Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On Christian Seminaries Being Christian: Prophecy and Proclamation

Though I'd never heard it before I came to Candler, I heard it plenty once I arrived: the oft-repeated, well-scorned phrase lavished by parishioners on potential seminarians, "Don't let them take away your Jesus!"

Given the relative merits and demerits of the warning, it does name a reality: that often the experience of attending Christian seminary leads away from, rather than expressly toward, Christian faith. This of course is a bizarre event on the face of it. Christians called to the ministry go to the place purposed to train Christians called to the ministry and regularly find themselves wondering if they ought to be Christians at all.

If this description reflected a rigorous commitment to the ceaseless pursuit of truth -- which, I presume, it may and often does -- and therefore at times such a pursuit rightly leads to the exposing of weak, uncritical, or naive faith, then it ought to be applauded in every way. Bishops and elders complain of diminished sacerdotal ranks; well, the answer is not to fill them with persons unfit for the ministry of God's people.

Having said that, it is not clear to me that this laudable situation is always or even predominantly the case. At the very least, the flip side should equally be true. If in classes seminarians are to be challenged, called out, and led into deeply critical thought in order to test, examine, and purify their faith, it seems also to be right to expect some classes to function as epistemic and theological strengthening of preexistent but vital Christian faith. For example, if a non-Christian were sitting in these lectures and discussions, and in some circumstances might be convinced to remain outside the faith, just so in other classes he or she ought to find the faith beautiful and compelling, precisely because of the penetrating and truthful thought on display.

That is to say: for Christian seminary to be Christian, at times it must be right for the prophetic word, and at times it must be right for proclamation. When the former is absent -- as in some conservative and fundamentalist settings -- the faith becomes mindless magic; when the latter is absent -- as in some mainline and liberal schools -- the faith becomes gnostic self-projection. What we need is time and space set aside for patient, deliberate, thoughtful exploration and articulation of the historic faith for today's world, with nary an obstacle for biting critique nor a whiff of embarrassment at faithful piety.

How possible these goals are, whether they have been achieved in the past, if they are present anywhere today, and how to go about enacting them wherever we find ourselves -- I leave for others to determine.

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