Save the World on Your Own Time, by Stanley Fish (Oxford University Press, 2009, 208 pp., $19.59). 

Yes, my theological school has been affected by the global economic recession. Yes, the value of our endowment is much lower than it was in June 2008. Yes, my seminary's leadership is taking action to adjust to what appears to be a new economic environment for theological education.

For someone like me, it is tempting to frame these adjustments primarily under sober headings like "the constraints of our organizational field" or "the need of any organization to figure out how to survive." Organizational theory provides useful ways to understand why seminary trustees in North America are being forced into painful decisions about making programs smaller, reducing staff salaries, and even laying off employees. However, organizational theory does little to help us reflect on the core values of theological education, even as we seek to provide stability for our schools in the coming years.

I recently got a knock on the head about the importance of remembering the purpose of a seminary by reading Stanley Fish's little book Save the World on Your Own Time. Fish, a literary scholar who's now a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, offers a feisty defense of the classic mission of research universities since the establishment of the University of Berlin.

A university's purpose, he reiterates, is to teach and produce new knowledge - period. The university should not make students wise or happy or give them skills to earn a living.

Fish enjoys being a voice crying in the wilderness. He acknowledges that many state-supported universities affirm values like pluralism and inclusivity, but he insists that they are wrong to do so. Faculty who want to save the world (or at least try to change it) should attend to such concerns on their own time. Spouting political opinions in the classroom - whether on the left or the right - is an abdication of professorial responsibility, Fish says. He is wary not only of politicizing the academy but also of mission creep.

A different mission

Fish admits that religiously affiliated colleges and professional schools might be in another business entirely - a business that has to do with values and skills. His polemic caused me to think about the distinctive mission of theological schools. Even though ours are smaller and (apparently) simpler organizations than universities, theological schools want to change students in the name of God. They do so by inviting students to explore the richness of a religious tradition, by cultivating spiritual practices, and by facilitating apprenticeships suitable for future clergy. Seminary education constantly points out webs of connection between the classroom and the voting booth, between worshipping communities, economic realities, and human aspiration. What is discussed academically in seminary classrooms, with due technical attention to theological and theoretical complexity, is too important to remain merely academic. Fish may not care if students come to new insights about the relationship between knowledge and the fallen world that God loves. But theological educators must care, or we are not doing our job.

Leaders of theological schools believe that God saves people and gives them new life, and seminaries teach people about this life and train them to speak the good news about it. During these hard times, when leaders are tempted to do almost anything to insure organizational survival, they must remember that theological schools are only important to the extent that we accomplish our purpose - and that our purpose also serves God's mission in the world. A school that forgets its reason for being in the name of survival will have paid too high a price to stay in business.

Save the World on Your Own Time
, by Stanley Fish (Oxford University Press, 2009, 208 pp., $19.95)

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