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PRAGMATIC IMPRACTICALITY: An Open Letter on Seminary Education
I looked out through the office window, peering across the empty parking lot. Mine was once again one of the last cars there. As my eyes focused on the dirt-brown, aging Honda Accord, something caught my attention. It was a tiny green sticker on the bumper; my now-expired seminary parking permit. It has been a year since my graduation from seminary. The honeymoon is over and in many ways, seminary is a distant memory, a spot on the horizon of yesterday. The little green sticker caused me to remember those rich years now tucked away in a hundred different files. What had I gained there? What were my regrets? How would I do it differently given the chance? From my pondering, I would offer a simple piece of advice to the seminarians in my wake: Be impractical.
Ours is an age of fierce pragmatism where every enterprise must be meticulously measured by the end result guaranteed. It is a type of analysis decidedly short-term in scope. Call it efficiency or just plain capitalism, this mindset has profoundly shaped our generation. And yes, these ideas have found a home in our centers of learning. Pragmatism is at the root of questions like, "What are you going to do with a history degree?" Through high school, college, law school, and seminary the consensual counsel given me by lay persons and professionals alike was, "Be practical!"
Advice like this led me to focus more on accounting than history, to read more Cliff Notes than novels, and to shop around for the least demanding professors. Practicality urged me to race through the richness of a "core curriculum" rooted in the arts to get to my "major electives" which, in retrospect, more resembled a sophisticated vocational-tech school than college. "Be practical" became the battle cry for building the perfect resume, leaving little time for engaging in the diverse dialogue available on a university campus.
With pragmatism as a core value, good grades become more important than learning, and one masters the fine art of the former while neglecting the latter. One of my law professors put it aptly, "Education is the one commodity we are willing to pay the most for to get the least from." "Be practical" is the well-intentioned advice of nervous parents and short-sighted friends.
Of all places, seminary should be different, but I got the same advice. "Take courses that will help you with the day-to-day practicalities of running a church....Get as many 'counseling' classes as you can, because this is what you are going to be doing the most of....Don't waste your time with Hebrew. You won't have time to use it in the local church." In other words, be practical. These words sound the death knell on the profoundly ambitious objectives of seminary.
The word seminary comes to us from the Latin, seminarius, meaning "seed bed." Reminiscent are the words of the impractical theologian of Golgotha, "Very truly, I tell you, unless a seed of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). Rather than mimic the academic models of the world, seminary must be different. The seminary years are as unlikely as 40 years of herding sheep in Midian; as unfeasible as 40 days of fasting, praying, and tempting in the Judean wilderness; as inconvenient as who-knows-how-many sleepless nights in Arabia. Seminary is not meant to be an arduous obstacle course but rather a gracious exile, a retreat away from the shaping patterns of the world and into the renewing mind of Christ.
How does this happen? It begins with a commitment to being impractical. Forget grades and resumes because ultimately they will not matter. Avoid studying subjects that can be learned in weekend continuing education seminars. Present yourself as a living sacrifice on the altar of the Almighty to be shaped by the Word and filled by the Spirit. Embrace Greek and Hebrew exegesis with the ludicrous idea you may one day be called on to make a translation of the Bible. Approach Bible study assignments as quests for buried treasure rather than the indiscriminate and hurried deadline-driven digging. Extract the rich grounds from Bengel's sage dictum, "Apply the whole of yourself to the text; apply the whole of the text to yourself." Confront each course with at least one question that penetrates the superficiality of the syllabus, lest you arrive at the end with a pile of notes and a series of responses to someone else's questions. Allow yourself to soak in the ancient depths of theological truth. Engage the literary roundtable dialogue of the Communion of Saints. Take contemplative walks, permitting yourself the luxury of wide open spaces with the Father. Proclaim a season of prayer and fasting, inviting the Spirit to cut new channels of grace through the hardened bedrock of your innermost being. Resist the temptation to be practical. If for only a few years, master the discipline of impracticality.
The irony of the discipline of impracticality is its ultimate practicality. The seminarian is firmly planted in the seed bed of faith and leaves not a master of divinity but mastered by Divinity. Impracticality may mean fewer "answers," but its beauty lies in teaching us to master the art of the question. After all, seminary is only the seed bed. Theologians are born in the real world. Martin Luther penned it like this, "I did not learn my theology all at once, but I had to search deeper for it, where my temptations took me. A theologian is born by living, nay dying and being damned, not by thinking, reading or speculating." Herein lies the best part: though the parking permit expires, seminary goes on. The everyday-ness of life becomes our monastery; the world our parish. Impracticality saves us from becoming technicians of the local church, and commissions us to be pastors and theologians for the generation.
By John David Walt Jr., a Deacon in the Texas Annual Conference; Minister of Membership Development and Dean of the Lay Academy of Theological Studies, The Woodlands UMC, The Woodlands, Texas.
1999 Catalyst Resources
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