“We live in a time of exile,” writes Carl Trueman, a professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, in the latest journal edition of First Things. “The Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.” In a recent Religion News Service article titled “America’s Christian Conservatives Ponder a ‘Babylonian Exile,’” David Gibson contrasts the alienation of many post-culture war Christians with the earlier experience of Puritans who viewed their “errand into the wilderness” through the biblical lens of building a New Jerusalem in the New World. Gibson writes: “But today, the culture war descendants of those Puritans are feeling increasingly alienated and even persecuted in the society they once claimed as their own.”
As Gibson’s article attests, a vibrant conversation has arisen in response to Trueman’s article about which form of Christianity is best equipped to survive in this environment. The back-and-forth of this debate is instructive and worth following; it should also be extended to theological education. The question might be posed in this way: If “exile” is both a biblical experience and a contemporary one, which form of Christian formation best serves religious leaders-in-exile?
I find this question provocative for many reasons, but most readily because my own theological formation took place in an exiled school in the 1970s — Christ Seminary-in-Exile (otherwise known as Christ Seminary-Seminex). Here are some brief thoughts about what one might contribute to the larger “exile” conversation from this limited but instructive experience. The experience of being “in exile” is critical in the biblical narrative for many reasons, including:
Lesson 1. God’s people often learn best when they are migrants, wanderers, or “on the way.” Unfortunately, migration or displacement isn’t usually pleasant. It is often forced or coerced, and it is most often associated with a crisis or suffering within the community. What does faith and faithful leadership mean under such conditions? And concerning differences in migrant leadership, leadership in exile isn’t the same as leadership in the wilderness.
Lesson 2. Leadership formation is particularly strong in the midst of suffering, movement, and migration. But how does a school add this key ingredient into its curriculum? Martin Luther often described “suffering” and the “cross” as “marks of discipleship.” What does this mean for how and where leadership is chosen for our communities? What lessons can schools-in-exile around the world teach us in the West?
Lesson 3. Students formed in exile come with both gifts and baggage. Do we need both types of schools — established and exiled? Can any school that is “established,” with all the trappings of safety and tenure, equip leaders for a community that is suffering, wandering or “in exile?” Or vice versa? When do issues of sustainability lead to faithfulness? When do they lead to faithlessness?
Lesson 4. A question: Does an exile experience teach us that leadership within a minority culture is different than in a majority one?
I must admit that as a theological teacher, I appreciated security, a well-stocked library, and a modest salary every month (with benefits and, when possible, a reserved parking space and a large office with a window). Working within an established school is a blessing. My teachers, in contrast, lost almost everything in exile. It was from that position of exile that they taught ministry. So how do our surroundings shape attitudes about Christian community? Are our students today prepared for leadership-in-exile in any way similar to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s school at Finkenwalde or those Orthodox leaders who tattoo crosses on their wrists in preparation for martyrdom?
The church needs a variety of leaders for a variety of leadership vocations. Established schools serve many if not most of these leadership needs. They are some of the most amazing, resilient religious institutions in America — certainly more resilient than denominational structures. I affirm and support their callings. But I still wonder about who will lead the exiles.
Image credit: Pilgrim, by Ilya Repin.