A few weeks ago I was invited to dinner with several seminarians from a well-known Christian college. Once introductions were over, I asked them, “What has been the most upsetting thing you have learned in seminary so far?” They just stared at me. No one had an answer, and not because there were so many upsetting things that they couldn’t pick just one, but because there weren’t any at all. How sad.
This semester I’m teaching my course on the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. On the first day of class I explain that this course isn’t like Sunday School. We are not going to read the Bible through the eyes of Rashi (1040-1105) or Martin Luther (1483-1546). We are going to place the various texts in their contexts and do our best to understand what they may have meant to the people who wrote them and the people who heard them read, and then see what they might have to say to us today.
I assume (with a lot of evidence to back me up) that the Bible was written by humans over centuries, and that different texts represent different insights, and that whatever the Bible says about God tells us nothing about God and something about the authors who wrote about God. I assume that the Bible is a political document representing the thoughts of their authors and the powers that were when the books were redacted. And I assume that some of these writers and redactors were spiritually awake to a reality beyond tribe, patriarchy, politics, xenophobia, misogyny, violence, etc. and that they managed to seed the Bible with nuggets of genius that we can mine, polish, and live by.
And I know that all of this will be very upsetting to some of my students. But this is what university education is for: sharing well-reasoned ideas that may challenge the status quo thinking. Students and teachers should be upset now and again because their cherished ideas are challenged in a meaningful, compelling, and intellectually rigorous manner that forces them to think a second time, and perhaps even change their minds. I always learn something from my students, though I would never say I learn more from them then they learn from me. If that were so, I shouldn’t be teaching, and any teacher who says that and means that is clearly unprepared to teach whatever it is she or he is teaching.
So it saddens me to imagine these pastors-to-be going through seminary without having their theologies shattered or at least shaken. If all they learn is how to better defend rather than challenge the biases they have, they are wasting their time. And worse, they are doing a disservice to any who come to learn from them.