Seminary or Cemetery?

Editor’s Note: In his second post, Chris Highland tells us how graduate-level theological study eroded his faith. He is not alone: it’s a well-known saying among seminarians that seminary is the place “where faith goes to die.”

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When I entered seminary 35 years ago, little did I know that I was also entering a cemetery for my Christian conclusions.

With my Presbyterian, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Philosophy background, I was ready for seminary. Except, I wasn’t. I quickly found that while I was being trained as a “Minister,” I was also meeting teachers and other students who weren’t my idea of model Ministers OR Christians. This isn’t to say they didn’t believe in Jesus or live exemplary lives. Many did. But what I was hearing and seeing was quite different than what “church” or “faith” once meant.

Presbyterian seminary immediately raised more questions about faith and church than it gave answers. I suppose that is always the case and should be. What we studied about the Bible clearly would never work “out there in the churches.” Heresy like “God has a bias for the Poor,” “We are co-creators with God” and “Paul made Jesus into Christ.” Try to preach that in most churches.

The emphasis (in the early 80’s) was Liberation Theology, which was driven by radical interpretations by revolutionary priests, feminists and leaders in the Black and Native American communities. Stimulating seminary courses charged the hybrid batteries in my brain, as did attending liberal Catholic, Jewish and Presbyterian services.   Some professors further energized the meaning of “liberal” for me. One marched with Martin Luther King. Another was gay and a national church leader. Several others pastored in mixed race congregations. One helped create an ecumenical housing cooperative that I now manage thirty years later!

“Liberal” came to mean open minded, openhearted and open to trying new forms of helping others. Like “Freethinkers,” the word implies the liberty to collaborate rather than waste time in competition. “Liberal” would never again be a bad word, but one to bear proudly. All the lectures and discussions on “Biblical Religion” left me with another perplexing reality: The Bible was wholly irrelevant unless it was a manual for relevant ministry, and that meant working with poor, oppressed and marginalized folks, with compassion and justice, as Jesus did. And the meaning of “Christian” became suspect and confusing, especially when placing the label on an institution that seemed in many ways diametrically opposed to the founder who was of course not a Christian.

Here’s the problem presented by seminary: You are expected to prepare to be a “Minister of Word and Sacrament,” while completely reinterpreting the meanings of Minister, Word and Sacrament. I came to see that a good minister was someone like the Franciscan priest who invited me to participate in the mass and showed kind acceptance of the mentally disabled students I brought, the rabbi who welcomed me into the synagogue that met in a seminary chapel or the chaplain in a county jail who modeled the meaning of chaplaincy. These faith leaders, alongside some thoughtful and encouraging professors, convinced me by example that if the ministry of Jesus himself was outside the walls of religion then, by God, I’d follow him right out the door!

These inspiring people, as well as many incredible people I met beyond the walls of the seminary, showed me that the Church as I’d known it was already dead–the Titanic was already taking on water, without power and doomed.

It’s an odd feeling to be training for an honored position as an officer on a great ship like the Titanic, while calmly watching it hit the iceberg! So, along with other classmates, I eventually jumped ship, found a lifeboat and sailed on to the islands of small local congregations, nonprofits and schools.

Hesitant to complete the ordination process but hesitant to waste four years, a masters degree and “finding a call,” I read my statement of faith before the committee of Presbytery.

Rejected.

Some disapproved of my dismissal of the divinity of Jesus and refusal to coronate Calvin (no surprise there). Several on the committee privately pleaded, “Please change the words; they’re only words; we need you in the Church!” I sucked it up and changed a few words.

Accepted!

I was welcomed as a Minister. Now I was ready for a church and a church was ready for me.  Right.

The sum of seminary was a reality check: Who was really “called” to serve and why? Not much is left when your studies reveal that the “People of God” are not necessarily in church every Sunday, that the Bible itself proclaims “liberation” for the poor and powerless who are the rightful owners of “the Kingdom,” and that God was no doubt out among the outcasts (lepers and sinners as they are) instead of in church.

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Chris Highland. B.A. in Philosophy and Religion (Seattle Pacific University, 1978); M.Div. (San Francisco Theological Seminary, 1983). Secular Chaplain.

 

 

 

 

Photo Credits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sfts_hillside_photo.jpg

About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • Andy

    Perhaps you’ve already read the book, but if you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to read Church Meyer’s Dying Church; Living God–A Call to Begin Again. His views parallel yours. He does however see hope for the church, but only if it first dies. It’s time, he says, to let the church completely die. Then he gives steps to actively work toward that goal. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Kent Truesdale

      Sounds like Resurrection, Andy! ;)

      • Andy

        Meyer would call it resurrection; I would simply call it transforming an institution obsessed with heaven to one centered squarely on this earth. I put it this way to assure myself that I haven’t relapsed into theism :)

        • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

          Take down the cross and replace with a sail? Replace the bible with scientific and all wisdom literature? Replace God with Nature? I’m good with that. We just can’t call that church or christianity or maybe even religion. But, it’s worth imagining.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Chris — I like this train of thought. I especially like the sail – peaceful progress and natural movement.

          • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

            I like that too, Linda. One of my students recently said she liked the sailing analogy since it’s so freeing and open air. Of course, the image breaks down unless we have a firm grip on the sail and don’t get swept by every gust! (I think it was Ramakrishna who said something like “the divine wind is ever blowing, if we will just open our sails”–I might say the wind itself, or the breeze of reason, wisdom and good!).

          • Andy

            You’re probably right. I just lament that the ‘orthodox’ got the right to define ‘Xnty’ because they were more successful in political control in the early Jesus movement. I guess we’re stuck with it now. At the beginning, however, there were a variety of other competitors, some of whom would not have called themselves Christian, or used the cross as a symbol. I myself dislike the cross as a symbol; to me it isn’t the essence of what Jesus was about.

          • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

            Controlling the “spirit” and directing the footsteps of Jesus is the foundation of any church calling itself Christian, is it not? It’s when the life and message of the guy is actually released from the holy books and rituals and creeds that most Christians become uncomfortable. Then Jesus isn’t “theirs” any longer.

            Ah, but then, also, it gets really weird because people like Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandela and other “outsiders” honor (not worship) the guy and the main points of his teaching. They show what “living a Jesus-style life” might actually be, minus the Christing (just made that up).

            As we know, Christianism (as I often call this ownership-of-god mentality) reveals the fatal flaw in Religion: supernaturalizing the natural good, beauty, cooperative community, which not only divides the human family but desperately tries to “represent” God. Hence, clergy, hence church. Why not just let all that go and go directly to the heart. . .perhaps echoing still in the “TED talk on the Mountain”?

          • Andy

            Love your comments here. Exactly what Feuerbach’s argument against religion was–mere projections of us.

    • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

      I may take a look at that, Andy. Thanks. Yet, I’ve read and heard so much over the years from Spong and the “emergent/progressive” church movement that I’m skeptical. You, I, others “owe it to ourselves” to consider letting the ship sink and sail on. Anything salvagable won’t look like Christianity anyway. In my view, a “natural (nonsupernatural) spirituality” is enough for the path ahead.

  • ctcss

    Chris

    I may not be understanding all of this. It sounds as though you were upset/disturbed that a learning experience (your seminary program) was not as you expected it to be. Why should this be a surprise? I thought the whole point of learning was to be challenged by new, or unfamiliar ideas. Furthermore, it sounds like you were doing your best to try to continue to value and to follow Jesus’ example despite the seemingly discordant learning experiences you were encountering.

    To me, his sounds like a healthy thing, not necessarily a bad thing. And if you decided after undergoing this experience that you were not as sure of your particular church’s theological stance as you were before, why should this have thrown you for a loop, or not given you a stronger standpoint to work from as you made the effort to figure out what was correct and where you wanted to be? Jesus never said that his followers were going to find the effort of trying to follow him to be a bed of roses. And he pointed out the need for them to understand what he was trying to convey to them, not just to blindly go along with him. From what you have described, it sounds like you were trying to grow in your religious understanding. And if this might have taken you in a somewhat different direction than before, so what? Martin Luther certainly had to confront his misgivings and future direction while still a Catholic priest. And given the importance of the Catholic church in those days, that can’t have been easy. And Jesus’ disciples certainly had to grapple with new ideas and new experiences while participating in Jesus’ ministry. They certainly had to decide whether or not to dump Jesus or to stick with him despite the seemingly strange ideas he was conveying to them at times. And what of Nicodemus who, as “a master of Israel”, was puzzled by concepts that he did not yet understand, and yet realized that there must be something rather profound in what Jesus taught, because of the works which he had witnessed? And lets not forget Abraham who left his father and his people behind as he went out to try to follow God, despite the fact that this new notion of God appeared to be different than the notion(s) he had of the divine prior to his leaving home.

    We are always going to be encountering points to consider that we may not have encountered before, as well as trying to consider whether that which we already think we know is accurate or not. None of this sounds like a deal-breaker for someone looking to deepen their understanding of God. This stuff isn’t easy. But the point of it is not to stay personally loyal to a particular church or a person. The point is to follow the truth. And as long as we each are trying to follow a path that strikes us as having merit with regard to what we are encountering along the way (thus encouraging us to continue forward), we can at least have some measure of confidence in the direction in which we are traveling, unless or until we find otherwise.

    Doing this is never a one shot deal. It takes just as long as it takes. It’s up to each one of us as to whether or not we have sufficient interest in the journey to continue on with it.

    All the best with your journey.

    • Linda_LaScola

      ctcss – might it be said that Chris did continue on his journey, just not in one of the ways that meant continued involvement with traditional religion?

      Chris, what would you say about this?

      • ctcss

        Linda, I think that Chris did continue on his journey. My post was relating to what he encountered and his reaction to it. As I noted, having to examine ideas more closely and needing to make decisions as to what path to chose, or whether to continue on one’s current path, seems to be part and parcel of this subject area, noted both in Biblical stories as well as in actual life stories. I was just wondering why encountering this seemed to surprise/dismay Chris. (I may have misread his experience, so I’ll be interested in his reply.)

        • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

          Ct–here’s one line you may have missed in my post:

          “Presbyterian seminary immediately raised more questions about faith and church than it gave answers. I suppose that is always the case and should be.”

          I should think any institution of “higher learning” would challenge and change minds, to some meaningful extent. My “extent” was just enough to launch me into non-parish ministry (primarily chaplaincy) where I “followed Jesus” while realizing Buddha, Krishna, Confucius and Mister Rogers (you know, “wise teachers”) walked alongside.

          To clarify a bit more, I greatly valued my seminary education precisely because it was a vehicle for new courses to chart. What might be overlooked in the short post here is that the “earthquake of faith” that shook me from my Evangelical experience was gradually welcomed in my feeling of being liberated from that mindset. Not an easy shaky path, but became, even while still in seminary, a very good and healthy thing!

          I hope this helps clarify and complex unravelling.

  • http://batmannewyork.blogspot.com Thom

    Interesting article – though my experience was similar, I came to a different conclusion. I entered seminary as a young man full of hope and faith, learned from my parents and community. In a matter of just a short year or two in seminary, I quickly began to realize my faith was disingenuous; I discovered this through seeing “faith” in action and lack of “christian action” in exercising faith.

    My conclusion ultimately is I am an atheist, and the more I read and study other’s faith experiences, the more ingrained my atheism grows. Seminary, priesthood (I was an ordained Roman Catholic Priest) really just revealed to me that god, faith, religion is not real and is a human construct designed to help understand mortality, suffering, change, life and the unexplainable. I do not claim to have a final answer or know anything with certainty. What I do claim is that my personal journey of faith, religion, Christianity, came up fruitless and without meaning. I have found more sincere, genuine people as atheists than I ever met as a seminarian, priest or practicing Christian. More than this, my life has more meaning, value than it ever did when I was in service to the faith.

    Thank you for sharing, briefly your own journey.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Thom — thank you for telling us about your experience too. I have a question – you say you realized your faith was disingenuous after a year or two in seminary, but you stuck it out, right? and got ordained. I wonder how long you stayed in the priesthood and what ultimately led you to leave.

    • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

      I appreciate your honest story here, Thom. It seems we came to the same non-super conclusion though perhaps at different moments along the way. Seminary was simply another dock from which I sailed. I’d like to hear more from you.

  • Kent Truesdale

    This post and its commentary has got me thinking that since many ministers (including me) would have lost their faith eventually, then maybe seminary professors are doing their students a favor by helping them temper or lose their faith in advance? Just thinking out loud here.

    • ctcss

      Although I think it is a good notion for a religious person to test (i.e. ground) their faith so as to avoid taking religious instruction on blind faith, I have a harder time with the notion that seminary professors would/should be lacking in the ability to help students grow in their faith (i.e. trust) in God. I would hope that someone coming up through the trenches would have this kind of thing under their belt by the time they started teaching. If a professor were an atheist or an agnostic (and had been hired strictly for their expertise in languages, archeology, literature, etc.) I could see them not touching on this particular area. But as a general rule, wouldn’t it make more sense for seminary professors to have some inkling of what it takes to gain trust in God?

      I have run into enough regular religious people who seem to have a decent handle regarding faith (trust) in God, I’m surprised that this quality of thought isn’t more prevalent in seminary professors. Is this issue just coming up here because this is a blog about pastors losing their faith, or is this a widely known fact that has been studied and written about in published academic papers?

      And on a side note, I can understand the tricky situation of a pastor finding themselves losing their faith. That’s got to be a very uncomfortable position to find one’s self in. But if the pastors/seminary students with severe or extreme doubts also feel that they cannot openly discuss their situation in a kind, supportive, and helpful way with their peers, superiors, or former/current instructors, is this more a question of lack of practical support prior to ultimately deciding to leave the faith? I keep wondering where the stories are which illustrate empathy, kindliness, patience, supportiveness, etc. are? All too often I feel that the stories relating to this situation are about feeling trapped, and fearing being ostracized, demeaned, belittled, etc.

      Which I guess brings up the question of self-fulfilling prophesies and negative reinforcement. If everyone here is coming because they have lost their faith, then all the people who are on the way to losing their own faith (but are not there yet) who come here are also likely to conclude that there is no point to religious effort because that is the only conclusion they will see on this blog. (i.e., their fears will seem to be justified.) Are there also blogs relating to this losing-faith issue that bring out people’s stories whose faith was renewed? And are there blogs with a mix of stories, some about losing, and some about regaining faith?

      Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t there a danger of a blog (any blog, pro or con) becoming an echo-chamber sort of environment?

      • Linda_LaScola

        I suppose any blog can become an echo chamber for any point of view — and people come to see how much that point of view resonates with them. The clergy I’ve interviewed who eventually changed their beliefs fought it quite a lot along the way – going into denial, compartmentalizing, looking for answers within religion, seeking counsel, praying, etc. Eventually, their beliefs no longer held and they couldn’t deny it to themselves, even though it meant a huge upheaval in their lives.

        I don’t doubt there are other clergy who have experiences that lead them back to faith, but they seem to be keeping a low profile.

        If any are reading here, and would like to write a blog post about it, please contact me at the email address in the “about” tab above.

        • Andy

          Experiences of ‘re-conversion’ tend to belong to evangelical circles. Lots of stories there of lapsed faith and restoration. One I grew up with was the story of Bob Harrington, Chaplain of Bourbon Street. Google that name and you’ll see his ‘testimony’ of wandering from God and his restoration. In mainline circles, at least in my experience, the direction is largely from belief to unbelief, where it ends.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Hi, Andy — I was thinking more of doubters who gravitate back to faith instead of toward unbelief. I share your experience of the belief to unbelief trajectory of mainline pastors (and fundamentalists too). They’ve arrived there through logical analysis and there’s no going back.

            I also think there are mainline pastors who have redefined their originally standard religious beliefs into something they would call more mature and/or pantheistic.

          • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

            I would perhaps be more in that latter group, Linda. I don’t remember ever “fighting” the changes in my beliefs. On the contrary, many of us in seminary reveled in “pushing the edges” with lots of humor and plain fun. My older seminary roommate and I named our on-campus apartment “Heretic Hollow.” We were proud of that, and the conversations (with good brew. . .ala Martin Luther!) were stimulating for lots of students, and a few professors.

      • Kent Truesdale

        My own experience at a very liberal seminary was that there was very much a ‘Jesus Seminar’ kind of attitude among both clergy and many seminarians, meaning less than 1/4 of the sayings and deeds recorded in the four Gospels were likely to have been actually said and done by a real person named Jesus. Coming from an evangelical faith background, that sort of ‘revelation’ was devastating to my ‘scripture-as-God’s-Self-revelation’ kind of faith! It makes me wonder how my faith would have fared at a conservative seminary? (Although I’m told the Bible’s authority is implicitly questioned in those places as well?)

        As for approaching professors for spiritual guidance, that honestly didn’t occur to me or friends of mine at seminary. I suppose it was partly fear of seeming like an unsophisticated ‘rube’ and also fear that somehow those consultations could somehow filter back to your overseers back home? I’m also guessing that only a minority of seminary faculty have actually worked in congregations or parishes, which made us leary of merely academic advice about personal faith? Or if they left parish ministry to teach, then didn’t that say something about their own faith? All in all, a tragically unhealthy and dysfunctional environment for ‘maturing’ one’s faith.

        • ctcss

          Kent

          Although I guess I can appreciate the intention of the Jesus Seminar, in many ways it still just boils down to their personal opinion of these things. Someone pointed me to the Acts Seminar questions and polls and I’m afraid I was rather dismayed by their take on the likelihood of the “works” done by the apostles. Same thing with the Jesus Seminar questions and polls. I am not a Bible literalist, but I have a hard time accepting that the early church was composed strictly of people who simply liked the preaching that they heard. Good preachers have always existed, but their impact over time is not often very far reaching. For instance, I can’t imagine Billy Graham, despite his many rallies and sermons, will be more than a footnote several centuries hence. But something rather compelling seemed to have touched the lives of those people who were supposed to have witnessed what Jesus and his followers were doing. I can’t believe a cult was built simply on a foundation of “nice guyism”, which is often all that modern sensibilities will accord to Jesus’ ministry. I am certainly not a Christian because of it.

          your overseers back home

          Could you elaborate a little on this turn of phrase?

          Also, given Linda’s comment above

          My sense from talking to a few professors is that they are good academicians. They teach the content and do not proselytize for or against “faith.”

          and your comment

          I’m also guessing that only a minority of seminary faculty have actually worked in congregations or parishes, which made us leery of merely academic advice about personal faith? Or if they left parish ministry to teach, then didn’t that say something about their own faith? All in all, a tragically unhealthy and dysfunctional environment for ‘maturing’ one’s faith.

          isn’t something amiss here? It’s one thing to teach the mechanics of the subject matter. Tools like that are very useful. But do the schools have nothing with which to help ground a student’s understanding of God? Granted, establishing one’s relationship with God is always going to be a personal journey. But given the conceptual importance of this area of study and practice, I would think that schools would be doing a bit more than just introducing students to the academic side of things. But perhaps that just shows my ignorance of what the scope and intention is for these schools.

          I hope that some academics do chime in here.

          • cadunphy280

            Some really interesting discussion! What struck me most in your comment is the acknowledgement of the dichotomy between what is taught in seminary and what is preached from the pulpit. 
My experience in seminary is this: mainstream theological colleges and seminaries function (as much as they can) within the framework of academia, and as such are similar to other subjects like philosophy or sociology.

            Given rigorous academic standards, the prof cannot teach feelings or belief. They must, and rightly so, teach the facts. Now we wade into fuzzy ground. How does the individual internalize said facts? I’m going to be honest — when you’re confronted by reality, the continued application of religious or spiritual truths is just an exercise in wish fulfillment.

          • ctcss

            Thanks for the additional insight into the world of seminary education.

            I’m going to be honest — when you’re confronted by reality, the continued application of religious or spiritual truths is just an exercise in wish fulfillment.

            Actually, I think that a great number of human activities boil down to exercises in wish fulfillment. Not everything we do (marriage, children, education, employment, “toys”, good food and drink, etc.) produces the satisfying outcome we desire, yet we still engage in these activities, trying to attain some measure of success.

            However, the point of religious endeavor, at least as I have found it, is to gain a sense of peace, harmony, and healing within an often troubling world. It’s rare that a person finds themselves in the catbird seat of life, competently organizing everything around themselves just to their liking. Usually, the world intrudes and reminds us just how small, inadequate, and fragile we are. That’s why many religious believers reach out to that which is greater than ourselves. Human ability only carries a person so far, and sometimes that “ability” carries a person in entirely the wrong direction. The Bible is full of many narratives of people requiring aid, sometimes because of their own actions, and sometimes just because “stuff happens”. And in those circumstances, whether deserved or undeserved, the message that God is available to turn to makes a huge difference to a lot of people.

            I supposed that one could term this an exercise in wish fulfillment, but until we become masters of our circumstances and outcomes, and never have any problems (highly unlikely), people will seek to be comforted when they are in need. And the point of ministering to those in need, whether they experience it as an unexpected compassionate response from an outcast/adversary (the good Samaritan), or as an unvaryingly loving parent (the father in the Prodigal Son), or as a healer who brings light to a despairing situation (Jesus, in so many stories), is to say “No” to the idea that anyone is beyond help or redemption.

            Thus, I think it’s neat that you’re a chaplain. You obviously are trying to offer comfort to others in times of need. You also feel that you no longer have a need of your former religion in order to accomplish this. But I cannot honestly say that I feel my religion offers nothing to me in that regard, and can’t imagine not having it in my toolkit, especially in situations when there are no other humanly available answers. In fact, it is when I am confronted with reality that I realize the need to apply spiritual truths, basically because no other truth is there volunteering to go up against the foe. So unless that kind of circumstance changes, my religion will remain an important part of what I use to help.

          • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

            CT, I doubt anyone here would tell you to give up the obvious comfort you receive from your faith. You do beg some questions, however. We all have access to the “truth” of human situations. I’m not exactly sure what you mean that “spiritual truths” help you when “no other truth” is present? And could you give an example of a situation that a Chaplain, for instance, might face where there are “no humanly available answers”?
            Related to the original post, seminary professors were fairly aware that the neat theological “answers” we discussed in class might not actually work, might not actually be “true,” out beyond the walls in the big messy world!

          • ctcss

            I’m not exactly sure what you mean that “spiritual truths” help you when “no other truth” is present? And could you give an example of a situation that a Chaplain, for instance, might face where there are “no humanly available answers”?

            I was alluding to Catherine’s role as a chaplain and contrasting what I would assume to be her approach to problems with whatever approach I might take to problems. Since she mentioned “spiritual truths”, I keyed off that phrase, since I very much agree with the phrase as she gave it. In addition, there was this statement following her introductory post when she said “Despite that, I still cringe when I think back on the pathetic words of consolation that I spoke to assist the grieving.” I also know that feeling because I have been there myself. Basically, how does a person offer effective help either to themselves, or to another who is struggling? A lame answer is often worse than no answer.

            So, to answer your questions, a situation where there are no humanly available answers is one where the trouble facing a person has no further alternatives. An obvious one would be a terminal disease with no available medical treatment. Another would be a person convicted of a capital crime who was innocent, but no evidence was available to overturn their verdict. Other than making an offer of sympathy and friendship, what does one do? What truths remain to overturn such verdicts?

            To me, the spiritual truths that one can one turn to in such a situation are what I was referring to. In some religions, people consider everything that happens to be the will of God (knowingly planned and intended by Him), whether it appears to be bad or good. And often the response (if God will not change His plan) is simply to accept God’s will. Interestingly, from an atheistic perspective when “stuff happens” (for whatever reason), if there is no humanly available recourse even when thoroughly pursued, the advice often given is that one should just accept their fate. (Not a lot of difference there in outcome IMO.) In my religious upbringing, neither of these concepts were taught or accepted.

            The point is, when people feel there is nothing they can do to alter their fate, they may simply give up, or simply do their best to accept it stoicly. From what I was taught, however, one should never just accept such a fate, simply because God never demands or intends such a thing. The basis for the spiritual truths I would turn to involve realizing that an unjust sentence is simply that, unjust. So instead of acquiescing, I would turn to God in order to find a way to be led out of the situation, even if there was no seeming way out of it humanly.

            Catherine would probably characterize this as an exercise in wish fulfillment, but I wouldn’t look at it that way. That’s probably because I grew up learning to rely on spiritual truths for my safety. (I’m in my 60s now.) For people who aren’t use to relying on such methods, it sounds foolish. To me, it sounds perfectly natural.

            Basically, it all boils down to how trustworthy a person considers God to be or, for that matter, whether God even exists at all. I don’t really have questions about that any more. Others do. That’s why this is always a very personal decision. Even if such a course of action (relying on God) were offered to someone in dire straits, they may very well turn it down.

            seminary professors were fairly aware that the neat theological “answers” we discussed in class might not actually work, might not actually be “true,” out beyond the walls in the big messy world!

            I’m kind of curious what kinds of neat theological “answers” were discussed in class, as well as what the caveats might have been. So much has been said here about the seeming lack of spiritual insight from liberal seminary professors, I was surprised to see this comment at all.

          • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

            CT, I like this: “Basically, how does a person offer effective help either to themselves, or to another who is struggling? A lame answer is often worse than no answer.” This is why I’m personally not too concerned with “answers,” especially “ultimate” answers which are indeed often quite lame.
            I’m not sure I’ve ever told someone to merely “accept their fate.” That would be rather cruel and insensitive. “No further alternatives” is not the same as no “answers.” If there is no further medical treatment, for instance, then that is the reality, the fact, the truth. All another person can give is comforting presence.
            I don’t understand your reasoning here. A person faces “no alternatives” but then you want them to turn to God “to find a way out”? Sounds like either denial or escapism to me. If you simply and finally mean it’s all about comfort in having spiritual thoughts or in the arms of God, then I have no problem with that choice. But foisting that on another suffering person is no “answer” or escape, unless used like a numbing drug.
            Finally, regarding seminary profs again. . .I never thought they had “lack of spiritual insight.” Most were honest enough to say (or strongly imply) that spirituality was not about beliefs or bibles or creeds or even church, it’s about how you act for justice and compassion in the real world. I still find that a compelling notion in liberal Christianism.

          • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

            Thanks for the comment. Yes, many dichotomies in this “teaching faith/wishing” business! I see you’re an atheist and chaplain. How’s that working for you? I’d welcome any comments on my blog: http://www.secularchaplain.wordpress.com

          • Kent Truesdale

            By ‘overseers back home’ I meant the people who were supervising and evaluating the ordination process. As for “grounding our understanding of God”, I can only echo from my own experience what others have said about liberal seminaries, that the faculty are focused on their academic specialties, not on spiritual formation. And since we liberal clergy don’t “believe” in much anyway, maybe it was best we got an early start on that in seminary? :)

    • Linda_LaScola

      It sure would be interesting to have some seminary professors chime in here. My sense from talking to a few professors is that they are good academicians. They teach the content and do not proselytize for or against “faith.”

      • Andy

        I’m a Master’s graduate of both a conservative and liberal seminary, What happened in the ‘liberal’ seminary was exactly the way it is being described here. I truly wonder if some of the teachers possessed any faith themselves. However, in my conservative background, many, if not most of the profs, had practical experience in churches. It was clear they were believers. They did present higher -critical arguments, but were quick to apply elaborate apologetic strategies to nullify them. Most conservative colleges and seminaries have apologetics courses and/or departments. When I taught for a few years in a conservative seminary, we had 3 faculty exclusively devoted to apologetics.

        • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

          Wanted to chime in here for a moment regarding seminary professors. My post was not intended in any way to slam the profs I had. In fact, I was quite impressed by the quality of lives and the active work of a number of my profs. I was more interested in following their example of compassion and justice work than the theology they taught. Even back then I recognized the disconnect between the person and the preaching, the person and the theology. What I saw in them, for the most part, inspired me to let the theology and preaching go in favor of relational chaplaincy work.

        • busterggi

          Apologetics would better be called excuses & ignorance.

  • fredx2

    So the fact that divinity schools and seminaries have become places of far left doubt and poor teaching – and teaching of flaky doctrines – means that people come out as atheists or with a lessened Christianity? Of course!

    The statements that this gentlemen shows that a lot of seminaries – the liberal ones – tend to screw people up more than help them become ministers.

    Note the unusual things he says – “Liberal” came to mean open minded, openhearted and open to trying new forms of helping others.” But in fact, most of them are so open minded their brains fall out and they are unable to make any distinctions at all anymore. And the arrogance of believing that only liberal Christians are open minded, open hearted etc!

    So, for them, Christianity was tossed by the wayside – for all the “good” liberal reasons, and political action took its place. This is so sad. The fact remains: the liberal churches are losing membership because they believe in nothing – except politics. They have recast their churches as liberal political enclaves, claiming Jesus is their leader when he supports their liberality, and casting him aside when he doesn’t.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Hello, Fredx — thanks for visiting Rational Doubt.

      It’s my understanding that conservative churches are losing membership as well.

    • busterggi

      Can’t be helped – reality has a liberal bias.

    • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

      Well, Fred, I’m guessing from your comment that you don’t like liberty-minded folks! Yet, I’m glad you feel free to speak your mind here.

      “Far-left doubt.” That’s an interesting thing to say. No “far right doubt?” Teaching about Jesus’ work with the poor is not the same as “poor teaching.” There are many conservative seminaries you might enjoy, that avoid getting mixed up in messy issues like poverty, homelessness, hunger and other “liberal issues” in favor of preaching good news. I wonder where Jesus would come down on that?

      As for losing membership, gosh, I seem to remember that after years of ministry Jesus had. . .eleven “members.” And none were Christians! Of course, I suppose he was maybe. . .too liberal for most people.

      Your comment reminds me why I told the church when I left: Jesus wouldn’t be welcomed in any church (liberal or conservative).

    • Steven Newton

      Fred, I graduated from a conservative evangelical seminary and had the same outcome as Chris.

  • Yonah

    What the author describes didn’t bend me out of shape in seminary, because I was a Religion major in college and had already seen it all…actually my college education was better. What I found utterly “impressive” was how my profs would run away from their positions in public…in congregational settings. Pure fraud. I had an interim pastorate in which my assigned job was to save the congregation from voting to leave the ELCA. The conservatives there were old school…not radicalized cultural warriors. They actually wanted to have an open thoughtful process of making a decision. They asked me to set up an event where a faculty rep from the seminary would come out and present a synopsis of the seminary curriculum/program and answer questions. So. I called the church relations guy at the seminary…and so we are going down the roster of faculty…and the guy kept going “nope…nope….nope…too liberal” etc. Finally we landed on one name of a guy who was supposedly “safe”. So. I called him up…to give him the background. I described the conservatives as salt of the earth types…straight talkers…rather fair minded…not game players…and how I hoped their honest questions would be taken as authentic concern and just not combativeness. I said a lot of words…and the guy just blew me off. So. He came out, and he just flat out lied to them. They were happy with the song and dance. They voted to stay in the denomination. I got credit for it. And I never quite figured out how to confess that one and git me so good ol’ absolution. So, I guess it ‘s good I went Jewish. I throw a lot of crap in the yom kippur pot.

    • busterggi

      Do you actually find the OT believable? Because I don’t know why you’d choose the older myths over the younger myths.

      • Yonah

        I am happy to reply to your query in detail.

        First, I apprise that your query is put forth evidencing a common gentile informational retardation in its assumption that Judaism is defined by and contained and constrained by what you gentiles call the “Old Testament”. Apparently, not many in the gentile world have as yet heard of the Talmud and subsequent rabbinic works and responsa which comprise the ongoing open canon of Torah. I would venture to guess that you have not read the Shulcan Aruch or Maimonides “Guide For The Perplexed.”

        Now as to my conversion, it mainly had to do with sex and food. For, one of the directives of shabbat is that’s the day one, by divine direction, get laid. Then, if you just go to a Reform Jewish service and then a German Lutheran….and look at the women…well, there you have it. Not that I have an open marriage. Mrs. Yonah says I can “look, but not touch.” If I touch, then the host of my circumcision shall be extracted by its roots, and so I find much comfort and peace of mind just knowing what the domestic Torah is in words I can understand. I do not think they are mythological. I think she means it.

        Then, the food. Now, really. Have you ever been to a German Lutheran potluck? See Garrison Keillor, although he thinks it’s funny to describe the muck casserole. It’s not funny. If you even saw it, you would long for a plain bagel.

        As for your concern about understanding the Old Testament. Dr. Lewis Black can help you out:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGrlWOhtj3g

        • busterggi

          Appreciate your answer, refreshingly honest and partly understandable. I’m not overly familiar with the Talmud or Midrash but from what I know they do quite a bit to use the OT as analogy, metaphor, other interpretation rather than accepting the literal myth.

          I can understand the sex part but cannot personally see giving up bacon & ham. But at my age I can still get bacon & ham while sex is a different story.

          • Yonah

            You’re a good sport.

            As to meat, it’s trending now just to dump all meat. The whole kosher meat industry is bogus. The main ethical issue in kashrut today is how animals are treated in the meat industry. I got off meat in September and lost 50 lbs by Chanukah. I’ve lost about 10 more. I went from size 40 pants to size 30. I suppose that should make me more sexy, but I’m old too, so who cares?

          • busterggi

            Looks like us old guys are gonna need a bigger boat.

        • InDogITrust

          This post is a great illustration of what i see as the most attractive part of Judaism: the humorous practicality.

          • Yonah

            I like your name. I wish I could trust my dog. He’s old, diabetic and blind with cataracts, but somehow he lives on. I am not quite sure he is of this world.

          • InDogITrust

            Thanks. Dog is my copilot. ;)
            Good luck with your pooch. Leaving us too soon is the only thing they do that we can’t eventually laugh about.

  • GeniusPhx

    I have a similar story tho i didnt go to seminary. I started studying christian history and found all the evidence for jesus and the jesus story was missing. every piece of evidence that ppl site has big holes in it. then i turned to study all religions and found they all teach the same thing, love your neighbor as yourself. then i studied the history of god (monotheistic) going back 12k years.

    so it was the study of religion over 5 or so years that made me an atheist. I dont have to believe in god to be compassionate, empathetic, generous, loving, or a good citizen. Where i finally found happiness was in walking away from all of it and finding my life didn’t change one iota.


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