21 May 12 // The Future of Seminary Education

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.  -J.R.R. Tolkien

Upon deciding to attend seminary, many of us were cautioned to find something else – anything else – and do that instead. Get married. Start a dot-com. Become an accountant. But do not go into the one field that celebrates diversity while demanding rigid conformity. Do not invest your money and time toward a degree which, upon graduation, will be nothing more than a conversation piece, evidence of some half-brained adventure that helped close out your twenties. Our generation faces many crises and so we shouldn’t dawdle by trying to take scripture seriously. What do any of the sacred scriptures have to say about a global economic crisis, after all, except that we should expect it and see it as part of the plan? What does it have to say about genocide except to support it but not be the first bully to cast a stone? We find ourselves almost overwhelmed by the barrage of information and disappointment.

This is something we accept as part of our calling and meta-narrative. Well-read and articulate people of faith should be expected to speak to their time with innovative solutions. It is inherent every time we invoke the name of G-d. As 2012 begins, we must acknowledge our moral responsibility compels us to become more devoted towards this cause – to help others, to find ways to feed them and make sacrifices so that others may find and live in that better way we propose. But the crises are not all “out there” in some distant land. Some of them are occurring within education and seminaries. This is a time when the future of education in general and seminary in particular is being scrutinized and, like the neighbor at the burning house, expected to find some way to help. For some, this will mean re-evaluating their decision to come to seminary and for others this will be a time when we fully and finally commit to “this thing we do.”

Earlier this year, Pres. Mouw co-authored a report with Andy Crouch entitled The Seminary of the Future. The report indicates that the future of seminary education involves “augmented reality,” a creative way to express “online education.” Mouw and Crouch (a Fuller trustee) propose that in our increasingly individualistic society, students find freedom in private studies, though they appreciate the perspectives that online cohorts provide. This move is not so much about technology, but a culture which consumes technology and resists commitment to enduring relationships. “The dominant culture,” they go on to write, “that once at least paid lip service to the importance of Christian institutions is simultaneously more secular and more attuned to faiths other than Christianity.” Seminaries, and all Christian institutions, consequently must embrace globalization to survive. The white, middle-class Evangelicalism that followed World War II has given way to new traditions, practices and theologies and the seminary must change to accommodate these differences or continue becoming more obsolete. When in doubt, create an online account. This solution is simple but it is also a reduction of genuine issues. Education cannot magically be fixed by going online anymore than your relationships can. There are genuine issues of fact that must be addressed, ways that culture must be confronted and questioned. Are we better now that we were ten years ago? Are we proud of who we are becoming or are we pleasantly contributing to our own epidemic?

Dr. Philip Clayton, dean of Claremont School of Theology, takes another approach. In his essay, “An Emergent Seminary for an Emergent Church,” he writes that the future of seminary education is directly related to whether a seminary will embrace Emergent theology. The dilemma of our future is not, he argues, about seminaries at all but how the Church is transforming into something as yet undefined. Culture, he argues, drives what the Church is becoming and seminaries are making changes much too slowly out of fear. In some ways, we can move with the changes. In others, we must wait to see what we are adapting to. Such a position would have been worth blogsophere buzz a decade ago perhaps when “Emergent” was a buzzword, but as contemporary Christianity continues to become post-Emergent, Clayton’s position must be scrutinized. At Claremont, he says the directive is now to educate their students and succeed in

“becom[ing] leaders for the emerging forms of the church. A smaller number of these new leaders will stand in pulpits and read sermons to congregations, watching their parishioners holding bulletins and thumbing through hymnals. Many more will be “hosts” of discussions, spiritual directors, community organizers and Christian participants in interfaith collaborations.”

Towards this end, Clayton reasons that students need to know the traditions of the Church and devote themselves to life-long experiential learning, but in equal measure must be “able to read contemporary trends in global culture more profoundly and accurately than others.” Progressive (and prophetic) as we imagine ourselves to be, this is a quality worth developing some more. To this, newly minted provost Doug McConnell has been addressing Fuller in a series of articles and letters to the Fuller community. McConnell admits that Fuller, facing new opportunities, has taken on more endeavors than their respective components can manage. “[O]ur capacity has limits,” he says. Fuller must navigate this desire for broader studies and various opportunities while facing budget restrictions. Decreased enrollment and “budget concerns” revolving around a $2.5 million shortage caused the seminary to institute mandatory vacation time for all departments for the recent holidays. While exploring “all options, including departmental expenses, travel costs, vacation liability, retirement contributions, increasing revenue, etc.” to cut costs, McConnell insists that “layoffs are not being considered at this time.” In a follow up interview with The SEMI in early December, McConnell was adamant that termination of faculty was not and is not being considered at this time. Instead, he is optimistic that Fuller can find ways to capitalize on fundraising and inherent assets like diversity, creativity and dedication to the three staples of graduate institutions: research, writing and teaching. “We’ve really kind of lost some of our momentum for fundraising,” and “We’re going to work towards getting that back.” Such a directive implies the seminary is changing structurally “but our mission remains the same.”

Clayton’s positions assumes people of faith are not leaders. Richard Dawkins and the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens have done an excellent job demeaning and belittling the efforts of religious people to move countries, communities and individuals forward. History does not agree with this. As we look to the future and renew our investment in considering our course, Drs. Mouw and McConnell are resolute that Fuller has always been at the vanguard of creating leaders who can change the world for the better. It’s their mission, the essence of this thing we do.

Which is, of course, optimistic. Any time an institution begins to focus their attention on money instead of innovation, they are admitting a delay in some part of the process. Maslow’s lowest common denominator of survival, that primal instinct, may allow an entity to survive but it does not necessarily move us forward. We must keep in mind that any conversation about the future of seminary in general or Fuller in particular is only part of the larger one taking place concerning the place of higher education and global economy. With celebrities creating a new social media or perfume/fashion line every three weeks, higher education is not as prestigious or valuable as it once was. Among Christian education in particular, leading televangelists and authors like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, even Brian McLaren are proving that you do not need to attend seminary to lead or even influence the faith – something that McConnell says that Fuller must keep in mind as we move forward. “Corruption of the gospel such as this,” he writes, “combined with threats of violent persecution from fundamentalist Islam, makes sound teaching in ecclesiology, public theology, ethics, biblical studies, marriage and family studies and trauma counseling critical for the church’s maturity.” But who has time or money for that? Most institutions, including seminaries, face the economic crisis by round-table debates over whether to lower admission standards and academic quality or raise tuition. Northwestern State Univ. in Louisiana, my alma mater, provides a readily available case study in this regard. Faced with impending budgetary concerns, NSU decided to raise admission standards to maintain their credibility. Though praised at the time, this decision was met with extensive cuts to their operating budget, mass severance of faculty (who are now in litigation for termination of tenure) and decreased enrollment in flagship programs which have since been restructured under the supervision of seemingly unrelated fields. Physics, Engineering and Marketing are now overseen by Mathematics. It is easy to speak of what we should study and of an illustrious future, but who will be there to fill the desks? The future of the seminary, it could be argued, is not so much about what is taught and the medium in which that education is transmitted as much as to whom. To make seminary education viable again requires a united effort which (and on this, history does agree) Christianity has not collectively been noted for. Bounded-set thinking prevails and the modus operandi for education becomes implicit: we’ll take who we can get. Barbara G. Wheeler, former president of Auburn Theological Seminary puts it simply, “Almost anyone who has a college degree can gain admission to some seminary.” As observers of culture, we know seminary is not the only realm in which lower standards are becoming acceptable – even praised. Rick Perry, one of the candidates for the Republican nomination, said that the Dept. of Education would be one of three agencies he would “end” as President. When asked what the other two agencies would be, he ironically forgot it. Such an egregious error was lampooned and forgotten with a simple “Oops.” His approval ratings dipped then resurged within 24 hours once he was able to laugh the gaffe off. This should be disturbing to most of the American population: a presidential candidate who dismisses education entirely, claims God has ordained his election, and forgets huge sectors of the economy (turns out he wanted to end the Dept. of Energy). There is an easy joke here, but Perry’s approval ratings as well as the popularity of televangelism, titans of technology, celebrity culture and a general state of apathy all confirm that America exalts the uneducated. If it can be said that the standards for admission at a seminary are low among a larger debate about low expectations of education in general, what kind of student pool is this creating and what kind of graduate is this producing?

Education, as much as Christianity, is in a state of flux. Perry’s disappointment in the Dept. of Education may be uninformed, but there is certainly a genuine cause for concern. American educational reform, despite the intellectual capital present in the debate, continues to be restricted by tenure, poor instruction and allocation of intellectual capital, unionization, resistance to new paradigms as much as technology and the malaise of low expectations regarding the outcome of education. What use is high school biology in a factory town or Scholars English in a multi-lingual region after all? Specialization is considered the cure-all. If we educate a student towards a particular field and create a division of labor, even be so bold as to regionally engineer it, our economy will be fixed. This fundamental assumption about economics, proposed by Adam Smith in the 18th century, continues to inform the educational debate. After all, it is what has brought us to a seminary, an institution specializing in religious education. But Liz Coleman, president of Bennington College since 1987, disagrees with this assumption. As part of the TED lecture series, Coleman puts forward what worked for her restructuring of Bennington College, once considered the most expensive university in America.

In a 1994 report, Bennington’s Board of Trustees confessed to “a growing attachment to the status quo that if left unattended,” could have proved “lethal to Bennington’s purpose and pedagogy.” Coleman took on the specialization of education, challenging any effort to compartmentalize studies as though they had nothing to do with one another. The destructive dominance of this educational model was and is, she asserts, “enormous. Subject matters are broken up into smaller and smaller pieces, with increasing emphasis on the technical and the obscure.” She challenged Bennington to see the broad implications of instruction and time has shown her model of integration worked well for the school. So well, in fact, that the Bennington model was exported to Eastern Europe and Russia where it continues to see success. Coleman continues to argue against the “progression of today’s student to jettison every interest except one. And within that one, to continually narrow the focus, learning more and more about less and less […] despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things.” Instead of leaving the matter to “the higher powers” or even waiting expectantly for the wisdom of our scholarly instructors to bestow on us their pre-packaged and easily reductive knowledge, perhaps it is time that students begin to pursue creative ways to collectively balance the future of our profession. Naturally, this is where hecklesome ideas like, “Think better” and “Don’t blow it” come to mind. But assuming these reductive ideas are sound, perhaps Fuller should take a page from Coleman, the Occupy Movement and Proverbs, finding wisdom in the multitude of counsel. The fact is we can make theology good again. We can make it right and take pride in our endeavor. It is just that none of us know how. We continue to look for a singular answer from specialists, continue looking for that one key component that we previously overlooked. That’s how Adam Smith’s long-dead hand continues to stroke our cheek. The future of seminary is not about what pundits, professors or administration say it is, but what we make of it. Whether we engage in distance learning through wires or smoke signals or local uncomfortable close-talking, we must insist that the Church is not some distant thing but instead is here, now, among us – that very Kingdom we have mythologized come to life. As children of the eighties and nineties, we know the excess of “this thing we do,” speaking faith, hope and love into every area of society, yet we continue to occupy, to move forward and move on to something better. But is religion still relevant?

In an interview with Newsweek last month, Bill Maher, an unintentional celebrity of the Occupy Movement, says “the plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people.” Maher has always taken an extreme position. Ten years ago, ABC cancelled his late-night Politically Incorrect when he said the American military was made up of cowards and the 9-11 terrorists were heroes. While we may be inclined to dismiss Maher as a heretic or even a naughty rascal, he has tapped into a large demographic of Americans who feel the same way. Those who challenge religious influence in culture and society continue to draw crowds, sell books and participate in lectures, interviews and conferences all questioning what right religion has to speak to the challenges of our time. It would be easy for us to imagine the world is what we theorize it to be from the hallowed halls of our institution, but there is a harsh reality “out there” that we fail to address in constructive ways. Our gospel, that glorious good news, has been reduced to a set of ethics and our faith which can move mountains is defined by what we are against more than what we are for. Buddhism and Mormonism have both done well in proactively pursing positivity. The LDS Church continues to promote family more than family values and Buddhism has found multiple channels of appeal through healthy living, yoga, meditation and the quest for peace. Evangelicals, meanwhile, continue to be fascinated with leaving the sublunary terra behind for some triumphant orchestra above the chaos. Some of the best selling Christian titles last year were about whether there was a hell and who would be there. Our “glorious” apocalyptic visions evoke Nero and his fiddle as we leave friends and neighbors behind to play harps above the flame. Maher is right. If we truly believe this is the kind of life Jesus died for, Maher is right for condemning religion as field of study and he is right for mocking religious people who proclaim that kind of piety. Focused and directed religious studies need to correct the corruption of our gospel even as we face the changing crises we face globally — externally as much as internally. This requires a better caliber of student. To this, I mean not just the rolling tide of incoming first-years but the current student body, you, me, the person sitting on the other side of class whose raised hand makes you cringe. We either work on this together or we fail.

Walter Brueggemann’s analysis of the process of emancipation provides us with a valuable key to understanding how to navigate the immediate future. In Hope Within History, he summarizes that three things happen as we make a transition. There is a critique of the dominant ideology, of which this article is part, followed by a public processing of pain like Nineveh’s reaction to Jonah’s critique (Jonah 3:5-9) or the Occupy Movement. But a third stage, that of the release of new social imagination, is the most difficult because it requires change. Since 1948, South Korea has had a long and difficult struggle as industrialization, urbanization and other factors have entirely restructured the country. South Korea has since become a leader in numerous fields including education, economics and religion. The people decided to change the social landscape, exercise creative imagination, and make hard choices to redirect their society towards an alternative. It is one thing to speak of liberation, another to pioneer that new frontier. Perhaps this oversimplifies the matter, but it shows that real progress can take place. As we conclude one year and begin another, let us look forward to the time when all things will be made new. In 2012, The SEMI encourages every member of the Fuller community to express their views, to fill in the gap and be willing to make the necessary sacrifices for our community. This will be hard. But we were never called to anything else.

Randall Frederick (MDiv 2013) previously worked as a media consultant for non-profit organizations, and is a firm believer that f you like it then you gotta put a ring on it.

References

Clayton, Phillip. “An Emergent Seminary for an Emerging Church” Patheos.com 17 Oct. 2011.

Craig, William Lane. “God is Not Dead Yet” Christianity Today, 3 July 2008.

McConnell, C. Douglas. “Reflections on a Global Seminary.” Fuller Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2011.

Mouw, Richard and Andy Crouch. The Seminary of the Future, Sept. 2011.

Wheeler, Barbara G. “What a Mess! Notes on the Future of Theological Education.” Patheos.com 17 Oct. 2011.

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