In the safe, posh setting of the seminary, the Bible can seem straightforward enough. For example, my class one day was considering 1 Samuel 5, which is about the capture of the ark of YHWH by the Philistines, who brought it to the town of Ashdod and placed it before Dagon, the Philistines’ god.
Many of the most moving experiences I have had with students in class have involved encounters with members of other religious traditions. When teaching at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, I used to invite Rabbi Herman Schaalman to speak to first-year seminarians about the importance of Jewish-Christian dialogue since the Shoah.
When I first started teaching, the dean thought it would be a good idea for me to warm up to the vocation (after five years in the pastorate) by teaching summer school. The summer school was designed for second-career folk—those called into the pastoral ministry late in life. Some of these students, I was to discover, are the most interesting kind.
The encounter that most decisively shaped my teaching occurred during my very first year in the classroom. I was fresh out of graduate study at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and the lines of my life, as the psalmist says, had fallen in pleasant places.
What is the vocation of the theological teacher? The “Cambridge Platform” written by New England Puritans in 1648 says, “The office of . . . teacher is to attend to doctrine and therein to administer a word of knowledge . . .
Our parents are our first and most important teachers, but they cannot teach us everything. Sometimes they are not equipped to teach us some things we need. Sometimes they teach us things that we do not need. So we move at age five or so to additional teachers.
College is a crucible in which opinions are formed, challenged and reformed; beliefs are redefined or perhaps defined for the first time, and attitudes become more resolute. That this is so life-shaping a time has something to do with the age of most college students—late adolescence to early adulthood—but also much to do with the campus milieu.