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News and Views from the University of Redlands

Looking to the past to navigate the future

Christopher Ocker stands in front of a stone wall.
Assistant Provost and Graduate School of Theology Interim Dean Christopher Ocker draws on three decades of experience and his training as a historian to drive innovative theological education. (Photo by Cali Godley)

In July, San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) Professor of Church History Christopher Ocker assumed the roles of assistant provost and interim dean of the University of Redlands Graduate School of Theology. Drawing on three decades of experience in theological education, Ocker oversees many areas of academic affairs and student services. Mika Elizabeth Ono and Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog spoke with Ocker about his new role, the SFTS-U of R merger, and how seminary education is changing.

Bulldog Blog: You have two roles right now. How would you describe your positions?

Ocker: One aspect is being an assistant to the provost, so I'm trying to help [Kathy Ogren] actualize her leadership on the Marin campus, and of course, by extension, President Krista Newkirk’s leadership. I hope I'm also a conduit of information to the president, provost, and President’s Cabinet. Performing these functions alongside a role as interim dean helps keep decision-making aligned with the educational purposes of this campus; this includes the learning programs of the Graduate School of Theology, but also programs of the University’s other schools.

The role of the interim dean is an interesting one right now because we're navigating a course between the past traditions and achievements of the San Francisco Theological Seminary and its future within the University of Redlands Graduate School of Theology [GST]. Outcomes are still taking shape. We are, historically, a Presbyterian seminary. The Presbyterian denomination places a high value on an educated clergy, and it imposes some of the most demanding educational requirements on clergy of any Christian church. That rigor matters to us. When we decided to join the University of Redlands, the trustees of the University never intended for the School of Theology to move away from the Presbyterian Church, but they also recognized, as had the faculty of SFTS, that the character and roles of seminaries are changing dramatically in American society.

At the GST, we confront this changing character of theological education in the United States head on. One of its main features is the shifting social position of historical Christian traditions. Protestants of the older American denominations long enjoyed demographic and cultural dominance, but within an increasingly pluralistic society. The faculty of SFTS has long felt that theology must contribute to the public good by detecting, exposing, and correcting injustice. We believed that theology frames its contribution to social change, not merely as the correction of sin, but also as the realization of individual and shared happiness, health, and purpose. What we had been learning to do for a long time, as a deeply committed part of the Graduate Theological Union [GTU], which is a consortium of six theological schools and numerous centers and institutes representing more than a dozen Christian and non-Christian traditions, was to recognize how that public contribution extends beyond a sponsoring denomination. Our commitment not only to other Christian churches, but also to other religious traditions and faith communities involves an orientation toward education and justice in a diverse community of traditions. That is part of our DNA at SFTS.

Apart from the last two years, which I spent directing a medieval early modern studies program at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, I've served my entire career on the SFTS faculty and as a member of the core doctoral faculty of the GTU. My whole career has been as a professor and a research scholar, contributing to the study of the history of religion in Europe. My view of the dean's office is deeply shaped by this. I think the heart and soul of a school is its faculty. So, the role of the dean, in my mind, is principally to be a facilitator of faculty expertise and decision-making, and resting at the center of decision-making should be, I think, the relationship of faculty with students. As interim dean, I want to do anything I can to improve, deepen, and sustain student-faculty relationships. I’ll continue to teach the history of religion at the GST. It's really important for a dean to have students and the experience of the classroom top of mind.

BB: How does a seminary maintain relevance these days? Has the merger with U of R helped with that?

Ocker: Well, here at SFTS, we come from a liberal or progressive Protestant tradition. We are a school that embraced the Civil Rights Movement and everything that followed from it. In the 1960s, this was very controversial, particularly in the Presbyterian Church. What probably symbolizes that commitment to social justice most is a pivotal event in 1965, when the seminary’s president, Theodore Gill, together with professors of New Testament, theology, pastoral psychology, and church history and a busload of 43 students, joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s march from Selma to Montgomery. They went not as individuals but as representatives of a Protestant seminary, organized by the seminary’s leadership, which was, at the time a rare and, to many white parishioners, a very disturbing thing. The students provided support for the marchers along the route. President Gill marched the entire 50 miles on the front line with Dr. King, John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy Sr., Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Ralph Johnson Bunche, and others.

Of course, there was much else to be done before and after the march, and much else that graduates of the seminary have done to address injustices in American society since then. Our alumni have made noteworthy contributions to local, regional, and ecclesiastical struggles for the civil rights of African Americans, women, and LGBTQ people. They have mobilized their churches to protect and provide sanctuary to migrants. They and their seminary have been outspoken supporters of religious pluralism, its importance in theological education, and the variety of forms of women’s and environmental spiritualities. They have contributed decisively to shifts in the direction of the Presbyterian Church on issues like gay marriage and ordination. The seminary is a place that has always thought of theology as something that should be articulated in a public sphere.

How do theologians connect their world to their environment? One way is to be activists themselves. We take a clear stand against racism and are willing to confront the challenges posed by systemic racism in our own community. Our research is carried out in an environment of community and conversation of religions through the GTU, which includes the University of California, Berkeley. Those relationships have been vitally important to me personally, as a scholar and teacher, just as they have been to all my colleagues at SFTS.

But merging with the University of Redlands brought us all kinds of new opportunities. In addition to closer and deeper relationships with faculty at the other University of Redlands schools, we have the possibility to collaborate and develop programs specifically geared toward people fundamentally rethinking the character of ministry and service within and beyond Christian congregations, in faith communities of all kinds. That's an opportunity we really didn't have in the same way before, even with our interfaith consortium and links to a leading research university.

Now, we have the chance to partner with the School of Business, whose conception of purposeful leadership has a clear spiritual dimension. We have an opportunity to explore dual degrees and certificates that allow students to develop both critical-theological analysis and spiritual insight alongside concrete skills of business analytics and leadership, liturgical music, counseling, and human services, in a way that recognizes the spiritual dimensions of purposefulness and justice education. This is unprecedented in theological education. The kind of scholarship represented by the basic fields of the theological curriculum (scriptures, history, ethics, theology, preaching, and pastoral care) are most like the fields present in the College of Arts and Sciences [CAS]. When faculty were woven into merger conversations three years ago, as soon as faculty members from both schools met, we realized that we already inhabit a shared mental space. An unexpected, welcome affinity will be the basis of new, and newly dynamic, interdisciplinary programs of study. SFTS has its roots deeply embedded in its past, but it is transitioning to a beautiful future.

BB: You said that, aside from your two years at Australian Catholic University, you’ve been at SFTS for your whole career. What have you learned that is applicable to your leadership role?

Ocker: Mind you, that career has included the GTU, where I’ve been deeply involved in cultivating its relationships with colleagues at the University of California. I've seen some really good leaders and some less good leaders. As a historian, I think leadership must be understood contextually. To me, it is not something that belongs to an office, but a quality that emerges within a group. An officeholder’s task, my task, is to not to command but to recognize leadership where it emerges within our community, to nurture and support it, and to keep it aligned with the goals of the University and the GST. It is an intrinsically collaborative job.

I think SFTS has been good at educational innovation over the last 50 years. Many of the programs we developed in recent decades were academically successful, but not financially sustainable. Financial sustainability is a challenge faced by theological schools all over North America, and, if we had not struggled with it, we would not be part of the University of Redlands today. Yet SFTS did quite a good job at staying relevant. In addition, our graduates are, by and large, extremely satisfied with their study here, their experiences with faculty, and the community they built and sustained among themselves. That’s also something I’ve learned to value deeply and won’t give up while we continue to develop a financially sustainable graduate school.

BB: How is theological education changing, from your perspective?

Ocker: It has been changing for a very long time. Change is normal in human society, religion, and spirituality. As a historian, I think that looking at the past is a way to try to gain insight into contexts and dynamics of change, while also recognizing that the past never predetermines the future. So, what's changing in theology? It's an interesting moment for schools like this one—liberal, progressive, Protestant schools that embrace spiritual and cultural diversity as a fabulous human good.

One challenge is that religious denominations don't have the same cultural power they could once take for granted. A colleague of mine at the University of California, David Hollinger, points out how the place of Protestant intellectuals in American society shifted in the mid-20th century. In an earlier era, well into the 1960s, a professional pipeline ran from old historical Protestant churches and elite universities to leadership positions in media, education, and government. Protestant scholars were, for a long time, among the most respected public voices of a locality and the nation, and they were, in ways we find terribly uncomfortable to admit, beneficiaries of and contributors to systems of white privilege.

But today, theological schools belong to a realm of social influence that has greatly faded, and in some ways even disintegrated, for good reasons and for the good. The loss of status owes something to the social activism of mid-century clergy, embracing ecumenism, civil rights, women’s liberation, and an end to Western colonialism. The U.S. is no longer the Protestant nation it once was, but a nation more broadly and inclusively striving—at least some of us are striving—to realize ideals of equity and justice that go well beyond the norms and limitations of Euro-Americans in the 18th century. And some of us are people of faith who feel our tradition and our worship driving us in the direction of change and a more radically inclusive society. To hear this call seems more important to us, more fundamental, more truly grounded in our faith and, I would even say, the will of a self-revealing God, than the survival of the neighborhood congregation or the denomination we may nevertheless love and may want desperately to preserve. To study theology in this world is to be seized by a hunger to understand these things, to do good in these circumstances, to bring a community in line with not just enduring values, but things that should be true for eternity everywhere.

BB: What are you looking forward to?  

Ocker: Well, in the near term, I would like to see a closer relationship between the GST faculty and faculty of the other schools of the University. Ideally, for us, that would include some sort of mechanism for dual faculty affiliations. We are working with Religious Studies to develop a CAS-to-GST pathway, with accelerated completion of GST master’s degrees, and we are in conversation with the Schools of Business, Education, Music, and Continuing Studies to develop dual degrees. I’d like to see travel courses in Salzburg. I am planning an experimental undergraduate-graduate-Continuing Studies course with Helmut Schmutz in Salzburg next summer on “Migrations, Medieval and Modern: European Religions, Peoples, Nations, and Identities.” Watch this space. There is more to come.

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