The first-person method is shorthand for an approach to theological discourse that has been practiced at the Institute since 1976. It is known in international theological circles as “the Collegeville approach.”
Behind the method is the conviction that every Christian is a theologian—that is, every Christian has something to say about God. The method also assumes that all good theology, however scholarly, has the weight of lived faith beneath it.
Through the Collegeville Institute’s programing, participants are encouraged to articulate their theologies in the context of their life stories—what they have experienced and known to be true of God and the church.
The inspiration for this approach was the powerful ecumenism that formed among great European theologians in the crucible of Hitler’s prisons, as well as the witness of the German Confessing Church associated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Robert Bilheimer, executive director from 1974 to 1984, had close contact with the veterans of this experience through the World Council of Churches in the immediate postwar years. Under fascism theology could not remain abstract. Confession of faith in Christ became a matter of life and death. Faith was distilled to the core of its meaning, a meaning that redeemed suffering and death. “Under that pressure you had to come clean about what you believed,” Bilheimer said. “The power of ‘confessing my faith’ was so different from the traditional ‘confessing my sins.’ Your confession of the faith was as personal as your confession of sins. In Collegeville I was interested in helping people become ‘confessing church’ Christians.”
Speech in the first person is but one aspect of the Collegeville approach. Its other elements include: a slant subject—a topic with a twist that compels people to speak out of their faith traditions rather than about them; an uncommon mix of participants—an unlikely ecumenical collection of individuals who would not come together to talk theologically in any other setting; strong leadership that strikes a balance between imposing structure and allowing the process to take its course, and that lets the direction of the conversation set the agenda; and ample, protected time for private reflection.