All Things Newton

Andover Newton Theological School is the oldest stand-alone graduate school of theology in the United States. Was, I should say. Declining enrollment—supply and demand dictates fewer clergy are required—and the rising costs of a job description that has no obvious retirement age have led many seminaries to merge or close. It seems that Andover Newton is about to merge with Yale Divinity School, much like Berkeley Divinity School, bringing together a mix of Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Nones to huddle together across the quad until people want to believe again. Those of us who grew up being taught that belief was normal, and widely accepted, have experienced a sense of bad investment lately. We poured resources into keeping our product current only to find the use by date predated the use of use by dates.

Think of it as evolution. From the earliest days of civilization, priests were integral to, well, civil society. Evidence more and more points to religious belief being the actual glue that held larger communities together in permanent settlements. In other words, that’s how we’ve lived for five thousand years. How were we to know that the rules were about to change? You could always count on a need for clergy. The world’s first service industry. Ah, but it’s the latter word of that noun phrase that’s the problem. When religion becomes a commodity it’s subject to supply and demand. Supply has exceeded demand for some years now and the factories are shutting down. Anyone want a used Bible, cheap?

The Episcopal Church, with its outsize influence for such a small body, used to have eleven seminaries in this country. The United Methodist Church, larger by nearly an order of magnitude, had thirteen. Once and future clergy such as yours truly were produced in classes of dozens. We didn’t diversify our portfolios enough. So now, Andover Newton—the very school where I learned Hebrew—is downsizing faculty by a rather drastic percentage. I’m not so worried about deans and administrators since they easily buy into the business model of education. I do wonder about the effect on society of having so many unemployed theologians around. One thing we don’t have to worry about is organized groups of them roving the streets; theologians are fiercely individualistic. As they transition into the corporate world—the only world that now exists—they’ll find themselves wondering how to live among the soulless multitudes. There’s only one orthodoxy here—lucre be thy name. And, oh, you might consider asking about entry-level positions.

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3 responses to “All Things Newton

  1. The future of religion, like the past of religion, probably won’t look like religion.

    I’m thinking of Before Religion by Brent Nongbri. In the not so distant past, there was no ‘religion’. There was simply the world as people knew it, no institution or belief system identified as religion and separate from the rest of society.

    Religion in the future, I suspect, will be the same way. Look at the world around us and see what we take for granted as simply being the way the world is. That is our religion or at least that is incipient form.

    There are some Catholics that see Protestantism as having brought this doom upon itself. The Protestant Reformation laid the groundwork for a new era of secularism and individualism, religious dissent and radical thought. Christianity became a religion, a commodity on the market.

    At an earlier time, the Roman Catholic Church attempted to create an entire social worldview. It was a dream to unite all Christians into a singular social order, a fully enclosed reality tunnel. This Catholic vision was that of a Christianity that wasn’t a mere religion.

    That old Catholicism was one of the last gasps of ancient civilization. Protestantism never was a stable condition for humanity. It was more of a transitional phase, as the old order crumbled. Now that we are nearing the end of it, what’s next?

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    • Good point, Benjamin. Religion evolves just like everything else. It will be interesting to see what it looks like as people continue to change.

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      • I’m sort of neutral or rather mixed about religion, however one wants to interpret it.

        The idealism of my childhood church did mess with my head as an adult. On the other hand, I have nothing besides happy memories from my early experiences of religion. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the tolerant, optimistic liberal church I grew up in.

        I wish nothing but the best for religion and what it might become in coming generations and centuries. I’m fascinated about how humanity changes and yet we remain human, until the robots take over or we genetically engineer ourselves into a new species. Change is the name of the game, like it or not.

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