Op/Ed by George Payne –
Perhaps only an alumnus would have the audacity to set forth what I am about to do in this response. So let it be known from the onset that I experienced two of the most formative years in my life at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The people that I encountered and worked with there are some of the most caring and morally engaged individuals that I have ever met. In many unexpected ways, I have become a byproduct of that historical institution.
Furthermore, I have tremendous respect for outgoing president Dr. Marvin A. McMickle. Anyone who is familiar with his legacy is aware that he has been a tireless advocate for the poor and marginalized throughout his entire career. McMickle is not only a rousing speaker, he is a teacher, scholar, minister, and honest public servant. I am deeply grateful for his tenure at CRCDS, and for the hard decisions that he has been compelled to make as the school’s chief administrator.
Under McMickle’s facilitation and watch, CRCDS is set to relocate from its storied location on “The Hill” (in the Highland Park area) to 320 North Goodman Street in the downtown Village Gate complex. As he stated in his Fall 2018 Convocation Address titled “The Challenges Facing Theological Education in the 21st Century”- in this, the 199th academic year in the history of the school: “Every generation of theologians-professors-students-ministers and pastors must “build structures for their own time.”
In the address, the president was refreshingly candid. He stated: “How much have things changed in the world of religion since CRCDS was founded in Hamilton, NY in 1817? How much have things changed since Colgate Seminary and Rochester Seminary merged in 1925? How much have things changed since CRCDS first occupied this building in 1930? Titans of industry like Sears and Macy’s are steadily declining. Once mighty empires like France and Great Britain no longer have their global reach. Someone once described this magnificent building in which we are gathered “a monument to the Protestant establishment” that controlled this country for its first 200 years. Now, every Protestant denomination is in numerical decline both in terms of attendance in church and influence in society.”
McMickle then said, “We are no longer a residential school for fresh- faced young men just out of college. We are a commuter school with an average age closer to 40 than 20. Like every seminary, we are facing the challenges of a declining enrollment at the masters level. Changes occurring in the church naturally spill over into the institutions that save the church.”
By and large, I agree with McMickle’s assessment of contemporary theological education and the need for CRCDS to change how it does business. The heyday of American Protestant seminaries was eclipsed decades ago, even if dinosaurs such as CRCDS have managed to barely hang on and avoid extinction.
But so long as the school continues to live by irrational creeds and perpetuate superstitions about sky gods, bodily resurrection, everlasting life, veiled Christian triumphalism, supernatural beings, spiritual warfare, and so many other articles of faith that demand a suspension of disbelief, the school will continue to see its enrollment dwindle, its courses dry up, its faculty disappear, and its reputation disintegrate. No change of location will rescue the school from oblivion if it refuses to take its head out of the clouds.
Jesus did not rise from the grave. God is not a being that exists above the cosmic beyond. There is no afterlife. Hell and heaven are human inventions of the mind; they are meant to satiate an intrinsic need for group solidarity and supreme value in life. The earth is 4.5 billion years old. It rotates around the sun. The “Bible” is a collection of books, aphorisms, poems, prayers, lamentations, myths, and meditations that have been edited (and sometimes changed altogether) over the course of merely 6,000 years. The historical Jesus can only be known in his mythological, symbolic, and religious contexts. His spirit does not guide us or tell us what to do. Nor does God hold the whole world in his hands. God does not have hands and the world is not demarcated into parts. There is just one world and everything science strives to learn about it. As long as CRCDS maintains that faith is superior to reason, it will be in dire trouble.
There was something else in the president’s address that prompted me to pen this response. Dr. McMickle stated: “Confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and is sovereign above all earthly rulers is as much a political declaration as it is a theological affirmation. The words Christ is Lord were first spoken into a socio-political context that was dominated by the power, the cruelty, and the values of the Roman Empire…Thus, to stand in Rome and declare Christ is “Lord” is not some abstract theological observation, it is the ultimate prophetic utterance.”
When someone makes the claim that they know Jesus is Lord, doubt them. If anyone claims that heaven is a fact, demand to see evidence. If someone- no matter how credentialed they may be- tells you that Christianity is the true religion, force them to prove it. Christopher Hitchens once said, “Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals.”
Beneath the appealing varnish of the president’s oratorical skills are the snare trappings of religion’s most sinister inclinations. Is someone less than if they fail to declare Jesus is Lord? Is someone unsaved if they refuse to make this proclamation known to the world? If that is the case, do they need to be converted? Are they less enlightened? Are they unsatisfied as people? Are they less happy?
Propping up this slight of hand rhetoric is a belief system that is fundamentally exclusive, gripped in patriarchy, tainted by an upholstered manichaeism, and ultimately meaningless. What if someone believes that Allah is Lord? What if they believe Zeus is Lord? What if they believe the Pope or Joseph Smith is Lord? What if they believe Joe Montana is Lord? What if they believe Joe next door is Lord? What if they have no Lord to believe in whatsoever? If they don’t, are they somehow inferior? If it doesn’t matter one way or the other who someone believes in, why should CRCDS students broadcast to the universe that Christ is Lord? What is the unique benefit afforded them by this announcement if not to be more than, higher than, and better than others?
With Victor Stenger, I am of the opinion that “many people are good. But they are not good because of religion. They are good despite religion.” For at the substructure of so many scriptural verses, decrees and edicts, prayers and recitations, and rhetorical contortions is an exodus from the real. Imperceptible at times, yet infused within the molecular structure of this language, is a basic denial of reason over faith. It is how Christian fascism takes hold.
And rest assured that there is no end to the mischief beckoned by the faithful when they stop using their critical faculties and just start believing and repeating anything that they are told. Warrior popes, capital punishment, the justification of slavery, pogroms, attacks on abortion clinics, oppression of women, genital mutilation, just war theories, Inquisitions, Salem witch trials, terrorism and torture of the most bizarre varieties, the Curse of Ham, hate groups, antisemitism, and even the Holocaust. Hitler, if we care to read his manifestos, also decreed that Jesus is Lord. Onward Christian soldiers!
If it sounds as if I have been reading Michel Onfray ,it’s because I have. The French philosopher once wrote: ” Was it an atheist Fuhrer who ordered all schoolchildren in the Nationalist Socialist Reich to begin their day with a prayer to Jesus? Not to God, which might have made a deist of Hitler, but to Jesus, which explicitly labels him a Christian. The same supposedly atheist asked Goering and Goebbels, in the presence of Albert Speer who recorded the conversation, to remain within the bosom of the Catholic Church, as he himself would until his dying day.”
Are Protestants holier than Roman Catholics, thus making Hitler’s religious allegiance irrelevant? I doubt it.
With all of that said, I believe the role of today’s seminary is not to promulgate fairy tales and cultivate the art of wishful thinking. On the contrary, the role of the modern seminary is to dispel people of religion’s seductive attraction and to educate them about the real issues facing our planet. As such, the seminary should be an institution devoted to critical analysis; it should specialize in a form of academic scrutiny expertly designed to deconstruct religion, unveil its mystique and challenge the multifarious ways it functions within human societies. Rather than bolster student’s faith, a seminary should help students avoid the temptations and trappings of faith at all costs.
If it does that, CRCDS can succeed in teaching people how to actually think critically about religion; it can also be a place that helps students draw connections between spirituality and healing; mindfulness and happiness; nonviolence and violence; and the supreme virtues of healthy doubt over blind faith.
What is more, CRCDS can be a place where leadership development and social justice are held in the highest regard- a laboratory of sorts for the alleviation of poverty, and a place for developing the skills of citizenship.
Most importantly, the school can help people better understand the difference between acting on faith, articulating belief, attaining certainty, and allowing for hope. In a world infested by religious violence and extremism, this type of education is vitally important. But what the world does not need is another institution devoted to religious exclusivity.
Propelled by this new secular mission, CRCDS can reconfigure and transform its identity to become an institution of higher learning that offers a compelling register of courses necessary for thriving in the 21st century. These courses should include at the very least: Philosophical Theology, Anthropology of Religion, Psychology of Religion, Philosophy of Religion, History of Religions, Comparative Religions, Interfaith Dialogue, as well as courses on peacemaking, restorative justice, and principled nonviolence.
If CRCDS is able to rethink what it teaches, there is still an important role for the seminary to play in the life of this nation and globe. If it is willing to shed its delusions and face reality head on-that is, to give up the indoctrination of childish certainties and forfeit its stubborn denial of scientific evidence, it can still be relevant. There is no God above or within. There is no raising of the dead. There is no personal immortality. Thank goodness for that.
In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Daniel Dennett wrote: “The kindly God who lovingly fashioned each and every one of us (all creatures big and small) and sprinkled the sky with shining stars for our delight-that God is, like Santa Claus, a myth of childhood, not anything a sane, undeluded adult could believe in. That God must either be turned into a symbol for something less concrete or abandoned altogether.”
If CRCDS is to survive, it must become a school that is brave enough to face the harsh reality of reality. In other words, it must be willing to embrace reality with an open heart and open mind. There is no holy text that has the answers. There is no eternal paradise which awaits us after death. Evolution is a fact. The size of the universe is bewilderingly vast. Christ did not perform miracles. There is no God looking down upon our adventures and picking opportune moments to intervene. Prayers are just self-interested thoughts reflected against the canvas of the ego. There are no special favors for doing the “right” thing. And no declaration will save our souls.
George Cassidy Payne is an independent writer, social justice activist, domestic violence counselor, and adjunct professor of philosophy at Finger Lakes Community College. He lives and works in Rochester.
(The views expressed on our opinion pages are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or viewpoint of the Minority Reporter.)