Seminaries and the Church’s Faith

Seminaries and the Church’s Faith October 19, 2021

“I need to talk.  I’ve been asked to preach at my father’s funeral, and I don’t believe in the Resurrection anymore.”

“I don’t know what to say at a person’s funeral.  After all, they don’t have anything to look forward to.”

Statements like this are the kind of thing that one expects to hear at any funeral, when the death of a loved one cuts through the families and friendships of anyone who dies.  But they are both examples of things that I have heard seminary students say, deep into the course of their theological studies.

There are variety of reasons that a seminarian might say something like this:

They may be working though their faith with seriousness for the first time.  That process can unearth questions.  It may test the degree to which a student has explored his or her faith.

Seminarians usually arrive with some kind of commitment to the church and its message.  (There is little good reason to pursue a theological education if you don’t.)  But the church itself may have done a poor job at catechesis.

The baseline materialism of contemporary America may further exacerbate a seminarian’s faith.  And it is often when confronted directly with the doctrine of the Resurrection that students discover just how deeply that materialist understanding of reality has invaded their thinking.

Then, again, seminarians are also taught not to believe in the Resurrection, or they are offered a version of it that is cast exclusively in terms that are metaphorical, symbolic or political.

Almost every reason a seminarian might struggle that I have listed above makes sense to me.  To struggle with your own beliefs, to confront them and think through them, to realize that the culture around you has sabotaged your faith – this is the stuff of serious formation.  And clergy who have done their work and won-through to a robust Christian faith can be powerful defenders of the faith and skilled pastors to those who seek their help.

The last reason, however, does not.

Yes, seminary faculty inevitably differ in the way that they frame the Christian faith.  And because seminaries do not have a direct say in who does and who does not take ordination vows, seminary faculties are free to teach almost anything that they choose to teach.  But to be taught that the Resurrection didn’t happen or to be taught that it is a metaphor or symbol of something social, political, or personal, flies in the face of the church’s teaching.

If seminarians are decisively shaped by that instruction, they will be seminarians to “cross their fingers” when they take their ordination vows or – if they are at all honest – abandon their work for other endeavors.

In this respect, seminaries are different from other academic institutions.  They are and should be places of free inquiry.  But they are places of free inquiry in a specific stream or credal tradition.  When those institutions or their faculty lose sight of that commitments, they fail to serve their students and the constituency to which they owe their existence.

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