As president of Union Theological Seminary, I am very proud of this institution's 175-year history as a force for socially-engaged Christianity in America and around the world. It's fascinating to me, though, how many people know of Union but have absolutely no idea what happens on our campus, or at other seminaries.
If you announce plans to attend law, medical, or business school, your friends and family will have a fairly good idea what you'll be doing for the next few years. Share your goal to become a seminarian, however, and you likely will be met with puzzled, if not skeptical, looks. Images of medieval, monastic endeavors are conjured, happening at a place where those who are excessively pious go to become even more excessively pious. And, they probably wear long brown robes.
While it's true that Union's front door opens onto a convent-like courtyard -- where the commotion of Manhattan is stilled -- that's about all we share with our medieval forebears. Today's students, both bleary-eyed and overly-caffeinated, wear hipster sneakers, or bow ties, or industrial earrings. Their conversations range from the ethics of organic vegetables, to the religious roots of 12-step programs. Just this last year, we welcomed to our chapel speakers ranging from popular columnist Dan Savage and artist Marina Abramovic, to the great pulpit preacher Reverend Dr. James Forbes.
Coming from a Latin word for "seed," a seminary is a garden where new ideas and new viewpoints are carefully cultivated. And, not just so-called "religious" ideas, either. Union, you see, embodies a model of protestant education created by John Calvin, the 16th-century French intellectual and Genevan Reformer. Calvin advocated that to discern the meaning of life, you must study everything -- math, science, history, and languages -- and all with equal intensity of purpose.
We tend to forget many of America's best-known academic institutions -- Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, Emory, and Vanderbilt, to name only a few -- were originally founded as seminaries. To become ministers, students at these schools were given what we now think of as a "liberal arts" education. Union Theological Seminary still stands by this broad ideal of intellectual freedom. The more we know about the world, the more we know about ourselves. As we understand ourselves better, we gain a greater understanding of God. And the more we come to know God, the more truly we know ourselves.
With fundamentalism of all sorts on the rise in the religious realm, and ever-more narrowly-defined partisan rhetoric overtaking the political, this academic goal -- no limits; no "off limits" -- is just as crucially relevant now as it was in Calvin's day.
There are basically two types of students who show up at Union each autumn, ready to engage in such a fearless style of learning. First, and most traditionally, are those who've grown up in a church or a faith-based community, and are now highly-motivated to become a pastor or religious leader. They are Baptists, Unitarians, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, and the list goes on. They've come to Union because they want to be on the leading edge of religious leaders who are rethinking church life, to make it more faithful and pertinent.
Secondly, and equally important, are those who might not have grown up in churches, or read the Bible, or even heard of John Calvin, yet they're drawn to Union because of spiritual yearnings and an abiding concern about social justice. Most of these students aren't headed towards traditional pulpits, but to work in the non-profit realm or other professional environments. We teach the value of community and the joy of connecting with people who are different from them, yet with whom they can find great common cause. All our students discover they're not the first seminarians to ask hard questions about society, to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable theology, or to protest against abuses done in
the name of God. In our classes they meet centuries of rebels who have put their lives on the line to stand up for unpopular causes. Moreover, they learn that deep thought and wise action requires rigorous study.
How do we discern a truth that can grasp us fully, and what is demanded of our lives when we stand, humbly, before this truth? A seminary education centers on thinking about the "why" of existence, and making it come alive in a vision for both what the world is, and could be.
It is demanding work -- and satisfying beyond belief.