In North America these days people of faith are increasingly confronted by efforts of others to pigeonhole religion and religious practice as a private activity, an activity that should be sufficiently tamed so as not to impinge upon other people’s lives.
Probably the “private activity” notion originated in a misinterpretation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Subsequently, however, it has been furthered in both the United States and Canada (which has no equivalent to the First Amendment) by the continuing march of secularization. Religious bodies seeking to build new houses of worship find their plans opposed by neighbors who say the construction will choke the area with unwanted traffic and deafen it with undesirable noise. Churches with long-established soup kitchens find themselves accused by nearby residents and merchants of attracting “undesirables.”
Oddly, some church institutions, including theological schools, seem to have gone along with this assumption that they have nothing to do and nothing to say that is of any concern to anyone outside their own constituencies. I say “oddly” because historically Christianity is a profoundly public, socially involved way of life. Those touched in the past by the gospel message were almost inevitably moved to share the good news with others as widely as they could. They were moved to extend hands of healing and comfort to those in trouble regardless of their religion or lack of it. Sometimes that involvement was plainly beneficial to society, as is witnessed in North America and elsewhere by the extensive system of church-sponsored hospitals and social agencies. Sometimes it was not beneficial, as in the troubling story of Canada’s failed system of boarding schools for native people ("Sorry Past, Shaky Future").
This issue of In Trust focuses on ways that theological schools and the churches they serve continue to be involved in the wider community regardless of the trend toward privatization. Some of the involvement is consciously sought out by a school or by its students and graduates. Some results, in effect, from the world forcing itself upon the school. Even when the summons comes from the world rather than the other way around, however, some response must come from the school and its people if there is to be any significant consequence.
But how is a theological school to be involved in its communities (and most schools do live at least potentially in several communities)? That is a significant governance question for senior administrators and the board to explore. Often there are budgetary implications. A school may assume in principle, for example, that its faculty members as part of their instructional role should be available to write and teach beyond the school classroom. But if a professor is given neither time nor resources to do this, the principle is an empty one.
If part of a seminarian’s formation is to volunteer service to those in need, that volunteer work needs to be integrated into the curriculum and opportunity needs to be provided to reflect upon it theologically. Otherwise the activity risks being simply a pious hobby.
Scripture, however, appears to make it clear that theological schools should be visible to their communities, not hidden away. In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, as translated by the New Jerusalem Bible, we read: “No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lampstand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people’s sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.”