Things They Shouldn’t Teach in Seminary

Things They Shouldn’t Teach in Seminary August 1, 2022

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

In what follows, I’ve tried to identify attitudes and sensibilities that a seminary can either consciously or unconsciously impart to seminarians.  And in a variation on the theme, “What they didn’t teach you in seminary”, I have focused on “What they shouldn’t teach you in seminary.”


Contempt for conviction

One of the more inspiring commencement addresses I heard over the years was the one delivered by Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, President of Nashville’s Meharry Medical College.  Memorably, he told the graduating seminarians, “Don’t let what you learn, rob you of what you know.”  It was a message that they needed the day they started seminary.

There is no doubt that anyone who attends seminary has a lot to learn and things to un-learn, not least of all because our churches do such a poor job of spiritual formation.  But as Hildreth suggested, that task should not rob would-be clergy of a lively relationship with God.  And those who contemptuously specialize in deconstructing the faith of their students, without leading them into a richer, deeper understanding of their faith do them a disservice.[1]


Contempt for Scripture

A colleague once observed, “Protestantism gave everyone the Bible and then taught them to mistrust it.”  To be sure, Scripture is a rich, complex body of literature.  And reading it, never mind making application of it to our lives, requires a rich, complex array of skills.

But a deeper acquaintance with those challenges should always lead to an enhanced appreciation for its contents, rather than lead people to mistrust it.  If, as the church believes, Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, then it is important not just to read it, but to let Scripture read us.  That cannot happen if the Bible is first objectified and then belittled.


Contempt for the 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 preceded us.  To be sure, there are benefits to this moment in history, to the perspective it provides, to the correctives it is able to offer.  But that should not lead us to despise the past.  Yet, now, perhaps more than ever before, that is the great temptation that we face.  And no anarchist who ascended the ladder of history and then cut himself off from the past has ever ushered in a utopia.  The spiritual progress of the church is not just an individual enterprise, but a collective enterprise and that requires attention to the church’s theological and spiritual journey.


Contempt for the spiritual life

Christian spirituality is a journey inward that leads to a journey outward.  And the journey that confines itself to one half of the journey or the other is simply two forms of self-indulgence.  The one focused on the cultivation of a private experience, the other the cultivation of private dreams for the lives of others.  Careful attention to both avoids the excesses that inevitably follows on a preoccupation with one or the other, and no pastor who hopes to remain useful to the Spirit’s work in the church can neglect the balance the balance offers.


Contempt for laypeople

Education inevitably isolates, and it is important to acknowledge that fact.  To become deeply acquainted with a body of knowledge, including theology, heightens certain concerns, moves them to the center, and elevates certain problems.  But a seminary education should help its students to resist the temptation to let that experience harden into contempt for laypeople.  Instead, that body of knowledge should be put to the service of the church and should provide the basis for a respectful conversation with the laity about their own journeys and the wisdom those journeys offer the church.


Contempt for the life of the congregation

In recruiting students, seminaries indulge in the same practices that shape other academic institutions.  They focus on the needs and aspirations of their prospective students.  They vision-cast, promising certain results.  This is understandable, but it also dangerous.  It is perilously easy to move from that appeal to the conviction 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 distinctive challenges, and a calling of its own.  While broadly speaking, the body of Christ has a singular mission in the world, anyone who is attentive to the lives of specific congregations will learn that clergy necessarily work with their congregations to enhance their ability to discern God’s calling on their shared life.


Contempt for people with politics that differ from your own

 A few churches are red, politically.  Others are blue.  Most of them are purple.  And none of that matters.  The life of the church takes shape around the calling of Christ and clergy are charged with helping deepen the church’s understanding of that calling.  While the Gospel has social implications, the place where those implications are lived out centers on the body of Christ.  And to the degree that those implications have implications for Christians as citizens, there is ample room for debate and differences of opinion on what a Christian might support as a voter.  Clergy are ill prepared and can ill afford to let their private convictions on matters of that kind to privilege one political view over another.


Contempt for people with money

No single message is sent more often in the modern academy than contempt for people with money, in spite of the fact that no institution is the greater beneficiary of wealthy people than academics and the academy.  Economic, theological, and ethical defenses are often offered for this behavior, but it never quite covers the hypocrisy and jealousy that lurks beneath such judgments.  As a result, clergy often mirror the same contempt and find it difficult to relate to people with money or engage them in conversations about its use.


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

 Because, apart from the fact that the sensibilities I have described here capture the deep-seated feelings that I’ve noticed over the years, the word, “contempt” also underlines the spirit that lurks behind each of these attitudes.

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

The basic notion of contempt is: “I’m better than you and you are lesser than me.” The most common trigger for this emotion is immoral action by a person or group of people to whom you feel superior. While 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 uncertain about their status may be more likely to manifest contempt to assert their superiority over others. In that way, sometimes people in “subordinate” positions may feel contempt towards those who have a higher social, political or legal ranking.[2]

Inevitably, Ekman focuses on contempt as interpersonal dynamic and leaves the other forms of contempt that I’ve described above.  I would also differ with the apparent suggestion that contempt is provoked alone by an “immoral action” by people to whom we feel superior.

Contempt is, in fact, often front-loaded and shapes the way in which we behave toward one another on the basis of categorical assumptions we hold about the lives and motivations of others.  As a result, those for whom we have contempt do not necessarily need to do anything immoral.  In fact, based upon the assumptions we bring to our relationships, it may not be possible for some people to do anything we deem moral.

That said, Ekman’s definition underlines the spiritually problematic nature of contempt, which is predicated on convictions of superiority and the assertion of power and status.  Nothing could be more inimical to the spiritual posture that a seminary education should inculcate or the attitude that should lie at its heart: humility.  An awareness that we are creatures, not the Creator, that our task is to walk humbly with God and with one another.  Seminaries should never teach anything that makes that posture difficult to achieve.



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



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