Birth, Maturity, Transition

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 9 December 2010 0 Comments
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My husband and I have read Sins of the Scripture and I was so impressed by its message that I called the leader of the Focus Study (Presbyterian Church) group that we attend and suggested that we study it. We had our first meeting last night on Chapter One. Our next assignment is to read through Section 2. More fun to read further. In re–reading Chapter Two, I wonder what seminaries are discussing today as they teach future pastors. Are they considering the science of the 21st century? The points you have made so clearly — and points that many ordinary people in Bible classes have questioned — and yet our clergy does not seem to recognize. In my paperback edition, pp 25-26, I am happy to read your goal. Where do you see the progress getting to the churches? Do Catholics see this at all?


Dear Marge,

Thank you for your letter and kind comments. I do not know how to respond to your question about what seminaries are teaching. The reason for that is that seminaries (or theological colleges as they are called in some parts of the world) are like the church itself, they are all over the place. No one tradition has a monopoly on insight or on retrogressive thinking. The seminaries that do the best are, in my opinion, those connected with no denomination, Catholic or Protestant. I think of places like Union Seminary in New York, Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the University of Chicago's Divinity School. Each of these institutions is engaged with the wider academic world whose campus they share (Union relates to Columbia University in New York City) and they cannot thus be isolated in their intramural religious concerns.

The next groups that I also think do well are those involved in religious consortiums that allow cross enrollment and normally have a single library. Illustrations of this would be theological consortiums in Boston, Washington, Berkeley, California and in Vancouver, in British Columbia.

When you come to the isolated denominational schools, you always have theological pressure toward forcing conformity from the denomination's hierarchy that tends to militate against their professors being either adventuresome or scholarly. Of course they are also able to find professors who feel at home inside those imposed comfort levels. Yet within this category, there are still some exceptionally good places. I have had the pleasure of lecturing in such seminaries as Iliff in Denver, Duke Divinity School in Durham, United Theological Seminary in Minneapolis and Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey. I found all of them to be exciting places, with the Methodist seminaries at Duke and Drew being deeply integrated in the life of the two universities whose campuses they share. In fact, at Drew University it is actually the university that shares the Divinity School's campus. Of the denominational schools, The Pacific School of Religion (UCC Berkeley) is the most overt about its willingness to engage real life and real scholarship.

Some seminaries in all denominations are far more places of propaganda than they are places of learning. By this I mean that they tend to engage issues or to pursue knowledge only to the degree that it does not threaten or challenge official Christian teaching. These will range from traditional training centers to fundamentalist campuses about which little can be done except to ignore them.

There is one final roadblock to truth and that is some pastors, trained at good seminaries, refuse to share their critical knowledge with the people who occupy the pews for fear of "upsetting the faithful." I have long believed that it is those pastors themselves who are the ones who are most upset by new truth.

Thanks for writing.

~John Shelby Spong




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