Dec 9 2011

How the Parables of Jesus Taught Me How to Read Theological Training

A ParabolaIt’s the other way around, isn’t it? A school of theology should teach the aspiring biblical scholar how to read the parables of Jesus with the correct exegetical tools and provide the necessary skills for aptitude in interpretation. While this has been the case for me via a number of exegesis courses at Candler School of Theology, I would also like to use this space to illustrate in broad strokes how my experience with New Testament parabolic literature has trained me to read (perceive, examine, and indeed, exegete) the form, function, and nature of my seminary/theological training.

If the reader will forgive some generalizations, I’ll begin by commenting on a few things that characterize Jesus’ parables before demonstrating their application to my experience at CST. I have gleaned much of this from Steven Kraftchick’s Parables of Jesus course during this semester. First of all, parables are perhaps the best locus for seeing one of the foundational elements of language, namely metaphor. As is indicated in the term itself, a parable casts one (imagined or innovated) reality alongside another. In the case of Jesus’ parables, metaphoricity creates, via fictive (and often extended) analogy, another way of seeing a present reality like the Kingdom of God. Parables also often take the form of a narrative. A story is constructed with particular narrative dynamics, grounded in modes of being and thinking not unfamiliar to the intended audience, and with certain parameters that act to focus attention on one thing or another. An effective parable will meet the requisite cognitive and affective conditions so that the reader/hearer will at first find herself comfortable in the world constructed by the narrative analogy. It will then, either in the body or conclusion, shift typical cultural evaluations of meaning, most often by proffering unanticipated behavior by one or several of the parable’s characters. This shift allows (or perhaps forces) the audience to rethink their present reality in light of the slanted perspective of the parable. This is similar to Kierkegaard’s notion of “wounding from behind.”

The aforementioned characteristics of Jesus’ parables and my meditation on them in and outside of Dr. Kraftchick’s course have helped me to rethink precisely what I am doing and, more importantly, what is happening to me at CST. I have come to see that my training here is more than a 2-year data acquisition program. My relationships here, the coursework, the reading assignments, the papers and projects all cast alongside my vision of life an alternative and fictive account of reality. Furthermore, it is cast in the structure of a narrative. I don’t think in binary. Rather, I recount and contemplate my experiences in the form of story. My participation in Timothy Jackson’s Christian Ethics course begins with a relative feeling of ease concerning my certainty about morality, the ethics of war, Christian character, etc. But it is not long before I find myself “thinking it slant,” being cognitively coerced into reformulating the ethical boundaries of the Christian life. The conversations I have with friends after a day of class take me to the liminal spaces of my theological imagination and I am given a glimpse of an alternative world, wherein the life-destroying and oppressive systems of violent domination have lost their dominion. In short, reading parables has taught me how to read my time at Candler School of Theology and, for that, I am indeed grateful.

- Justin Rose

Justin is a 2nd year MTS student from Florida and a Student Ambassador.

Feb 25 2011

For the MTS student- Cultivating spiritualities

Allow me to begin this post with a necessary disclaimer. I am in the Master of Theological Studies program, but I certainly do not represent every student in it. My peers hail from quite a diverse number of religious traditions and denominational backgrounds, possessing an equally diverse number of theological sentiments. So it would be a disservice to them and a gross generalization if I wrote about the spiritual life without dissolving the implication that we share these notions in common. This is, however, one of the treasured attributes of the MTS program at Candler. It allows students to shape their own academic/research paths with an impressive degree of flexibility and individual tailoring.   Thus, we contribute an extensively plural and multivalent number of personalities, intellectual perspectives, and spiritual/religious orientations to the Candler community (and to the larger university as well). Because of the program’s embrace of individually crafted academic paths and lack of a more rigid structure (the kind one might encounter in a program like the MDiv), the personal responsibility to maintain and cultivate the spiritual life becomes a challenging and pertinent task.

I came to Candler after completing my BA at a small Pentecostal university in central Florida. The unflinching chapel attendance requirements, my involvement in spiritual formation and mentoring, and residing in a primarily on-campus residential school made spiritual cultivation a largely inevitable event. This strict, yet enriching experience ended in the Spring of 2010 and a much more open-ended but equally promising journey began at Candler in the Fall. I discovered that the Cannon chapel services offered the kind of diverse, ecumenical liturgical opportunities for which I had hoped. But apart from these worship settings, where tangible religious gestures are conveniently facilitated, the MTS student will inevitably discover opportunities for spiritual activity and reflection within the less explicitly worshipful classrooms of the CST (Candler School of Theology) building.

In my Luke course with Dr. Holladay last semester, I found new ways of thinking and meditating on episodes of Christological profundity in sacred texts. Thanks to my 1 and 2 Thessalonians Greek Exegesis course that I have with Dr. Kraftchick this semester, I am working with texts and developing exegetical skills that foster many Christian virtues . . . especially patience. I must say though that nothing has quite met the degree to which I am being spiritually challenged in Womanist Theology and Narrative Identity, which is taught by Dr. Andrea White. Every Monday, we (a couple dozen students of distinct racial, ethnic, gender, and religious identities) meet to engage in reflection on Womanist scholarship and the questions pertinent to the hermeneutic of Black women’s lived experiences. As a white male in the course, I have found the quest for accurate theological thinking, justice, and insight into a social and intellectual location with which I had not previously engaged to be a daunting, humbling, but infinitely rewarding spiritual endeavor.

Precisely how you will integrate spirituality into your life at Candler is not yet a realized dynamic. As I wrote above, the students in the MTS program all construct distinct and unique approaches to their religious lives, both within and outside of the school of theology. The process is open-ended and depends a great deal on the spiritual identity that you bring with you to the program. But I can assure you that Candler and the MTS program are optimal spatial and intellectual locations for that process, both effulgent with multitudinous opportunities for spiritual maturation and growth.

- Justin Rose

Justin is a 1st year MTS student from Navarre, FL and a Student Ambassador

Oct 27 2010

Posthuman Theology

As a first-year MTS student, I have the privilege of meeting each week in a colloquy session with Dr. Kraftchick (the program director) and the other students in the program. In general, our discussions this year relate to the various intersections of technology and theology. More recently, we have broached the topic of the posthuman future and what it means for faith. The next few paragraphs contain some of my disparate, although not entirely random thoughts on the matter.

I am interested in the implications of the transhuman agenda for the doing of Christian theology and, equally, its implications for faithfulness to Christian confession.  The possibility of humankind co-opting the bio-evolutionary process and implementing advanced technologies for the purpose of enhancing and transcending the human experience seems nearly inevitable, given the significant progress in regenerative medicine, nanotechnology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. Futurists predict that in a short time (considering the telescoping nature of technological and cultural evolution) humanity will be able to dramatically prolong human life, reduce mortality, and even eventually transfer human consciousness to non-organic, computing entities. In the sphere of virtual reality, it is being realized more and more that reality itself is a construct of patterns of information. The ability to manipulate and transform these patterns into other patterns is increasing exponentially. This suggests that the limitations of human experience (physical laws, natality, mortality, and sensory dynamics) are more permeable than ever imagined.

The horizon of the post-human emergence is then, in fact, quite proximal to us. The human species, for the first time, faces extinction, not because of predation or cosmic catastrophe, but because of its own self-willed transcendence into something physically, cognitively, spatially, and temporally superior. This is cause for great concern among today’s religious ethicists and theologians. The protest(s) go(es) something like this: If humans can, by their own design, bring an end to suffering as they have experienced it since their advent after mutating from their ancestral hominids, then the long-standing moral institutions of charity, compassion, empathy, and care will no longer be needed by them. Suffering and mortality provide the foundation for the maternal and paternal instincts of nurturing and care. If the (post)human can live indefinitely in an un-embodied state and in a space where manipulated patterns of information provide limitless and timeless realities, then the need for progeny itself will be terminated. Among those existing entities, physical pain, morbidity, and death will be non-existent metaphysical categories. Thus, there is no longer a need for the Christian ethos of love, care, and compassion. Additionally, the Christian theological paradigm, which is predicated on embodied (incarnate) life in need of salvation from God’s eternal enemy (Death) will cease to be relevant to anyone: an outdated historical artifact from humanity’s violent and unstable past. Therefore, according to these rightly concerned members of theological academé, fidelity to the Christian cause demands resistance to the transhuman agenda. This manifests itself in objection to public funding for stem cell research and other scientific ventures that push the limits of human ability and experience.

While I do not altogether disagree that the self-willed extinction of the human species presents daunting ethical and religious challenges, I also cannot fully endorse the feelings and actions of those who resist it. And this hesitancy arises precisely from my my theological sensibilities. While the Christian tradition does speak to those who have an embodied existence, I believe that Christian proctology and eschatology call for participation (or, as some theologians have put it, co-creation) with God in the revision and reconstitution of conscious life into something that radically affirms creativity, unending life, and a just-peace. The capacity to project oneself into multiple virtual constructs at once, to constantly reinvent environments for the betterment of those entities that exist in them, and to think at such a level as to appropriate the very fabric of the universe (or multiverse) through cognitive enhancement is an actualization of the Christian hope. It is not some far-fetched utopian dream, but a dynamic, gradual process whereby people can rise to new levels of harmony and productive engagement. Additionally, it does not remove (post)humanity from dependence on God, but radically reaffirms our need to rely on the source of life and energy itself for our happiness and future.

- Justin Rose

Justin is a 1st year MTS student from Navarre, FL and a Student Ambassador