What's Tony Thinking

Why Love the Church?


As readers of this blog know I am working on a project for Vancouver School of Theology in Vancouver B.C. We’re evaluating the Field Education component of their program and helping re-shape it for the future.

In my research I have found that VST is an unusual school among seminaries of the mainline Protestant tradition. For one thing, it is growing. With strong leadership and a gifted faculty, the trend line in enrollment and support is steadily upward. It is unusual, as well, in that its core and primary commitment is to the preparation of women and men for Christian ministry, for leadership of the church.

How in the world, you might ask, could that be unusual for a seminary? Well, it turns out a lot of seminaries are no longer in that business. Preparing people for ministry and to lead the church has given way, especially among seminaries that are nested in a University setting, to becoming “schools of religion.” That is to say places where people study religion.

While there is value in the study of religion that is a different enterprise than forming and educating people to be leaders in and for congregations committed to the practice of a particular faith. Why would so many schools that once prepared people for Christian ministry have given up on that task?

Because it is a much safer and more socially acceptable endeavor in the world of academic and secular culture to morph into a “school of religious studies.” It’s as if that world says, “Study it, if you must. Just don’t actually believe it.”

I recall T. S. Eliot’s lines,

“Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.”

I have loved the church in large part because of the role that Eliot imagines for it here. I especially like the line, “She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.” The church, the pulpit, the Scriptures tell us the truth about ourselves and about God. Truth we both want and don’t want to hear. Where does that happens in the present age?

I recall some remarks from Garrison Keillor, written twenty-five years ago.

“I’ve heard a lot of sermons in the past ten years or so that make me want to get up and walk out. They are secular, psychological, self-help sermons. Friendly, but of no use.

“They didn’t make you straighten up. They didn’t give you anything hard . . . At some point and in some way, a sermon has to direct people toward the death of Christ and to the campaign God has waged over the centuries to get our attention.”

Today we live in a culture that is shaped by a therapeutic ethos and a consumeristic imperative. The upshot is that religion, increasingly, is only supposed to meet my needs, to comfort and soothe, to accomodate to my wants and sensibilities. But that can take you only so far. At some point, as Keillor said, something “hard” is needed, some truth must be spoken, some challenge issued.

If not? Well, then you can study religion, put it under the microscope, subject it to sociological analysis, visit its ruins. But whatever you do, don’t believe it.





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