As we discuss curriculum revision at my own seminary, I’ve found myself thinking anew about what it means to be part of a seminary faculty. Watching events embroil other seminary faculties in troubling conflict, that question has gained considerable urgency.
The question may seem abstract, but an answer might go some way toward answering the questions about the mission of today’s seminaries. The answer also has the potential for answering questions about the relationship between seminary boards, their administrative leaders, and the faculties themselves. And, of course, it could shape the way in which we understand the relationship between seminary faculty and their students.
In bold relief, my own answer to the question is this:
Unlike other faculties, a seminary faculty is committed to both learning and spiritual formation.
They give themselves to the same level of academic rigor, but seminary faculty embrace a commitment abandoned a long time ago. The larger academy is neutral, if not negative about the existence of the divine. Seminaries are not, nor can they be. The study of religion without a commitment to the existence of the divine, never mind a specific construal of what God is all about, is the focus of university’s department of religious studies. In those settings the tools of understanding are philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology, and sociology. In a seminary, theology remains “the queen of the sciences.” The other disciplines amplify the seminary’s understanding of God, but they cannot replace it. For that reason, seminary faculties hold that it is not just possible to learn about God. It is actually possible to encounter God.
As such seminary faculty are “professors” not just of a subject area, but of a deep spiritual commitment.
A professor is someone who occupies a particular office or role in a university. Reduced to its bureaucratic and functional characteristics, a professor simply imparts information or teaches a particular subject. On that reading a faculty is an assemblage of interchangeable parts. Teachers are purveyors of information. But in a seminary the denotation, not the connotation, of the word is closer to the inspiration. A “professor” is one who does more than declare belief in a subject. Seminary faculty profess more than confidence in a subject, they profess confidence in the light that discipline sheds on an understanding of God – or more dramatically, the way in which that discipline makes an encounter with God possible.
For that reason, seminary faculties are not just academic communities, they are faith communities.
To expand on an observation made by Mark McIntosh, God is not just the subject of theology’s curriculum, God is the teacher of the teachers. A seminary faculty may not belong to the same denomination. But, in broad terms, an effective seminary faculty will have been formed by its encounter with God and it will have a passion for making room for the same encounter in the lives of its students. As such, seminary faculties are communities of faith, communities devoted to worship, communities that are – paradoxically – alive to the limits of their learning, communities devoted to pointing toward something that (in the final analysis) cannot be taught, or imparted as a product – a mystery, not a manual.
The implications of that view of what it means to belong to a seminary faculty tumbles out, one over the other…
The faculty cannot assume that it is enough to master or impart a discreet body of knowledge. It cannot overlook the challenges associated with the student’s efforts to build knowledge and, at the same time, continue to believe. Seminary faculties cannot hide from their responsibilities by taking refuge in the conviction that they are just there to transmit information. Nor can they comfort themselves with the logic that it is the church that decides whether to ordain their graduates or not.
Students cannot assume that their teachers are there to be manipulated, extracting the best grade possible for as little effort as possible. They cannot divorce learning from the cultivation of virtue. They cannot assume that there is time to get honest about their faith when they are out in the church.
And administrators cannot afford to treat “professors” as “purveyors” of information. In the panic over the future, administrators cannot gut their faculties, looking for hired hands. They cannot take refuge in the facile assumption that there is something seminaries offer beyond the living community of faith that is the faculty. And they cannot run the seminary in ways that underwrite a hidden curriculum that undermines the Gospel.
Seminaries are not the understated and simplistic variation on real education. They are subtle, powerful expressions of an ideal that is easily despoiled and lost. No matter how we respond, let’s not squander the subtleties. We aren’t selling a product. We are nurturing a mystery.