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The Slow-Motion Shipwreck of Theological Education

shipwreckBoth the Apostle Paul and Jonah have been appearing recently in the daily office lectionary of the Episcopal Church. Both stories feature shipwrecks: the one Jonah averted by having himself tossed overboard (Jonah 1:11-12) and the one that destroyed the ship Paul was on but with no lives lost (Acts 27:21-26).

Both stories suggest a way of thinking about what’s happening in graduate-level theological education today. Both stories offer assurances of God’s presence in the midst of disaster. Both stories make me wonder: Does the ship really matter?

For some years now (decades?) we’ve been witnessing what amounts to a slow-motion shipwreck of seminary education. The current turmoil at the General Theological Seminary is only the latest example (read more about that here), as is the similar but less public uncertainty at Episcopal Divinity School, not to mention the closing of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary as a residential school for the Master of Divinity degree in 2008.

Those examples come from my own denominational home, but similar moments are unfolding nearly everywhere in higher education. If you work for a divinity school attached to a university – especially if it’s Harvard or Yale – you may have no direct experience of all this, but everyone else in the theological world does.

Each school, of course, must deal with its own particularities (and they can be quite complex, if not confounding and infuriating, as the Crusty Old Dean reminds us). Yet I am convinced that the current upheaval of seminary education mirrors a broader tectonic shift in institutional Christianity itself, at least in Europe and the U.S. Others have noticed this long before I did, including all those involved in “emergent Christianity.” But here’s the obvious question that no one (yet) can answer very well: what exactly is emerging from all this?

To suppose that something is emerging at all sounds rather hopeful. But let’s be clear: the whole thing is a shipwreck of epic (biblical?) proportions. And still, I am profoundly hopeful.

I have no fix-it plan for the future of theological education on which to base my hope. But I do take solace in remembering that ours is not the first generation to face moments of uncertainty and crisis. That rich history reminds me that every ship eventually wears out, or simply splinters in the throes of storm-tossed seas. Perhaps that’s the point: the ship matters far less than where we’re going, even when we can’t see over the horizon.

Getting to that unfamiliar shore will mean swimming for our lives away from the shipwreck, and prior even to that, recognizing that the ship is a wreck. If we do that, as Paul insisted, everyone gets out alive and actually thrives. Or, as Jonah ruefully realized, repentance matters.

In no particular order, here are three of my current observations about the sinking ship and the new shore that beckons:

  1. Good Mental Health Resists Binaries and Extremes

My therapist urges me regularly to avoid binary extremes. That seems like sound advice for Christian churches and seminaries. Most Christian churches, for example, live and operate today as if the twentieth century never happened. Seminaries have followed along that same path, forming church leaders using a model developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. That model was helpful then, not so helpful now. Or as my therapist also likes to say, that was a good coping mechanism when you were growing up, but it’s not useful as an adult. The ship carried Paul to Malta – where it was time to abandon it.

I’m actually very grateful for the deep formation I received in the Anglo-Catholic tradition from my Episcopal seminary back in the 1980s. It was spiritually nourishing, theologically inspiring, and intellectually stimulating community. Indeed, I was so deeply formed in that seminary community that I really didn’t want to leave – perhaps Jonah felt the same way in the belly of a fish. Trying to replicate that seminary pattern of life as a priest in a suburban Chicago parish was perhaps not disastrous but certainly less than helpful.

What then do we do with the rich legacy of our traditions in a world our ancestors never could have imagined? That question need not and should not rely on binary choices. “Formation” is not necessarily bad; the “tradition” is not irrelevant; leading and sustaining communities of counter-cultural Gospel witness is imperative. Yes, and still, we can’t keep repeating how Christians were formed in the tradition a century ago just because we don’t want to reinvent the whole thing from scratch. Mental and spiritual health will resist extremes, even when the middle way (remember that?) seems unclear or muddled.

  1. Karl Barth Won

Some years ago a colleague from another seminary made some arresting observations about contemporary theological education that have stuck with me, not least this: Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy won the day in the 1960s and 1970s. Evidence of this victory infuses nearly every seminary curriculum for the Master of Divinity degree, regardless of where the school falls on the conservative/liberal spectrum. Those curricula begin with Bible, then move into Church History, and then tie them together with Systematic Theology – those are the three sources, in that order, that Barth insisted constituted the only sources for revelation.

I can hear the howls of protest now, mostly from my liberal and “progressive” seminary colleagues. To which I would gently ask, why then do so many seminaries persist in that pattern? What if we began the M.Div. degree instead by taking field trips to art museums, city council meetings, and economic development organizations as if these were also sources of revelation? (I mean, aren’t they?) Following each excursion, students and faculty could engage in shared theological reflection, regardless of how biblically, historically, or systematically sound the reflection is. The academic disciplines come later, as tools for honing and refining our reflection.

Useful? Naïve? Not academic enough? I don’t know, but does Barth continue to win?

I actually appreciate many of Barth’s insights but continue to worry about the patriarchal and paternalistic (if not actually infantilizing) patterns of formation that so often attend that Barthian approach to theology. (Here’s just one exhortation to remember that seminarians are actually adults.) Seminary “formation” matters as we often get in our churches what our seminaries model in their pedagogical styles (and believe me, that can and does keep me up at night).

We might try reshaping seminary education for collaboration and mutual goal-setting.  We could do this by resetting learning outcomes every year based on the particularities of each incoming class rather than the standards set by an academy (let alone accreditation agencies) that may have little if anything to do with what Christian congregations need today. That would be scary but maybe also liberating. To be both we need constantly to ask whom we (denominations and seminaries) are trying to please and appease, and why, in the standards we set.

More pointedly: Do seminaries serve accrediting agencies or academic journals or the Church?  I no longer believe we can just assume to answer “all three” without caveat or qualification.

  1. The Gospel (Still) Matters

Whatever “Gospel” means remains contested, and rightly so. The stakes are high. At the same time, I am struck by how many seminarians struggle to integrate their faith (including the “mystical experiences” that many of them are too chagrined even to mention) with their academic work.

I know, I know: we theological academics insist that scholarly work is part and parcel of “spiritual” experience. And yes, “deconstruction” is a necessary prerequisite for a “constructive” approach to a mature faith. Yes…and, students still struggle. And then they graduate, get ordained, and lead congregations filled with people just as hungry as they are to figure out whether and how the Gospel still matters in a broken world.

In particular, I worry that too many Euro-American Christians focus on the shipwreck and never ponder the island. More traditionally, the central proclamation of the Christian Testament has virtually disappeared from center stage: resurrection from death. In part, this kind of reticence about the Gospel reflects a fatal flaw in the model of theological education derived from the 19th century, when “resurrection” got lumped in with all the other “mythological” stuff that belongs to a pre-enlightened age.

This fatal flaw appears in liberal circles whenever we insist that human beings always have the ability to build something new out of the wreckage of disaster. We don’t have to trot out Pelagius (yet again) to worry about that kind of “lift yourself up by your own bootstraps” theology. For conservatives, the fatal flaw appears whenever Christian communities fixate on a better life beyond the grave to the exclusion of all else. That seems like a sure and certain recipe for denigrating this planetary arena of God’s creative work. Climate change, anyone?

Neither of these approaches seems convincing enough to abandon the shipwreck and swim for an unknown shore. Both of those views tend to evacuate God from the messy, joyous, invigorating, exasperating, triumphant moments of daily life. That’s precisely where most people going to church today want to find God. Do they?

I do believe something is “emerging” from the detritus of modern Western Christianity. Perhaps we could still call it “Gospel” if it features Jesus rising from the dead – the central proclamation of the earliest Christians. What in the world could this mean?

It could mean a new world rising from the malaise of a dead economy, one tailored for the wealthy at the expense of the poor; it could mean rising from a dying planet in a new vision of ecological relation; it could mean rising from the constant death knell of racial injustice and violence into a world where diversity is embraced as a gift; and yes, I do believe it means rising from the death of our mortal bodies into the incomprehensible, eternal life of God. (Naturally, I have more to say about that, which you can find in chapter 7 of Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness.)shipwreck2

To see all of those moments woven into a single garment of effective theological education will mean attending carefully to both Paul and Jonah. As Paul’s ship fell apart, those who were able swam to shore; those who couldn’t swim grabbed pieces of the crumbling ship on which to float ashore (Acts 27:43-44). We need the pioneers who just jump in and swim. We also need those who see valuable pieces in the flotsam to save and preserve.

Jonah, of course, resisted nearly every moment of God’s gracious renewals. He was even resentful of God’s grace to the penitent! But he nonetheless stands for a remarkable act of courage. Throw me overboard, he tells the floundering ship’s crew, and you will be saved. They did, and they were.

The curmudgeons among us (and I can certainly fit that bill at times) still have something to offer to this moment, even if it’s only the courage to let God have God’s way, as Jonah (resentfully) did. That, too, counts as profound witness.

Courage will, of course, mean change. It will mean changing how I teach. It will mean changing how student success is evaluated. It will mean changing seminary curricula. It will mean changing the governance structure of our schools and our congregations/denominations. It will mean changing how Christians live in the world. It means all this and more because the Gospel changes everything. It always has and always should, if it’s Gospel.

I’m not prepared for those changes. No one is. And that’s the point. As Rowan Williams once observed some years ago, “The Gospel cannot be both palatable and transformative at the same time.” Paul had the same insight when he was knocked off his feet on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-5), as did Jonah, when he had himself cast into a turbulent sea.

If the Gospel is (re)emerging from today’s tumult, it will not be comfortable. But it will be life-giving.

beach_breakfastMay we be gentle with each other as we swim to shore or, as the case may be, as we are vomited up on a beach. Who knows? Perhaps someone waits for us there, cooking breakfast (John 21:4-14).

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Church-Making or Change-Making?

How will we save our churches? Should we?

Like many other clergy and theological educators, I have thought a lot about the first question and not nearly enough about the second.

Membership in mainline Protestant churches, as so many realize, has been declining steadily since the 1970s; many congregations have closed. That trend has accelerated in some regions, even among more conservative and Evangelical churches, which paints an equally bleak future for free-standing seminaries. Graduate-level theological education itself seems vaguely quaint to many, and to others woefully out of synch with a rapidly changing world. (See this analysis from a seminary professor.)

We suffer from no dearth of ideas and programs to reverse all these trends. But I’m still haunted by that second question – should we?

I’m haunted even more by something I heard the late biblical theologian Walter Wink say some years ago. He said it to a gathering of clergy in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. This is what he said: “Whenever an institution devotes more resources to its own survival than to its mission, that institution has become demonic.”

I certainly don’t consider Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley “demonic,” which has remained a small mission for each of its 135 years and has faced more than a few moments of possible closure in that history. Yet the congregation has met those moments of anxiety best when it worried less about getting more members in the pews and focused more on how to address the needs of the neighborhood in which those pews sit.

eucharist_contemporaryGood Shepherd helps me to remember that the mission of the Church is not over – because the Church has never had a mission. God, however, does have a mission, expressed in various ways: to gather all peoples on the Holy Mountain where they learn war no more (Isaiah 2:1-4); to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19); and to ensure life in abundance for all (John 10:10) by dissolving the social barriers that divide us (Galatians 3:28) in a city where all tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:14).

The question today (as it has always been) is not whether churches will survive but how Christian communities can participate better and more fully in God’s own mission of reconciling love and transformative grace.

After hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Tulane University decided not to rebuild. The university decided instead to re-invent itself for hurricane-katrinathe sake of rebuilding New Orleans. “Faculty and staff lend their expertise” to create an educational opportunity for students to engage in the “largest urban renewal project ever undertaken in the United States.” The broader mission of the school derives from that vision: to equip graduates to do that same work in their own communities around the country and the world.

Here’s a thought experiment: Consider the last 100 years as a century-long socio-political hurricane in Western society. In the wake of that devastation, the Church decides not to rebuild but to re-invent itself as a networked hub of spiritual leadership for social transformation. Clergy would still preach, preside over sacraments, and provide pastoral care in this vision. They would do all this, however, not for the sake of making churches but for the sake of remaking society – a world where all can thrive and flourish.

Can church-making serve the kind of change-making the world needs today? That question, it seems to me, could channel institutional anxiety into constructive energy for renewing Christian witness and ministry.

That energy has been percolating for a number of years now. It has inspired some Christians to embrace what Phyllis Tickle has been chronicling so diligently: Emergent Christianity. (See also Emergent Village as well as something a tad edgier here and Darkwood Brew.) A lot of not-explicitly-Christian-or-particularly-religious people have tapped into that energy, too. Some of these are social entrepreneurs or social innovators committed to social change for good (See the Social Capital Markets conference and its newly created people of faith track as well as the pioneering work of Ashoka in higher education.)

hands_collaborationBringing together those worlds of emerging Christian witness and social innovation could catalyze exactly what the world needs – not more institutions but a diverse movement of spiritual renewal and social transformation.

That very possibility has seized the institutional imagination of Pacific School of Religion, the seminary where I teach in Berkeley. A new strategic vision, programming initiatives, compelling partnerships – all of this will unfold in this academic year and has already begun with a cohort of “Changemaker Fellows.”

I’m convinced that theological ideas and spiritual practice play an indispensable role in social transformation. I believe we still need churches and seminaries to provide those resources for leadership. The question all of us need to address much more collaboratively, creatively, and constructively is why, and then of course, how.