What is the Role of the Theological School in Today’s World?

by William F. Fore

William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).

A memorandum to the Claremont School of Theology, June 12, 2002. Used by permission of the author.


Schools of theology today must not try to be all things to all people. They must take sides. They must reject the traditionalist, supernatural God in all its trappings, and simply not graduate students into the Christian ministry who hold such a view.

I. The Social Setting

Our "social scene," really the world social scene, is rapidly moving toward the catastrophic. More human beings are alive today on Planet Earth than the total until 1900, and most of them are living at a level that we can only call sub-human. We are at 6.25 billion now, climbing at an annual rate of 1.4 per cent, adding 200,000 daily and on the way to 8 billion or more by mid-century. Of that 6.25 billion, more than one billion are living on almost no income at all. Sixty percent of the second billion are being born in developing countries which have up to 50 percent HIV/AIDS cases. And the third billion are still below the poverty level. For everyone presently alive to reach present U.S. levels of consumption would require four more planet Earths, even if there were the social and political will. We and the rest of life simply cannot afford another 100 years like this.

The "Social Setting" involves the physical world, which is also moving toward a climactic and natural resources catastrophe, due to human interventions. We know that the surface temperature worldwide is rapidly increasing, that the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are at their highest levels in at least 200,000 years. The oceans are rapidly warming so the Gulf Stream could shut down and cause a critical climate shift for Europe (and elsewhere) within ten years. The Polar Ice Cap is beginning to disintegrate in Antarctic, and a chunk the size of Delaware has broken off this year. During the last Interglacial period the sea rose sixty-five feet above current levels. We are decimating the natural environment, drawing down the nonrenewable resources of the planet at an astonishing rate, thereby accelerating the erasure of entire ecosystems and the extinction of thousands of million-year-old species -- all in a few decades. Fresh water constitutes only 1 percent of all the water on earth, and water requirements are rising steeply. For example, half of China's cities already face serious water shortages, and by mid-century that country will be unable to feed itself even with draconian population control and increased technologies.

Edward O. Wilson, author of On Human Nature, points out that environmentalism is still viewed, especially in the U.S., as a special-interest lobby, and that Americans have tended to ignore the facts, because we are innately inclined to ignore any distant possibility not yet requiring examination -- as he says, "it is a hardwired part of our Paleolithic heritage." At any rate, the "social scene" today is unique in human history, and far more challenging to human beings than any time in human history. To say that new occasions teach new duties is a considerable understatement.

II. The Cultural Setting

To attempt to characterize the entire American cultural scene is too demanding. The diversity is too great, the various media too different, the age and social and economic and educational groupings too many. Instead, I focus on only a small part of the cultural scene -- politics.

In the light of the social and environmental scene we have just described, what is our political response? As Lewis Lapham says, the barbarism in Washington today doesn't dress itself in the costumes of the Taliban, but wears instead the smooth-shaven smile of a Senate resolution sold to the highest bidder -- for the drilling of the Arctic oil fields, for the lifting from the rich the burden of the capital-gains tax, for bigger defense budgets, for reduced medical insurance, for enhanced surveilance, or for some new form of economic monopoly.

Also gross violations of basic human ethics. Here is just one example. Last month the Bush administration decided to withhold a mere $34 million already appropriated by Congress for the UN Population Fund. The loss of that $34 million, according to a spokesperson for the fund, "could mean 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, and 77,000 infant and child deaths."

Most Americans seem unaware as yet, but we are today experiencing more serious attacks on our Constitution than in all our history -- attacks on the First Amendment rights of free speech, The Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable search, the Fifth Amendment nullifying due process and allowing indefinite incarceration without trial, the Sixth Amendment right to prompt and public trial, and the Eighth Amendment which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. We are close to having to chose between remaining citizens of a republic or instead accepting a kind of participatory fascism. Congress has not declared war, yet we are "at war." Congress has not authorized a permanent war economy, yet we are on the threshold of a permanent war economy. We are risking democracy itself with a militarization of thought necessary for the militarization of the budget.

All of this political setting is reinforced, amplified and above all verified every day by every cultural artifact of communication -- radio, newspapers, television, movies, tiny schools and huge universities. We are leaving our children a legacy of fear and war, rather than one of love and peace. Facts such as these pose moral and ethical issues which urgently require religious responses.

III. The Religious Setting, World-wide

So what about religion? Enough has already been written about the fear, violence and shear terror that is resulting from the actions of True Believers today among most of the world's major religions -- primarily Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Christian. We understand that.

What is perhaps less well understood is the future. According to Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, in his book The Next Christendom, published this year, the religious setting will be very different by 2050. He believes that by then six nations -- Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, Congo and the United States -- each will have 100 million Christians. World-wide there will be one billion Pentecostals, almost all them the poorest of the poor, who will be spreading their brand of Christian supernatualism world-wide. Islam will also be growing, and together, primarily in sub-Sahara Africa, the fundamentalist extremists of both religious will "continue to guarantee the absence in the South of women's rights, freedom of worship and other misbegotten ideas of the secular North." Pentacostalism in Black Africa, emphasizing personal faith, biblical literalism, visions, prophecy, and apocalyptic visions of extrahistorical justice, may be inspired to send missionaries to the white, affluent, "pagans" of the North. Thus as Asia and Africa grow in military capacity, perhaps based on chemical or biological weapons, "the coming havoc, in short, will make the bloody religious wars of the 16th century look and like calesthenics."

Who can say this far ahead? But there is little doubt that the millions of newly urban poor world-wide are eager for supernatural deliverance. Already in Nigeria, the Sudan, Indonesia and the Philippines as well as Brazil and Guatemala, rapidly growing religious factions are fiercely competing for converts, struggling for political power, inciting persecution and trying to legislate and enforce laws taken from various sacred precepts.

The misuse and abuse of religion to consolidate and maintain power is not new to history, but this new threat, in new guises and involving such huge numbers of people, is sufficiently ominous to merit major reexamination and modifications of what we mean by the terms "God" and "Christianity."

IV. The Religious Setting, at Home

The religious scene in America is quite different from everywhere else, if for no other reason than that we are by far the richest and most powerful nation in the world.

One of the most astute observers of the American religious scene is Wade Clark Roof, now professor of sociology of religion at the University of California at Santa Barbara.. In 1994 he wrote A Generation of Seekers (he has more recently written Spiritual Marketplace, which covers much of the same territory -- the baby boomer generation). Roof believes the "habits of the heart" generation is not so much an unchurched generation as a spiritually restless one.

Roof divides the boomer generation into "traditionalists," and "counterculturalists," almost half and half. Both groups, however, have the same basic qualities -- pluralistic, individualistic, anti-authoritarian, valuing experience over belief or tradition, self-fulfillment over self-denial, and demanding tolerance. But these are not narcissists. They express deep yearnings for community and are passionate defenders of racial and gender equality.

Their religious practices emphasize choice and personal experience. They shop churches. As Roof says, "America's religious center no longer holds." The two fastest growing groups in this mid-years generation are the "dropouts" (who have left the church) and the evangelicals. Roof's most important contribution is his finding that the hyperindividualism of this generation has stimulated interest in rather than indifference to spiritual matters. People are trying to piece together a highly personalized religious structure out of various religious traditions. To me, the most significant single point is that for people today "sacred meaning does not derive from a rooted concept supported by common tradition and institutions; rather, meaning is located in the unfolding of one's own life."

Roof thus identifies the problem facing the main-line denominations, which is that they have failed to link up their own traditions and rituals to the meanings unfolding in the actual lives of individuals. In other words, they have neither gone the way of experience-rich evangelicalism, nor have they offered an experience that relates honestly to people informed by science and a humanistic world-view in their own lives. They have failed to meet the expectations of either the evangelicals or the dropout "moderns," and thus are reaching, more and more, only those dwindling congregations of the elderly faithful who find comfort and community among their own.

V. Charting a New Course

Where does this leave the main-line denominations and their schools of theology? I believe they have three options. First, they can continue on the present course, trying to modify early twentieth century theology to meet the demands of twenty-first century people, which will only minister to the needs of the vanishing elderly until there is no one left to pay the bills. Second, they can join the evangelicalism stampede, providing heart-warming and entertaining experiences, which will provide very little connection to serious thinkers today, and gives scant attention, except for a few voices like Sojourners, to the truly catastrophic issues in the Social and the Cultural areas described above.

The third option, which I urge, is that the main-line denominations give up a great deal of their earlier world-views and theologies and instead deal with what God requires of us here and now. Central to this is a revisioning of how we understand God and the Bible. For many people today, the supernatural, interventionist God is dead. It is for me. I cannot believe in that God. I understand God not as something or someone out there, but as The Sacred, the Spirit, a non-material level of reality that is all around us, as real as the world of the ordinary. This can be experienced, and people of every culture have experienced it. The drop-outs say they experience it; so do the evangelicals.

When we personify God in our worship, we have to understand that we are not talking literally. But when we literalize these personifications, we get a God of supernatural theism. For schools of theology to teach its students to fudge on this matter, to "demythologize in their minds" the Sacred while they mouth the literal supernatural God in their sermons and prayers and worship, is to enter into a kind of conspiracy with the literalists in the pews. It guarantees the failure of true worship and the demise of an authentic, witnessing congregation.

This means that religion in general, and the Bible in particular, must be taught as human cultural responses to the experience of the Sacred. To understand the Bible as a human product rather than as a divine product makes all the difference in how Christians understand worship, their relationship to God, their concept of mission and evangelism, and their attitude to people of other faiths. It is what is causing the "dropouts" to leave the church in huge numbers, because they simply cannot abide the cynicism and intellectual dishonesty of much that goes on in the sanctuaries. It does not square with the rest of their lives. It is also what drives the evangelicals out, because of the intellectual sterility such a view takes on in most main line churches. Literalism and supernaturalism alienate both groups, because, to use Roof's words, it does not locate meaning in the unfolding of one's own life.

I realize this is a sweeping condemnation of the practices of clergy, and the teaching they received in their seminaries. There are, thank God, many exceptions, many pastors who have learned how to teach and celebrate authentic religion in their congregations. But I have attended church services all my life, in all parts of the country, and my overwhelming impression is that pastors either themselves hold a supernaturalistic view of God (which means the theological school has failed), or they simply have tailored their ministry so as to not alienate the most theologically (and, often, socially and economically) conservative members of their parishes.

The challenge to schools of theology is to renounce, reject, and fight against all manifestations of supernatural theism and a supernatural interventionist God, and to preach and teach instead a vision of reality that sees God as the Sacred, as Spirit, as The Way Things Are, as the Ground of Being, and reality as essentially life-giving, nourishing and gracious -- not hostile, punitive or indifferent. The major need within the church and schools of theology today, in the words of Marcus Borg, is "to help people move from pre-critical naivete, through critical thinking, to post-critical naivete."

This means the school of theology must not try to be all things to all people. It must take sides. It must reject the traditionalist, supernatural God in all its trappings, and simply not graduate students into the Christian ministry who hold such a view. It must teach students how to help people, including themselves, to find meaning, that is, find God, in the unfolding of their own lives -- through study, worship, and action in the world. This is how the growing catastrophes in the physical and political environments are going to be solved -- not through "spiritual" retreats from the real world.

To chart such a course requires a great deal of courage. It will horrify many, if not most, of the parishioners in the main-line pews, and probably most of the clergy. It is bound to alienate both the institution's board and the staff commissioned to keep the institution intact. But what do we benefit if we reject this alternative? A few more years of coasting as we settle into deep denial? Some elderly, dying churches? Growing pentecostalism and supernaturalism? A tiny wealthy minority in a sea of ecological and social disaster, thanking God for our good fortune while waiting to be overrun by the poor on all sides? Is this what God calls us to do in the richest, most powerful nation on earth today?

The solution I propose is enormously threatening. It will generate resentment on the part of faculty, many of whom understand the problem and have struggled, with varying success, to deal with it, and others who will disagree profoundly with the theological assumptions. But as Christians we have always recognized that God calls us to do the impossible, and I hope this adds to the discussion of what is required of theological schools in these days.