Dallas Morning News Op-Ed: Yes, it is possible to study theology without choosing an ideological side
SMU’s Perkins School of Theology will remain one of the few places where students can learn from each other, even while disagreeing.
Times are tough for organized religion. Just 47% of American adults reported belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque in a Gallup survey earlier this year, so it should come as no surprise that the pool of prospective graduate theology students is declining, as well.
The polarization of mainline denominations only compounds the challenge. Imagine you are considering a career as a minister, or perhaps as a church musician or youth leader. Must you join an ideologically-pure alliance to follow that career path – even in choosing where to attend seminary?
Some require it, but I’m here to tell you in no uncertain terms the answer is no.
We at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology understand the confusion and discomfort that naturally arise from controversy. Perkins is one of 13 seminaries of the United Methodist Church, and anyone considering a theological education is certainly aware of the struggles within that denomination over whether LGBTQ congregants should marry or be ordained. A proposed split over the issue has been delayed until at least August 2022.
Perkins’ history gives us an increasingly distinctive perspective on both the value of diversity and the need for understanding. Yes, over 60% of our theology students are United Methodists, but we also teach members of more than 20 other denominations. In this and many other ways, we represent a microcosm of our society and our world. So, what is the role of Perkins in the context of multiple denominations with varying beliefs?
The position we uphold here – passionately – is that Perkins is one of the few remaining places where people can come together as a community and learn from each other, even while disagreeing.
It is a very strong identity, an incredibly necessary identity for the time in which we live. We are training people for spiritual leadership not by teaching stereotypes, but by encouraging our students to see each other first as people and not merely as a collection of rival positions.
We also introduce students to a wider world of understanding and a greater body of information. We don’t do this with the goal of making life more complicated, but with the hope of extending minds, broadening perspectives and helping students to realize where their convictions reside within the church’s far wider intellectual tradition.
When prospective students come to Perkins for a visit and I have a chance to explain this to them, I can see the weight falling from their shoulders because I’m not requiring them to sequester in some worldview silo where they must remain until they graduate.
We want our students’ time at Perkins to be about education, but also about forming the kind of character they will require to thrive in a complex world. We don’t need more leaders throwing grenades from entrenched positions; we need leaders who can understand one another across divisions while holding true to their own well-thought-out beliefs. Emphatically, this does not mean that everyone is equally right or that some things are not clearly wrong. It doesnot mean that we are all going to meet on some innocuous middle ground. That would be to expect too little of ourselves.
The education we offer is challenging because it is honest. It attempts to take account of the world of knowledge, not simply a self-contained and closed subset. To imagine there will not be disagreement in such a pursuit is unrealistic.
How do we do this?
It starts with warmly welcoming a range of students and providing them with a range of faculty and other mentors. It requires that we remain strong enough to listen to each other and to permit disagreement, realizing that defensiveness and intolerance are signs of weakness, not strength. Much more, it requires that we continually lift up the example of Jesus, who commanded us, not simply to tolerate each other, but to love each other, especially our assumed “enemies.”
After all, John 3:16 does not begin, “For God so tolerated the world … ” The standard is so much higher.
I do not mean to imply that we at Perkins fully live up to that standard, but we do believe it is the standard. I will always be thankful the greatest commandment is not to be right, though we all strive within our limitations to know the truth. The greatest commandment is instead to love.
As Jesus himself put it, it is easy to love those who love you. Anyone can do that. Preparation for ministry fails if it does not teach us how to care for people with whom we disagree. To do that, we actually have to know them.
Craig C. Hill is dean of the Perkins School of Theology at SMU Dallas, where he is a professor of the New Testament. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.