I resigned my post teaching and writing curriculum at the seminary a couple years ago, and owing to the vicissitudes of small-school scheduling, my classroom presence had been spotty the year before that. I must admit I wasn’t really looking forward to this much time away from the classroom, but in hindsight, I’ve found it refreshing, and it’s not as though I’ve lacked for other work to do.
The disengagement has allowed me time to reflect on our ways of preparing people for ministry, and alternatives that might actually be preferable to our existing classroom methods. As I contemplate what sort of partners I want for the front-line work I’ve been doing in the past few years, I’ve got to admit “seminary graduate” doesn’t leap to the top of my list of desirable qualifications (doesn’t even crack my top five, actually) — about which more in another post, perhaps. In fact, my present partners include at least one guy who, a couple of decades back, dropped out of seminary in disgust and seems none the worse for the experience. Another partner got all his (very thorough) preparation for ministry in a local church, and looks at the whole seminary enterprise with more than a little suspicion. I get asked periodically whether I’d seek to re-engage in the academic milieu if the opportunity arose. As I consider it, I find myself thinking of it as a fairly dangerous undertaking.
There are several reasons for this, but the first one is that engaging in scholarship in our society is not a neutral endeavor. As in any field, there are (relatively arbitrary) conventions. Credit must be given where due, but how? Style manuals have whole chapters on footnote, endnote, and bibliography formats to answer this question, and MLA has different formats from APA, which is different from Chicago, and so on. This is not a bad thing in itself. Every guild has its standards, and it is important to the corporate identity and cohesion of the discipline that this be the case. Every initiate chafes at seemingly pointless constraints, but it’s a matter of loving your guildmates enough to show that you value their wisdom and have a place in their discipline. You will never have an opportunity to give to them if you can’t show them that you have something worth giving.
On the other hand, Christians have always had a very tense relationship with professional guilds. Making sacrifices to idols always seems to be a membership requirement in guilds controlled by pagans, and the American academic guild is unequivocally controlled by pagans and administered for purposes that, at very best, are in service of secularism.
Secularism is a false god; it is a competing theology, as antithetical to Christianity as the worship of Dagon. In it, “neutrality” toward all things religious is a sacred duty, and bowing the knee to any particular deity in any way that affects the public sphere is blasphemy. If it is to be practiced publicly at all, a religion must agree to the equal validity of all other competing religions — or at least manage to behave as though all other religious paths are equally valid. You’re allowed to practice whatever religion you want, as long as you don’t act like it really matters. A private hobby-religion is fine. Some people build ships in bottles; some people juggle geese; some people go to church. Whatever floats your boat.
Christians are required to be at war with secularism, root and branch. The earth is Yahweh’s, and everything in it, and we are not allowed to pretend otherwise for the sake of getting along. In the sphere of education, even the education of ministers, we are not doing well at honoring the Lord who bought us.
Churches and individuals give sacrificially to seminaries in order to support the training of the next generation of pastors. But few, if any, such donors show up at the school to give it a thorough review and see exactly what their money is supporting. We simply assume the work is getting done; we believe seminary newsletters and press releases as if they were the fifth gospel. On the other hand, the authorities of the academic guild — who owe their allegiance to Dagon, let us not forget — police their boundaries religiously. If you’re going to award Ph.D. degrees, you must have x number of faculty, themselves with recognized Ph.D.s in this or that field, y number of books in the library to support the program, and so on–and they do show up on campus to check and see that you’re in compliance. Some of these standards make sense. Others not so much. The point, however, is that we allow ourselves to be inspected by the priests of Dagon, and attempt to manage the affair without making any compromises. Since the results of this have been discussed elsewhere as well as I could write them here, I’ll just link to one such discussion.
For my purposes, though, the point is that submission to the priests of Dagon is not a particularly helpful posture for a minister of Yahweh’s gospel. Perhaps in a given instance no harm comes from it, but does anybody really think it’s desirable?