Imagine you enter a parlor. There are many people inside, all taking part in different conversations that started long before you arrived and will continue long after you leave. You flit from group to group, lingering where your interest is caught and becoming a bigger part of those conversations. You listen and learn, and also contribute your own knowledge and experiences.
This metaphor of the parlor, introduced by literary theorist Kenneth Burke and often applied to academia as a whole, is the inspiration for a new foundational course at Princeton Theological Seminary called Doing Christian Theology, which introduces students to systematic, historical, constructive, and ethical theology. “Our goal is to initiate students into the breadth of topics and fields they will encounter in our department over their years of study, and to convey how diverse expertise, approaches, backgrounds, and passions enrich the larger theological conversation,” says course instructor and Associate Professor of Reformed Theology Hanna Reichel.
Doing Christian Theology is part of the new curriculum that applies to students arriving on campus for the fall 2021 semester. It reflects the shared values of Princeton Seminary, which combine critical appreciation of tradition with an ecumenical outlook, rigorous learning, and passion for church and world. Pedagogically, the course values students as adult learners and agents of change, opens space for embracing risk and failure as part of learning, and utilizes relationships as contexts of learning.
In practice, the class is structured around a variety of learning experiences. It begins with an extended introductory section, during which students spend one week exploring each of the four selected approaches to theology. The remainder of the class circles through central theological topics, examining in turn what systematic, historical, ethical, and constructive insights contribute to their understanding. Lectures are punctuated by student collaborations, dynamic assignments in which students are challenged to analyze texts from different theological perspectives and reflect on their own theological approaches, and optional lunch conversations that gather students together to share a meal and discuss what they’ve discovered in their readings or during class. “This is where we come closest to embodying the metaphor of the parlor, and it is a treasured part of the course,” Reichel adds.
And Doing Christian Theology seeks to set the tone for years of learning to come at Princeton Seminary. “Our goal with this course is to instill a love for reading, the Bible, books, and people with different backgrounds and perspectives,” says course instructor and Ruth and Rimmer de Vries Chair of Reformed Theology and Public Life Dirk Smit. “We want students to feel empowered, excited, and intrigued by the fact that they are studying theology and will become theologians.”
STUDENT COURSE FEEDBACK
“Dr. Reichel and Dr. Smit create not only a straightforward and clearly defined theological framework for the Doing Christian Theology course, but they also invite students into a space of freedom for each seminarian to explore their own understanding of the movement of God. In an environment bolstered by genuine pastoral care, students explore the edges of their theological understanding. The class challenges students to respect the incredible diversity of voices in the theological parlor, recognizing the many contributions to the ongoing discourse of theology as significant, including their own.” —Denise Carrell, MDiv candidate
“I did not expect that Doing Christian Theology would be the course that would most ignite my intellectual, spiritual, and emotional passions during my first year at Princeton Seminary. As a queer Black man, I came into the course defensive, and not quite open to what I thought would be indoctrination into the theologies of dead White straight men. How wrong I was!
Using the metaphor of the parlor, where we are all participants in the ongoing discussion of God-talk, I was able to engage with Barth, Calvin, and Luther, as well as Williams, Cone, and Boesak. Instead of merely being a bystander or observer, I was invited to join the conversation from my own social location, where my particularity mattered just as much as Barth's or Augustine's (both of whom, quite frankly, I had more identification with than I could have imagined).
Being in this safe, non-judgmental, and yet challenging space allowed me to further develop and deepen my own theology. The professors not only accepted this intellectual journeying, but they also strongly encouraged it. Their brilliance, passion, and commitment were evident throughout the course, and I felt empowered. Very early on we were pushed to self-identify as theologians. In fact, one day Dr. Reichel accused my thinking of being ‘very Barthian,’ which was hysterical to both of us! Ultimately, I was left with more questions than answers, which I think is the entire point.” —Wesley Rowell, MDiv candidate