Martin Marty on Seminary and Public Life

As some of my readers know, I have a Masters of Divinity (MDiv) degree from a well-known evangelical seminary.  I also received an M.A. in Church History from the same seminary, which served as a springboard to my future graduate work in American history and an eventual job as a history professor. 

When I arrived at seminary I figured out pretty quickly that I did not want become a minister. But I still decided to finish the MDiv degree.  Though I knew I would not enter the ministry or even pursue ordination, I thought that broad training in theology, Biblical studies, moral philosophy and practical theology would help me to be a more thoughtful Christian in the church, the academy, and public life.

I thought about my decision to finish the MDiv degree after reading Martin Marty’s response to Libby Nelson’s recent Inside Higher Ed piece on the decline of seminary education in America.  Marty believes that the way to revitalize theological seminaries and divinity schools is to “locate” them “in the public economy.”  Here is a taste of his piece at Sightings:

Now to the attached source.  If its author, Libby Nelson, writes about a “crisis in theological education,” even if it takes off from the story of one seminary, she wisely confers with and cites leaders, such as Stephen Graham, of the Association of Theological Schools. Together, they chronicle chiefly the fiscal dimensions of downturns and changes in the public ethos out of which the cohorts of seminarians traditionally have come. Name anything that hits higher and especially graduation or professional education in most fields, and you will find that it hits all this harder in theological and ministerial education.
We won’t repeat what is in the source. The single purpose here is to try to locate seminaries and graduate divinity schools in the public economy, whether this refers to notice, status, spirituality, politics, or more. Leaders, of course, are asking how to adapt and innovate. As online education increases at the expense of group-“formation” of leaders, as more and more second-career candidates turn to theological education even as the total number of aspirants to ministries decline, they are brain-storming, think-tanking, praying, planning, and hoping. They can point to many positive signs and to the need for ever-better educated and trained religious leaders, even as they have to ask whether the old model (often of denominationally-based) seminaries based on liberal-arts undergraduate training will meet the needs of ministries when science-and-religion, belief-and-unbelief, indifference and “difference,” spirituality and alternatives, are warring for allegiance and commitment among among citizens.

One thought on “Martin Marty on Seminary and Public Life

  1. The single purpose here is to try to locate seminaries and graduate divinity schools in the public economy, whether this refers to notice, status, spirituality, politics, or more.

    In the “public” economy, zilch, I think.

    The Establishment Clause is usually in the thick of church-state battles. But the failed attempts this year by Georgia and Florida legislatures to repeal their states' Blaine Amendments highlighted another longstanding battlefront.

    Passed shortly after the Civil War, Blaine Amendments prohibit government funds from flowing to religious or sectarian groups. Originally meant to limit Catholicism's influence, they are now used to restrict religious groups when appeals to the Constitution's ban on establishing religion don't work.

    Cases brought under the Blaines often involve restricting how school vouchers are spent. A Florida appeals court ruled in 2004 that a voucher program violated the Blaine Amendment because it allowed public money to indirectly benefit religious schools. Last year, Arizona ended a state scholarship program for special-needs students to attend private schools of their parents' choosing.

    The Supreme Court green-lighted such decisions in 2004 when it ruled in Locke v. Davey that the government can deny students a state-funded scholarship for majoring in theology.

    Mark DeForrest, an assistant professor at Gonzaga School of Law in Washington State who has written about the Blaines, thinks they are unconstitutional. But while Louisiana struck down its Blaine amendments in the 1970s, DeForrest doubts the laws will be struck down in the 37 states that currently include a form of them in their constitutions.

    The difficulty lies in what the Blaine Amendments offer: prime ammunition for teachers' unions that oppose school vouchers, DeForrest said.

    A trail of irony follows the Blaines. Anti-Catholic and immigrant sentiment stirred up by the Know-Nothing Party in the late 1800s led to a push for laws to keep public funds away from “sectarian” institutions—which was code for “Catholic” at the time, says Eric Rassbach, national litigation director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based group involved in the pending Florida case.

    {Mark is a contributor at the American Creation blog, BTW.]


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