Can You Handle the Truth?

Time magazine’s Religion feature this week announces Claremont School of Theology’s decision to go interfaith. In response to declining enrollment, the United Methodist seminary has decided to offer training to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic leaders. Naturally, this will have to be done with the approval and support of training facilities for rabbis and imams, but it will be a way forward for the beleaguered Christian seminary. Seminaries have been in a state of crisis over the past few decades (otherwise it is hard to explain how I might have been hired by one, and a particularly conservative one at that!). And it is not difficult to see why.

Religion is, by nature, conservative. If truth is unchanging, there is no improving upon it. Religions claim to espouse the truth, so stability, orthodoxy – stagnancy – are required. Yet theological seminaries compete with graduate schools for students and faculty. Seminaries crave academic respectability – this is the entire reason for academic accreditation (my old-time colleague Daniel Aleshire of the Association of Theological Schools is quoted in the article). The basic operating premise of institutions of higher education, however, is that we are still learning the truth. We are not there yet. No God reveals the laws of physics in whole cloth (or vellum). Humans must theorize, discover, criticize, and theorize further. Meanwhile, seminaries wave their muted flags and shout, “Over here! We already have the truth!” To be accredited, they have to hire Ph.D.s who have been critically trained. Critical training does not accept simple truth claims. The result: seminaries hire critical faculty while religious authorities insist that the party line be toed. Something has to give.

Offering to bring different religious traditions together is a wonderful idea. Established religions need exposure to each other if the human race is going to survive. Exposure, no doubt, however, will reveal the amorphous nature of truth. The fact is that we are still looking for answers. Everything we have learned about religion points in that direction. What I find particularly telling about this situation is the motivation. Claremont is trying this route for financial reasons. The great god of all higher education, Cash, has finally gotten his talons into religious institutions as well. If there is any unchanging truth out there, it has a dollar sign in front of it.

In gold we trust...

15 thoughts on “Can You Handle the Truth?

  1. Why so cynical? There are a lot of liberals in the mainline for whom this would be a welcome move, rather than an insincere one that would have to be coerced by adverse circumstances against an unwilling institution.


    • Hi Wulfila.

      My cynicism revolves around the fact that, apparently, the seminary would not have considered this move had it not been for financial necessity. I despise marketing ploys. From our mutual acquaintance of a seminary in the wild woods of the former northwest, I’m sure you’ll understand an even deeper taproot to my cynical outlook regarding seminaries might be justified. The idea itself, as I noted, is a good one.


  2. I was going to joke and say “how cynical thou art” but somebody already did that impression of a comment..

    Personally, its called battening the hatches. Ecumenism is hardly tolerated when push come to shove. Putting all the cracked pots in one hearth is just another interesting archaeological find for a future other. At least nowadays a tattoo is likely to be sported for clear and irrefutable artistic dating..

    How I miss Talking Heads continual confrontation of the popular culture..


    • Quite so, Henk.

      It is interesting that many seminaries will not even welcome Christians of other denominations. Unless they have money.

      I second your commiseration regarding the Talking Heads. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.


  3. In my youth, I did a year as a church secretary at a very large, mainstream church in a city. It taught me that religious institutions are, bottom line, businesses. The pastor regularly targeted prominant members of the community, devising “plans of attack” with the membership director. Also, the accountant kept close records of members’ recorded salaries and amounts thithed, sending out collection letters every year to those who hadn’t paid their 10%. I went to many churches before I made peace with the choice to shun churches, and they were all business when push came to shove. It never occured to me that seminaries would be any different.


  4. Steve…

    Further evidence that no man, nor organization of men (sorry, persons), is beyond corruption. My definition of corruption being, ‘diversion from a stated or intended purpose, particularly out of a seemingly less admirable motive’.

    I do not knowing the origins of Claremont, yet would presume anyone founding a seminary would likely have done so out of an intent to serve God and propogate the stated faith.

    The seeming contradition here being behaviour suggesting, “This ain’t working (financially) anymore. But if we abandon or taint our original intent, we can stay afloat”.

    Money thus displacing purpose? Surely, this is nothing new. Just man being man. Citizen Kane all over again (and again, and again).




    • Hi Chaz,

      Thanks for stopping by. It’s not that I blame Claremont — I think it is a good idea. The bigger fish here is the way that higher education has gone after the great green (back) god. So much for learning for its own sake. It is very interesting, if sometimes painful, to watch.


  5. Hey Steve… and nor do I suggest that it is not a good idea either. Frankly, I have no idea one way or other as I have never been to seminary and I know nothing of Claremont’s history or circumstances.

    It simply appears, as you have clearly stated, that the pivotal issue is money. Parallel studies of differing faiths did not appear to be a topic of consideration until there was a money motive… versus a motive of, perhaps, broader enlightenment or mutual cooperation.

    I took from your post that this is what you were saying. And it certainly seems to fit within the “Chaz Theory of Universal Corruptibility of Man”.




  6. I am open to bribery Chaz..on what grounds I don’t have a clue. But make it hard to refuse!

    $10 would be enough to buy this worn out soul!


  7. Pingback: Let Us Define Corruption

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