When Mystery becomes Product: The Case of General Theological Seminary

When Mystery becomes Product: The Case of General Theological Seminary October 17, 2014

gtsThe first seminaries originated after the Council of Trent.  They were a product of what is sometimes called the Counter-Reformation.  But they were not simply the reaction of the Roman Catholic Church to the criticisms of the Protestant Reformation.  They were also the product of profound disquiet in the Catholic Church itself.  The church was concerned that clergy were not deeply formed in the Christian faith.  They were not competent and they were not well prepared.  So, the Council called for the creation seminaries, of “seedbeds,” as the Latin would have it — places that would shape the hearts, minds, and souls of those who served the church.

Like all human institutions, those early experiments were hardly perfect and the history of seminary education is hardly a simple narrative in which the perfect was gradually lost or betrayed over the generations since.  But there have been factors in recent history that have robbed that early vision of anything so organic, productive, or fecund as the notion of a seedbed.  Seedbeds produce plants that grow from something that becomes interior to them.  They share in the same rich, deep, and mysterious thing that gave them life.  Their lives arise out of that “stuff” and they become vehicles of the mysteries that have fed them.

Over time, seminaries have become something very different.  They are no longer seedbeds, they are dispensaries, sources of information, places where commodities are sold, factories.  That isn’t surprising.  The vast majority of the models for theological education and the vast majority of people who teach in seminaries are more products of the university model of education than they are of the Tridentine seedbed.  The royal road to learning is to atomize, specialize, and dispense the information that is distilled from the process.  And, now, as numbers and money begin to become acute issues for seminaries, boards and seminary leaders without any deep sympathy for that seedbed model are beginning to ask themselves, “How can we distribute this information and collect tuition for it in a more efficient fashion?”

Judging from the events at General Theological Seminary today, the answer is that it can be done efficiently and effectively with large numbers of people who are contracted to do the dispensing.  In a decision that stunned many, but which was a long time coming, the Board of Trustees reaffirmed its commitment to its lawyer-priest-president-dean.  They refused to reinstate the eight faculty members who had raised concerns about the language that their leader had used to describe minority groups and the Board reassured the public that the piecemeal faculty they were hiring alongside the three full-time faculty members who are left could deliver the product to their students.

One is tempted to ask, “When does a school become nothing more than a hosting site for people who would like to take a shot at doing a bit of teaching?”  But against the history of seminary education and its more profound commitments, one might ask instead, when does a seedbed that nurtures mystery become a factory that turns out a product?

The experiment now underway at General Theological Seminary will not answer that question.  Seniors will hang on of course.  They can’t possibly look for a new service-provider (the phrase is intentional) at this late stage and, God bless them, why would they?  It would require years and resources that they don’t have and that their families cannot spare.  For all the cajoling and moralizing that has been layered on their silence, one needs to recognize that there is nothing to be gained by those hapless few throwing their families and futures into breach between the administration and the faculty.  But any student with more work to do and any prospective student contemplating a theological education would be a fool to attend a school with three resident faculty and a dean.  Why?  To what end?  And why at General?  If the place is no longer a seedbed, but an empty pot, what does the Seminary itself have to offer apart from accommodations in Manhattan?  The faculty had offered a vision much like a seedbed, but the forces of commodification were in management mode and now the Seminary is lost.

Therein lies the message to the seminaries left standing: Consider your purpose.  If you are simply dispensing information, your days are numbered.  The product can be codified, recorded, and dispensed.  A seedbed is a different matter.  It is baptism into a mystery – an experience of God – a relationship with God and those who have been touched by the Divine.  Mystery is not something that is simply learned, it is absorbed and the few that choose to offer that gift have a future.  For those that don’t offer that mystery, there isn’t one.




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