A pastor who is preparing to give a talk at a seminary e-mails to ask:
If you were a seminary president, how would you recalibrate the ways you see seminaries prepare students for the sake of a cultural moment like we find ourselves in?
That’s a great question. My answer is as follows:
Let me start with a couple of things friends of mine have told me in the past week. First, this from a friend writing to me about the Benedict Option:
So, in a way, yes, the Benedict Option is about the Church getting back to being the Church again. And yet, “being the Church” in the 21st century raises a very different set of challenges than those faced by St. Benedict. The “doubtless very different St. Benedict” will need to come up with new answers to a new problem: How to Christianize a post-Christian culture that no longer shares Christianity’s metaphysical and epistemological premises.
This isn’t a rehashing of the 5th, 6th, or any century. This is truly something new and unprecedented. The Benedict Option is about taking the first step towards responding to this new situation by first providing a space within which the Church can remember fully who She is, and then formulate the approach necessary to re-evangelize Western Civilization. This is no same-old same-old, no return to the Gates of Vienna. No, the gates have long since been breached. We’re not defending a border, we’re fighting an occupation.
This second note, from a friend active in his Evangelical church in the Deep South, responding to the point I quoted here the other day, in which someone said that Evangelicals didn’t so much have to worry about their children holding on to the faith as their grandchildren. Friend said:
Our grandchildren? No, it’s about our children. I teach high schoolers in our church on Wednesday night, and they know next to nothing about the Bible. The most basic things go over their head. I’ll throw something simple out to them, and they won’t catch the reference. These are not little kids; these are high schoolers who care enough, or whose parents care enough, to have them at church on a weeknight. They are clueless.
My guess is that those parents have no idea, and don’t really want to know.
I bring those two stories up to illustrate the radical nature of the challenge before us now — before all Christians, but especially those who accept the vocation to preach and teach as ordained ministers. As my friend said, we are no longer defending a border; we are resisting an occupation. The occupation is of the imaginations of contemporary Christians, who can scarcely comprehend what it means to be a Christian in any historic sense of the term, not because they are bad people, but because the nature of modern and postmodern culture makes it very, very difficult to grasp.
I would advise seminaries to go deep into the history of theology and philosophy to get a basic understanding of the ideas behind modernity — that is, How We Got Here. A key reason the contemporary Church is always getting its clocked cleaned by the culture is that it doesn’t grasp the nature of what the Church is up against. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism really is the de facto religion of America today, and those training for the ministry need to understand where it comes from and why it’s so powerful. And they need to grasp that to embrace MTD is to embrace the death of Christianity.
I would teach doctrine, yes, but I would emphasize art and narrative theology. You cannot argue people in the current culture into believing in God. At best you can make it plausible to them, but they have to experience the shock of beauty and/or truth to grasp the reality of the faith. This is what Pope Benedict XVI meant when he said the best arguments for the truth of the faith are the art it produces, and its saints. Dwell deeply on that, and figure out what it means within your tradition. Fewer and fewer people today will be persuaded by your brilliant sermon exegesis. That language is increasingly foreign to people today. You need to embody Christian orthodoxy in other ways.
Teach your seminarians not to try to be all things to all people. Focus on the core, those who really want to be there. Seeker-friendliness is going to end up watering everything down. The church is a different community from the world around it; act like it is, like there is something distinct and special about this community.
Seminarians today need to be prepared to suffer joyfully. We do not know how to suffer as a church, we Christian Americans. Teach asceticism to the seminarians. Draw on the early church’s ascetical practices to inculcate a spirit of spiritual discipline and sacrifice in both individuals and in congregations. We will need this for the long run, in part because asceticism de-centers the Self from itself, and re-centers it around God. This is critically important in our self-worshiping culture.
This will depend on the seminary’s faith tradition, of course, but I would encourage them as much as is possible within the tradition’s bounds to rediscover ancient Christian practices of liturgy and communal prayer. We need to have a greater sense of ourselves as a community set apart. What links us to the community of Christian men and women around the world, and through the ages past? Our time is an age of mass forgetting; there is nothing more important for Christians today than to remember who we are. The way we remember who we are is to remember who we were, and to embody that memory in the physical acts of the community, and in its storytelling. Most Christians in America today are prisoners of the present moment, with no real idea of the Christian past, and why it matters to us, why it has a claim on us. Tomorrow’s pastors have to fight this forgetfulness.
I would also say that it’s highly important to discover the pre-modern Christian view of sacramentalism, which is a powerful antidote to our current crisis within the church. My correspondent writes from a Protestant tradition, so let me recommend a wonderful book by Reformed theologian Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, which approaches this from a Protestant point of view. Oh, and for heaven’s sake, listen to Ken Myers, and keep listening to him. Make his Journal your companion.
Remember above all that you are all called to be missionaries to a foreign land, which is your own country — a land that has forgotten so profoundly that it no longer knows how to remember, or why it should remember in the first place.
That’s my answer, off the top of my head this morning. Readers, what is your answer? If you’re going to same something silly, I’m not going to post it. I want this to be a serious thread, because the reader asked me in all seriousness.