Superior Together: How Austin Seminary and the School of Social Work Complement and Supplement One Another

 By Bill Greenway

The heart of Christian spiritual passion is voiced in Jesus Christ’s affirming summary of Jewish Law:  love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  In classic Christian theology, this love of God and neighbor is not something we initiate.  Rather, it flows out from us in grateful response to the gracious love of God.  Taken up in the joy of divine love, we love God and neighbor in response.  Such responsive faith, faith that calls forth action, is living faith (while faith without works is dead).

All the diverse ministries of the churches flow from this responsive faith:  the formation of communities of worship, communion, fellowship and celebration; the concern for the spiritual significance and meaning of births, deaths, illness, marriage, children and family; the attention to guilt, forgiveness, joy, grief, values and meaningfulness.  And also, of course, there is prophetic concern over social justice and care for those who are hungry, persecuted, imprisoned or poor.  

It is no accident that even today many cities have hospitals, orphanages, universities, food pantries, homeless shelters, or Samaritan counseling centers with “Presbyterian,” “Methodist,” “Baptist” or “Catholic” in their title (and it is not obvious that it is good that some of these institutions are now for-profit entities).  In many parts of the world, and for generations in the United States, the best hope for those in desperate need could be found in the ministries of temples, churches, synagogues and mosques.

Such ministries are chronically underfunded and understaffed, and in the United States those ministries were overwhelmed in the throes of the Great Depression.  Fortunately, in a demonstration that our nation could be not only great but good, in the theological sense, we as a nation thoroughly informed by the Jewish and Christian call to love of God and neighbor, “mandated the creation of new social welfare agencies and programs to minister to the needs of children, veterans, the unemployed, the disabled, the aged, and the poor” in the Social Security Act of 1935.  

The School of Social Work at the University of Texas was formed in direct response to the need to find persons qualified to staff the new state agencies whose task it was to fulfill the Social Security Act’s mandate to “minister” to those in need.  And insofar as concern for the poor and needy is central to the Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths (to mention only a few), it is natural, good and exciting that the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (APTS) and the University of Texas School of Social Work (UTSSW), despite important distinctions in identity, work as partners to train students who will become social workers with graduate education in ministry and/or ministers with graduate education in social work.  

With regard to the many students who are passionate about both social work and their faith, our two schools provide a far richer education working jointly than either could provide working alone.  Indeed, for me the Social Justice panel was exciting because it provided a rare chance to join with our students in enjoying the diverse fruits of the dual-degree program. 

Because of their close ties to governmental entities and their focus upon issues of social justice, students and professors at UTSSW have wisdom and empirical knowledge about a host of critical issues that lie beyond the expertise of most scholars at seminaries.  For example, we at the seminary were profoundly informed by Professor David Springer’s outstanding, Spring 2011 Heyer Lecture on juvenile justice and rehabilitation in Texas.  Professor Springer’s work on behalf of at-risk and imprisoned youth in Texas, work that lies beyond the parameters of seminary education, is a model of the “love of neighbor” in action that is affirmed by a multitude of faiths.

On the other hand, even within the area of concern for justice, the School of Social Work should be thankful for the work of seminaries and faith communities.  In response to a panel question concerning their mandate for focusing upon social justice, panelists from the School of Social Work appealed to the National Association of Social Work’s “Code of Ethics.”  Institutionally, this is an important appeal (and appeal to a founding document is hardly unfamiliar to theologians).

But the deeper question, as always in such cases, is, “what motivates and legitimates one’s conviction and passion regarding the truth of Social Work’s Code of Ethics (or of the Torah, the Bible, and so forth)?”  Answering that question, even with regard to Social Work’s Code of Ethics, immediately takes one into the extra-empirical realm of reflection upon meaningfulness and morality.  For millennia, unfolding answers to questions of meaningfulness and morality has been a central endeavor of the world’s great wisdom traditions (e.g., Judaism, Platonism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, Islam).  Moreover, fostering the spirituality and love that sustains the passion for justice contained in the Code of Ethics has been and remains preeminently the task of theologians and communities of faith (and significantly, celebration of care for the needy and condemnation of greed and selfishness is a clear and consistent core teaching across faith traditions).

Notably, the socio-cultural standing of the Code of Ethics is not as widely recognized in the United States as the standing of, say, the Sermon on the Mount, the lesson of the Good Samaritan, or the two-fold love command.  Its endurance and the societal commitments that sustain public conviction that it is good that we as a nation do good by committing ourselves to the support of agencies that, “minister to the needs of children, veterans, the unemployed, the disabled, the aged, and the poor,” are vitally linked to the vibrancy of faithful religious traditions and communities.

Because of our discrete missions, diverse constituencies, and distinct identifies as confessional versus State institutions, important differences between our schools will rightly endure.  But in ways both obvious and subtle, we complement and support one another, and we share important interests and concerns.  Again, we each become better by working together.

As the lively, at points testy but always friendly panel discussions illustrated, the commonalities and tensions between Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Texas School of Social Work are a source of enlivening and constructive debate.  I am thankful that our dual-degree students are continually benefiting from such rich cross-fertilization, and I hope that the rest of us may enjoy many more constructive engagements in the years ahead.

Professor Bill Greenway, associate professor of philosophical theology, joined the faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1998. He focuses upon contemporary conversations among theology and philosophy and church and society. He is especially interested in theology and ecology and spiritually. He speaks regularly at churches, academic conferences, and publishes in journals like The Christian Century, The Journal of Religion, and Theology Today.