Guest Post: A Freethinker Returns to Seminary

This Guest Post was submitted by Chris Highland. Chris has been a Presbyterian Minister, Interfaith Chaplain, College Instructor, Shelter Director and Housing Manager. His ten published books include My Address is a River and Meditations of John Muir. He blogs at Secular Chaplain and his main site: www.chighland.com. Chris lives with his wife Carol, a Presbyterian Minister, in Asheville, North Carolina.

It’s been over 30 years since I graduated from seminary, “mastering” something called divinity.  On a recent visit to the campus, the beautiful setting felt like a (holy) ghost-town.  Climbing to the top of the hill to the old library I was amused that the first books I saw were 500-year-old manuscripts by the Reformation-era Humanist Erasmus.  I asked the young librarian and she was happy to explain the aged texts and the ornate biblical pages displayed.  Curious, she asked if it was my first time there and I smiled.  “No, I graduated from here some years ago.”  “Oh, welcome back; I bet you have some nice memories?”  Smiling, I said, “Well, one of my happiest memories was going high up into the bell tower and playing ping pong with a classmate.  Sometimes we’d hit the ball right out the window and never see it again!”

My bell-chiming alma mater has a small class of students now.  Struggling for funds, they’ve had to sell off some prime properties and offer “innovative” programs to attract students. The light on the hill seems to be flickering out and the bells have lost their tone—it could be my hearing has changed.

I often reflect on those years as a Master of Divinity student and sometimes wonder what it would be like for me to return now, as an ex-minister and a non-theist Freethinker.  I had some excellent professors during my time, and especially enjoyed the diversity of the Graduate Theological Union, but I would now have a whole brain-full of questions to ask them.  I suspect some of them, and many fellow students, would find my smile, my puzzlements and my presence just a bit uncomfortable and no doubt irritating.

If I was to return to my old seminary as an unbeliever now, here are some questions I would raise for discussion, continuing to wonder why they were rarely if ever considered in years past.

First Question:  Why seminary?  What’s the real purpose of this institution?  I’m fairly confident I would hear something close to what we were told all those years ago.  The “Community of the Faithful” needs leadership, meaning good biblical knowledge, administrative skills, preaching and pastoral presence.  Anything beyond this “church business” calls for social workers and community organizers, essentially admitting that teaching ancient books, creeds and rituals doesn’t really “do” anything very helpful.

Second Question:   Why does Theology matter?  Isn’t Theology the greatest distraction ever invented by human beings?  Sure to stir heated debate, my guess would be this would go no where.  No one really questions the need for the study of Theology in seminary (for god’s sake!).  Without it, every other subject is hollow.  Seminary means nothing if you don’t talk about the anthropomorphic Almighty.  The real issue is:  Where does Theology come from?  And, what about the thousands of ways people imagine a god or gods?  There is no honest answer other than this:  Over a long period of time, small groups of “authorities” made it all up.  “Objection!,” I hear.  “They didn’t make it up!  It all came directly from the text!”  I would say, “Hmm; and where did the authors of the text get their theology?”  The predictable response would be:  “Revelation!”  I would probably smile here and calmly reply, “In other words, they made it up” (as Thomas Paine said, if not revealed to ME, it’s hearsay).  Then, somehow (this is always hard to believe) they convinced one, then a hundred, then millions that what they said really happened—and made sense (think Sinai; The Tomb; Muhammad in the cave; Joe Smith and his tablets)!  I would simply point out that anyone could claim anything about any god, but would THEY believe it?  More importantly, why WOULDN’T they believe it?  The discussion stopper might be:  How many theologies did YOU study before choosing YOURS?  Even in my Evangelical college years I was taught we only value what we choose from alternatives.  Are graduate students given viable options to choose, including a secular option?

Third Question:  If “liberal progressives” merely dig for gems of wisdom and “spiritual teaching” in one book, the bible, why not dig around in other holy books?  This was never seriously addressed in classes (though I was delighted to take some elective courses—at other seminaries—such as “Christ, Krishna, Buddha”).  Why choose one scripture of the world’s religions as the only one to reveal “the voice of God?”  Most “progressives” I know are almost dismissive of the bible and any debates about it.  They say things like, “Oh, it’s all about love and justice and making the world happy, with some nice stories, so I don’t really need to read it again.”  I used to say things like that.  The thing is, if people like “spiritual stories”, the world’s scriptures, as well as countless secular sources, provide enough material for years of instructive tales.  I would question the “divine origin” of each one, but there is plenty to reflect upon in libraries full of interesting literature—if one has the interest to fearlessly search.

On another day in class I might push this issue a bit further along.  Why don’t “progressives” in all faith communities 1)  Accept that their ancient holy books are a big problem—perhaps The Main Problem, since they continue to divide the world into God’s insiders and “the outsiders” and, 2)  Accept that it is primarily THEIR responsibility to directly address the fundamentalists and fanatics in their own tradition who take their scriptures AS WRITTEN (literally) to mete out hatred and violence (and legislation) on the rest of us as they see themselves living “by the book”?  The rest of us (outsiders), who live by other books—Scientific works and the Constitution, for instance—shouldn’t have to constantly clean up the mess and pick up the pieces (sometimes literally) from the “true believers” out of control and out to control our lives.  If YOUR scripture is the cause of sectarianism, senseless suffering or plain nonsense, either own up to the source or have the courage to dump it.  Don’t try to spiritualize or theologize or contextualize the text away.  Why not have the courage (and faith?) to let it go?

Fourth Question:  Why do so few ever study Thomas Paine and his Age of Reason—after 220 years, still one of the best challenges to orthodox theology?  And, what about other reformers and revolutionaries like Frances Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (The Woman’s Bible!), Frederick Douglass, Robert Ingersoll, John Muir, John Burroughs or any other Freethinker?  None of these folks was a strict atheist, but all were raised on biblical religion and found something better (like Human Rights, Art, Science and Nature).  But, let’s be honest—a freethinking call to revolutionary ideas and action won’t exactly land a well-paying pulpit position.

It makes sense that theological graduate schools have little time to teach radical freethinkers.  Theology has nothing to do with the non-theological, so why engage the skeptics?  This is unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of which is the need for cooperative organizing in a world where sectarianism is at war with secular societies straining to hold back the tide of theocracy.  If even graduate schools neglect to teach the fact that a secular society is the last best hope to secure true “religious liberty” by resisting religious exceptionalism, where will the leadership emerge from?

Fifth and Final Question:  I would return to the main agitating question: Why seminary?  If it is to “prepare for the ministry” and “service” (or to teach made up Theologies) essentially consisting of perpetuating the creeds, doctrines, rituals and worldviews of past ages that continue to divide the world, proving time and again they serve as obstacles to healthy pluralistic human community. . .then, by GOOD, what’s the sense in that?

Though I would have some fun discussing some of these issues, I have my doubts that I’d last long going back to seminary.  Truth is, as I’ve said many times before, seminaries can be cemeteries of theology, and sometimes of faith and even God.  I suspect no one enrolls in a divinity program to make the world a better place.  And, it seems clear that few go to seminary to seriously wrestle with the questions I raise here.  I simply call for some honest, serious Facetime with agitating heretics and freethinkers, past and present—especially if the actual goal is The Truth and truth is what faith is ostensibly proclaiming.

Given my seminary-plus-30-years experience I have doubts that our world needs more preachers or theologians or seminary professors.  We need non-magical-thinking people who can work side by side with seculars in diverse communities often fearfully fractured and fragmented by faith.  If we need any seminaries, maybe the best seminary of all will rise from the dust of the crumbling theological tombs.  Could we call that a Secular Seminary?  It would, no doubt, include a ping pong table.

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One thought on “Guest Post: A Freethinker Returns to Seminary

  1. Is your wife a believer? I consider my self a Humanist having questioned the whole church and god thing starting when I was about 13 or 13 and my parents made me go to an Oral Roberts tent meeting in Tampa FL. I went home found a Bible, blew the dust off of it and started reading. The first thing I found in the first pages was how God created the heavens and earth. I said to my self “wait, where is the book that comes before this one because God had to come from some where so there must have been another beginning. So started my life of questions.
    Would love to talk with you.

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