Why Seminary?

As many of you know, I am working on a book that looks at the declining enrollments at residential seminaries. My interest in the topic precedes the latest row at GTS. In 1998-99 I was placed in charge of the Graduate Theological Union’s reaccreditation, which gave me a very specific place from which to view its nine seminaries and (at the time) twenty-one research institutes. But in 1998 I still considered myself a historian. Now for the past eleven years I have been teaching economic theory and history at UC Berkeley. My perspective has changed, not a lot, but somewhat, since 1998.

Image result for pacific school of religion

One of the things that strikes me as I think about seminary is that seminaries are hybrids. We are familiar with the schools of Athens, at least Aristotle’s Lyceum and Plato’s Academy. And we are familiar from post-exilic diaspora literature of the “schools” of rabbinic teaching. Acts 15 offers a perfect example where “apostles and other leaders” gather to hash out whether non-Jewish believers need to be circumcised. But it doesn’t quite rise up to the standard of Aristotle’s curriculum at the Lyceum. Not by a long shot. And, yet, a direct line can be drawn from the so-called “Jerusalem Council” to the fourth century councils during which bishops and other learned disciples compared notes on what they had learned from the communities in their diocese. Their Nicene Creed might justifiably be viewed as the product of a learned seminar — the outcome of a deep and often cantankerous conversation over “well, then, what exactly do we believe?”

But the Nicene Council was not a seminary; not yet.

Seminaries preserve, germinate, and disseminate the “semen,” the seed. They, literally, inseminate those who pass through them. And, so, it is worth wondering with what seminarians are inseminated; is this rape or is it a more mutual, consensual engagement? Why is seminary?

Here is my thought. I think that seminaries are pre-conciliar. They introduce future ministers to all — yes, all — of the councils of the past, where women and men of faith wrestled with matters that the faithful, from all diocese, felt worth wrestling with. It is less important that they fall on one side or the other of these ongoing discussions than that they join the discussion, that they recognize its participants as members of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and that they are prepared to relate these discussions — yes, all of them — to the communities to which they are being called. But, it is not only the discussions that inseminate our seminarians. Seminarians are also introduced to practices and ways of seeing that transport them out of their isolated communities and into the communities of Christians spread out across time and space.

Seminaries are places where ministers in training meet and learn about all of these past discussions and where they learn about all of the different ways Christians have been Christians over time.

So, what might it mean for us to attenuate this process, streamline it, pare it down, trim off the fat? What is the fat?

Of course, in some traditions it is felt that I meet Jesus here and now, completely, at this very moment, in my highly personal and private encounter with God’s Spirit. Some traditions broaden and constrain this highly personal and private encounter by requiring that it conform to encounters attested to in Holy Scripture, but nothing more. My own Episcopal tradition is equally interested in the places and times, both of those who composed the Sacred text and of those who interpret it. And so we say that our own experience is informed by Scripture, Tradition, and (obviously) by our own (and others’) interpretations. But, even this leaves the question open: where is the fat? What body of commentaries should we eliminate? What communities’ experiences are no longer valid? Who are we going to eliminate from the discussion? What debate, in our view, do seminarians no longer need to know?

These are questions that institutional heads, trustees, and institutional patrons need seriously to raise both for themselves and for the parishes served by their graduates. What part of Church are you ready to eliminate? What voices do you want silenced? How small and insular and self-obsessed can Catholic be and still remain “Catholic” (i.e., universal)?

Our seminaries are struggling to meet inconceivable budget constraints. Yet, might I propose that the solution is not to place constraints on the instruction we provide for seminarians. The solution is to share our deep and comprehensive vision with the patrons of our communities who have every reason to desire their success. Our seminaries need a full and fuller offering of historians, theologians, musicians, philosophers, and preachers to plant the seed of emancipation in a new generation of ministers. Even to raise the question “Where is the fat?” is a question that ought to make every donor shudder. Because the answer is: this is not fat. It is life. It is salvation.

Kant on the Couch

Last Tuesday I participated in a mini-retreat organized by the Church Pension Group devoted to Planning for Wellness. The retreat was surprisingly well done. One of the presentations noted how, for purposes of survival, human beings were more inclined to focus on the negative. True that. The facilitator then went on to tell us that during her hellish commute she assiduously avoids listening to the news — negative — and, rather than focusing on fellow drivers cutting off and honking at one another, she instead focuses on fellow drivers who make way for one another and appear to be enjoying their commutes. She arrives at her office feeling more refreshed than when she left home.

One slide in the presentation asks: “It’s All in My Head?” No. But you do have a choice on what you will focus your attention. (In my head I am hearing Ponty Python’s Graham Chapman —Brian — strung up on a cross between two criminals while the chorus sings “always look on the bright side of life.”)

The very next slide displays a quote from eminent psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. . . . The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”

Freedom: the absence of constraint. The definition is pure Immanuel Kant. It is a definition of freedom on the boundary, which is to say at the extreme. When all our other freedoms have been stripped from us, what remains is Kant’s transcendental subject. Kant’s definition of freedom is perfectly suited to the death camps of Germany. No doubt, at this extremity, it works. Between German death camps and Napa County retreat centers I am sure there are plenty of boundary experiences.

And, yet, it strikes me that invoking Dr Frankl during a wellness retreat seeks to place every unpleasantness — e.g., a hellish commute — on the same level as a death camp experience. The two, I would argue, are incomparable. Or, more accurately, when I cast my daily displeasures as boundary experiences from which I should divert my attention, do I not also ignore the practical causes and potential solutions from which these displeasures arise?

Put differently, if focusing on the negative is, as the presenter noted, an evolutionary adaptation designed to protect us from harm, then what is the harm I am inviting into my life by “ac-cent-u-at-ing the pos-i-tive”?

Transforming all experience into the extreme case, inviting me to enfold myself entirely back into my transcendental subject, strikes me not simply as terrible practical advice, but also as empirically false. Yes. It might improve my attitude; who wants to hear about war, misogyny, oligarchs, climate change, refugees, and the opioid epidemic? “Always look on the bright side of life.”

But then there are the real-life threats that positive thinking — and breathing — cannot eliminate. To be sure, I can block them from my mind. But they are still there. Right? They are still threats. Right? That I am ignoring. Right?

So, let me offer a different definition of freedom, this one from the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen: freedom is the conditions that make for freedom: education, good health, security, companionship, time, and reasonable wealth. Not then the absence of constraint, not the transcendental subject; but constraints that hold and bear me forward, valued and well cared for, but also valuing and caring for those around me.

If ever I should find myself against the existential wall, as Dr Frankl did, I will no doubt need to draw upon my inner resources to carry me through. Yet, in some measure, I will only find myself in that extreme place because others have retreated into their own transcendental bubble. In the face of war, misogyny, hatred, and mismanagement of the world, they have turned the channel, or simply tuned out.

Put differently, the good that I seek is not within me. Rather is this good found in relationship to the world. Indeed, were this not so then focusing on the negative would have no positive benefits with respect to survival.

Now it might be that I am a victim of abuse, that I have experienced some physical or mental trauma, and that I require therapy to help me overcome this trauma. Or it might be that my brain functions in such a way that I see danger and feel threats where there are none. In such cases, I might require pharmaceutical assistance to help my brain to more accurately distinguish real from imagined danger. Yet, it strikes me that, absent organic or traumatic cause, our focus on the transcendental subject invites the very dangers it seeks to avoid.