A troubling article about the state of graduate theological education--especially in the mainline protestant world. Thankfully places like my alma mater, Asbury Theological Seminary, and the seminary where I serve as a trustee, United Theological Seminary, are shining examples of the opposite of what is described in this article.
By ROD DREHER
July 1, 2019, 4:11 AM
Last week, a student at one of the country’s top theological seminaries wrote to me about the institution. The student framed the letter not so much as a complaint about this particular seminary, but rather as a warning about the direction of Christianity via the pastors and theologians trained at prestigious places like this.
The student said in the original letter that the student knew in advance that this was a seminary that was likely to challenge the student’s orthodox Christian beliefs; that was one reason the student chose this institution: for the intellectual challenge. But the student did not anticipate that the situation there was as revolutionary as it is. I’ve looked at this seminary’s material online, and can tell you that there is nothing to indicate that conditions there are what this student says there are. But you can find online writing from those familiar with this seminary that supports what the student writes below.
The student is confident that very few ordinary Christians understand what’s happening at this level. I know the student’s name, and the seminary’s name, and asked the student to revise the letter to redact identifying details, for the student’s own protection.
Rod, I’ve been a longtime reader and fan of your work. Now that I am attending what is considered a “prestigious” American Protestant mainline divinity school/seminary, I felt that I should reach out and issue a report from the front.
I’m going to do my best to avoid the question of how Christians should be civically engaged. As important as that is, I’ll stick to the question of what is acceptable teaching within the church. While we aren’t necessarily called to impose morality on the wider world (rather we spread it through engagement and persuasion), the Bible is clear that we should be wary of – and do something about – the false teachers among us.
I chose my institution for the academic rigor and the opportunity to have difficult conversations with people who were not on my side of the spectrum. Oh Rod, how painfully naive I was… those conversations ended long before I arrived. In reality, I have to walk on eggshells to not out myself as a moral monster — for holding to biblical morality on a Christian campus. I have seen the future in the form of the arguments that the very far “Christian” left is developing. The average believer in the pews does not know what is coming.
I want to say at the outset that I write this out of genuine Christian concern for the universal church. I am not gazing down from the lofty heights of moral and doctrinal perfection; I am a sinner in need of God’s grace daily. It is hopefully a clear-eyed look at a world most won’t have the opportunity to experience first-hand, furthering a discussion about Christianity among fellow Christians. But enough of the preamble.
I’d love to say that the biggest issue is that divinity schools are not taking the Bible seriously. Every divinity school and seminary like mine have professors who don’t believe the resurrection happened, who teach future pastors Intro to New Testament and Systematic Theology. Even if they do believe in the resurrection, they easily cast off any other part of the Scriptures they dislike by denying the authorship of the Holy Spirit and then proclaiming the human authors were hopelessly blinded by the bigotries of their era. Unfortunately, this isn’t news.
I won’t spend any time on the things that are becoming de rigueur at all institutes of higher education, such as professors asking which pronouns each student identifies with on the first day of a new class, or the shocking sexual hedonism displayed by some of the future pastors of America.
Rather, I’d like to take a stab at defining the latest iteration of a battle for the identity of Christianity that has been raging for centuries now and why this latest version has a better chance of succeeding where the earlier coups failed.
Progressive Christians have woven a version of Christianity that dramatically diverges from the historic, orthodox faith. It’s a three-part harmony:
First, they fully bought into the primacy of the autonomous individual. You are untethered from all social and biological relationships and constraints that you do not willfully choose. Anything you feel is good and should be celebrated by society. You are unbounded by any moral constraint except the consent of other autonomous individuals. Nothing new here for people familiar with your work.
Second is the overwhelming triumph of critical theory and its offshoots, such as critical race theory, critical gender theory, etc. A primer for those who have mercifully been spared thus far:
Critical theory (CT) “in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be
distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human “emancipation from slavery”, acts as a “liberating…influence” … (Horkheimer 1972, 246).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
CT identifies the primary dichotomy in life as oppressor and oppressed. It has been applied to gender, to sexuality, to race, even to colonialism. It has given us the fields of Queer Theory, Postcolonialism, and Whiteness Studies, among others. These are not just fields of study at secular universities – they are the latest and greatest in the world of Christian theology.
You can see how nicely CT dovetails with autonomous individualism: you are morally excellent if you embrace all your identities and liberate yourself and others from the shackles of the oppressors (systemic white, capitalistic, patriarchal heteronormativity).
Technically, critical theory is a form of academic analysis. Practically, it functions as a rival religion to Christianity. Instead of life’s main problem/solution being sin/grace, it is now
oppression/liberation. It creates a new system of sinners (oppressors) and saints (the “woke” or “allies”) and all the requisite devotional duties.
The third aspect is where the magic happens. Critical theory/individualism gets clothed in a Christian dress. It is social justice with a thin veneer of Jesus. The way it works is critical theory’s definition of love and justice gets read into biblical themes:
When Christians say God loves you, that now means God affirms and supports your feelings and identity, even when they contradict scriptural witness.
When Christians say love your neighbor, that now means affirming and supporting them regardless of biblical truth.
When Christians say God is just, that now means God is for dismantling oppressors (the systemic white, capitalistic, patriarchal heteronormative oppressors).
A miraculous transfiguration has occurred: Marxist (via CT) morality is now virtually unchallenged as the full realization of biblical love and justice. The new, CT morality isn’t merely good for progressive society – it’s godly.
Are there any practical effects of the “critical theory-ization” of Christian theology? You bet! From the mouths of professors and future pastors:
The Constitution is inherently a patriarchal, white supremacist document that is unsalvageable; we must do away with it and start anew.
Any support for biblical sexual morality is a nonstarter – supporting traditional biblical morality is oppressing Christians whose identities do not align with biblical morality.
Business owners – even after paying workers their freely-agreed-upon contractual wages — do not have a right to their profits; rather, workers have the right to all profits.
Multiple times I have heard evangelism – the Great Commission – referred to as “colonialism.”
The ideas of the fallenness of humans and Original Sin are harmful to psychological health and we must do away with those doctrines.
Since we are not inherently fallen, we can do away with the idea that Christ’s death and
resurrection were to atone for our sins. Such a doctrine is child abuse by a blood-thirsty God.
Jesus willfully went to his death not to defeat death and redeem humanity, but to show
solidarity with the world’s oppressed.
All of this in the name of Jesus, love, and justice.
And think of these as a sneak preview, not a list of greatest hits.
This represents the instrumentalization of Christianity to social justice ends. Routinely, the discussion of Christianity’s value comes down to “can Christianity help liberate me and others who share my identity from oppressors?” Christianity is not good because it is true; Christianity is adopted if it is useful.
And if all of this was not bad enough, there’s this:
Multiple times I have heard professors and graduate assistants, with a wink and a nod, telling seminarians that they don’t have to share everything they have learned when they sit for the ordination board and hiring committee, only what those boards and committees need to hear.
There is such a shockingly strong belief in the goodness of this mission that some level of conscious lying-through-omission is acceptable if it means getting into congregations that would otherwise never invite you to be their pastor. That way, you can slowly work them out of their old-fashioned bigotries.
Here’s the predicament: how can Christians argue against CT’s version of love and justice when progressive “Christians” are busily making sure CT’s love and justice is Christian love and justice?
In other words, disagreeing with the new CT morality isn’t just being a bigot, or an oppressor, or promoting hate on society’s terms – no, now you are going against Jesus’ command to love your neighbor. You are being a bad Christian, on par with those Christians who used the Bible to support slavery and apartheid.
How is the average Christian in the pews going to be able to respond to the issue when it is framed like that? Will they be able – or even have the opportunity before being shouted down – to say something like:
“I do support love and justice, I just disagree with the source of your vision of love and justice, which is Marxist critical theory and fundamentally conflicts with a Christian worldview.”
Odds are slim.
How is the average Christian going be able to witness to others? We have lost the ability to say that we “hate the sin but love the sinner.” If autonomous individualism means a person is what the person feels, then denying what the person feels is tantamount to denying the very person.
CT morality says denying what the person feels is oppressing them. You are actively harming them. It is thus impossible to respectfully disagree when it comes to issues of personal identity.
In the end, it might be difficult to come to any other conclusion that we now live in two incommensurable moral universes in this country (and the church). This is the idea that two groups do not share a fundamental philosophical foundation from which to have a rational discussion.
One group says that truth exists, humans are sinful, our actions must be conformed to God, and that society and systems help us obtain those ends. The other says that truth either doesn’t exist or is dependent on the subjective experience of the individual, humans are fundamentally good and only corrupted by oppressive systems, and God should be conformed to our behavior.
Both cannot claim the mantle of Christianity.
In the long view, we’ve successfully fought off some of these attacks before. The problem this time around is that the battle has tilted away from us. In yesteryear, background culture held to traditional Christian values. Businesses weren’t actively promoting anti-Christian values. The internet and smartphones weren’t around reinforcing our omnipotent individual online existence and helping grease the gears of our hedonic consumption. There were traditional social, religious, and civil institutions that could hold the line.
This time around, the opposition is coming with the support of the surrounding culture. The opposition is buoyed by culture’s understanding that THEY have the moral high ground (even if that morality is based in Marxism, an ideology that was designed to take direct aim at Christianity).
Maybe all this stays in the divinity schools, seminaries, and churches of dying mainline congregations. After all, we’ve more or less won all the previous battles.
But maybe we won’t win this one.
As a church, we must think about civic life – how will we deal with corporate pressure on non-allies and pro-lifers, educate our children free from anti-Christian ideology, and protect our First Amendment rights in the public sphere? But if we don’t defend against the “critical theoryization” of our churches, we will lose our distinctive Christian witness from forces within, not from without.
The seminarian here is warning us that the Christian Left has colonized the institution — in this case, a leading one — and, crucially, the language of Christianity. It’s as if the Red Army had secretly taken over West Point. Keep in mind that this student is not saying that all seminaries are like this. That would be untrue, and silly. The student’s main point is that the student went in thinking he/she would be attending a liberal-ish Christian seminary, but discovered that the seminary was in truth anti-Christian — though it uses the same language as Christianity.
The sociologist Christian Smith identified Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as similarly parasitic on Christianity: a different religion that inhabits the same conceptual and linguistic forms of Christianity. This is something even worse. You might call it Moralistic Deistic Marxism. My correspondent’s point is that we are no longer talking about progressive Christianity vs. orthodox Christianity, but of rival religions.
Finally, the reader is talking about a Mainline Protestant seminary, but people from other Christian traditions can see similar things happening in the theological discourse within their own tribes. It might not have the institutional backing that it does in the Mainline, but it’s there.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Oh, I think you could justly say “all.”
I’m an adjunct at a lower status mainline seminary, as the only person in the region who can teach my denomination’s history and polity class, so I’m a ghost in the machine, so to speak. No terminal degree, and working at a local church, but enough street cred in social justice to be assumed to be safe. There’s a relatively nearby (100 miles) fellow institution that is reputed to be more traditional orientation and orthodox in faith, much maligned in the hallways here, so your qualification is fair . . . but they are a very distant outlier even within their system.
My own denomination’s seminaries today would all fit the description you present from a student . . . and I was that student, with the same hopes and intentions, back in 1985, ordained thirty years ago, and it was essentially true already. The tone was a little less militant, a little less unpleasant in the level of hostility towards faith and evangelism, but it was already beginning among faculty and staff.
We just ordained and hired a student from where I teach, which is how she found our congregation through my class and then proposing to do her field education at my church. She was strongly pressured to do her field ed at a social justice program, not a church, and certainly not at a church pastored by a male. But she muddled through that, and continued on a part time basis with us, and we became her sponsoring and ordaining congregation. Truth be told, as a relatively orthodox and traditionalist minister, she’s still recovering from the wounds of her last few years of seminary and the ordination process of our denomination. As in, going to counseling with a trusted psychologist who is a person of faith himself, dealing with symptoms not terribly distant from what another might call PTSD. The nastiness and contempt for traditional forms of anything Christian in faith and practice, outside of the outward forms — oh, they do love the vestments and paraments and liturgical readings! — is vicious and to a relatively naive believer, frightening.
I’ve wrestled over the last twenty years, teaching every few years, about my role in this unhealthy and decaying system — my seminary is almost certainly doomed in the near-term, as student counts drop and finances implode — but I like the ways I can throw some sand in the gears of the liberal progressive behemoth, even as I’m realistic that this is relatively all I’m doing. And every so often, there’s a student like our new assistant here that is a brand we can snatch from the burning.
Obviously, neither she nor I are overwhelmingly orthodox, given that she’s a female in ministry; in our part of the country, this is a major dilemma — in the Christian circles available to us, it often feels as if there’s really only three areas in which Protestant Christians operate: liberal progressive, conservative that does not accept nor affirm women in ministry, or charismatic-Pentecostal. So we’re part of a hidden Gondolin of conservative Christianity on the fringes of the Middle Earth of the mainlines, aware of our outsider status in any way we relate to the whole of which we’re a part.
Meanwhile, our congregation is largely unaware of most of this, as are the majority of mainline Protestant congregations around us, and I sense this is true more places than not. Methodists are starting to be forced to confront the possibility of a congregational (!) vote on sexuality and gender in the near future, but I can assure you that, as unlikely as it may seem if you just read national and general posts about their recent General Synod or other denominational activities, there are United Church of Christ congregations near us that are as faithful and traditional as you might hope to find, serving and studying and living Bible-loving, Christ-bearing congregational lives. The rot in the seminaries is not as intrusive as you might think, because seminaries are emphatically NOT teaching their graduates to go and subvert these often rural and small town churches; in general, they teach an active and passionate contempt for congregational life as a feeble platform for social justice and generally as the source of the problem.
So churches more and more are served by commissioned and lay ministers, who are trained very often by clergy and colleagues who are part of their denomination’s Gondolin faction, because those are the only ones who can be bothered to do such work (and yes, we chuckle as we are handed these unwanted tasks); retired clergy with a passion for the Gospel continue in service into their eighties and beyond, and in general, the church in those communities continues on.
The erosion of the countryside, the small towns, the outlying areas that Chris Arnade has been exploring, that has hurt small congregations that are a big but unmentioned part of American church life in the mainline Protestant story, has also insulated us. We don’t pay enough for seminary students in general to come to, unless they’re willing to sacrifice to do so, and that’s not part of the program on offer today. If you’re gonna sacrifice for The Cause, you do it living in the city, to work at a non-profit . . . not for a bunch of ignorant sexist racist fundamentalists, which is how they see most churches not waving a rainbow banner. Economically and socially, as small towns lose their one doctor, one dentist, one lawyer, and hatful of shops in exchange for a Family Dollar store, I don’t know what that future looks like for places like ours. But I do know that seminaries that used to depend on churches like ours now hate us, and in that hate is our hope; we just have to reinvent a way to continue to train and maintain a healthy leadership in word and sacrament through the collapse that we all can see coming in the larger institutions of the mainline — and the seminaries are the first to be crumbling.
Speaking as a knight of Gondolin, I’d prefer not to have you use my name or town; I’m still working inside the belly of the beast both at the [denomination deleted] seminary as a [denomination deleted] pastor and in my denominational circles as a humble teacher of history and polity. At some point, it will dawn on them that they need to just stop teaching our history because it really doesn’t support the current preferred narrative, but as yet, it’s a requirement I get to help fulfill, with my handfuls of sand to toss around and give myself and the Gospel message some traction.
Reader Brad Anderson writes:
Rod, I’ve never written to you because I already spend too much time checking your blog for new posts, and I wouldn’t get anything done at all if I get sucked into becoming a commenter. This post struck me enough because of my background, however, that I think it will be helpful to respond.
Regarding my background, I met Christ just before I turned thirty in a Methodist church. I was there for only two reasons – my wife was on my case that we should go to church and it was the closest church to our home. The preaching was decent and solid if not entertaining, and the music was very good. I felt comfortable there, even though I wasn’t a believer, and most importantly, I truly felt loved particularly by the Sunday school class we joined.
One Saturday night while preparing for the Sunday school class lesson for the next day, Jesus showed up in a new way to me while I was reading Romans. I was changed in an instant (not completely, of course, but in important ways), and I just had to tell everyone that he really is Lord. I didn’t know anything yet, but my excitement was infectious, and something wonderful started happening in my class. Soon, I was teaching the class, and God blessed our ministry. They moved us three times as the class grew, and ultimately we held class in the sanctuary in order for everyone to have a seat. People began to notice that I had a gift for teaching and public speaking, and the church encouraged me into pursuing ministry.
I still knew barely anything at all, but I was learning, and the call to ministry was becoming irresistible. My pastor agreed that I should write our District Superintendent to ask that I be a candidate for ordained ministry. Within a week and much to my surprise, I was the pastor of a church (a pastor unexpectedly resigned in November, and the Methodist church appoints pastors in June, and the Superintendent was in a bind because of it)!
I had never preached a sermon before, or prayed before the church, or assisted in communion or led a committee. I had no books on theology or church leadership. I had no clue what to do or how to do it. God blessed us anyway.
We went from 20 members in a dying semi-rural 150 year old church to over 100 members in a short amount of time, and we went from having no children to more than what we could handle. We hired a children’s director and a youth pastor. We were baptizing many, both babies and adults, our budget skyrocketed (so did our apportionments to the UMC!) and we even built a new parking lot to hold all the new cars we had to contend with.
And I was becoming a solid Wesleyan. I read all I could about theology, and I read the Bible constantly, and God began to mature my faith. I still was new to the faith and unprepared to lead, but we were headed in the right direction.
The District Superintendent was my biggest champion and thought that I had a bright future in the church. He arranged a mentor for me – every person going through the ordination process is assigned a mentor – who worked in the bishop’s office and is considered to be on the shortlist for becoming a bishop himself one day. On our third visit, my mentor basically fired me, saying he couldn’t continue to help me considering my theology. He had asked me about homosexuality, and frankly I had never given the subject any deep thought. I told him I agreed with the Methodist Book of Discipline, that all people are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teaching. This enraged him, and for the first time I realized that there was leadership within the church that was working against the stated positions of the church.
The next year I went to Candler School of Theology at Emory University, a prestigious school in our denomination. It broke me and for many of the same reasons that the seminarian mentioned in the original post. Five things I observed made me realize that the seminary would be harmful to my ministry: reading Scripture through the lens of critical theory which robs the Gospel of its power, a consistent and powerful lack of joy among students and faculty, a distrust and condescension against faithful, biblical laity, a campus ministry from the Divinity School that was entirely ineffective on campus, and angry, unbiblical preaching in daily chapel.
I feared that I wouldn’t become a better pastor if I stayed, and I wanted desperately to be a better pastor. So after a year and a half I left.
My District Committee on Ordained Ministry held my future in their hands. All of the pastors on the committee were Candler grads. They pleaded with me to reconsider. They told me I was right, that there were many things wrong with the school, but it was a hoop I had to jump through if I wanted to advance in the North Georgia conference. They said it was fine if I had gone to Duke or even Asbury, but to reject Candler was to reject the conference. They told me to take a year off and then start again.
The next year, I met with the committee again to give them my decision. I refused to go back, and I explained it primarily as a disagreement with critical theory and the danger it posed to the local church.
The head of the committee, a well respected pastor of a large church and a part time professor at Candler said in response, “Why don’t you tell them the real reason? You hate gay people!”
Now, I had never mentioned my thoughts on homosexuality to the committee, and for the record I don’t hate gay people. But you are right Rod when you say the issue will find you and you cannot hide. And the chair of the committee was onto something important – orthodox theology is the enemy of the homosexual movement within the church.
There is no good response to the charge against me. You cannot prove your theology isn’t mere hate to those who believe otherwise. Despite my protests that I didn’t hate homosexuals, the committee decided I wasn’t loving enough and that I wouldn’t be able to work well with other clergy who disagreed with me. They decided not to recommend me for ordination.
I tried for a time to continue on as a licensed local pastor, but I grew angry and bitter at the denomination, and I let it affect my preaching. I started to lose my joy, and for my own soul and the souls in my care at my church, I resigned within six months. I thought I had friends among the clergy, but not a single one contacted me, except the now retired Superintendent who begged me to reconsider.
I still don’t know if I made the right decision, but I do know my heart is broken. And I pray daily for God to heal me.
And then there’s this, what chance do faithful laity have to gain a true understanding of the Gospel if the seminaries that train the pastors don’t teach the truth? Lord, help us.
Several years ago, I met a young man who had been a seminarian at Candler, and been disillusioned by the same things that soured Brad Anderson on the seminary. He ended up leaving Methodism and becoming Orthodox.