Things They Should Not Teach in Seminary

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Seminaries are never reducible to a curriculum, although a seminary’s curriculum can tell you a lot about its goals. They are also a powerful experience of acculturation and, therefore, of spiritual formation – even if a seminary does little to explicitly shape the spiritual lives of its students. And that experience is shaped by both formal and informal dynamics. In turn, this experience shapes not only the life and ministry of their graduates, but the life of their congregations and the future of the church.

In what follows, I have tried to identify the attitudes and sensitivities that a seminary can consciously or unconsciously transmit to seminarians. And in a variation on the theme, “What they doesn’t teach you in seminary,” I focused on “what they should not teach you in seminary.

Contempt of Conviction

One of the most inspiring keynote speeches I have heard over the years was given by Dr. James EK Hildreth, President of Meharry Medical College in Nashville. Memorably, he told graduate seminarians, “Don’t let what you learn rob you of what you know. It was a message they needed the day they started seminary.

There is no doubt that anyone attending seminary has much to learn and things to unlearn, not least because our churches do such a poor job of spiritual formation. But as Hildreth suggested, this task should not deprive future clergy of a living relationship with God. And those who contemptuously specialize in deconstructing their students’ faith, without leading them to a richer and deeper understanding of their faith, are doing them a disservice.[1]

contempt of scripture

A colleague once observed, “Protestantism gave everyone the Bible and then taught them to beware of it. Certainly, Scripture is a rich and complex literature. And reading it, let alone applying it to our lives, requires a rich and complex array of skills.

But a deeper knowledge of these challenges should always lead to a better appreciation of its content, rather than making people distrust it. If, as the Church believes, Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, then it is important not only to read it, but to let Scripture read us. This cannot happen if the Bible is first objectified and then belittled.

Disregard for theological traditions of the Church

The only arrogance greater than the assumption that we know better than everyone around us is the assumption that we know better than everyone who has come before us. Certainly, there are advantages to this moment in history, to the perspective it offers, to the fixes it is able to offer. But this should not lead us to despise the past. Yet now, perhaps more than ever, this is the great temptation we face. And no anarchist who has climbed the rungs of history and then cut himself off from the past has ever inaugurated a utopia. The spiritual progress of the church is not just an individual enterprise, but a collective enterprise and this requires attention to the theological and spiritual journey of the church.

Disregard for the spiritual life

Christian spirituality is an inward journey that leads to an outward journey. And the journey that is limited to one half of the journey or the other is just two forms of self-indulgence. One focused on cultivating private experience, the other on cultivating private dreams for the lives of others. Careful attention to both avoids the excesses which inevitably follow a preoccupation with one or the other, and no pastor who hopes to remain useful to the work of the Spirit in the church can neglect the balance which the balance offers.

The contempt of the laity

Education inevitably isolates, and it is important to recognize this fact. Getting deeply acquainted with a body of knowledge, including theology, accentuates certain concerns, shifts them to the center and elevates certain issues. But a seminary education should help its students resist the temptation to let that experience turn into contempt for the laity. Instead, this body of knowledge should be put to use in the service of the church and should provide the basis for respectful conversation with the laity about their own journeys and the wisdom these journeys offer the church.

Disregard for congregational life

In recruiting students, seminaries engage in the same practices that shape other academic institutions. They focus on the needs and aspirations of their future students. They projected a vision, promising certain results. It’s understandable, but it’s also dangerous. It is dangerously easy to move from this call to the belief that the role of the seminarian is to cultivate a set of professional goals and then superimpose those goals on the life of a congregation. But each congregation has its own spirit, its own challenges and its own vocation. While generally speaking the body of Christ has a singular mission in the world, anyone who pays attention to the life of specific congregations will learn that clergy necessarily work with their congregations to enhance their ability to discern God’s call on their life together.

Disregard for people with a policy different from yours

Some churches are red, politically. Others are blue. Most of them are purple. And none of that matters. Church life takes shape around the call of Christ, and clergy are charged with helping to deepen the church’s understanding of that call. While the gospel has social implications, the place where those implications are lived is centered on the body of Christ. And to the extent that these implications have implications for Christians as citizens, there is ample room for debate and differences of opinion about what a Christian might support as a voter. The clergy are ill-prepared and cannot afford to allow their personal beliefs on such matters to privilege one political opinion over another.

Despise people who have money

No message is sent more often in the modern academy than contempt for people with money, despite the fact that no institution is the greatest beneficiary of the rich than the academics and the academy. Economic, theological, and ethical defenses are often offered for this behavior, but they never quite cover up the hypocrisy and jealousy behind such judgments. As a result, clergy often reflect the same contempt and struggle to build relationships with people who have money or engage them in conversations about its use.

Why do I use the word “contempt” in every case?

Because, in addition to the fact that the sensitivities I’ve described here capture the deep feelings I’ve noticed over the years, the word “contempt” also underscores the spirit behind each of these attitudes.

Paul Ekman, a professor of psychology describes contempt this way:

The basic notion of contempt is: “I am better than you and you are less than me. The most common trigger for this emotion is the immoral action of a person or group of people you feel superior to. Although contempt is a standalone emotion, it is often accompanied by anger, usually in a mild form such as annoyance. Feeling contempt asserts power or status. Therefore, those who are unsure of their status may be more likely to show contempt to assert their superiority over others. In this way, people in “subordinate” positions can sometimes feel contempt for those who have a higher social, political or legal rank.[2]

Inevitably, Ekman focuses on contempt as an interpersonal dynamic and abandons the other forms of contempt I have described above. I would also disagree with the apparent suggestion that contempt is brought about solely by “immoral action” by people to whom we feel superior.

Contempt is, in fact, often predominant and shapes the way we behave towards each other based on categorical assumptions we hold about each other’s lives and motivations. Therefore, those whom we despise do not necessarily need to do anything immoral. In fact, based on the assumptions we bring to our relationships, it may be impossible for some people to do something we deem moral.

That said, Ekman’s definition underscores the spiritually problematic nature of contempt, which rests on beliefs of superiority and the assertion of power and status. Nothing could be more contrary to the spiritual posture that a seminary education must inculcate or to the attitude that must be at the heart: humility. A realization that we are creatures, not the Creator, that our job is to walk humbly with God and with each other. Seminars should never teach anything that makes this posture difficult to achieve.

[1] “Deconstruction” means many things to many people and varies from tradition to tradition, and it is not a new undertaking.

[2] https://www.paulekman.com/universal-emotions/what-is-contempt/


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