Seminary is where you go to learn what they didn’t tell you growing up. Many people have rather idealized views about clergy and somewhat untrained views about their church (the same may apply for religions outside Christianity, but I wouldn’t be so bold as to say so). Since church membership is declining, albeit not drastically, seminaries are finding themselves less in demand. Meanwhile all manner of political candidates can claim a biblical literacy they don’t rightly deserve, and who’s to challenge them? It is sobering to read The Christian Century and see just how sickly theological education appears to be. Seminaries closing, seminaries merging, seminaries not really appearing on anybody’s radar scope. As the founding institutes for nearly all the Ivy League universities (which are not closing), it seems that few people appreciate just how much our seminaries have contributed to our culture. Our culture, however, is focused on more material pursuits now. Let history bury the dead.
The days when clergy were a step away from royalty and political power are long gone. Figures like Increase Mather could personally pull cords with the crown to select a governor for colonial Massachusetts. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. could almost single-handedly lead to the beginnings of the demise of one of the greatest social injustices in a democracy. Even Fred Rogers could daily assure us that it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Seminary graduates all. None of that matters now, as long as my back pocket’s heavy with greenbacks and one of the rich elite inherits the White House. The thing is, seminary helped many of our past leaders to mature. Not just spiritually, but intellectually. Obviously seminaries aren’t perfect. They can leave you with PTSD just as easily as a PhD. Still, I wonder at the loss.
I didn’t know about seminaries, growing up. Those who attend fundamentalist, non-denominational churches seldom do. When I learned that there were specialized schools to attend to become a minister, I was intrigued. I guess the idea of a monastery was somewhere in the back of my head. Little did I realize that seminary was about forcing you to think about things you’d always assumed. Yes, seminaries have their casualties. Some leave with as simplistic an outlook as when they entered. For the majority, however, it is the opportunity to find out that the world of religious belief is much more complicated than people would ever, ever imagine. Angels dancing on the head of a pin, this is not. Any computer could calculate that with the right algorithm. Those who think deeply about what they say they believe are rare. They do a service to society in general, but only if we are willing to listen. When the doors are closing, this will become increasingly difficult. As long as the money flows, I guess it really doesn’t matter.