Ivory Towers –Harry Nicholson on Liberal Education

I saw a Facebook post by Harry Nicholson which seemed so insightful about education, theology and the

Harry Nicholson

Harry Nicholson

church that I wanted more people to see it.  To me it has much in common with the concerns of the General Theological Seminary faculty, when we published our Declaration on The Way of Wisdom in February of 2014. In any case, we share a common Christian faith and an appreciation of the importance of depth and breadth in education, especially theological education.

With Harry’s permission, I am re-posting.

 

 

Ivory Towers

No doubt ivory towers, whether they are pillars of David or monoliths of Mammon, are constructs of the entitled. Nonetheless the popular idea that business is better suited to rule a university, seminary or parish is worse. A mature common sense, sometimes capriciously called wisdom, leads to the appreciation of best as less than ideal; Socrates tells us that Democracy is the second worst form of government (since it so resembles Tyranny in the majority’s reign over the minority) but is nonetheless the only option. Can scholarship in community produce the best priests? Only in a romantic fit of Anglophiliac longing for the good old days can we possibly believe that a residential seminary is bound to guarantee delivery of fit priests and even that lunacy would require, of course, a deliberate abjuration of English literature which plays, rather delightfully, on tropes of inept vicars and pompous bishops.

Those of us who have been subjected to or who embraced a liberal education, that is, an education whose primary goal is the production of women and men who are more skilled at asking questions than answering them, will understand that one goal of any community of learning that actually embraces question, dialogue, dialectic, and most curiously and absurdly, and necessary in the case of seminaries, prayer, is the trying of students in that fire of thinking. The idea is not to produce scholars. The idea is to produce citizens of the state or clerics of the kingdom.

I speak with the bias of one who actually did suffer a liberal education. My college was distinctly liberal which to outsiders often looked extreme, even fanatical. There were no majors. All students took what basically amounted to one class which took four years to complete and comprised among others inculcation in philosophy, music, math, and Greek. Every student was required to learn music theory in order to be able to have a reasonable discussion of the Bach Matthew Passion. Although my college had no religious affiliation and was adamantly non-Christian, we all read the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Kierkegaard, Spinoza (just to mention a few of the “religious” authors). It did not make us all into scholars, certainly not me. But I don’t know anyone from my college who doesn’t have a worldview built from a lifetime of careful questioning. Our minds, and our souls, were forged in that liberal education. My experience of the priests from General is that their priesthoods were forged in a similar way by their education at the seminary. This became abundantly clear to me the first time my husband, Wayne, and I were discussing Matthew one night after Evening Prayer, and he offered an explanation for something I asked and I asked, “Yes, Wayne, but what does the text say?” and he responded, “Oh Lord, I’ve married my New Testament professor!” (My question was not pedagogical.)

I have had three parish priests formed at General. They were all completely different. One was a fiery activist. One is a renowned scholar. And my current rector (if you can count your husband as your parish priest, which you really can’t), is almost an eidetic pastor who is only peripherally scholarly. All three have had profound parts in the development of my Christian core. I think all three experienced General in completely different ways. I’ll speak about my husband only briefly, and in doing so, I am somewhat telling a tale out of school.

One of the things that, I think, made him a very good priest indeed was a personal crisis he had when trying to survive coursework, especially in Systematic Theology. Surrounded by younger students whom he stills considers to be far smarter, and feeling woefully incompetent, he sought both spiritual and psychological guidance, and both were necessary to the formation of his priesthood. He also learned a great deal, but to get there, he had to wrestle with an angel. While it may seem that Jacob is most alone when wrestling, Jacob’s struggle is both supported by communal history and about community in the future. And that certainly was the case with my husband. Two things come to mind: (1) the curriculum was challenging, and (2) he couldn’t escape the learning community, that is, the constant presence of the students who challenged him was confounded by the necessity of living with them, of some of them becoming bosom friends. He is a good priest today, a very good one, beloved by his congregation and at the same time actually effective by “business” standards. In the decade he’s pastored the only Episcopal church in our county, it has steadily grown, if at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, application of business standards has wreaked havoc and the probable end of General. You simply cannot serve God and Mammon. Five-year plans are not appropriate in the church or in liberal academia by which, of course, I mean the most conservative, and best, kind of intellectual and spiritual institutional schooling.

We can construct as many ideas for an “ideal” seminary as there are stars in the sky. We can base them on ideas of sound business principles, modern real-world training, huzza huzza missional fervor, or ease of access (among many possibilities), but to my mind two things are absolutely necessary: scholarship and spiritual practice, both of which depend on the good faith of a community in which trust (which is how I translate the Greek “pistis”–usually translated as “faith”) is paramount.

Ultimately, the ivory towers do turn out to be the places where truly liberal aspirations bear fruit. The struggle to embrace diversity is born in them, for instance, precisely because they provide the luxury of thought and debate.

Robert Cromey, from General, taught me how to fight for my rights as a human being. Bruce Chilton, from General, taught me that one could be scholarly and Christian, and he gave me many tools to do it even while agreeing to play Gabriel in my play, “Brave Christmas,” a Gabriel who spends most of the play trying to prevent God from incarnating. My husband, from General, a far better and kinder human being than I even strive to be, teaches me, even from the pulpit, that most of us are lucky enough to experience God’s kindness, something I did not even consider until late in life.

For the last 35 years, in other words, General has supported my life as a Christian, and more importantly, as a human being, in unfathomable ways. The demise of the seminary is, for me, who never attended anything there other than Evening Prayer, a bit like the destruction of the temple, a grief beyond measure.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s