Are Seminaries Really Cemeteries?

I know I heard it before going to seminary, that seminary was a place where many peoples’ faith in God died – hence the “cemetery”. “Be careful,” they would say, “You go in really solid, knowing what you believe, and you come out unsure of anything.” I was cautious about that sentiment and now at the midpoint of my seminary experience have a few more questions I want to ask back to those people that warned me of the potential death of my faith.

For instance, when we assume that faith is really strong outside a more focused, scholarly approach, do we mean it in the sense that an aspiring psychologist should be careful so they don’t overanalyze all future relationships because they’ll know too much, or do they mean it in the sense that an academic approach is antithetical to faith, that is to know God?

I’ll admit, some of the seminary experience is about the study of what others have said about God rather than the pursuit of God. But that’s not so different than training concert pianists to study Beethoven before trying to compose their own music, is it? We shouldn’t assume that our personal pursuits should disregard or be ignorant of all the people who have put serious heart, soul, and mind into this before we were ever born, right?

I do think that it is wrong to think of seminary as a professional school. In other words, I don’t think it should lead automatically to ordination. Even physicians have to go through a residency and nowadays, likely a fellowship, to go along with their M.D.s before being considered proficient at their craft. I think an M.Div should also be seen as a starting point.

Do I have more questions about God now having experienced seminary? Yes, but if I may say so, I think they’re good questions that the Scriptures provide room for. They are questions that I’m going to have to really seek the heart of God for, questions that I may never have an answer to, and to be honest, that’s OK with me. I would rather be with God out in the wilderness, than to stay on a secure mountaintop without God.

And that’s where I feel the fears about seminary, and maybe it depends on the seminary, need to be checked. It’s not everything, and you can certainly do ministry without studying at a seminary, but it’s a great place to be honed, to gain tools, to learn the languages, to understand the traditions, and find space to operate, experiment with ideas of worship and liturgy, and work with other future ministers. And what I hear from some professors, you may even find God here (scary, but better a calling here than not at all, right?)

But I will say this, I am more cautious with simple answers about the Christian faith. I am more sensitive to those who have been wounded. I am less certain about Christian apologetics (I used to love apologetics!), not because I think the faith shouldn’t be defended, but because I think if the point is to prove anything, it is to prove that we are transformed by the truth of Christ, not to feel that we right or are intelligent on the same rational grounds as those who question the faith.

But what do you think? Does it look like that on the outside? Or do you feel that seminary is too risky a venture for the faithful?

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Comments

  1. John Lamb says:

    From the outside, it seemed to me like some seminaries are more interested in providing (a) the “simple answers about the Christian faith,” (b) flock-building strategies, and (c) passed-off-as-fact theories about the meaning of the words and customs of the people in the Bible.

    It doesn’t sound from your post that that’s the kind of schooling you’re getting.

    This remark – that “if the point is to prove anything, it is to prove that we are transformed by the truth of Christ, not to feel that we right or are intelligent on the same rational grounds as those who question the faith.” – sounds like it comes from the heart of Jesus.

  2. elderj says:

    From the outside in, I think seminaries suffer from the same affliction of all academic institutions: the tendency to produce people who are elitists, but more problematically – they conceal their condescension.

  3. jadanzzy says:

    what i’ve noticed is that those who held to their faith so defensively come out of seminary shattered or even more defensive and militaristic. but also there are different strands of seminaries/divinity schools. there are the academic/progressive ones. then there are the tradition-specific ones. and then even within those two, the latter is more prone to raise pastors for churches.

    the problem with the former is that faith texts are studied with a historical-critical method, which leaves many wanting (hence the growing rise in practical theology). the latter encourages religious foundationalism and thus, a sense of fear of “alternative” theologies and thought processes.

    if seminaries are cemeteries, it’s because they can’t see their institutions for what they are, power structures.

  4. David Park says:

    ouch elderj. fair enough, i think that tendency is there. but one could say the same for the position of pastor, academic institution or not. i think if it’s done well, and i would vouch for a good education here at cts, that by reading stuff such as james cone and paulo freire along with john calvin and bonhoeffer have been helpful. does it make me an intellectual snob? maybe, but i will say that i’ve stayed up many nights this past year and a half asking myself difficult questions about how to live and whom i must learn to consider neighbor if i am ever to be aware of my privilege and how i can leverage and share whatever i have been given. i’m counting on friends like you along the way to help me do that well too, seminary or not.

    john, i think you’re right there too. there really is a mentality of church that caters to seminary pumping out good practitioners of the institution or denomination. i don’t know what other seminaries are like, but in general it seems to me that if it is too conservative, they care about doctrine to the detriment of people; and if it is too liberal, they care too much about people to really care about God.

  5. dydaktix says:

    Seminary has been the most humbling experience for me. It has shown me that God is bigger than I can understand. It has taught me the flaws in my systematics, it has shown me how lacking I am. It has shown me that I find my identity far too much in my accomplishments and not enough in God’s accomplishment. It has shown me the graciousness, hospitality, and compassion of professors, far beyond what I expect.

    “But I will say this, I am more cautious with simple answers about the Christian faith. I am more sensitive to those who have been wounded. I am less certain about Christian apologetics (I used to love apologetics!), not because I think the faith shouldn’t be defended, but because I think if the point is to prove anything, it is to prove that we are transformed by the truth of Christ, not to feel that we right or are intelligent on the same rational grounds as those who question the faith.”

    Amen, and Amen.

    I do not know of any denomination or church where seminary is an automatic ticket to ordination. There usually is an internship involved, interviews, and ordination exams at the least to be considered for ordination.

  6. David Park says:

    well said dydaktix.
    you’re right about the ordination process being separate from the seminary experience, but i’ve noticed that often, depending on the denominational affiliation, that seminary can really prep you for the ordination exams, whatnot. which is not necessarily a bad thing per se, but it just feels funny, as though that were the goal. and then because ordination has economic incentive, it bothers me even more because it becomes more difficult to discern what the real incentive is, you know what i mean? that’s what i mean, by i don’t like seminary to be thought of as a professional school.

    if you don’t mind me asking, what seminary do you attend, or did you attend?

  7. dydaktix says:

    Email me at (my name)(at)(GOOG’s email url) and I’ll let you know the skinny. 🙂

  8. Wayne Park says:

    Re: the loss of faith, I think that depends on the seminary, and that it’s a legitimate issue.

    Personally I’ve been conscious about the “losing your faith” warning and I can see how it happens – esp. when it comes to critical scholarship – but again depending on where you study, what circles etc. My exegesis teacher says what happened to Bart Ehrman was “lamentable” in the sense that critical scholarship doesn’t mean we need to renege on the faith.

    But quite the opposite has happened for me; I find my seminary studies are in a way saving my soul. How un-theologically correct is that? But it’s true. Something’s happening that’s been really good and really deep for my soul.

    On another note, I do think age has something to do with it as well. Call me an “agist” (what I think to be an illegitimate distinction), but I’ve seen some younger folks fresh outta college, and the load of information does wacked out things to their brains, faith, and spirituality. Perhaps here is where elderj’s pronouncement of elitism is most accurate, youthful naivete + knowledge = pride (potentially).

    But then I might just be concealing my condescension.

  9. elderj says:

    Wayne, I think you’re on to something with the age comment. There is a reason why Paul warns against putting folks in leadership while still novices. Working with young adults as I do, I see readily that many of them are relatively immature in many ways. Many of these folks go immediately to seminary where they either are overwhelmed with new data that challenges their naive understandings of the faith or that gives them a false sense of maturity resulting from knowledge.

  10. James says:

    “Be careful,” they would say, “You go in really solid, knowing what you believe, and you come out unsure of anything.”

    I find statements like these to be highly problematic. If one comes out of seminary in a state of severe confusion with respect to one’s religious beliefs, then it is plainly evident that one was not “solid” coming in.

  11. dydaktix says:

    it’s so evident the difference in attitude between younger and older seminarians. I’m in a program that is split into a distance learning and in-residence program. The distance learning people tend to be older, with myself on the younger side (I”m 33). The in-residence program I think is for the most part recent college grads. elderj, waynepark, y’all spot on.

    What amuses me is when someone who went to seminary cracks “it’s not a bible school”, and those in “the know” giggle, and you see jaws drop for those not in “the know”.

  12. Tony Lee says:

    I <3 my seminary!

  13. Daniel Im says:

    Great post.

    This post led me to write a post on seminary as well. I compared 3 different seminaries – one in Canada, one in the US, and one in Korea.

    Blessings and I hope it helps.

    http://danielim.wordpress.com/2009/10/14/where-to-go-to-seminary-a-preliminary-comparison-between-seminaries-in-canada-the-united-states-and-korea/

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