If you locate yourself in theological education, either behind or in front of the desk, as teacher, administrator, or student, where do you go to breathe? Where do catch a break from what you do all day? Well, if you are like me, you go outside. I am stuck inside most of the time, either at my desk, teaching online classes, creating new courses, researching, writing, or responding to email. If I get out of my office, my way often leads into the classroom. When I really need to get away from it all I go outside. Fortunately, I work on a gorgeous campus, and going outside is never a real challenge. It is a routine I like to protect. But something interesting happened today, as I returned from my breathing lessons. I met one of our students and as we talked about our day, he remarked that he came inside to catch some breath. The building offered a refreshing break from the demands of physical labor that characterized most of his day. He then stopped for a moment and concluded, “I guess most people go outside to get away from the inside.” He got me there! As I walked away from the conversation I thought about the alternatives. Am I just getting away from my desk? Or is my situation typical for theological environments? Are our environments conducive to theological training?
When you think of environments, you probably think first of buildings, typically designed in generic blocks of squares and rectangles. If you are lucky, you have a window. I waited three years in my professional career before I had one; two years I spent in a small office in the middle of a building and one year in a former copy room in much the same location. You cannot believe the difference in outlook (pun intended) between a theology formed in closed walls and one shaped in the open. However, in my experience, classroom often continue to have the old lecture hall setup with immovable seats and rows of increasing height, placing the teacher as a master and commander at the bottom of the room, shouting up wisdom to the demanding ears of the audience. Of course, those tables today are filled with laptops and students stuck in their seat to input what they heard or to engage in social networking if the lecture is not engaging. Of course, if you believe that theological education has little to do with prayer and spirituality, that our built environments do not influence the way we believe and formulate our faith, then you may find little wrong with this picture. On the other hand, if you think of the theological academy as a place that nurtures the mind, the body, and the spirit, then you will quickly find the modern institutions restrictive. There is no room for movement; no room for air. Theological environments are like pressure cookers that squeeze knowledge into a willing student but offer little room to expand. Just try to practice theology in the academy and you will quickly find that the buildings, the classrooms, and the offices that make up the places of theological education are not made for expansion. We may imagine it, but we rarely get the opportunity to put it into practice.
What we need are some breathing lessons. Students and teachers should come into the learning environment to catch their breath and who leave refreshed and renewed. That means we need to pay more attention to the way our buildings are constructed, our rooms are laid out, our classrooms are furnished. We should look at the opportunities our built environments provide for social interaction and expansion, for celebration, worship, anointing, and proclamation. We should provide outlets for the things we put into the mind in order to free theology from the confines of an exclusively intellectual exercise. We need theologians who become architects.
What would you consider a healthy theological environment? What is an absolute must-have? What is missing? What is desperately needed? What would allow for a more genuine experience of God in theological education? How do we provide an sense of hightened expectation when we go indoors instead of outdoors? Theologians, let’s come up for air!