The other day a senior at the seminary where I teach dropped by the office for a chat. She’s a good student, the kind of person who contributes to an instructor’s own growth. She slumped into the easy chair and unfolded to me her increasing doubts about her Christian beliefs. “I’m losing my faith!” she cried out half-despairingly.
She is not alone. Any number of seminarians reach their senior year harboring doubts that they reveal neither to fellow students nor to faculty.
The feeling that one is losing one’s faith even while studying its sacred materials has always been a hazard of preparation for ministry. I would be surprised if every seminarian isn’t confronted by the question, “What do I really believe?” The goal of seminary education is to assist in answering that question
However, during my nearly four decades of seminary teaching, each year’s entering class has varied in all respects save one, namely, the large number who repeatedly have made no distinction between faith and theology.
Some seminarians mean to protect and keep alive the “faith” they brought from home. Unless each of us becomes aware of this, the instructor and the student can spend a whole semester bypassing each other amid showers of verbiage. Obviously, the faculty’s task is to help each student to identify and analyze that “faith.”
The nature of true faith is radical.
Seminarians can feel that they are losing “faith.”
When their sense of loss becomes most pronounced, they are oftentimes yearning for the familiar past. In time, however, seminarians begin to realize that they are called to come to God standing up straight without any props. The call to be engaged in a pilgrimage of faith, is a call so radical that we may refuse to heed it and look about frantically for some theological messiah to pull us through, only to discover how humanly limited all theological messiahs are. Eventually, we face the fact that there is really no escape from the radicalness of faith. God wants us to come without help of any kind. God alone is the Source worthy of our full commitment. “I am who I am. . . . There is none other” (Exodus 3:14 and Isaiah 45:22).
Until this Divine claim is firmly fixed in our hearts as well as our heads, we shall go on losing our “faith.” Wherever there is rigorous questioning of our religious assumptions, seminary education will enable students to affirm as well as shed theologies in order to gain living faith in the Source. The seminary that is negligent in questioning the theological gods of our culture that have become encultured in our churches is shirking its responsibility to identify, articulate, and nurture faith in the living God.
However, all faith statements have theological implications that are based on our spiritual experiences, and sharing these experiences always involves a tension between mystery and meaning. But in our search for meaning, seminaries often seem to relegate mystery to the sidelines. This may explain in part the neglect of spirituality in many seminaries at a time when, ironically, interest in spirituality is increasing in society.
The tension between meaning and mystery will exist as long as the seminary is both a professional academic center and a confessing community of belief and prayer. This dual identity fits the disposition of today’s seminarians who are searching for a viable mystery on which to hang their beliefs and at the same time seeking a place in society where they might expend their energies with integrity and experience, renewing themselves and those around them. The crucial question here is whether we can educate future church leaders without destroying their authentic piety. Can the tension between mystery and meaning be maintained?
Our wish to have answers for all our questions has tempted us to turn our traditional theologies into crutches. But God is beyond our grasp. Too often, the desire for an authoritative faith has led us into a rationalizing attempt to “corner” God in our respective traditions. But in every age, the reforming spirit of the church has counseled, “Let God be God.” This reforming spirit must be reaffirmed again and again, lest we be entrapped in parochialism or in the latest fad.
It is our task, then, to question all existing theologies, prone as each is to the temptation of idolatry. In so doing, we shall maintain the radicalness of our faith that no theological formula can completely contain. Theological education should be designed to help us distinguish among the gods, so that our faith may be solidly anchored in the living God.
Recently, a chairperson of a pastoral search committee called me and inquired about a candidate. He asked, “Do you know this minister well?”
“Yes, I do,” I replied.
“Tell me,” he said, “is the candidate a real believer, or simply a professional in ministry?”
The chairperson was looking for a faith-driven candidate whom the congregation and community could recognize as a believer, backed by energy, enthusiasm, and a depth in spirituality—a closeness to God—and the ability to communicate that divine presence to others. God expects us to be believers, not simply professionals in marketing and ministry.
Let us be under no illusion. Acquiring knowledge, gathering information, going through the process of reflection and interpretation do not in themselves enhance faith. If it were so, seminary faculty members would have a distinct advantage. However, it has been my observation that earned degrees and years of experience in theological education do not necessarily increase faith.
At the same time, the church and society are out looking for authentic believers—persons whose lives reflect and demonstrate a transforming message of good news that offers hope, lifting our horizons to envision a more humane form of life where love, justice, peace, and forgiveness prevail. I suspect the largest number of authentic believers is found among the faithful laity in our churches, where their witness and acts of grace have provided healing and renewal in the lives of countless people.
Today, those of us privileged to study and work within a theological seminary must recapture a realistic view of what is needed in our churches and seminaries—a more committed discipleship through increased faith. However, I wonder who has sufficient faith to lead the way? Many of us tend to be more anxiety driven in our lives than faith driven. We circle around the promised land, but fail to claim it in faith; the Kingdom of God remains only as a lecture topic on our lips. Our personal agenda and the confusing noise of our culture have muted the still small voice, cooled our passions, and thwarted the will of God unfolding through our lives. Where is the joy and hope that stems from a vibrant faith?
From my perspective, the seminary ought to function as a faith-shaping community. The responsibility falls on each of us—faculty, students, and staff—as we contribute in our way to the total seminary experience. That is to say, we need to pay greater attention to the ungraded curriculum at school, as well our published curriculum as found in the catalog. Many of us must enlarge our involvement in the total educational process. Have we been too busy running after our personal agendas and ambitions to be involved?
This ungraded curriculum, sometimes referred to as a “hidden curriculum,” exists in the relationships that comprise every educational institution, including seminaries. These relationships are seen in faculty committees, student association gatherings, class discussions, chapel services, meal times, socials, dorm and apartment life, small group gatherings, and among special interest groups on campus. This “hidden curriculum” influences for good or ill our life together and can be a formative force, outweighing at times the formal academic curriculum. In short, the ungraded curriculum on the seminary campus is an important means by which our faith can be enhanced or hindered for years to come. For many seminarians, the most positive memories of seminary life date back to events experienced through the “hidden curriculum.”
Recently, I asked a faculty member what seminary education did for him, in retrospect. My colleague replied, “Seminary education provided me with (1) information, (2) an interpretive point of view, (3) practical skills, and (4) an increased enthusiasm to be a student of Scripture for life.”
“And did your seminary experience increase your faith?” I asked. “Yes,” he responded. “In seminary, I caught an excitement for my faith from one of my professors, who turned the classroom into a community, giving me and others a vision, as well as a relationship, that has inspired me throughout my lifetime.” Here is an example where the graded and ungraded aspects of seminary life converged successfully, mutually enriching faith and understanding. The learning process neither begins nor ends at the door of the seminary classroom. Our faith is nurtured through meaningful relationships whenever we choose to initiate genuine dialogue. May God inspire us to engage, listen and benefit from one another in our common journey of faith.
This article appears in somewhat different form in The Ideal Seminary: Pursuing Excellence in Theological Education by Carnegie Samuel Calian (Westminster John Knox, $16.95). Copyright ? 2002 Carnegie Samuel Calian. Reprinted by permission.
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