Saturday, October 3, 2009

Reno's New Rankings: a response

Ranking Theology Programs- the very idea

Theology lacks the rigid institutional pecking order that some other disciplines have, and I think that’s largely a good thing. At the same time, such a rankings vacuum creates some of its own shortcomings. Students entering grad school depend upon reliable information on the capacity and suitability of different programs, and often this information is lacking. We should, therefore, welcome contributions to transparency with regard to this sort of information when it happens to come along. R.R. Reno attempted to offer just that in 2006, writing a subjective and cursory ranking of theology graduate programs in North America for First Things magazine. Yet despite the commendable goal of helping students figure out how to pursue studies in a wise manner, it also opened itself up to a good bit of (quite justified) critique.

After three years, Reno has returned to offer another ranking of theology programs at First Things, and this one strikes me as just as unhelpful as the last one. To be fair, Reno never claimed to be attempting anything that was exhaustive or scientific, so it wouldn't be appropriate to expect the equivalent of the Philosophical Gourmet in the space of a single-author column. But it seems to me that there's an egregious amount of favoritism, superficiality, and limited evaluation in the column.

Reno's Remnant

Let's begin at the end of Reno's 2006 piece, which actually wasn't half bad. Of Ephraim Radner and David Bentley Hart, he wrote:
These two remarkable theological minds are not just in less-than-ideal places for an aspiring, adventuresome graduate student interested in serious theology in the service of the Church, as is the case with Marshall. Radner and Hart are totally inaccessible. Radner is a parish priest in an Episcopal church in Pueblo, Colorado. Hart has a temporary, one-year appointment at Providence College. For all intents and purposes, both have been excluded from academia.
I don't know about "excluded," but his point is well-taken, and it's worth making. We need to be discerning, and pay attention to where the innovative work is being done. The problem comes, however, when Reno begins to go a bit too far in identifying a remnant of "good" theological work in the wider wasteland of North American academia. In this bleak picture, two schools garnered "even a relatively strong thumbs up", and the rest of the list related a rather woeful amount of shortcomings. Some departments were "pretty antagonistic to the idea that what the Church has taught over the centuries is, in some important and legitimate way, to be found in the Scriptures." Other places were "aggressively post-Christian." Still others "have seen a decline in serious intellectual life brought on by the intensely ideological agendas."

Reno, in other words, took a very good point about the precarious state of innovative work in academic theology (the point could be made of most humanities disciplines as well), and inflated it into a sorting of the sheep from the goats, department by department, based on a rather over-psychologized sense of their underlying motivations for or against nothing less than the very proclamation and continuity of the Church. Much as I'd want to be on the look-out for such hostilities, I just don't think he's being at all realistic. And worse than being unrealistic, he's distorting the way that prospective students look at graduate programs in theology. The attitude is much the same in his most recent piece, and I'll move on to that.

As in 2006, Reno sees Duke and Notre Dame as the top schools to go to for graduate education in theology. I won't argue with that- whether or not there are better programs out there, these two are certainly worthy of substantial praise. We begin to see the ideological commitments behind Reno's argument, however, when he mentions the supposed shortcomings of Notre Dame's systematics faculty:
The old Liberal Catholic Establishment continues to hold sway, which can lead to a narrow fixation on the old battles of the post-Vatican II generation, as well as the grotesque reduction of modern Catholic theology to the heroic figures of the mid-twentieth century.
This hearkens back to Reno's 2006 article, where he blamed the Jesuits for a "liberal-revisionist agenda" that "may have seemed cutting-edge, but these days it's pretty tired, and tiresome."

I won't deny Reno's point, in some ways. More traditionalist and conservative theologies are enjoying the fruits of some really wonderful work these days, and there is a sense that what was radical a few decades ago just isn't anymore. I'd even personally associate with some of the schools of thought that Reno is trying to defend here. But:

1) It's stupid to speak of "the Jesuits" as some academic monoculture, and the same goes for liberal Protestantism. The complexities of these and other theological traditions cannot be boiled down to some political drumbeat or cultural agenda, and Reno is lazy to make such a claim.

2) It's stupid to act as if such things as the theological interpretation of scripture, or the embrace of a ressourcement project, or the courage to respond to the errors of secularism, neo-liberalism, or modernity are somehow not being done in all sorts of theological circles- liberal, conservative, and otherwise. They are. Reno is excited about the work of some theologians, and I'm happy for him. But he needs to open his eyes and realize that his favorite theologians don't have a monopoly on vitality and innovation. This sort of triumphalism can unfortunately be present in lots of Barthian, Radically Orthodox, or Ratzingeresque Catholic circles, and I think it would be best (despite my own sympathies with all of these groups) to be a bit more humble about who the cool kids on the block are right now. Contextual theologies aren't "stuck in the '70s." Nor is liberalism. Academic theology is flourishing in lots of different, contradictory directions. And that's a good thing.

3) I think the ecclesio-centric aspect of Reno's rankings can be misleading. Reno's opposition to a place like Princeton, or UVA, or Brown, or Columbia because of the correlation with culture and society that is emphasized relies too much on theology running the show. His worry is of theology being the "tentative intellectual outsider." While such marginalization would be troublesome if true, what Reno's opposition amounts to is an inability to play nice with others. These departments aren't shutting out theological voices, and the attention to non-theological norms and questions strengthens theological projects rather than pushes them aside. We need these conversations, and it's no virtue to eagerly put ourselves into a situation of academic ghettoization because theology doesn't possess a super majority of the faculty. Really, truly, they're not out to get us. And really, truly, the Church isn't going to burst forth in some institutional apotheosis just because a faculty of "ecclesial theologians" is lined up somewhere. If anything, their work might stagnate because they aren't being asked enough questions from outside.

Reno's essay seems like something that would appeal to First Things readers and audiences that are caught up with a concern to emphasize the present normativity and indeed resurgence of a tradition that is Christian in a classical and an orthodox sense- as defined, of course, by them. An "us-against-them" mentality runs through the whole thing that doesn't seem to see dialogue across confessional or methodological boundaries as being helpful or formative.

Another thing that's bothersome about Reno's piece is that it focuses on a shortlist of well-known names and reduces the American theological scene to these people. Hauerwas, Hütter, Griffiths, Hays, Tanner, O'Regan, Stout, Radner, Seitz, Barnes, Volf, Levering... don't get me wrong- with a few exceptions, Reno picks a wonderful set of names to highlight. But surely he can try a little bit harder than simply spouting off folks in his own graduate cohort and those who have tended to fill the footnotes of Pro Ecclesia, Modern Theology, and International Journal of Systematic Theology over the past two decades. It just strikes me as too easy, and really, too cursory. Besides a few token mentions, Reno ignores a ton of people who are less well-known, and who positively make a number of departments (departments that aren't on Reno's list, of course). And seriously, if a prospective graduate student in theology is looking for schools, Hauerwas, Volf, et al. are the names and the reputations that will already be obvious. It doesn't help to rehearse them yet again and ensure that less well-known scholars continue to go under the radar for lack of attention.

Some Things Reno Should Have Said

I don't want to get into "ranking" programs too much myself. I try to stay away from using this blog for polemics and opinionated commentary, as I intend it to be more of a resource hub for work in historical and systematic theology. But it seems resourceful to at least think through the academic situation a bit, so I'll do some of that now while attempting to avoid making a shortlist.

1) Reno should have mentioned Union Seminary. He dismisses Columbia in passing, but he's wrong to do so. He also should have mentioned Vanderbilt and Emory, which he brought up in 2006 only to criticize. He also should have mentioned the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, and Claremont, and he should not have dismissed the Boston schools. And all of these are the obvious names; we're still talking prestigious schools and not diamonds in the rough. Reno seems to ignore these places because of a perceived old-school liberalism that he thinks gets in the way of good theology.

2) To his credit, Reno mentions some schools toward the end that don't tend to get as much press. But he seems to be more keen on the Catholic schools here, and even here he only mentions a few. Some mention of other Catholic schools, as well as smaller Protestant and Orthodox ones, would have been helpful. He also sticks to the superficial list of names mentioned above... Levering is a great theologian and it makes sense to highlight his hire at Dayton, but two other professors were hired at the same time as Levering, and they don't even get mentioned by Reno.

3) I would have ranked Marquette higher. Their faculty is just stellar, and I think that they are only getting more attention each year. This will be the place to be in a few years, like Chicago, or Yale, or Princeton, or Notre Dame, or Duke were/are now.

4) Reno should have paid some attention to evangelical schools. Wheaton has gained some great faculty over the past few years, including Beth Felker Jones, George Kalantzis, Jennifer McNutt, and Keith Johnson. Vanhoozer has also lately arrived from Trinity. Places like Fuller also would have been good to mention in this category.

5) Another difficult issue with any theology rankings is the problem of seminaries and denominational schools that have some very good work going on, but are not research powerhouses the way the bigger and more prestigious institutions are. I don't think these schools should be ignored, but I also don't know how one should take them into account. The job market is tough, and there's no question that brand name will go a long way, for better or worse. I wouldn't fault Reno for not discussing this more delicate issue, as it's just difficult for any ranking to take into account both the prestigious universities that are usually rightly lauded, and the less prestigious ones that will have faculties just as sharp and worthy, but perhaps also carry some unfortunate liabilities on account of their size.

Some thoughts on Chicago

I had a number of issues with Reno's thoughts on the schools he mentioned; often I was puzzled and disagreed, other times I think he was fair enough. I won't bother to mention all of my reactions, as there are others in a better position to give an assessment. But I thought I'd discuss Chicago quickly, since that's where I am now. I'd qualify that I don't have extensive experience at the Divinity School, and I'm not on campus regularly, so my opinion will not be the most expert.

The University of Chicago is apparently on the decline because it's saddled to the sinking ship of Ye Olde Liberalism. This is awfully convenient for Reno's narrative, but entirely useless as a guide. In addition to Tanner, every professor I've encountered has been challenging and concerned with doing excellent constructive work in theology. I don't know how Reno concludes that "orthodox Christian theology is marginal at best," my only guess is that he looks at a school with faculty committees on the history of religions, Islamic studies, History of Judaism, sociology of religion, etc., and assumes that this inherently presents a competitive and marginalizing situation for theology. On this, see my point above about Reno's ecclesiological bunker mentality. I think such concerns are symptomatic of an underlying insecurity on his part, rather than any real opposition to orthodox voices in theology.

Another point I'd add about Chicago- I've been shocked at how many conservative students I have run into here. For those who are interested in applying, you will not be alone and up against a bullying crowd if you come from a conservative Evangelical or Catholic background. This actually took me by surprise; I was expecting less conservatism than I've encountered thus far. I wouldn't worry- here or anywhere else- about being shoved to the side by those nasty liberals that your pastors and undergraduate professors told you ghost stories about. Academic theology in America these days is being bombarded by conservative Evangelicals and Catholics, and it's going to be tough to find any place where good work from these perspectives isn't well-respected. Don't fall into Reno's trap of mistaking a pluralist environment where not everyone agrees with a hostile environment where people don't care about doing good theology.

Okay, I'm Finally Ready to Conclude

Although I have a lot of complaints about Reno's piece, I think it's a good idea that he bothered to write a column like this. What we need, however, is a dozen such columns from people of widely differing perspectives. This would provide better context and highlight the fact that there is no single answer for where the best place to study theology is. For some people who are looking for a certain type of environment, Reno's advice may be quite good (although I think I know "these people" and "this type" well enough to say that even here Reno unfortunately leads his readers astray). For many others, he's just muddying the waters and being unfair.

Theology is in a good place right now in North America. There is a lot of good work coming out, and there are a lot of new rising stars just beginning as faculty or still in graduate programs. While job prospects in the humanities are not good, most departments are also being smart about this by tightening their acceptance quotas in order not to flood the system with lots of unemployable PhD's. This will only make the next generation of theologians tougher and sharper. So I don't think it's right to look at the situation as one of gloom and doom, nor do I think it's appropriate to say that only a handful of schools... and really only two... are getting the job done. Prospective students should ask around and chat with lots of different people from different perspectives. This is the only way that they'll come to some worthwhile conclusions about graduate school. Hopefully this post has helped a bit towards that; feel free to share your own thoughts in the comment section or contact me if you want to discuss things further.


  1. "the Church isn't going to burst forth in some institutional apotheosis just because a faculty of "ecclesial theologians" is lined up somewhere. If anything, their work might stagnate because they aren't being asked enough questions from outside."

    Loved that quote. Like you, I share a lot of Reno's sensibilities...but it is his myopic execution and polemical rhetoric that just leaves me feeling so disgusted (perhaps more so than you).

    I wrote a brief response (which was also a bit short-sighted) when I first read his 2006 rankings. But a few things I mentioned there still stick out today: Sure, nearly everyone applies to Duke. But let's be honest, Reno pays no attention to issues of funding, job placement, ease of interdisciplinary study, pedagogical training...all of which are factors which an applicant must consider. Nothing has really changed at Duke with the inauguration of the ThD is still an unproven degree that has only had success at Harvard (which he doesn't like). And, word to the wise, don't apply to Notre Dame's Theology concentration if you are's not even worth it. So, his top two choices leave us with not a lot of options, do they?

    Also, Reno pays no attention to whether these professors are half-way decent teachers. I have heard that the reason David Bentley Hart isn't teaching anywhere is because he is not particularly great with students...the same has been said of Milbank (seems to be a trend at former UVA profs) and I have a friend at Duke who speaks likewise of Hutter. Sure, these are great minds, but if they are poor teachers that is a seriously blow to their my mind.

    As for the others, the fact that Marquette cannot offer competitive funding makes it a very difficult option (though I hear their package is slightly improving). The same is certainly true for Catholic University. A friend at CUA has told me that the sheer size of the program often means you never really get to apprentice under an adviser; which I think robs you of the entire point of Doctoral work.

    His sideswipe at Fordham was interesting - and not merely for my own personal reasons. He fails to mention how it fits into his "liberal Jesuit" model; assuming that it is simply equivalent to his criticisms of Boston College. Is he suggesting that my faculty are actually so irrevocably liberal that they will be incapable of training me in the tradition and discipline or, more crucially for him, aiding in the process of spiritual development?

    All this is to say, such rankings really tell us more about the author than the actually climate within the academy. I just find it baffling that he thinks a prospective PhD student would prioritize schools with more "spiritual development" over one with adequate funding and higher percentage of job placement. Practically speaking, these criteria are in no way commensurate when weighing the options.

    Perhaps the usefulness of this article is that it gets people like you or I fired up and talking about the state of the that regard, maybe it is helpful. Doesn't mean I like his methods!

    Sorry for the rant...

  2. No need to apologize for the "rant", John, this is exactly what I'm looking for.

    I think you're right about the logistical issues of funding and job prospects, and I wish that more programs posted their placement records to help prospective students figure some of this out... I don't know if I can think of any places that list this. Marquette, I think, has a list.

    I've appreciated your thoughts on all this- here, and in your series on doctoral studies that you've just started. You certainly seem to have done your homework and know a good bit of valuable inside information.

  3. I found this interesting simply because it was so subjective. Most economics rankings I've seen largely rank based on citations of the professors, perhaps with some subjective ranking of the quality of the journals that are cited. You also see them include placement of students. Sometimes smaller rankings include other things like teaching quality and atmosphere, but from what I can tell it's usually a citations driven ranking system.

    Maybe that's because economics programs are so much more widespread? You usually hear about a first tier (top ten or so), a second tier (next twenty or so), and then "the rest" that will get you a job (as an old professor of mine put it), "as a glorified highschool teacher". I don't get the impression there's that sort of depth in theology departments - but then, the demand for theology degrees is very different too, so it's all relative.

    There used to be a fantastic site I was going to share called, which gave a lot of detail on how their rankings worked and how they scored everything. Unfortunately, the site seems to be down now! (which REALLY isn't good since I'm not going to be applying until next year).

  4. This was a very helpful article, Evan, thanks. I read Reno's 2006 article and found it odd.

    I'm at Yale Divinity, hoping to do a PhD in Historical/Systematic theology after my Masters, so the topic is of keen interest to me. I have to say that the prospects look dim from where I'm at, so I am glad to see people like you writing about the topic.

    I also have interests in philosophy, and I've long been frustrated that there is no religious/theological analogue to Leiter's Philosophical Gourmet.

    I'm pleased, if a little skeptical, to hear your positive assessment of theology in North America. I hope you are right.

  5. The positive assessment of theology in America could be qualified, I think. I certainly sympathize with your comments (here) about the lack of coherence in theology, and I think you're right that students need to do a good deal of legwork in placing themselves appropriately. Which, I take it, is the value of these conversations about theology programs.

    There is certainly a good deal of poor work being done in theology today, I wouldn't disagree with you or Reno about that. But the fact that these shortcomings have been so well articulated and countered by numerous people in the field speaks, I think, to how strong theology is. There will always be popularized and vulgarized uses of theological work, simply because of the practical application that a churchly discipline like theology implies. But I think that some very wonderful work is indeed being done, and in more places than Reno admits.

    I have wondered about the situation at Yale and Harvard, but I can only go on what I hear from others, and wouldn't want to say too much myself.

    On the analogue to the Philosophical Gourmet, I hear you, but I also wonder exactly how that would look. Daniel, this touches on your points about ranking in economics as well. I certainly think that better structures of evaluation- both for programs and for journals- is needed in theology. But I also don't think that a comprehensive system of the sort that the Gourmet provides would necessarily be good. My sense from philosophy is that there is an extremely rigid hierarchy, and what I wouldn't want to see from a ranking system is a marginalization of lower tier schools... I'm fine with calling out truly bad programs, but good programs with more limited resources, or with a more particular denominational focus, I think would suffer from a comprehensive quantitative ranking system. Theology, because of how deeply it is connected to institutions of churches and seminaries, seems entirely too textured, with too many niches, to really benefit from a conclusive list. Perhaps a number of more focused evaluations, and more articles of the sort that Reno wrote, and that I took a stab at here.

  6. Real quick, I just wanted to point out that, despite the merits of Notre Dame, when I met him last year, David Burrell himself advised me not to apply to their PhD program -- on the basis that it wasn't the best program right now. Granted, he's been teaching over in Jerusalem a lot the past couple of years, but he is still on faculty and has been there a really long time -- so he's a trustworthy source I'd say. I have so much more to say -- especially about how ideological Reno's ranking is -- but I'll refrain from here since, as you said Evan, this is not the place for polemic. Peace.

  7. This was really helpful, Evan. As a current graduate and prospective doctoral student, I'm in the midst of figuring out where to apply right now. I wonder how a creative way of organizing the best schools without "ranking" could come about, whether from an individual like you or a group (especially with the goal of including the views of those who have BEEN to the respective schools under discussion). Something like that would be enormously helpful for those in my position.

    A tiered system? Groups of "top five" schools for various emphases? Let me know if you have any ideas.

  8. Thanks for this reply to Reno's piece. You said a lot of things I was thinking after I read it.

    University of St. Michael's College
    Toronto School of Theology

  9. "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life"

    Does anyone ever learn anything about how to Live the Divine Life for Real by studying theology either at a theology school or seminary? Or even by studying the Bible studiously every day of ones life?

    Jesus was not a theologian. Nor were the fiery saints of the Old Testament. Nor were the Illuminated Saints of either the "Catholic" or the "Orthodox" Traditions.For instance Saint Francis of Assisi and the remarkable 19th century Saint Seraphim of Sarov.

    Nor were the authors of any of the Sacred Scriptures of the entire Great Tradition of humankind.

    Which theology school do you think Jesus, St Francis or Seraphim would recommend? Or more importantly be welcome at, or even want to attend.

    Would either of these three be welcome at First Things?

    First Things being the leading edge of the heart-crushing, heart-dead, nit-picking pharisees of our time, and also full on apologists for Empire or the world-wide Pentagon death-machine.

  10. A comment from Charles Marsh posted at Reno's article, and worth re-posting here:

    charles marsh says:
    As one of the "one or two fine professors" at UVA mentioned by Reno (not really), a graduate of the doctoral program in philosophical theology, and a scholar/teacher who resists, I think, becoming “slowly socialized into the role of the tentative intellectual outsider who downplays the theological dimension in order to be in on the conversation” (gasp), let me add, shamelessly, that some of the most creative theological projects of the past ten years began as doctoral dissertations in our department. David Bentley Hart’s “The Beauty of the Infinite” (Eerdmans), “Jay Carter’s Race: A Theological Account” (Oxford), Willis Jenkins’s “Ecologies of Grace” (Oxford); Jon Malesic’s “Secret Faith in the Public Square” (Brazos), and Pete Slade’s “Open Friendship in a Closed Society” (Oxford), among others. By Reno’s criteria, Union Theological Seminary of the mid-20th century would not be on the radar screen. That’s messed up. Also, Reno should have mentioned that he was a finalist a few years ago for a position in systematic theology here that went to a Harvard graduate.

  11. wow...just read that Marsh quote. hilarious. Also funny, Marsh posted a mock top-ten theology programs on his Facebook page. Here is how it read:

    1. The University of Virginia. It’s neat how in addition to me there’s another guy on the faculty with the initials “CM”.

    2. Duke. Eleven of my students go there, and since I wrote them all excellent recommendation letters, they owe me favors.

    3. Vanderbilt. This place invited me to speak at a conference last year, which made me feel great.

    4. Union Theological Seminary. Serene Jones is the coolest, and their dogmatics are in a state of complete disarray. I just love that.

    5. Harvard. I wonder if the big “CM” I slashed late one night in 1982 is still visible to passersby in the foyer of Emerson Hall. Anyway, one can get a first-rate theological education at Harvard if one transfers to #1, #2, #3, or #4 as quickly as possible.

    6. Wartburg Theological Seminary, Bangor Theological Seminary, Athenaeum of Ohio. All three have the advantage of really funny names.

    7. Princeton Theological Seminary. First, the negative: this is not a school that has ever shown a strong interest in my work. On the other hand, the Princeton Theological Quarterly, if I’m not mistaken—and I don’t think I am—has reviewed every one of my books favorably. That’s a big positive.

    8. University of Chicago Divinity School. All the students I’ve sent there have undergone a swift vocational realignment to law, business or the mental health profession, so Chicago must be doing something right.

    9. Yale. Yale deserves a higher ranking but they once treated me like crap during a job interview.

    10. Notre Dame. Don’t be impressed by the fact that the theology faculty is filled with first-rate Christian scholars capable of launching a wide range of otherwise clueless doctoral students towards exhilarating life-journeys in theology rather than careers of expertise spent undermining authentic Christian conviction and being slowly socialized into the role of the talkative intellectual dilettante who overplays his theological hand in order to get down with the conversation. As anybody from Alabama can tell you, Notre Dame sucks.