My old theological seminary is shriveling before our very eyes. No, not the U of Chicago Divinity School, rather my little Unitarian and Universalist school that was attached to the hull of the Great Ship Div School. It has sold its property and moved to an office downtown. What has been the problem?
Theories abound. The one I think is most accurate is that the founding idea was to start at the top -- as it turned out, so as to work their way down. Another is that the segment of society it served has had it so easy that it’s sort of gone flabby and didn’t care enough to save it. Or maybe the problem is that there really is no religious core to U and U except resentment against Christians who are bullies. Or maybe it’s part of the general shrinking of the middle class and Unitarianism turns out to be very middle class, though not mainstream. But why should I care?
Oh, let’s be honest. It’s my ego certification! Literally, it hangs on the wall beside me, saying that I’m a certified MDiv. (That’s Master of Divinity.) The other diploma is an MA in Religious Studies from the U of Chicago Div School. I’m not sure where the diploma is for my BS in speech from Northwestern University and it doesn’t matter. Not much prestige in it. I can’t afford a third frame. There’s not room on the wall.
In fact, if you really KNOW degrees (few do) you’ll know that even my best one (the MA) is kind of mushy, a filter for the Ph.D. program. Now that’s the REAL degree. Of course, it won’t get you a job except as a teacher of people who want a Ph.D. like yours. But we were talking about M/L, once the most highbrow degree of the three UU seminaries. Starr King in Berzerkly is the fun degree, and we had fun mocking it. (“Tuna U.”) Harvard is sort of Everyman’s prestige. Much depends on which program and which year and which prof. But M/L, if you could escape being sucked under by the politics, was supposed to be the hard-core source of learned ministers with the high-grade U of Chicago MA tucked into it. Or so I thought.
In short, I wanted to be certified as a scholar, as a Person Who Matters, as one who is legitimated as an authority, but one with a moral spine who does good rather than “well.” The deeper I got into it, the less I found that to be what I was earning. Ministry, like writing and just about everything else that counts, is something that certifies itself. There is no certifying body that gives you your Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in life. There is no God to pat you on the head and say, “You are my child in whom I am well pleased.”
Probably the person I wanted to hear say that was my mother. Eeeuuuugh. Baby stuff.
All the deserving, striving people out there, getting ignored and misunderstood because they want their mom and dad to say, sincerely and with true knowledge, “You’re wonderful.” Even though if mom and dad DID say that, no one would believe them, least of all their child. I wanted M/L and the U of Chicago to say something impressive enough to back off all the curtain-twitchers in the world who make a career out of pulling other people down, making them small, stepping on them. I did get a little protection for a few years. In the end there’s no hope of changing one’s afflictors and I see that clearly.
So I just walked over to the other side of the gym and took a seat next to Tim Barrus and his boys. (I’ve learned not to put the z on there instead of s, because that’s a cute trick of porn titles. Tim says that porn doesn’t sell anymore. The world itself is enough of a pornographic event.) Scandal and all. Have at it, critics. It’s great fun to watch people gulp and then protest that, of course, it doesn’t matter to THEM, while they sidle away. (Did you say AIDS? Did you say Nasdijj?)
It’s a lot more fun than seminary. And what is most amazing is that my fancy education (not from M/L where they pretended they knew all about the underdog) from the U of Chicago Div School was exactly what I needed. Here was where the action was: the discards of the proper world, thrown aside into a writhing compost of tangled ideas and secret raw hope. 'Poète Maudit' (French: "accursed poet"), in literary criticism, the poet as an outcast of modern society, despised by its rulers who fear his penetrating insights into their spiritual emptiness. I’m prepared with a “Theologie Maudit” except there’s no “theo” (god) involved. This is a “theology of immanence” where god is that than which nothing can be greater, that which includes all things -- even you and you and you, no matter how much you hate yourself and try to claim the devil. God includes even the devil, which is a sort of ecology that morphs with the opportunities.
God includes even the dead, who die no matter how honorable they are, no matter how grand the cathedral from which they are buried, no matter how many admired books they have published, no matter how much they have loved or how many. This is the territory staked out by the Big Boys: Tillich, Eliade, Toulmin. I’m even starting to appreciate Derrida and Ricoeur. (Lord have mercy!)
How are human beings to find their certification of value, their right to exist? Can none of us ever have what we want or even know for sure exactly what that is? You’ll never find out from an institution, whether it’s church or university or government or publisher. Tim has the answer, had it all along, and it’s not red shoes. It’s work. Do stuff. Make stuff.
The universe wants us to participate. That’s not any more a fantasy than the idea that God wants you for his sunbeam or that your mother wants you to be a credit to her. Creatures create and that’s creation, the whole shebang.
So should I take down my certificates? Aren’t I allowed at least a little conceit? They see me through low spots sometimes. But what really sees me through is what they stand for, which is true accomplishment. Not passing the exams and all that, but acquiring the tools I need to understand everything. And to seek that than which nothing can be greater. It's not me, but I'm part of it.