Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Say again!?

I suppose if I worked on it, I could tease out of one corner of my mind some sense of this news. But I think the following item is bizarre. It's drawn from page 2 of the Winter 2007 issue of the Spectrum, the apparently aptly named alumni magazine of the Yale Divinity School (YDS):

One of the most dynamic new student groups at YDS draws from a long
unrepresented constituency at the divinity school: nonbelievers. They are the
Left Behind, a group of agnostics and atheists who aim to provide a "caring and
inclusive atmosphere to those who already subscribe to our beliefs," ion the
words of Matt Riley '08 M.A.R., who helps lead the group.

I don't quite get why an atheist would want a graduate degree in religion -- and especially why he or she would go to a divinity school to get it (even Yale's). How does one proceed to earn a degree when one denies the very premise upon which the education is built -- viz., the reality, in some, way, shape, or form of a "divine"? I understand that the (presumably) young man is in an academic program, not in the M.Div. sequence. But still ... .

I don't know whether to be happy or not that when "Riley approached the dean of students about organizing likeminded students," he "received an encouraging response." Come on now, folks, isn't that leaning a little heavy on the inclusivity staff?


Chip Frontz said...

Yeah, pretty crazy, huh? There is this school of secular thought that deigns to "appreciate" or "admire" religion as the product for human creativity, which can lead to both positive and negative ends. I guess this is where those folks would fit in. You see this a lot, too, with musicians who don't really care much for dogma, but love Masses and Requiems.

Today's mantra is obedience bad, creativity good. The title of my book-I'm-fantasizing-about-writing du jour is Creative Obedience.

"And his commandments are not burdensome" (1 John) especially appropriate today, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

Dwight, one of the characteristics I most admire in you is the truly creative tension between your powerful intellect and your startling naivety (Perhaps reflective of your Scandanavian North Dakota background). I have found the many of those who "profess" in religion classrooms at Univeristy, College, Community College, are frequently people of little or no faith who attempt to justfify their personal hurts through the objective study of religion. Upon even the most cursory reflection, it should come as no surprise that such a request for recognition and community at YDS has been made. What surprises me is that it's taken so long to appear. That it has finally emerged is cause for refelction and conversation. WAJ

Dwight P. said...

You know, Anonymous, life on the prairie among Haugean pietists works interesting psychologies. As for the "powerful intellect": I'll accept the compliment with the kind of self-effacing doubt as to the accuracy of the judgment that is also typical of my fellow countrymen.

I have no trouble understanding those who do a kind of secular or "scientific" study of religion. Despite my own disapproval of state university departments of religion -- especially biblical departments -- I can "get that." I can understand a supposed "objective" study of the fields. But what still seems so bizarre to me in this case is the thought of going to a divinity school/seminary for such study.

On the other hand, I can certainly understand the wish to establish a network of similarly situated atheist-agnostics in the midst of a school which in its very title is anti-atheistic! That may be why Marcus Borg finds himself in a secular U. He, incidentally, was my very first religion teacher at a Haugean pietist Lutheran college in the Midwest, where he was a rabble-rouser, but rather conventional in his theology. (He taught us a historical-critical approach to reading the Bible, but it was nowhere as antagonistic as his Jesus Seminar work. The only criticism I hear of him was that he intended to go on for his PhD in prophetic literature and he didn't read Hebrew!)

It's all in there, I guess. But it's still a weird situation to me.

Chip Frontz said...

Dwight, I don't think it's as bizarre to find such a group on the campus of a divinity school. A denominational seminary, yes. You wouldn't want to go to, say, Gettysburg (even in its current ideation) if you were an atheist or agnostic scratching your itch for study of human religion or creative combination of faiths.

But divinity schools are a different breed. They're very used to the idea of educating people from a variety of denominations, and not necessarily just training them for ministry. People go there because they want to become eternal students or teachers at a public university, etc. It's not so surprising, though it might be saddening, that you would find a critical mass of atheists or agnostics at a "divinity school" who want to organize. And the environment there I'm sure makes it self-evident that this is just one more denomination to accommodate.

The post WWII explosion of colleges and university students has also contributed mightily to the phenomenon of Church institutions being able to financially and ideologically wean themselves of their mother (the Church) and become spoiled brats in their own right. Not that this is a jaundiced view or anything. :)

Bag Lady said...

I’ll take a stab at this one.

I’ve known a number of what we Episcopalians sometimes refer to as “High Church Agnostics.” In my previous parish, we had a “Questioners and Seekers” group for atheists/agnostics who nonetheless felt drawn to the church.

In an Adult Education session, some of the group “came out” to the parish, to discuss what they were facing in trying to reconcile this attraction to the church with their prior beliefs. These were people who were sincerely wrestling with issues of perception, intellect and belief. Several that I knew of did go on to be baptized and confirmed.

I don’t know how the experience in a parish compares with studying for a degree in a seminary. Yet I speculate that the pull is stronger than intellectual concepts. Perhaps it’s more a psychological issue than theological.

John Rutter, a prolific composer of sacred music and director of various choral ensembles in England, is agnostic. Many find his music to be deeply moving on a spiritual level—sometimes God works in ways we can’t even begin to grasp.

Dwight P. said...

Bag Lady, I appreciate what you're saying. It doesn't help me understand the psychology of the situation I cited, but it raises another concern. If div schools are really as non-dedicated as Chip suggests, then it is even more troubling that students who may be "seeking" are going there instead of to a local church. It seems to me (never having studied in a div school, only a seminary) there are no institutional means for exploring one's other-than-intellectual callings -- as there would be in a congregation (if the congregation is worth its salt!).