Conspiracy theories and theological education

Illustration by Hanna Barzyck

Robert Saler, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Theology and Culture, Associate Dean, and Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence and the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. He is finishing a second Ph.D., in American Studies, with a dissertation on conspiracy theories related to religion. This is adapted from a conversation on the Good Governance podcast.


Your work around conspiracy theories is important as we think about the future of theological education.

Conspiracy theory is a major factor in the online lives of many people. I’ve tried to surround myself with people and resources that can help me think through that: the grounds of belief, questions of authority, questions of information literacy. It very quickly gets into the ethics of belief: Many of my students come in saying, “Whatever beliefs people hold in private, it’s their right.” When those private beliefs impinge on existential public realities – climate change, “Stop the Steal,” or vaccine denial – that begins to have impact upon public health. So the ethics of private versus public belief move to the forefront, and we’re seeing a much more visceral effect to conspiracy theories.

Some of the most effective conspiracy theories acutely mimic the kinds of pleasures and rewards in higher education and the Church. For example, QAnon and others say, “Do your own research.” Look below the surface, don’t trust the inherited narratives – the same kind of critical skepticism that happens in education.


How should seminaries address this?

I think that information literacy needs to be taken up several notches to reflect that people are living in different realities. There can be a kind of doubling-down effect when a presentation of credible facts causes people to dig in even further. We need a much more psychologically complex, relationally robust way to bring people along, step-by-step with some dignity intact.

I see talented Master of Divinity students attracted to ministry, but they’re wary of the role of pastor; to them that means always trying to split the difference. They’re not interested in that. I think they rightly discern that there are clear gospel mandates. We have to think through how ministry can be deep love and empathy, but also courage to make certain kinds of stands if churches are going to have a role.


To hear the complete conversation, visit the In Trust Podcast.


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