Monday, September 9, 2013

My Seminary Education

        I’m back in seminary. This week I begin taking a course, “Confessing Our Faith,” at the United Church’s Emmanuel College. It is a requirement for ministers who transfer in from other denominations. Of course, in the United Church, there is no requirement that ministers subscribe to these confessions, of which there are several. These confessions serve mostly as a formative and instructive summary of what many in the United Church have believed. Since I left my previous denomination because I could no longer, in good conscience, subscribe to its confessions, I find it a bit ironic that the first class I’ll be taking is one on confessions in my new denomination—but it’s a pleasant irony.
         But registering for a seminary class made me a bit nostalgic about Calvin Seminary and the time I spent there. Mostly, it was very good—though with a few caveats. But then, most of us have mixed feelings about the time we spent in school. I’ll get to my main caveat later.
         I don’t really know what Calvin Seminary is like today. But when I went, I loved it. As with any graduate school, there were a lot of hoops to jump through, and they sometimes caused a bit of anxiety. I got through my Greek and Hebrew comprehensive exams okay. The Bible knowledge exam took two tries.
         I also remember the moment I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was at my final oral exam. Prof. Neal Plantinga—one of my favorite professors—got things off to a rocky start when he asked me what I knew about Rupert of Deutz. I tried to remember. I wondered if it was someone we had studied in Church History. Maybe in Systematic Theology. Maybe he was a proto-reformation guy? I toyed with the idea of trying to wing it. There was a lot of silence. Finally, I answered, “I don’t know.” My heart sank.
         Plantinga responded by saying he didn’t know either, but a former student had sent him a paper about Rupert and so he thought he’d ask me what I knew. All the professors round the big table laughed. Big sigh of relief from me. The rest of the exam went okay, I guess. I graduated. And now I miss those days. One of my biggest regrets, now, was that when I was asked to teach an elective class there one semester it was later cancelled due to poor enrolment. I consoled myself by remembering that there never really was room for electives in anyone’s schedule back in those days.
         That’s because the education was rigorous. Much was expected. That was fine. I knew what I was signing up for.
         But now the caveat.
         For all the great academics, Calvin turned out, in hindsight, to be a place where I learned much too late that communication between paradigms is incommensurate. Let me explain that.
         As deep and wide as Calvin’s education was, it was an education informed by a very specific theology and the worldview that theology was part of. Its approach to scholarship was mostly one of filling empty vessels with what they need to properly water the flock when they graduated. As a result, we students—and almost certainly our professors—just didn’t get the opportunity to really wrestle with different perspectives, at least in public. Deep, empathetic communication between our Dutch-Reformed theological paradigm and others was impossible-incommensurate. Even when the language of the liberals or Pentecostals was the same language we used, it meant different things, it was valued differently, and it came with all sorts of baggage specific to that tradition that all together made it impossible to really get, or really consider, those points of view.
         Sometimes, this was pretty obvious. When I took a course on Karl Barth, the professor was, frankly, dismissive of Barth. Whenever some theme in Barth was brought up, it was to undermine or dismiss it. But more often, the impossibility of understanding the language of other traditions or religions was simply not discussed, as if no such problem of understanding existed.
         Of course, some argue that the problem of incommensurability between paradigms just can’t be avoided. That’s what I learned from reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions during the postgrad year I spent on the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship team that studied "Creation and Cosmogony." Any education that comes from a certain perspective (and they all do) is going to have this problem. It’s unavoidable. And to a certain degree, I agree. My own long, and often agonizing journey away from the worldview I grew up with has given me a new appreciation for how hard it is to really learn about, consider, and weigh new perspectives.
         But where I fault Calvin is that this problem was not given any consideration. We were never challenged to understand and embrace our limitations when it came to other perspectives. The unspoken foundation of our education was always something like, “of course, our Reformed perspective is how it really is.” We learned about other traditions not so much to learn from them but to learn the error of their ways.
         When I began graduate school at Wayne State University, however, I was surprised to find that incommensurability of communication between paradigms was one of the first topics we were asked to wrestle with. I did a PhD in Communication Theory, which I sometimes explain to my friends as an education in secular hermeneutics. My classes were filled with people who had all sorts of interesting intellectual commitments—Christianity, Marxism, pragmatism, postmodernism, and even the odd pagan, to name a few. And we were constantly asked to explain ourselves and to at least try to understand where the others were coming from and why.
         The thing is, Calvin Seminary is like a closed-shop professional school. The only analogy I can think of is going to get an MBA from a graduate school owned by Apple and only providing training for Apple employees. Again, it is hard to fault Calvin for being that—it is a denominational school that requires everyone who teaches there to hold to certain beliefs. But again, what is surprising, looking back, is that so little, if any, attention was paid to incommensurability as an academic and spiritual disability. We didn’t learn to truly empathize with different perspectives because we were not ever really challenged to understand the problems with trying to do so.

         I suppose I shouldn't rue this too much. The seminary was being what it was created to be and wanted to be. But if someone asked me what seminary he or she should go to today, I’d suggest they go to one where they are with people and professors who don’t all see things your way. It makes for some tough discussions, where mutual understanding is at a premium. But such a seminary would also force students to really wrestle with their own understanding, too.


  1. I think this is a really important critique John. I also think that the humility and maturity that comes from engaging other paradigms and anticipating encountering God in places very different than your own is a crucial part of preparation for ministry in our pluralistic contexts. To be people of peace, we must embrace the spiritual formation that comes from learning to dialogue, respect and appreciate other perspectives. As a current board member at Calvin Seminary, I think progress has been made on these points since you were a student. But CTS and the CRC denomination can certainly continue to grow in this regard.

    1. Thanks Wendy. I hope progress has been made, and I really have nothing much to go on. But that would be great.

  2. I would wonder about the sociology behind your experience: the 80s were such a period of cultural change within the denomination itself. The eighties were sort of a transitional moment between the older arch-Reformed ways of the mid-century church and its post-Boomer future. What is so striking to one on the sidelines is the vanishing of these older Dutch self-referentiality of the post-war church.

    The CTS of that time was preparing academics and solo pastors. The entire evangelical structure of youth workers, second ministers and the like was absent (unlike at Western in Holland). At least that's how I remember it.

    I would suggest that unbeknownst to you, you were in fact witnessing the first stages of the unwinding of the this tight, immigrant-knit culture.

  3. Oh, I think you're partly right. My first pastorate was a solo, but not my second, where there were several paid staff. While in sem we certainly talked and read about staff ministry, but it is far more common today. I also think the seminary has drifted from that old "arch-Reformed" into a more "pragmatic-evangelical" sort of direction. The key thing, though, was that in the early 80s there was very little empathetic engagement with other points of view. We learned how to refute them, not how to hear them. It would be interesting to me to know the degree to which that has changed. Wendy (above) suggests it has. Perhaps--on some issues and with some alternate perspectives. Remember, I'm not saying that a seminary ought to have an uncritical openness to very wind of culture or doctrine. I am saying that we just didn't "truly" encounter other perspectives, or even really try.

  4. I was at CTS in the late 80s, and my memory of this aspect of the education was not very different from yours. The difference I feel I think was in my expectation. Because I never grew up fully immersed in the CRC subculture I didn't expect them to be conversant with the rest of the world. The best I can explain it is like experience as a multi-lingual person with a mono-lingual culture. I expected them to stick to their language and for the most part that's what they did. I understood that there were a lot of other languages spoken out there but what I expected to get from them was a rigorous education in their own language. Having grown up accustomed to "flipping" cultures while at CTS I think I simply occupied the language that was spoken.

    I do recall on one bluebook, however, when process something (in systematics if I recall) doing a short pro/con analysis on the veracity of some aspect of Ref. Doc. I remember getting it back and noting to my surprise the reaction of my prof of this analysis. It was a mild reprimand for evaluating what should have been regurgitated as something settled, so in that sense your memory rings true. What I did with this as a student was to simply remind myself "don't kick against the CTS goads and jump your hoop". Complicity 1, authenticity 0. :)

    The other thought I had in reading your piece was of course (as you admit) that you exchange one set of filters for another. Exchanging "how can we (God's chosen) inherit the kingdom" for "how can people relate, connect, get along, live in harmony across religious and cultural barriers" are simply two different questions and the transition of questions of course reveals what each culture's preoccupation is. In the late 20th century the public conversation simply stopped worrying about God's wrath, judgment or hell. It made much of the church's agenda or preoccupation seem archaic and moot. "Peace on earth" means something different than what CRC folks assumed the angels were declaring.

    Thanks John for your continued blogging. pvk

    1. I think that what was amazing, in hindsight, is that the great questions that were being debated in philosophy (in particular) and theology (in general) were just ignored. No one even mentioned Derrida, Foucault, or Rorty. No one mentioned deconstructionism or issues related to the underside of texts. And on and on. Not that we needed to be experts, but even then it should have been clear that this turn in theology was profound and its fallout would engage pastors for at least a generation or two. We mostly just went through the loci as if there were no more fundamental issues to be considered. Even from an apologetic point of view this was regrettable. Do I really fault Calvin for this? No, probably not. It was being the school it wanted to be and that I signed up for. But, oh, was I ever naive when I went to grad school! And what a lot of catching up I had to do. And that began the process that led to my leaving, eventually, I suppose. It was a great journey, beginning to end (at which I have not yet arrived, I suppose!). But I am fascinated by how there wasn't even any inoculation at Calvin, especially none that really engaged these critiques. Instead, we had historical/grammatical arguments about why we needed to stick with male metaphors (though maybe not similes) when talking about God. The presuppositions were never really engaged. I think about this a lot. I guess when you have a bunch of mostly guys dreaming of being pastors the issue mostly doesn't come up. But it makes for naive pastors, I thing, in a world where ideas count.

    2. 1. On one hand I completely agree. I don't know if CTS even does this today quite frankly. What a blessing it could have been for you, myself and others if it had been a place of more openness where the profs could have engaged these questions and we as students could at least have heard them think out loud. This is one of the great tragedies of what happened at the college with Schneider and Harlow. It is a chilling and a fear based diminishment of the kind of education that might equip other students to engage the broader conversation.

      2. At the same time there are multiple worlds. CTS (despite its self-conscious pretense to do a PhD rather than the DMin)is before all things a professional school as you noted. It intends to deliver professionals to engage specific worlds many of which have little self-conscious involvement with the ideas circulating in the academy. While those ideas will deeply shape these worlds eventually, the emphasis was on (even back then, more so now) arresting the numeric and economic decline of the ecclesiastical community. In the late 80s community of interest for CTS was first the rural/suburban Dutch immigrant subculture with solo pastors slinging two sermons a week plus visiting the elderly with perhaps a youth pastor in tow. The second community of interest was the developing seeker, big box, suburban context. Young church planters like Kevin Adams and Jul Medenblik would try their hand at Bill Hybel's methodologies and develop CRC church plants that the CRHM community would help lead the CRC to vitality and relevance in the broader American church culture. The third community of declining interest was the inner city, missional scene of which I was a product from the CRC pioneers in racial reconciliation like my father Stan.

      CTS faculty was regularly disgusted with the pragmatism of the student body and their disinterest in theology, never mind philosophy. Students were looking to either make a splash as pastors in the traditional CRC career ladder that reached to places like La Grave, Eastern Avenue or denominational positions, or grow the first CRC mega church in Willow's wake.

      The students of your generation and mine are now the masters of the institution. I suspect the students today are probably as pragmatic as they were in our day. The seeker context is less sexy but the Tim Keller City Center space is hot with the emergent/racial reconciliation/gospel to the poor still hanging in there a bit back in the pack. Students still go to CTS hoping they will leave to "make a difference" but the nature of that difference will depend, of course, on how they view the world.

      The world you encountered in grad school is of course a valid world, but it is one of many. By nature each of us imagines our world to be the most vital, the most credible, the most legitimate, THE world against which all others fail to adequately grasp.

  5. I believe something God has been teaching me since I left seminary is something I prayed (via song) at my ordination service in 2004 (Yes I am a bit younger than you guys.) The song was "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace". The words are based on a prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, and the prayer God is answering for me is this ... "O Master grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love with all my soul." This prayer is guiding me into realms of which I never had interest in going. It has led me back to the US Air Force where I am serving my community as a chaplain in the New Mexico Air National Guard, and has led me to engage the city and its people in a much more Christlike way. Thanks for your thoughts, John.

  6. In my book I talk about how the ancient church taught that the duty of Christians was to know the Lord's Prayer, obey their parish priest, and especially the way of caritas. Which brings up a completely different and interesting thought--the new pope's comments about how God embraces atheists who follow their conscience. Wonder if things will be different with Pope Francis?


What do you think?