One of several images from the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th that I’ll never forget is that of a person entering the breached door holding aloft a Bible for the cameras. One did not have to look hard to find evidence that numerous other participants saw their actions that day as divinely sanctioned. Who could miss, for example, the “Jesus Saves,” “In God We Trust,” and “God and Guns” signs, not to mention the large wooden cross carried in the crowd? Parallel to and part of this phenomenon is the fact that a surprising number of Christians have warmly embraced the bizarre and ugly QAnon conspiracy theory.
The great irony of the online information explosion is the fact that it encourages us, not to broaden ourselves, but to isolate ourselves, shutting out anything or anyone that challenges our perspective and so makes us uncomfortable. This tectonic shift was abetted proactively in 1987 when the FCC eliminated the “Fairness Doctrine” that had required broadcasters to offer a range of viewpoints on controversial topics. Taken together, these phenomena have created the conditions in which white supremacy, among other cancers on the American body politic, metastasizes freely.
Religion is a lot like government. There is good government, and there is bad government. The things that promote good religion are much the same as those that promote good government: respect for differing opinions, the ability to listen, honesty, empathy, the search for and acknowledgement of common ground, the ability to hold in tension competing ideals, a sense of duty and a commitment to service, widespread engagement, and concern for the larger whole. Governments that do not model these attributes have been the source of profound human misery. The same can be said for religion. Churches and other religious groups that are self-certain, incapable of correction, unwilling to engage others, and concerned only with themselves have the same potential for inflicting damage as bad governments. Indeed, all too often bad government finds its closest ally in bad religion.
High-quality theological education is an antidote to distorted and dangerous religion. A school like Perkins brings students into contact with others who, like them, profess Christ, but who bring to their shared conversation a world of experience and a range of perspectives they might never have encountered before. Questions are asked in class that force students to think through difficulties they might well have preferred to avoid addressing. Seminarians are therefore not so much taught what to think as how to think, how to ask critical questions, how to weigh evidence, how to determine what is core and what is periphery, and how to separate theological wheat from ideological chaff.
It goes without saying that we are a highly polarized nation, and many of our denominations are following suit. In such a situation, it is all the more essential that there be places where passions can be steered by reason. The easy, comforting caricatures of others emanating from across the spectrum must be challenged at the very place where the next generation of church leaders is formed. I would caution students not to attend a seminary in which they know before they set foot in the doorway what they are expected to think when they graduate. God and the world just aren’t that simple.
Whatever your political and religious persuasion, I hope you will agree that we can do better. Surely, the times in which we live amply demonstrate that none of us is faultless, that all of us act out of some measure of self-interest and self-protection, and that all of us possess a limited perspective. We can be part of a glorious whole, but we are not whole in ourselves.
When I was interviewing to be dean, I was asked about the importance of diversity. Among other things, I said, “It is possible to be diverse without being great, but it is not possible to be great without being diverse.” The world needs both good government and good religion, and we are the ones who decide whether the good or the bad prevails.