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.