It occurred to me finally that if I post one entry a week about my seminary experience, each on the anniversary of 1978 when I started, it would take four years to get it all on this blog. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, so I’ll begin to pick my way through entries, still at the rate of one a week but compressed, edited and skipped.
Today is the entry for 10/8 to 10/14 and describes the classes my first quarter, with comments. I think they are quite different from what people imagine.
Introduction to the Liberal Church and Ministry is the M/L requirement, taught by Neil Shadle. It consists of visiting ministers of the area and of presenting student papers on topics that are aspects of the ministry that the presenting student finds of particular interest. I expect to explore “the minister as enabler of the community” and use my Leadership School materials as a starting point.
Sometime I ought to look up the paper that came out of this class. Neil Shadle had a reputation as a lightweight and took the brunt of student blame and contempt for many years, partly because he was rumored not to have passed the Fellowship Committee that qualifies UU ministers. Finally the Board crumpled and made Shadle do an interim ministry to prove his practical skills. He did fine. In fact, it was so much fun that when his kids were grown, he traded in his wife for a new one and embarked on a career as an interim.
The two Div School requirements are supporting the courses for the certifying examinations. One is Religious Traditions and Western Culture: Sacred Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The teacher is a man called X, who started us off with the Old Testament account of the first Rosh Hashanah, which was the first religious service centered -- not on animal sacrifice -- but on the reading of sculpture.
Of course, one could argue that Jesus was an animal sacrifice. But we did take the point about a Book being the cornerstone of this new sort of worship and continuing to be a strong factor right up to the Mormons. Can’t have a religion without a book, say the Christian Scientists and a host of others. This professor was a Texan and wore boots to class which proved perilous when striding back and forth on the lecture platform. At least once he fell off. Throughout the lecture he carried along a coffee mug and gradually became a little more incoherent until it was clear he had been “inspirited.” He was replaced. Now you know why I call him X.
Religion and Modern Culture: Modern Thought deals with contrasting thinkers of the century and their struggle to reconcile science with religion, psychology with tradition, and so on. Homans is very tall with a basset hound face and a habit of holding his hands out in front as though he were physically weighing the ideas.
All the ideas were phallocentric and Eurocentric. The Age of Aquarius hadn’t touched Homans. None of the issues were as sharp as what is now on the table: DNA analysis, brain function measured by the MRI, what the Hubble telescope sees. This class is basically out of date.
Besides these required courses, I’m auditing three others and I’m afraid my real enthusiasm is reserved for them.
Introduction to Christian Ethics is taught by Jim Gustafson, a mild, rather chinless fellow with big glasses who become gradually more fired up through the hour until he’s flinging brilliant challenges over our heads. What ought we to do? What ought we to be? How do you justify that? What theory of being does that imply?
Gustafson was so brilliant that he completely renovated my understanding of the Catholic Church by tracing their ethical tradition, based on the nature of God judging from His Creation. Principled rather than dogmatic, this tradition is far from the nasty retro ideas of the present Pope and much closer to the original insights of Jesus.
Religion, Ethics and the Human Life Cycle is a smaller class taught by Don Browning, a gentle red-haired man with experience as a Rogerian psychotherapist who quietly and thoroughly explores the moral justifications of intervening in another human life. This professor is the one most interested in applying theory to the daily life of the pastor in a helpful and practical way.
Browning is another one who simply never goes out of date. His system of ethical methods is like a set of can openers that always gets you into the real worms of the problem, which is usually a variation on “theodicy” -- the problem of why a good and all-powerful God lets innocent and virtuous people suffer. Then one must confront what is to be done about that suffering.
Introduction to Theology is my “fun” class. Langdon Gilkey teaches and he’s a vivid, witty, almost seductive man who wears his hair like Buffalo Bill or Custer and who sports a tasteful stud earring, silk scarves and ethnic necklaces with his velvet suits. He’s as comfortable discussing Buddhism or dinosaur bones as he is talking about Christian concepts.
Gilkey exasperated the more ponderous dignitaries of the Div School, but his credentials were so good and his popularity so high that they would never have dared to get rid of him. The most unmanageable students could relate to Gilkey, but also the straight and narrow guys. In spring the hard core among his theology students went in a group to the first baseball game, shivering and padded, but well aware that baseball is a kind of theology.
I’m enormously impressed at how patient and gracious all these people are about their time. They are all careful that we understand. There’s no feeling of “If you can’t stand the heat, get out!” But I have about two months to read and analyze fifty books!
As it turned out, some of the patience was because we were newbies and wore off as time went on. It did become clear at the Div School that if one wasn’t cutting it, one should bail. It also became clear that M/L needed the tuition dollars and that with fewer than a half-dozen students in each class, had to justify its existence at all.