I’m often asked by students, “Where’s a good place to study theology?” It’s not an easy question to answer. Lots of places have strengths¯and they also have weaknesses. More importantly, the most appropriate school has a lot to do with the student. Interests, background, convictions, academic preparation¯they make for a complicated mix, and there is no formula to compute which graduate program is the best fit.

Still, there are considerations and factors that should guide everyone looking for a good place to study theology: overall intellectual climate, commitment to students, corporate personality, and orthodoxy.

A really good graduate program in theology should feel uncomfortably demanding¯and not just for the students, but for the professors as well. The atmosphere should be charged with a healthy anxiety: Am I smart enough? Am I working hard enough? Are my standards high enough? This can become debilitating if taken to extremes, of course, but the usual danger is lassitude and self-congratulating mediocrity. In almost all cases, we need to be forced to run so that we don’t amble along at a comfortable speed.

Here, the overall quality of the university in which the program is located or to which it is affiliated can be relevant. (Stand alone seminaries present unique challenges that I can’t address here.) It’s a painful fact of human nature that we are prone to vice. Professors tend to log-roll, find ways to appoint friends to positions, and hire unthreatening junior faculty. A serious university, however, will squelch this kind of behavior.

By contrast, mediocre universities tend to tolerate intellectual mediocrity. For them, a few stellar professors are enough. You don’t get educated by the whole university, and certainly not be its name recognition. But we are social animals, and the overall atmosphere cannot help but influence our intellectual development.

Urgent academic striving is by no means the be-all and end-all of a theological education. In fact, it can pervert when it becomes counterfeit¯as it often does. Careerism and the endless churning to get ahead in the publication game should not be confused with intellectual seriousness. Moreover, theology programs with big names who fly in for a semester here and a semester there can create the image of academic seriousness without creating a week-in and week-out reality on the ground. The same holds for professors in endowed chairs who function as lofty aristocrats far removed from faculty who work in the trenches.

So, when looking for a graduate program in theology, don’t get starry-eyed over big names schools or celebrity professors. Serious graduate education in theology (or any other discipline) takes a great deal of time and attention from faculty. If the professors are rarely around¯or if they are too selfish to care¯then the program has little to offer other than prestige.

Doctoral study in theology is not about collecting medals to pin on your chest. A unified, committed faculty at any school is far, far superior to a bunch of famous professors at a well-known school who happen to haved parked their careers in the same place. Graduate students need professors they can trust to give time and attention to mentoring.

Here I must pause to emphasize: Be very careful. The moral character of a program matters a great deal. An uneven academic climate can be overcome by the special chemistry that can develop between an excellent mentor and a few really good professors and fellow graduate students. A culture of selfishness among faculty that leads to the neglect and poor treatment of graduate students¯this is fatal.

A good graduate program in theology stands for something; it has a corporate personality. This is more important than most graduate school applicants realize. An intellectual is not someone who knows a lot. The goal is not just to fill your mind. Graduate study should help you develop an overall outlook, a habit of mind, a point of view.

This is why theological labels play an important and legitimate role: Thomist, Rahnerian, Barthian¯or Liberal, Neo-orthodox, Liberationist, and so forth. These are not systems narrowly speaking. Instead, the labels signal ongoing projects, efforts to throw a wide array of intellectual judgments into coherent form. A good theology program need not be homogeneous, but it must have enough agreement among the faculty about key questions and issues to create a sense of common conversation.

I fear that students (and faculty) often underestimate the importance of corporate identity. Not long ago, Harvard Divinity School stood for something, as did Claremont and University of Chicago and Yale and Union in New York. They were alive with the urgency of the Liberal Protestant project: to negotiate the relationship between modern sentiments and the traditional demands of faith. Some gave priority to the authority of modernity, others to classical orthodoxy. But everyone understood the parameters of the debate.

The dramatic decline of the once dominant Liberal Protestant Establishment has diminished the programs in theology at all these schools. With no animating purpose, these programs tend to divvy up appointments: some historical specialists, a feminist, a liberationist, somebody doing world religions, perhaps a faculty member with a (very moderate) conservative outlook. (The same tends to happen in Catholic programs controlled by the much less intellectually interesting and socially significant Liberal Catholic academic establishment.) The sum is far less than the total of the parts. A graduate student might find one or two congenial professors, but no larger conversation. These programs have weak theological personalities.

Intellectual rigor, commitment to students, robust theological personality¯all these factors matter. But none are more important than a healthy spiritual atmosphere. Here I want to be blunt. You are no more likely to mature as a theologian outside an atmosphere of prayer and piety than as a scientific theorist removed from the laboratory.

In the old-fashioned language of the Catholic Church, people say that so-and-so is entering into such-and-such religious order, and is beginning the process of formation. To my mind, the word is just right. Graduate study in any discipline is a formation of the intellect. In theology this is especially and uniquely the case. The ultimate goal of theological inquiry is beyond the natural capacities of reason¯an elevation of the mind toward a participation in the divine. Obviously, we can only make progress if shaped and guided¯formed¯by a reliable tradition energized by a living faith.

Of the intellectual life in general, A.G. Sertillanges once wrote, “We must give ourselves from the heart if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves.” Theological wisdom is rooted in an act of intellectual submission to God’s revelation in Christ. This does not come easily, especially not in the academic culture that now dominates our universities. Old modern sentiments protest the need for intellectual independence. A newer postmodern sentiment laughs at the very idea of truth. Power makes us slaves, and justifies our bondage with the ideologies of truth. Or so we are told, again and again.

Every professor and graduate student need not to be pious. Not everybody’s scholarship needs to crackle with the ardor of faith. Committed Jewish or Muslim or Hindu scholars in the academic world of unofficial (but well-enforced) atheism can contribute a great deal to Christians seeking a serious theological education. After all, their witness in an academic culture of antinomianism and unbelief can be far more powerful than the supposedly Christian scholar who kowtows to the latest academic fashions.

Don’t try to find professors by way of a theological checklist. After all, your years of study are bound to deepen and transform your youthful outlook. But do not be naive. We all need companions for the journey. We all need encouragement along the way. A program in theology is only worth undertaking if you can see the possibility of a spiritual formation to complement your intellectual formation. Seek intellectual excellence. But seek more ardently an atmosphere of theological fellowship in which the always difficult submission of your mind to the authority of Christ will be supported by the similar efforts of your teachers and fellow students.

R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things , is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University .

Articles by R. R. Reno

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