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...