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May  2016 31
10 Reasons Why Christianity in the U.S. Needs Vital, Progressive Theological Seminaries

Top 10 graphic with a bullseye targetA self-interested title, to be sure, coming from a person who is completing his 23rd year in graduate theological education (not counting my four years as a seminarian and the five years of work on a PhD). But self-interested does not mean “wrong!”

The value of graduate seminary education, and thus of graduate seminaries, is being questioned today. Given the tumult in religion we’re experiencing, and the kinds of financial realities I wrote about in last week’s blog, that questioning is very reasonable. The following represents my response to the question of value.

I believe Christianity in the U.S. needs vital, progressive theological seminaries:

1. Because Christianity in the U.S. needs more progressive, educated Christians. Seminaries were not established to create a class of clergy. Rather, the endgame for seminary education is a more educated church, more intelligent Christians (rather than “intelligent Christian” sounding like an oxymoron). I have served as a seminary administrative leader because I believe passionately that 21st century Christianity will do more good than harm if Christians embody more progressive perspectives, if on matters such as interfaith relations there were more progressive Christians. You know the adage that “war is too important to be left to generals.” Debates about theology and practice are too important to be determined by clergy alone.

2. Because how we read the Bible is a matter of life and death. Unexamined, uncritical readings of the Bible are used to justify all kinds of interests, including killing others in the name of God or enslaving human beings. After over 200 years of critical biblical scholarship that takes history and the social sciences seriously, precious little of that critical scholarship has made its way in the awareness of the average Christian. How to read the Bible is arguably the most important practice taught in seminary, and seminaries are differentiated theologically based on the kind of biblical reading that is taught. A reading that supports a “convert-or-burn-in-hell” mentality implies an entirely different set of practices in mission, evangelism, and public policies than a “love wins” mindset.

3. Because there needs to be a place devoted to learning, teaching, and research regarding what “the way of Jesus” meant and might mean. Each era brings its own questions and needs to the Bible and to understanding Jesus. Our era is one of unprecedented need to deal with diversity and community, with consequent questions about who is “in” and who is “out” of my circle of compassion. I am drawn to scholars who understand Jesus in the context of a debate in his day between a “politics of purity” and a “politics of compassion.” Jesus lived the latter, pushing the boundaries of who is family, and so should Christians today.

4. Because patriarchy stands in the way of a more just society and church. No, I don’t mean “men” stand in the way. Patriarchy is an ideology and an idol. It legitimates the rule of men over women, the right of men to rule in public life and to do what they please in private life. There are scholars who link patriarchy to fundamentalism in religion, as in “when patriarchy is challenged, fundamentalism goes public and aggressive.” Patriarchy is also implicated in issues of race, class, gender identification, sexuality, and seeing God exclusively as “Father.” How Christians deal with the subject of patriarchy is one of the fundamental markers that differentiates theological perspectives; sometimes I think it is THE fundamental marker. Progressive Christianity brings a powerful critique to patriarchy, as well as resources to reimagine God and life in a less gender-restrictive way.

5. Because a religious perspective should befriend the sciences and history. The Bible is neither a book of science nor a book of history as we currently understand history. It is a book of books, a record of a people’s journey, living in response to God as they understood God, through 2,000 years and in several spaces. Conflicts between Christianity and the sciences—whether regarding the age of the universe, when life begins, or what brain research indicates about moral choice—should be welcomed and engaged. When necessary, theological understandings should change.

6. Because Christians should unequivocally subvert the use of religious symbols to justify violence. Personally, I am not a pacifist if that means war is never justified or one has no right to defend one’s self and loved ones. But I cannot strike another person in the name of Jesus. I cannot go to war in the name of Jesus. I cannot allow my state or nation to co-opt my religious symbols and use them to justify wars.

7. Because progressive Christianity advances conversation as a method of investigating what is true, good, and beautiful, as well as “how then shall we live?” Conversation, not private revelation. Progressive Christians practice conversation as humankind’s best alternative to violence. The inclusive conversation table remains a hope, a frustration, an elusive reality, and our best underdeveloped option for how humankind will live together.

8. Because a theological faculty is a community resource that provides allies for positive change far beyond the seminary’s core degree program work. I surveyed the seminary’s faculty recently and found they teach in about 80 adult church school classes annually. They serve on boards of numerous community agencies. They preach and resource church conferences at all levels, and they give public talks on matters such as race, gender, sexuality, theology, the Bible, and Jesus. They speak publicly about what a politics of compassion means in congregations and society.

9. Because a theological library is a curated treasure. With the world at our fingertips, there is no want for data. What we all need are trustworthy filters, persons who sort the good from the rest. Librarians and the faculty are those filters. At Phillips, the librarians are also hospitable and give access and guidance to anyone who asks! In addition, in a day where so much must be reimagined, a theological library is a great place to go for inspiration by learning history and the practices and perspectives that might be retrieved and adapted.

10. Because progressive Christianity has always and will always take the world seriously, and thus progressive theology is public theology. Some forms of Christianity move in and out of public life, based on a particular set of interests. Progressive Christianity developed in relationship with public life, from the Social Gospel of the late 19th century through today. We do not seek to be churchy or to prepare person only for the life to come. We reason, read scripture, and interpret the way of Jesus for today in order to seek-discern-align with what God is doing in the world, in the world that God loves, and to join in God’s work.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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