view that their students should get their pastoral care from their professors.
So, what does one also observe? Theological lecturers have little or no research output whatsoever, and they are thus incapable of guiding their students to navigate the guild. There is little to no participation in the academic dialogues that take place in the standard conferences, no sabbaticals, no encouragement to take research leaves, no funding reserved for seminars, post-docs, or research assistantships. Books published, if at all, normally comprises a collection of sermons or self-edited manuscripts involving little scientific documentation, and the universally applied standards of academia are bypassed altogether. Mission work and evangelism are basic necessities, but university professors have enough on their plate. The common lecturer is therefore either overworked to the point of breakdown or tasked with assignments that have nothing to do with the labor of research. The academic posts are filled by missionaries, and the academics cannot find employment at home, thinking that they are incapable of the very thing that they were trained to do due to a misunderstanding of the nature of the post. The Christian University thus does not so much as train theologians but missionaries.
As I thought, again, then, about the vision of Schleiermacher or Bavinck, I am rather discouraged. Discouraged, not because the universities at home have sought to apply one (or both) of their paradigmatic views but have failed, but that there is little by way of explicit practice that the universities understand or believe that theology does have a role as an academic discipline. There is little reflection at the top level on theology as a discipline at all – with the department really teaching nothing more than the equivalent of Sunday school catechisms. Surely, one has much work to do.