Apr  2016 26
Three Ways to Make the Seminary Space a Safe One

From Mark Twain’s essay, “The Damned Human Race”(accessed 4/26/16) 

Man is the Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion, several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven…. The higher animals have no religion. And we are told that they are going to be left out, in the Hereafter. I wonder why? It seems questionable taste. 

Man is the Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. Indeed, my experiments have proven to me that he is the Unreasoning Animal… 

In truth, man is incurably foolish. Simple things which the other animals easily learn, he is incapable of learning. Among my experiments was this. In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately. 

Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away two whole days. When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh not a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court. 

Decades ago, I was introduced to the concept of a seminary classroom as safe space. That is a term borrowed from the counselor’s office. A counselor tries to create a safe holding space for the client to deal with the perceived dangers in their lives, often rooted in memories (e.g., abuse) too dangerous to consider directly. Not dealing with one’s own demons often means self-and-other-destructive, acting-out behaviors. 

A classroom is not a counseling office, although they can be confused. That said, I think we can agree that a person who is experiencing an unsafe space, a sense of real threat, is not in a good learning space. Fear and anxiety are enemies of learning.  

We all need a sense of safety in order to learn. But the problem is my sense of what I need to be safe may differ profoundly from what safety means for you. 

I am hearing more and more conflict between differing safety needs, and consequent decisions about who “we” “invite” to be present, decisions about to whom we are truly hospitable and who we do not want in the classroom with us because of the threat they bring or we imagine they bring.  

Safe space has become a highly conflicted matter in higher education generally and theological education particularly. Safe for whom? For all students? For some students? For the teachers? Safety from what, from which kinds of threats and sins? Safety from those persons who challenge the right or rightness of the presence of differing sexualities and gender identities, of women, or of persons of color? Safety from those who have held cultural dominance? 

Safety from persons claiming the importance, relevance, or goodness of substitutionary atonement, gendered references to God, sacrifice, servanthood, evangelism, redemption, reconciliation, or forgiveness? Safety for persons claiming the importance, relevance, or goodness of post-colonial theologies, liberation theologies, queer theologies, post-Christian theologies? Safety for someone who embodies hybridity in a criss-crossing way: gay, Pentecostal, liberationist, post-Christian who sees the relevance of justice, evangelism, and redemptive suffering?  

The situation in the classroom and in a seminary, even a small one such as Phillips is, has gotten complex to the point that I’m not sure the concept of safe space will hold much longer. We don’t seem to be able to juggle the competing needs. We may need to look for another way of speaking of a space safe enough to deal with dangerous topics. 

Here is my version of “safe enough.” I’m curious to know what you readers think:

1. At Phillips Theological Seminary, in our degree programs, we should welcome all students with the requisite academic credentials and with the requisite ecclesial permissions (for those pursuing ordination).  

2. We should expect those students to respect, and expect to be respected by, students of differing genders, gender identities, nationalities, races, and physical abilities—in other words, respect and acceptance of all the ways we are created (yes, critics of progressive positions: I am saying that God created humankind with much greater diversity than traditionally understood).  

3. We should also, as a school, be transparent about the nature of education at Phillips, which we attempt to do here. I experienced a time in another faculty when persons who did not believe in a conversational method of theological inquiry were invited to the table, and used their seats to try to establish a doctrinal orthodoxy of a sort that would undermine the table. The result was ugly and dysfunctional. So, everyone who teaches and studies at Phillips needs to be ready to converse and, when necessary, to argue. See former Dean Don Pittman’s clear and succinct piece on “liberal method” that I wholeheartedly affirm. 

In addition to acceptance of qualified persons, with all the diversities with which we were created, and acceptance of a scholarly, conversational method for engaging that does not seek to undermine either who is in the conversation or THAT conversation is fundamental to our way of knowing, I don’t know what other requirement I’d add for entry into the seminary’s space.  

We live in a society, at least as much as most societies and probably more than some, full of demons, as evidenced by massive and profound suffering, injustice, and dearth of compassion. 

There are multiple topics very dangerous to the life of the church, chief amongst which are how we read the Bible, who we think this Jesus was that we Christians allege to follow, and who we scapegoat for our sins. There are demons to be dealt with in the seminary classroom. It is never safe to deal with demons.  

I would yet like to imagine that religions would do better for humankind than the end Mark Twain penned in the fable at the start of this blog. Every time we enter a learning space in a seminary classroom, we can either prove Twain wrong or right. How ironic it would be if our quest for safety proves him right.

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