Sunday, November 22, 2009


Meadville/Lombard Theological School is selling its building. This is my alma mater seminary, though much -- if not most -- of my classwork was done at the University of Chicago where I also earned an MA in Religious Studies. Most of these academic labyrinthine arrangements are pretty mysterious to those outside the biz, but maybe I ought to give it a shot before the Meadville seminary -- one of the three denominational anchors of the Unitarian Universalist Association -- disappears. I have no doubt that when the building is gone, the seminary is also gone. It’s already changed so much that a person could argue that it doesn’t exist except for its library, which is a formidable collection of mid-Western Unitarian and Universalist materials.

In fact, for me, attending (1978 to 1982) in the days when each student had a key to the library stacks for studying in the middle of the night, the library (minute compared to the colossal Regenstein a few blocks away) is the most sacred space of all. Waking at 3AM, I’d slip over there and sit cross-legged in parallelograms of moonlight on the polished cement floor of the stacks near the top of the tall stone windows and try to understand what it meant to be a religious leader and part of a religious movement. What the skills? What the obligations? And the books behind me would whisper in the voices of many people long dead. Very romantic.

Let’s be real. Hyde Park is a very expensive place and now too expensive even for Unitarians, notoriously well-heeled but unfocused. The ministry has shifted from the concern for a “learned ministry” to a sort of “all-aboard” approach, anchored in therapy. The internal U of Chicago Div School MA -- which required a French proficiency test and the passing of six tough survey course exams: three on the history of religion, one of which concentrated on Modern Thinkers (We called them Modern Stinkers behind their backs-- er, the backs of their books. They were mostly dead. And male.) and three on methods. At the U of C Div School one must stipulate one’s “method,” by which they meant governing discipline by which they meant something like, “Is this going to be football, tennis or what?” The terms of the investigation. The building of the U of Chicago Div School will not be sold. It is part of the formidable “quads” whose stone walls and gargoyles frustrate modern improvements, but no one suggests that the University move to the corn fields outside the metropolis. (Just knock down some ghetto and replace with steel and glass.)

I recently had a little spat with a former cohort member about who had the highest Graduate Record Exam scores, which are one of the criterias for admission to this double-enrollment. His were high. Mine were high-as-you-go on the verbal half and shockingly low on the math half. He had a little spat with M/L itself and took his degree at the U of C. I had a little spat with my advisors and ended up getting my degree after two years of innovative ministry circuit-riding in Montana. In the meantime M/L had redefined and redefined its degree requirements under pressure from the credentialing body.

Credentialing bodies are the invisible-to-the-public organizations that validate whether higher education schools are marketing worthwhile degrees. If you’re looking for an alma mater, this is a good place to start: ask who punched their right-to-play card. They are cross-denominational but the certifying body that judges “learned” seminaries will be QUITE different from one that judges “enthusiastic” (“inspired”) or Bible-based (Fundamentalist or Evangelical) seminaries. It would be hard to judge how to classify M/L now. “Mainstream” would be one way. They certainly are non-rigorous compared to the way they started out. Some people would say this was a good thing -- that ministers shouldn’t be ivory tower scholars anyway.

This would be more relevant if it weren’t a bit of an embarrassment to admit that the UUA (which is not technically a denomination but rather an association of free congregations) is really only interested in cities and academic communities. The rural element comes almost entirely from the Universalist side, which tried hard to avoid the merger in 1961 -- close to fifty years ago. (The same year I arrived on the reservation.) Unitarians came out of the “neighborhood of Boston” and their heresy was anti-Trinitarian, an egghead argument. Universalists developed mostly farther west around the heresy of universal salvation, a heresy of the heart that rejected the apocalyptic punishing God that is so popular these days among Taliban-style leaders.

In modern times UU’s often spare themselves the trouble of either thinking or heart-kindling by simply adopting high status people they like and declaring them UU’s, maybe simultaneously with the person’s own self-declared allegiances. Thus they would be happy to claim Obama -- after all, isn’t he from Hyde Park and all that? And he’s probably enough UU to smile and agree. Provisionally. Depending upon method, game rules. In this case, "birds of a feather." (We don't care what color.)

Selling the Meadville building is a decision of the head, the business head. It simply doesn’t cash out. All that paneling, marble, granite, and tradition is hard to maintain. Housing for students is pinched and Hyde Park -- the U of C will not be happy for me to tell you this -- is an EXTREMELY dangerous neighborhood. And the relationship with the Div School has broken down. The two institutions are no longer on the same page.

Grieving for a well-loved place, bonded to it by intense growing experiences -- sometimes only redeemed by grace -- cannot be helped. But the truth is that I separated from everything EXCEPT the building some time ago. A building is not a seminary. A seminary is not a denomination. A denomination is not a religion. The education needed in order to function as a valued and effective Unitarian is available at any major university with a decent religious studies department. (Make sure they require high GRE scores.) If your interest is Universalist, which is one way to approach the pluralism always touted in the search for new members, then you might as well go Trinitarian at a mainstream seminary.

But remember this, there is -- down in the basement running through an humble open gutter -- a stream of water from a spring fed by Lake Michigan. The architects had a choice between letting it run through or trying to suppress it, which would eventually have been impossible. I shouldn’t have to explain. I just ran through it.

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