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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With Your Measure

“With what measure ye mete,” someone once said, “it shall be measured to you again.” I certainly hope that’s true, but empirical verification seems to be lacking. I’m looking at, with the full armor of irony, a postcard from Nashotah House. Those of you who’ve long read my posts (I know who both of you are!) will know my history with said sacred institution. No, it’s not with me that they stay in touch, but my wife. You see, she’s one of those women who kept her maiden name, so in the eyes of many at the sacerdotal school we were probably never properly married. They certainly never came out to wave goodbye. Anyway, this past year they’ve begun corresponding with my spouse. I can’t remember—did I ever teach there for a decade and a half? So what are these sweet nothings they’re sending?

The card in front of me informs me that they’ve been praying for my spouse. Don’t get me wrong—she’s married to me and she needs all the help she can get—I never begrudge anyone’s prayers. I also can’t help exegeting a bit. Occupational hazard. One of my students once told me “don’t exit Jesus from your exegesis.” And they tell me I have no practical experience in the real world! So I’m looking at this prayer card wondering whose autograph it is. A man wants to know who’s praying for his wife. More than that, it appears that the name was scribbled out and written again. Did someone pray for those in the outer darkness by mistake? Heaven forfend! Alas, for my meting days seem to be about done. I must have a measuring tape around here somewhere.

That same guy whom I’ve quoted above also said, “pray for them which despitefully use you,” which I suppose might be some good advice. I understand that one-percenters and their ilk couldn’t be where they are despite using you. You just can’t help it—if something is inconvenient, you can simply toss it away. Build a tower to the heavens—what can be more biblical than that? See, words are endlessly flexible. They can be twisted and turned and made to say whatever you want them to mean. And should it ever come to meting cups, there are some recipes that might call for more than a wafer and a sip of wine. This is probably all obscure, but I’m trying to read by candlelight, and this text seems to say “when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee” and “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.” But how will anybody send you money if you don’t let them know?

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Or Just Sleeping?

442px-Nietzsche187aYesterday was the anniversary of the death of God. The Time magazine cover, the first to be text only, asking “Is God Dead?” was one of the iconic images of the 1960s. Fifty years ago yesterday, the media ventured out onto a limb that hasn’t snapped but hasn’t exactly bloomed either. Maybe it’s because the idea wasn’t original. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had suggested that God is dead in 1882, nearly a century before Time. A friend in seminary reported seeing graffiti that read “‘God is dead’—Nietzsche; ‘Nietzsche is dead’—God.” Although we laughed over it, this waggish statement contained a profound truth. The concept of God has proven remarkably resilient. Indeed, it may be part of what makes us human.

The media, nothing if not endlessly self-referential, responded. In fact, an article by Lily Rothman on time.com, is a Time story about a Time story. An endless regression of unbelief. Roth mentions theologians in her column— theologians still, and perhaps always have, debate the question of God’s existence. The ultimate untestable hypothesis, God, in that sense, is an easy target. The media reach readerships of which the rest of us only dream. I didn’t see the Time cover as a child (we did not subscribe), but it made its way into Rosemary’s Baby as a statement of the Zeitgeist more effective that a declarative sentence. It is a question that haunts. Miracles, according to the Bible, used to be large and spectacular. Today they don’t happen at all. What went wrong?

Rothman’s story begins with a seminary professor being fired. William Hamilton, at the then Colgate Rochester Divinity School, was dismissed over the question of God’s existence. Seminaries have been particularly sensitive to questions of God’s continuing presence. We sometimes forget, however, that magazines exist to make money. The same is true of some theologians. If you wanted to get noticed when the Vietnam War claimed so many headlines, you needed to say something striking. As the article points out, the question of God’s death seems a lot less radical today. Living through this campaigning season running up to the Republican National Convention it might be less difficult to disbelieve. I wonder what Nietzsche would’ve said.

Scientific Seminary

Old Testament. New Testament. Church History. Pastoral Theology. Systematic Theology. Homiletics/Liturgics. This was a typical kind of seminary curriculum about a quarter-century ago. Obviously there were variations, but the basic topics were Bible and its application. When I attended seminary science was already in the ascendent (seriously, it wasn’t that long ago!). Nobody much worried about how it might impact religion. People in the United States still attended church in large numbers but no one I knew really considered science a threat to belief. They were essentially different realms of inquiry and although some on each side asserted the superiority of their enterprise, the debate seemed to be good-spirited and without excessive rancor.

IMG_1656The situation has, of course, shifted radically since then. We’ve become a society guided by business principles and technology, and religion has all the appearances of being quaint at best, likely just useless, and, at worst, dangerous and deadly. Civilization, however, was built on the premises of a religion that permeated every aspect of life. That influence has been slowly replaced by that of a materialistic reductionism that suggests all things, this blog included, are but the random results of dry atoms bumping about a cold universe. Naturally there has been a reaction. The most vocal of believers, the Fundamentalists of all stripes, have directly challenged science in the arena of veracity. As we all know, however, Fundamentalists aren’t really equipped to convince the masses. The Bible, the underlying strength of the literalist, has come under scrutiny and has been demonstrated to be more inclined to myth than history. What more does a scientific worldview need to weld shut its superior outlook? And yet, reasoning, non-reactive religion still exists. Still has a place in this mechanistic universe where miracles are disallowed.

I recently read about a Templeton Foundation initiative that is funding programs on religion and science at seminaries. Some scientists excoriate the Templeton Foundation for trying to keep religion in the picture, but my humble opinion is that Templeton and its money have nothing to do with it. Religion is a very human response to a universe it can’t fully understand. Empirical method seems to work, and the results are so complex that few can even hope to comprehend. All but the most hopeless, on the other hand, can understand “love thy neighbor.” Religion continues to guide countless lives—most of them for the good, and not for the incendiary responses of a challenged literalism. The time has come for seminary curricula to adjust to the world as we know it. That world is run by inhuman forces that may help or harm humanity in equal measure. Religion, however, need not battle with science. It must, however, add it to the curriculum.

The Past of Education

Meanwhile on earth, I have been checking up on my colleagues at General Seminary. While I’m limited in what I’m allowed to say, an article last week on Inside Higher Ed indicated that a provisional readmission of seven of eight of General’s faculty is now in place. There will be mediation. People are especially good at recognizing patterns. Some years ago, a naive and overly trusting individual, I also participated in mediation. The faculty at a certain seminary had been turned over to Conflict Management Incorporated to learn that you need to make the pie larger before slicing it up. Everyone can get enough to be satisfied. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll still have a job after the dessert course. Power structures being what they are, no one willingly lets go. And we’ll do just about anything to get the media off our backs.

Seminaries are probably more important to higher education than anyone would like to admit or acknowledge. The impetus to gather and educate individuals began as a religious enterprise. The earliest universities were often founded for that very purpose, and even the great intellectual powerhouses of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were originally established to train clergy. Religion and education have been inextricably tied together since the Middle Ages and even before. Ironically, these days clergy are often cast as backward and superstitious. When’s the last time a seminary faculty landed a robot on a comet? If you ever venture to a church door, however, often the denizen of the pulpit is seminary bred. And there is power here. The collective collections can support such splendor as the Vatican. The faithful, we know, are willing to give. With a little pressure.

The Protestant traditions, despite their power structures, never officially developed a doctrine of ex cathedra truth. It is actually a difficult concept to pull off when there are over 40,000 different denominations of Christianity, and many other religions besides. But we can insist that our clergy attend special schooling. We can pay close attention to those we hire to teach them. Not everyone can read a dead language. Anyone, however, can quote scripture (or at least look it up on the internet). Seminary professors must have advanced degrees and faithful hearts. A combination that may be rarer than a comet. And we will put those individuals into a power structure that dates from the Middle Ages and wonder why it no longer works. Somewhere out past Jupiter a human device sits on a comet. Meanwhile in New York City we’re just not sure we can trust these people with our future priests. People are, however, especially good at recognizing patterns.

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Lead Serve

For never having been a Catholic, my life has been strangely tied to the Roman Catholic Church. Like many in my diminishing profession, I was raised in a religious household—in my case non-denominational Protestantism with a strong Fundamentalist streak—and have wandered a bit from my starting point. When my family moved to a small town with just two churches—United Methodist and Roman Catholic—we had no choice which to join. I learned the Methodists were just disgruntled Anglicans, and logic dictated that I would eventually join the Episcopal Church and gain a deep appreciation of Catholicism. My first professional job was teaching at an “Anglo-Catholic” Episcopal Seminary. While there I was interviewed for positions at Roman Catholic schools, and not infrequently brought to campus: the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities, Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, Sacred Heart School of Theology just down the road in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. Most of the time I was in the list of finalists when the position would go to a Roman Catholic, “no hard feelings, right?” Long ago the Episcopal Church, ironically, got out of the higher education market.

It is with this background that I keep an eye on the Roman Catholic Church. Many friends and colleagues are Catholic and we have far more in common than I have with my Fundamentalist forebears. I frequently find myself in wonder at Pope Francis. Many church leaders have made the news over the past several decades, but few of them for such good. In an article on NBC over the weekend, the Pope called for seminary reform, noting that always toeing the line will turn priests into “little monsters.” I taught at Nashotah House for fourteen years, and I know exactly what he means. I encountered students who could quote Paul about being freed from the law and in the next breath lay down ecclesiastical law with enough force to behead a heathen. The Episcopal Church, which is small but disproportionately powerful, should take the words of the pontiff to heart.

A cold day in...

A cold day in…

Pope Francis noted that seminaries need to keep up with the times. Indeed, the laity of most religious traditions have little trouble accommodating to culture while their faith remains mired in the Middle Ages. In a world robbed of essences and meanings, it is difficult to teach future clergy that the spirit of a faith can be honored in outwardly different ways. The idea that we can just hold on ’til Jesus gets back should’ve been questioned once Islam came to be a major force a few centuries after Christianity settled in. Since that time Christianity has fractured into thousands of sects united by little more than essences. Instead of settling in for the long haul as an empire, the Pope is suggesting that the church settle in as servants. That’s a radical idea. And it is one, if I read my Bible aright, that its founder would be pleased to find in force should he ever decide to return.

Buyer Beware

Pain, it is said, has a wonderful way of focusing the mind. So when I woke up in what can best be described as a body position used for extras in the movie, Twister, I took a few aspirin and got on with my life. I had purchased non-refundable tickets for a campus visit, and capitalism is nothing if not unsympathetic. The lower back pain was fine when sitting, or standing. Try anything in between, however, and you’ll learn the real meaning of reading the riot act. Once off the train—slowly, slowly—I was fine again, until I had to sit down. The next morning, facing a day of meetings (why is everyone’s office on the fourth floor? Why do Brownstones still lack elevators?), I decided I’d better pop into CVS for some meds. It was with considerable irony and not a few groans that I noted all the products for back pain were on the bottom shelves. The condoms, in the same aisle, were right at eye-level. Sitting on the floor, pondering the relative merits of chemicals of which I’d never heard, I thought about what we take for granted.

Parents and guardians are our first teachers. Among those early lessons are often the religious ones. Recently speaking with both seminary professors and pastors, I have heard the common refrain that church membership is declining and the number of younger people listing themselves as religiously unaffiliated is growing. I noticed this in my teaching outside the seminary setting; quite apart from students of other religious traditions, many undergrads took my class knowing nothing at all of the cultural matrix of Christianity in which they’d been raised. It is also true in a consumer mentality that one shops for religious experiences just like one shops for backache medicine. You go with the one that works for you. Few bother to ask if they agree with the theology, after all, Methodist = Baptist = Presbyterian = Lutheran in many people’s minds. Doan’s or Bayer? Take your pick.

Now that Dark Shadows has been released for home viewing, another component may be added to the equation. We pass on what we value to those we love. While the writing for Dark Shadows leaves quite a lot to be desired, there are a few memorable lines. Angelique, you may recall, cursed Barnabas Collins for unrequited love, turning him into a vampire. When he laments to Elizabeth Stoddard that Angelique hates him, she replies, “No, if she had hated you she would have merely killed you. A curse takes devotion.” Passing on our beliefs, perhaps, somehow ties into all this. As believing creatures, perhaps we each need to find our own solutions. My only fear is that when I find the right remedy, it may very well be on the bottom shelf.

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Life’s Soundtrack

Calvin once said to Hobbes, “I thought my life would seem more interesting with a musical score and a laugh track.” In many ways, our lives do have soundtracks. From my youngest days dramatic music has moved me and Jim Steinman always seemed to know just which buttons to push and strings to pull to bring it off. Growing up in humble circumstances, however, I missed the whole video craze that accompanied MTV, back when MTV still showed music. Friends would tell me about the great videos I was missing, and I let my imagination run wild. Recently, however, a friend pointed out the video of Bonnie Tyler singing the Steinman hit, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on YouTube. This particular video brings together so much of my adult life that it seems like Steinman spent a few years inside my head. Well, maybe not that much. The song came out just as my first love was breaking up with me, back in college. I attended Grove City College, a campus that, despite its pristine Christian image, can be very gothic at night. The first chords of that song are always like a stake through my heart. Few experiences in life are as dramatic as unrequited love. Just queue up that song and I’m a college junior again.

The video, however, is set in an old-style boy’s boarding school. The setting is not far off from the antiquated campus of Nashotah House seminary, gothic both by day and by night. The imagery of the video employs English trappings of cassocks and surplices and candles along with clandestine romps in the night. Seminaries, in my experience, leave many secrets in their shadows. My heartbreak as an undergraduate cannot compare with some of the drama I witnessed both as a student and a professor in seminary. The pious are often among the most passionate of people, but they must learn to be actors before their congregations. Such inherent conflict is fertile ground for intense drama. The video plays this out with the headmistress (Tyler) fantasizing about her young male charges in a highly ritualized, yet anarchic setting. Too close to the truth.

The sacred and the profane lie close together and may be teased apart only with difficulty. The experience of buying an LP when I was a teenager was an investment for not just the sound, but also the album art, the aroma of the vinyl and ink when the plastic wrap first came off, the feel of the heavy paper sleeve housing the disc. It could transport me to another place. Today the iPod reduces the sounds down to background noise, not a soundtrack. The drama we create for our lives is efficient and convenient, but in the end, plastic. Perhaps it is Calvin’s laugh track. No matter. Even if it is on YouTube, with its electronic sound, that video will take me back decades in time, and will be one of the repeated songs on the soundtrack of my life.

Honest to God

“A lot of traditional beliefs are outside people and have grown into rigid things that you can’t touch any more”–these words come from a minister of the Protestant Church of the Netherlands, according to a report yesterday on the BBC. The title of the article, “Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world,” touches on a theme mentioned earlier on this blog about the church in Sweden: clergy often live with their own doubts about God. Showing similar results to the Swedish study, the Protestant Church of the Netherlands hosts one in six clergy who are agnostic or atheist. I would suggest that the specialization of labor–as well as the persuasiveness of science–stand behind this phenomenon. In modern societies far removed from human roots, we really don’t pay much attention to the training others receive to take on their professions. We assume that higher education is doing its task and that professional bodies like the American Bar Association put up tests to deter those who make false claims. Seldom do we reflect that our off-the-farm lifestyle is a very recent human development and that we haven’t really had time to sort out whether all this complicated training ever really works.

Don't rock the boat...

When I was a seminary professor, I saw the dilemma this way: seminaries crave, indeed require academic respectability. Accrediting bodies insist that a substantial portion of faculty hold terminal degrees. Seminaries, however, are run by confessional groups that insist on certain unscientific worldviews and premises. Doctoral students, unless indoctrinated at faux institutions that block scientific evidence, are educated in a worldview that contradicts their religious training on several levels. Seminaries require educated faculty, but education itself undermines traditional beliefs. Some conservative groups have been aware of this dynamic for years and have begun establishing “universities” that intentionally bar subjects that challenge their worldview. In other words, they want clergy with false credentials who are willing to fight for the cause, while still receiving academic accreditation. Few insiders will blow the whistle since the modern church is built on this shaky foundation.

What is being discovered in northern Europe likely pulses beneath the surface of many developed nations (again, with their specialization of labor). After a person spends three years of training beyond college to receive a “Master of Divinity” degree there is high financial motivation to see the process through to the end. The faithful in the pews, far removed from the realities of theological education, expect the same old show. With employment options nearly nil outside the church, smart clergy know the score. It is better to live a life of quiet desperation, mouthing the party line, than to be thrown into that swirling maelstrom of survival called the job market. Organized religions began when people lived on the land, very few people were educated, and priests were left alone to do their job. Education is costly in far more than college tuition bills. As they are learning in the Netherlands, growing up is never easy.

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...