As my father might say, it was déjà vu all over again: Driving to Andover Newton Theological Seminary (ANTS) for the last class of the course I taught this semester, closing out my year as a visiting professor there. Rather than some “school’s out for summer” kind of delirium, the drive carried a good bit of melancholy. It was more than vaguely reminiscent of one I made three years ago, to the last class I would teach at Bangor Theological Seminary. BTS was closing its doors permanently then; ANTS is closing a chapter in its long history now. In both cases and places, the sad reality I would no longer be on a seminary faculty closed in on my heart.
In that last class at BTS, I talked to the students about kaleidoscopes—how when you look into a kaleidoscope, you see colored gems and crystals arranged in some beautifully symmetrical design at the other end. If you give the kaleidoscope a turn, the gems and crystals tumble, falling over and around each other. The very same gems and crystals settle into a different design that imitates but never exactly replicates the first. Indeed, the kaleidoscope is engineered so that the new pattern also appears symmetrical, beautiful, and whole.
I described how all the gems and crystals of our last year together—the classes, books, friendships, discernments, professors, classmates, assignments, library stacks, senior projects, and lectures, together with the questions, the answers, and the language of vocation and call and service and the church—had all arranged themselves in such a beautifully symmetrical design. I acknowledged that the kaleidoscope had been given a turn and all those bits had been sent tumbling. Now we were all watching our familiar design break apart.
And then, surely speaking more to my own heart than theirs, I anticipated there would be a new and maybe even more beautiful design—even if it appeared in the moment to be a peculiar and disquieting one. I predicted that unlike the second look into a kaleidoscope, it might take some time to apprehend the symmetry of our new arrangements, a little while to appreciate their beauty.
Three years later, as I sat in the classroom at Andover Newton considering again how this was likely to be the last time I’d be teaching in a seminary classroom, the kaleidoscope image came back to me. Here were all the familiar gems and crystals: a seminary (in transition), a classroom, students, the Gospel of Luke, and me. However, this experience wasn’t exactly like that last class at BTS.
Three years ago I’d never even taken an online course, much less taught one. But here I was leading a hybrid course—a combination of in-class learning, practicum experience, and online readings and discussions. Three years ago, my courses were pretty much straight up New Testament courses. But here the Gospel of Luke, adult education theory, small group leadership, and theological reflection made for a multi-disciplinary offering. Three years ago, I stood at a lectern, old-school style. Now I took a seat towards the back, listening while the students taught each other—and me.
The students had designed and then facilitated small group Bible studies and were reporting on their discoveries of what people inside and outside the church lacked and longed for. They also reflected on how they are coming to understand what it means to be faith leaders today. The array of insight was stunning. From their Bible study groups came reports of deep hungers for understanding the Bible more or better, longings for experiences of silence, contemplation, and meditation, desires for a more intimate sense of community, vibrant explorations of texts through art and music, surprise at what the Bible actually said, long-festering resentments about what people had been commanded to believe it said, and powerful resonances with Eleventh Step work and poetry.
One story was told about people who always came to the Sunday morning Bible studies but then didn’t stay for worship. One student worked in a church where there was no pastor, so the small remnant covenanted to pastor each other together. One student led a study in a halfway house for people who had been incarcerated. Her group studied the text of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus, generating their own understanding of “salvation” as “freedom from bondage.” Story after story, I could see, hear, and feel the colored crystals—“Bible,” “church,” “teaching”—tumbling into configurations that seemed similar, but weren’t at all the same as the patterns that would have been most recognizable to me after years of study, teaching, and my own Christian practice.
Writing about the spiritual formation of teachers, Parker Palmer illuminates “reverence without idolatry” as a necessary value of the spiritual life. He defines “idolatry” as our attachment to smaller rather than larger contexts, our preference for the familiar over the infinite. Drawing on the work of the political theorist Karl Deutsch, Palmer reminds us that we often value the local over the universal and treat both the familiar and the local as if they are absolute and unchanging. We err, Palmer teaches, when we reverence our small, local, familiar worlds rather than seeking the greater, transcendent teachings and truths to which they might point—larger realities that may challenge, and even dismantle, what we’ve come to idolize as “real” and “true.”
This is a very tricky line to toe. Haven’t the designs of church life and seminary education been beautiful expressions of how God’s goodness has entered our lives? Aren’t we responding to how God has drawn life out of our deaths and made us whole in our brokenness? We see their gems and crystals in such beautifully symmetrical patterns—in the designs of our relationships and roles in them, in the designs of our work and our religious practices, in the designs of the places and spaces where things have been good and right and true for us.
The truth is, though, our experience of past glories makes it so much harder to see how even beautiful entryways can become barriers. Splendor evokes our reverence, but our reverence can and does quickly become idolatry—as soon the local church becomes ultimate, as soon as a familiar mode of training becomes absolute.
I recognized myself immediately in Palmer’s statement that “institutions are projections of what goes on in the human heart and … to ignore the inward sources of our educational dilemmas is only to objectify and multiply the problems.”
The institutions of church, seminary, and classroom absolutely are projections of my own heart, projections I am coming to believe I have reverenced to the point of idolatry—seeing congregational life as the best (or only) expression of church, ordained ministry as the best expression of pastoral leadership, seminary education as the best expression of pastoral training, teachers with degrees (like me) as the best expression of who should be given the responsibility to train. These projections are the inward sources of what I have perceived as outward dilemmas, and I have, in fact ignored them—instead contributing to the narrative of church decline, lamenting the close of seminaries, and railing against a job market in which I could not maintain my status and identity as faculty.
But what goes on in the human heart is always a mix of the holy and the profane.
The institutions of church, seminary, and classroom are also projections of the heart’s best impulses: its response to experiences of the sacred, its desire to express awe and wonder and thanksgiving, to gather in community and not be alone, to become fluent in the language of justice, forgiveness, mercy, and love, to take seriously the ethical and spiritual responsibilities one assumes for other people in being a faith leader.
I’d like to think that the seminary has also been a projection of the more noble things going on in my heart—the sheer joy and wonder of intellectual engagement with theological questions, harnessed and pressed into service of the gospel of God—and of God’s church, which itself has held a projection of my best hope for a public witness to the wisdom of self-emptying love.
I drove home from that last class at ANTS with something other than delirium and something much different than melancholy. Instead I sang through all the words of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out [For Summer].” I got all the way to “school’s been blown to pieces.” But somehow, I was now more genuinely confident that the gems and crystals would not get lost in the breaking, but would be held at the end of a kaleidoscope otherwise known as “spirit” or “love” itself—this, a symmetrical, and whole, and beautiful design I am slowly coming to appreciate.