So I just spent the last six years studying theology and therapy in a graduate seminary and am trying to get back to whatever it means to have a “normal” life. But every now and then I’m reminded of that witty pun that likens “seminary” to “cemetery.” I remember hearing this long before I ever started seminary. I thought I’d offer up a few reflections on the comparison, as well as toss it up to my three or four readers to add any that I haven’t mentioned. :)
In my experience, when I’ve heard seminary referred to as “cemetery,” it’s typically been for one or more of a few (often related) reasons. I’ll note these below, and offer a brief response following each of them. If you think there’s more I could have added (or should have foregone), chime in with your thoughts. These are just a few that come to my mind.
(1) Some people go to seminary and begin to promote themselves as intellectually, spiritually, or otherwise superior to other Christians in their life who haven’t gone to seminary. When those…you know…poor, pathetic, primitive non-seminarians utter what they think they know about God or the Bible [*note sarcasm*], the “enlightened” seminarian knows just how and where to undercut their conclusions and/or trump them with one more sophisticated…or at least a few divinely inspired nuances. It’s unfortunate.
Thoughts: It seems to me that if one’s seminary is doing its job (and, of course, if one is listening), one should be far more aware than ever before of just how little one actually does know, or at least of how little one has been exposed to and how much more one needs to learn if there’s to be anything even remotely close to “figuring it all out.” Seminary students often get exposed to more questions and answers than they ever knew existed, and they hopefully begin to see that they’ve still only been exposed to a relatively small portion of what has been thought or written out there. And then there’s the fact that the God in question is infinite, or at least transcends our categories, something of which the seminary is hopefully reminding its students. So the seminary experience should be an intellectually humbling enterprise, I think, not one producing (or sustaining) grandiosity. A good seminary should be a good Socrates—convincing students that the true path to knowledge involves, perhaps first and foremost, the knowledge of one’s own ignorance.
(2) Some people go to seminary and find the vitality of their faith, if not their faith altogether, significantly eroded. For some, Christianity becomes all about the ideas, the parsing of all divine truths and who has or doesn’t have them…and whether or how one actually experiences God becomes negotiable. For some, their studies and experiences in seminary leave them convinced that Christianity is an elaborate fiction–in many ways good and beautiful, perhaps, but unfortunately (or even fortunately) not true.
Thoughts: One reason relates to how seminaries might instill that sense of intellectual humility mentioned above—they often expose their students to more questions, concepts, inferences, conclusions, implications…than the student (and his/her former faith community) even knew existed when he/she walked in. There’s so much to think about, and unfortunately some do nothing but think about the ideas (as if God’s work in and through Jesus and the Bible were primarily about making sure we got all the information right). This has personally been one of my more significant–and I dare say chronic–weaknesses, though I’d like to think I was worse at this in some ways during my early twenties than during or after my seminary experience. This pursuit of “truth” (which can border on addiction for some) can even be driven by the anxiety of uncertainty, something to which some are more prone than others, and something with which I’ve definitely wrestled. Some get more anxious than others about not having the answers (or about being proven wrong), especially if they’ve invested a great deal of time—and perhaps their identity and/or self-concept—in seeking or defending them.
At the same time, many of these new questions, concepts, angles, findings, and so forth often challenge some of the fairly deep-seated biblical, theological, philosophical, and historical beliefs a student brings with them to seminary. And the challenge is upped when these different perspectives come, as they often do, from people who seem to be just as—if not more—God-loving, neighbor-loving, passionate, and brilliant as your biggest spiritual influences, heroes, pastors, and authors. For some, this instigates some personal theological reform, a tweaking or retooling of one’s particular theological or ministerial stances in various areas. For some, however, this instigates a sort of skepticism that suspects we’re all chasing the wind, asking the wrong questions and looking for answers that, naturally, don’t exist. Of course, for some, the anxiety and frustration of uncertainty or unanswered questions can be motivating here as well. That anxiety goes away if we refuse to acknowledge or entertain the legitimacy of the questions that prompt or reinforce it (which, interestingly, is also a technique often used to silence one’s opponent in a debate). Not that that’s necessarily the only reason some people jettison their Christian faith, but it’s definitely an enticing psychological reinforcement.
Then there’s the fact that seminary is graduate education and, thus, involves engaging what can be an overwhelming tsunami of new information, which amounts to adding a huge commitment to one’s other already-demanding commitments in life. The need simply to stay on top of the assignments can be all-consuming and, when added to one’s busyness in other areas of life, can wipe a person out intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. Graduate school is often a time of significant stress, and when the stressful demands are largely due to processing a great deal of biblical, theological, and ministerial information, one’s enthusiasm about these things (if not one’s enthusiasm or vibrancy simply in general) can wind up significantly diminished.
(3) Some people go to seminary and come home no longer believing what their former community of faith believes in one respect or another. Some back home might critically describe it as “being corrupted,” some as “going liberal,” and perhaps some even as “losing one’s faith.” Whatever it is, it definitely has a he-or-she-no-longer-thinks-like-we-do tinge to it, however pronounced.
Thoughts: This also relates to the seminary student being exposed to questions, concepts, angles, and so forth beyond what they or their former faith communities had been exposed to or had taught. (And sometimes, quite frankly, this involves thinking about things in more complex–which is to say, less simplistic or reductionistic–terms, albeit certainly not always.) Faith communities tend to endorse and reinforce certain sets of theological convictions and practices, often grounding in these beliefs and practices a member’s sense of identity, meaning, purpose, security, hope, and community/acceptance (often defining who’s “in” and who’s “out” by them). So, naturally, when a seminary student “individuates” from their theological “family of origin” (to pull in some social science concepts here), the (church or biological) family members’ thoughts toward—and relationships with—them can become strained. This individuation often calls into question those beliefs/practices and, thus, everything the family has riding on them (or so they feel anyway). And to protect and reinforce the family and its convictions—and everything they have riding on them—family members naturally get defensive (wouldn’t you if you felt like your sense of identity, security and so forth were being attacked?) and criticize the individuated family member’s newfound convictions. They identify the family, its convictions, and its practices with life, you might say. And, naturally, they identify the seminary with death.
These are just a few reflections on this seminary-as-cemetery stuff. Have any thoughts, additions, resonance, disagreements…? :)