Conversations with Matthew Myer Boulton, President of Christian Theological Seminary

Guest post: Christian Theological Seminary Immersion Experience, South Africa, August 2015

Ellen K Annala

By Ellen K. Annala
Chair, CTS Board of Trustees

Itinerary snapshot:
Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, executive director of the Desmond Tutu Center, a collaboration between Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) and Butler University, led 25 trustees, staff, faculty and students for 12 days in his homeland. In Cape Town, we met with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Reverend Mpho Tutu, executive director of the Tutu Legacy Foundation. We toured Robben Island, attended the JL Zwane Presbyterian Church in Gugulethu, visited the Slave Lodge and the District Six Museum, met with young activists still working to undo the damage from apartheid, and participated in a forum on racism, violence and human dignity post-apartheid (three-person panel included our Dr. Boesak). At Stellenbosch University we heard Prof. Sampie Terreblanche, Prof. Nico Koopman and CTS’ Matthew Myer Boulton and Frank Thomas. We took a scenic tour to the southernmost point on the continent, climbed to the light house at the Cape of Good Hope, and took pictures of penguins at Boulders Beach. In Kruger National Park we saw the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, buffalo) plus zebras, giraffes and hyenas. After leaving Kruger, we visited Blyde Canyon, the world’s third-largest  and greenest canyon, and we stopped to eat the world’s best pancakes in Graskop. In Johannesburg, we visited the Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill and Soweto.  


 Any American — especially a white American like me — traveling to South Africa can’t help but do some soul searching. Agreeing to write about our trip gave me the discipline I needed to put some thoughts on paper.

Allan led us through a packed two weeks with a perfect balance of learning and listening activities combined with the must-see tourist attractions that showed off the country’s natural beauty. If you’ve heard Allan speak, you’ve been inspired and challenged by his message and his experiences. I’ve listened to Archbishop Desmond Tutu talk about their joint work and Allan’s leadership in the anti-apartheid movement, but to be a first-hand witness to his significance to South Africans was awe inspiring. It became evident on my first walk in downtown Cape Town and reinforced throughout the trip, that we have a national treasure leading our Tutu Center.

After more than 30 hours of travel, our first day was mostly unscheduled, giving us time to rest and adjust to the time change. In the afternoon while some in our group napped and others (President Boulton and Trustee Anita Hardin) climbed Table Mountain, Carol Johnston (CTS faculty) and I decided to walk to The Company’s Garden. Allan volunteered to walk the four blocks with us.

Just a few steps from our hotel, we were stopped by an older man who greeted Allan with an enthusiastic hug. A dozen more steps and a young man asked if he could get his picture taken with him. This happened everywhere we went — a guard at Robben Island, an entertainer at Artscape, two young women at a rest stop in the middle of Kruger National Park. Most appeared to be working class people, but not all. Most were black, but not all. All who approached him showed deep affection and appreciation.

At the Apartheid Museum, I purchased Apartheid, An Illustrated History. In it is a picture of a young Allan at the microphone at the launch of the United Democratic Front in 1983. Surrounded by students, he was rejecting the Tricameral Constitution. The man who leads our Tutu Center led, survived and changed the history we only read about.

Being in South Africa is like having a mirror held up to Americans and others who have yet to resolve the damage done by slavery and segregation. South Africa now has democracy for all citizens. So do we. But the remnants of apartheid are evident, especially when you leave the city limits.

Under apartheid, whites moved people of color out of the cities to the townships — opposite the U.S. experience when schools were integrated in the 1970s and white families moved out of cities to the townships. Driving out of Cape Town, you see distinct neighborhoods where the houses get smaller and closer together the farther you drive. The darker your skin, the smaller the houses and the greater the density in your assigned district.

We saw miles of shanty towns, one with more than a million people living in shacks built with whatever scrap materials they could find. The government provides port-o-lets to give a minimal level of sanitation. Children who are fortunate enough to go to a private school have a chance to rise above their circumstances, but the odds are stacked against those who go to the overcrowded substandard public schools.

Some of us visited Christel House South Africa and saw what can happen when children from the poorest townships are given a chance with a quality education. Sound familiar? Maybe we don’t have shanty towns on this scale, but we know that the zip code a child is born into can hugely determine the child’s chances for success in life.

As we toured the Slave Lodge in Cape Town and Constitution Hill and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, I was struck by how well South Africa has addressed its past. Because apartheid ended only a couple decades ago, they have the evidence and testimony of those who were imprisoned, brutalized and treated as inferior human beings. I was dumbstruck when watching the video of the Prime Minister explaining apartheid as a “policy of good neighborliness.”

Upon entering the Apartheid Museum, we were each handed a card, randomly distributed, declaring our race. My card said I was non-white, so I was required to enter a different door than many of those I was traveling with. This was intended to make a point. It did. I found myself wondering what my travel companions were seeing that I wasn’t. And I resented that I couldn’t get to their side.

At the Slave Lodge (the actual home where hundreds of slaves were kept in cramped quarters), they documented their slave past in historical detail. But taking it a step further, they honored the contributions of slaves by recognizing that they built the city and changed the culture, language and food of the country. I don’t know of comparable museums or institutions in the U.S.

I bought another book, this one at the Tutu Legacy Foundation office, The Book of Forgiving, by the Archbishop and his daughter, Mpho Tutu. In the forward, they write, “In South Africa, we chose to seek forgiveness rather than revenge. That choice averted a bloodbath. For every injustice, there is a choice.”

As we sat with the Archbishop and the Reverend, they talked about forgiveness and about the work still to be done. I experienced a man who was willing to use his power position in the church to fight for a more just society; a holy man who embodies grace, kept his humor and continues to lead.

When visiting Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned, we were led to his cell by a former prisoner. After sharing his own experience, the former prisoner said that he now lives on the island and is both a neighbor and a friend with former guards. When he finished, he invited questions but only received silence. I couldn’t verbalize what I was feeling and thinking: “How could you have forgiven men who brutalized you and kept you in subhuman conditions?” Mostly, I was in awe and wondered if I had that same capacity to forgive.

The District Six Museum in Cape Town was created to memorialize the integrated neighborhood that was bulldozed to make way for a new white neighborhood. The museum’s education director took us on a bus tour of several of the townships where former residents were moved to their designated “Colored,”  “Asian” or “African” township.

Afterwards, we returned to lunch and dialogue with young activists. Most expressed their disappointment and disillusionment with their current state of affairs — poverty and the lack of opportunity for so many. Some had given up on the government and placed their hope in empowerment at a grassroots level. One young woman, an attorney, acknowledged that injustice still exists, but said they have a tool they didn’t have before — a constitution that is a model for the world. She also talked about her mother, who still marvels at her daughter’s achievement, something she never dreamed possible when this young woman was born 30 years earlier.

I found myself asking South Africans what justice would be for them. Some want their land back. But my driver in Soweto disagreed. He was in his mid-50s and lived more than half his life under apartheid. He told me it was too late for reparations, but what should happen is taxes — very high taxes — for the very wealthy with the money going toward education. For him, the path to justice and equality is through quality education.

Then I met an older white couple and was reminded that prejudice runs deep and doesn’t change just because laws change. They explained to me that apartheid was no different from the former segregated policies of the United States, and no different from the current segregation in many European cities. Quietly but emphatically they declared, “That is the way it will always be.”

Justice and equality of opportunity have not been achieved in South Africa just as they have not been achieved in the U.S. South Africa has addressed truth and achieved democracy, yet justice appears to have eluded them so far. Those who gained power and wealth from apartheid lost nothing. So many others who lost their land, their homes, and their well-being are just barely surviving. We have much in common with South Africa.

I thank Christian Theological Seminary for sponsoring this trip and Allan Boesak for his leadership. It felt like we did it all. The country is beautiful. The food was delicious. The people were welcoming and forthcoming. And we will be forever changed.

I came back with a renewed commitment for the cause of justice and equality. I’m retired, and it’s easy to look back and think, “I did that. I marched in the ’60s and ’70s. I spent my career as an advocate for the disenfranchised. It’s now okay for me to relax, learn bridge, take trips, and have long lunches with friends.” I don’t think so. I can’t leave South Africa in South Africa.

CTS Issues Statement on Emanuel AME and Papal Encyclical

Within a day of each other, two unforgettable events took place last week that go to the heart of Christian faith: an unspeakable act of what appears to be racist terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina; and the official release of “Laudato Si,” an extraordinary papal encyclical on ecological degradation, the global economy, and the world’s most vulnerable people.

In very different ways, each of these events has put Christianity at the center of some of the world’s most important conversations. And in very different ways, each presents a range of opportunities that Christian Theological Seminary cannot and will not overlook in the months and years to come.

First, our hearts are broken by the murders in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killings that appear to have been motivated by the hateful ideology of white supremacy. Our prayers are with the dead and their families, with the city of Charleston, with our students and colleagues at CTS in the AME tradition, and with all of us in the broad American community, as we struggle together to face the demons of our history and our present. We are inspired and humbled by the forgiveness already demonstrated by family members of those who were killed, and by the solidarity across racial and religious divides in Charleston and around the world. Their testimony helps remind us of what genuine Christian faith looks like, and that God is always present even and especially in times of tragedy and loss, transforming horror into hope, violence into reconciliation.

And yet: we refuse to think of this catastrophe as an isolated act by a deranged loner. The church known by many as “Mother Emanuel” was not a random target. Whether the shooter knew it explicitly or only vaguely, Emanuel AME is a historic congregation deeply connected to African-American liberty, from today back to the civil rights movement, and all the way back to an unsuccessful slave rebellion planned in 1822. The fact that the shooting itself took place on June 17, the anniversary of the exodus that planned rebellion would have enabled, is either a dreadful coincidence or another sign of the shooter’s racist intentions.

Likewise, white supremacy is not an isolated idea. It is part of American life, as we in Indiana — where the KKK was more powerful than anywhere else in the country, less than 100 years ago — know all too well. We do not like it, of course, but we must face it. Indeed, Emanuel AME is only a short distance from Sullivan’s Island, once the largest slave port in North America, through which some 40 percent of the 400,000 slaves brought to British North America passed. The legacy of the sins of slavery and racism is death, and that legacy is still very much present to us all. The opportunity before us, then, is to redouble our efforts to confront these sins in ourselves, in our neighborhoods, in our institutions, and in our wider communities — and to do so by deepening our connections with the ways Christian churches have, at their best, played crucial leadership roles in the service of liberty and dignity for all of God’s children.

Second, we strongly affirm what Pope Francis has done in “Laudato Si” (a phrase he borrows from a song written by St. Francis), at once bringing a theological framework to the ecological crisis and bringing a lucid ecological focus to Christian life and work. On both counts, his encyclical has stirred significant debate around the world — which is exactly what any good papal teaching will do. But we have not seen an encyclical of this depth and engagement with socioeconomic issues since Pope Leo XIII addressed labor and capital in 1891 (“Rerum Novarum”) and, in a different way, Pope John XXIII addressed war and peace in 1963 (“Pacem in Terris”). In effect, Pope Francis has declared that the world’s economic and ecological challenges are theological and spiritual challenges, and we strongly affirm this core conviction.

And yet: we refuse to think of these issues as matters of mere opinion and discussion. Francis rightly calls his readers to consider how — in our personal lives, family lives, institutional lives, and broad community lives — we can contribute in ways great and small to the urgent work of turning the tide of the ecological crisis. We can and must engage this work more closely, always with an eye toward action and change. And in doing so, again, we thereby deepen our connections to the ways Christian churches have, at their best, played crucial leadership roles in the service of caring for God’s creation. As the stories in Genesis 1-2 make wonderfully, poetically clear, we are gardeners, after all, created to care for the Earth and all its creatures.

Our prayers are with Charleston, and our prayers are with the whole of God’s creation. At the same time, our hopes are with Charleston, and our hopes are with the whole of God’s creation. The invitation before us is to pray and hope together, and so to work together, in ways that genuinely follow Jesus and the Holy Spirit, all for the sake of the future God intends — the future towards which these historic days urgently, heartbreakingly, hopefully point.

CTS Issues Statement on Religious Freedom Restoration Act

This Organization Serves AllChristian Theology Seminary (CTS) believes deeply in religious liberty. But we witness to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth – the one every Christian disciple seeks to follow – calls us not to a freedom to exclude, or a freedom to discriminate, or a freedom to create an atmosphere where prejudice may flourish. On the contrary, again and again, Jesus calls us to a freedom of inclusion, equality, justice, and profound respect for the dignity of all.

CTS opposes this act, then, not only because it represents an offense to the spirit of civil rights; not only because it cuts against the best of Hoosier hospitality; and not only because it has created a public relations crisis for the state of Indiana. CTS opposes RFRA primarily because it violates the Christian values we hold dear: values of inclusion, equality, justice, and the dignity of all people, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

The Christian Gospels are replete with examples of these values. In the Gospel According to Luke, in response to the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” a lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” It is a clannish question, a question that seeks to draw a circle around one group we are required to love and serve, creating another group we supposedly may exclude as outsiders.

But Jesus will have none of it. In his response – the parable of the Good Samaritan – Jesus flips the question on its head, as if to say, “Don’t waste your time asking the clannish question of who your neighbor is; instead, go and BE an excellent neighbor, serving all with mercy and justice.”

Three weeks ago, I was a keynote speaker at a church service rallying against RFRA. In conversations afterward, many of us who attended, including some of the event’s organizers, lamented that it appeared the bill was headed for passage. I take heart today at the bipartisan, statewide, nationwide outcry against this unwise, unjust legislation. And I continue to be inspired by the many Christians and other religious people who stand against RFRA as a matter of faith, conviction, and genuine religious liberty.

Real damage has been done, but together we can and must begin the work of repair. Indeed, for Christians, as we move ever deeper into Holy Week, we can only be challenged and encouraged that God is a God of hope and resurrection.

Jesus, Michael Brown, and the Love We Need Now

“I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love,” declares Martin Luther King, Jr., his voice echoing down through the decades.  “I’m talking about a strong, demanding love.” That’s the kind of love we need now.  As the country reels in the wake of the grand jury’s decision in St. Louis, we need strong, demanding love more than ever.

It’s precisely the love Jesus had in mind.  When he famously said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he wasn’t quoting Hallmark. He was quoting ancient Jewish scripture:  Leviticus 19:18, to be exact, which reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:  I am the Lord.”

No emotional bosh here.  What Jesus had in mind was love for our neighbors in precisely those situations during which we might be tempted to take vengeance upon them, or bear a grudge against them.  This is no domesticated love.  This is wild, difficult, true love. Turmoil is its natural habitat, and so it must be strong and demanding and clear.

We will never know what happened in what the county prosecutor called the “altercation” alongside and inside Officer Darren Wilson’s police SUV.  But we do know that Wilson decided to leave that vehicle, pursue Michael Brown, and use deadly force against an unarmed young man.

Stepping back from the storm of controversy around the disputed details of the case, one of the things that’s most heartbreaking is how awash our neighborhoods are in violence.  Police officers risk their lives every day, and they deserve our continual thanks and respect.  And yet, surely there are alternatives to lethal force in situations like these.  Surely there are other options:  staying in the vehicle; calling and waiting for backup; pursuing at a distance; withdrawing when a suspect turns to approach; firing warning shots; shooting to wound, not to kill; using a weapon other than a firearm; and so on.

The inner genius of Jesus’ call to love is that it is set directly in contrast to vengeance, to the raw impulse we feel in situations of stress and injury to avenge, to inflict injury in return for injury.  In this sense, true love is a species of restraint, of forbearance, of practical wisdom under pressure.  It is not easy.  To act in this way is demanding, and requires great strength.  We’ll never know exactly why Officer Wilson made the decisions he did, but Jesus’ teaching about the nonviolence of love is a lesson for us all.

And so his call goes out to each of us.  Many feel anger about the grand jury’s decision, or about Officer Wilson’s actions, or about the actions of the crowds in Ferguson, or about the fact that our society seems to sanction deadly force against unarmed young men of color, or about the opinions expressed around us with which we sharply disagree.  And as the anger smolders on every side, the temptations to avenge arise yet again.

But precisely in the midst of such temptations, Jesus calls each of us to a strong and demanding love, fierce enough to listen to those with different points of view than our own.  Rigorous enough to speak the truth as we understand it, faithful enough to imagine new ways to respond to violence without escalating it, dedicated enough to continue the indispensable work of building relationships long after the tear gas and the headlines have faded away.

It’s a simple, gritty, challenging commandment:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  ”And who is my neighbor?” someone asked from the crowd.  Your neighbor is Michael Brown.  Your neighbor is Darren Wilson.  Your neighbor is that person on the other side of the political spectrum, on the other side of the color line, on the other side of town.

Pray for the neighborhood.  Pray that the Holy Spirit might continue to work with us and through us and for us, turning us away from vengeance, away from grudges, away from violence, away from blood.  And toward love.  Only love.  Strong, demanding love.

The kind of love, put simply, with which Jesus loves us.

A big CTS thank you to Rae Karim and the SALT Project for working in partnership with CTS to produce this short film — a work of love!

Cultivating a Grateful Life

A friend of mine recently told me that if he had one wish for his children, it wouldn’t be that they’d become wealthy, or famous, or prestigious, or influential.  It wouldn’t even be that they’d live happy lives, or healthy lives, or long lives.

He wants the best for his children, of course, but he knows that life’s joys are invariably accompanied by sorrows and sickness, losses and limits – and that sometimes, those trials enrich our lives as much as they burden them.  No, if there’s one thing he hopes for his children, it’s that they learn to live with a deep, abiding sense of gratitude.

Living a grateful life – now there’s a laudable goal.  And as we enter this fall’s season of thanksgiving, it’s worth asking how we might more nearly approach that goal in our everyday routines.

One ancient practice for cultivating gratitude is to intentionally make time to “count our blessings,” as we say, in a diary, a gratitude journal, or some other method of reflecting and recording.  The sheer discipline of considering on our days with an eye to what we ought to be grateful for can be a wonderfully illuminating exercise, helping us see aspects of reality we might otherwise miss, distracted as we often are by our difficulties and complaints.

But there’s another practice that’s even more elemental.  If you want to cultivate a grateful life, many thoughtful teachers have said, try daily prayer.

When it comes to prayer, one of the oldest theological conundrums is this:  if God is all-knowing, then why do we have to inform God about our needs and wants, our struggles and requests?  Why pray at all?  Over the centuries, many Christian theologians have answered this question along these lines:  You don’t pray for God’s sake; you pray for your own sake, to help you have a felt experience of what’s actually going on whether you pray or not, namely, that God is graciously, generously providing for your daily needs.

How does prayer work in this way?  Well, suppose tomorrow you are going to eat a sandwich for lunch.  For many of us, the experience of eating can become something we do without thinking, as if consuming a kind of fuel, or simply laying claim to our own property, something we pulled out of the fridge or ordered off a menu.

But the deeper reality of our situation, these theologians insist, is that in and through the sandwich, God is providing for us with love and grace.  The food in the fridge or on the restaurant’s plate is a divine gift – but we miss this fact in our entitlement or obliviousness or distraction.

But suppose we begin the day tomorrow with the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the line, “give us this day our daily bread.”  This wouldn’t guarantee that we’d experience our sandwich as a gift, as an answer to our prayer, but it may well increase the likelihood that we do.  More to the point, consistent daily prayer may increase the degree to which we cultivate a life of conscious, grateful acceptance of the many blessings in our lives.

We might say, then, that daily prayer is a discipline of noticing, a practice that helps us be mindful of our actual situation as children of God whom God cares for every day.  Praying daily for our basic needs helps us receive whatever provisions come our way not as our own achievements or property, but as God’s loving gifts.  And receiving our lunch this way will make us more thankful, infusing our day with a palpable sense of appreciation.  It also promises to make the sandwich even more enjoyable!

So this Thanksgiving, let’s count our blessings.  But let’s also commit or recommit to daily disciplines that help cultivate one of the greatest gifts of all:  a grateful, gracious life.

TIME’s 100

This week TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People”  issue hit the newsstands. These are TIME’s nominations for the leading influencers in the world, leaders and innovators and visionaries who – according to TIME’s editors – set the tone and the pace for human life today. Of this list of one hundred, how many are figures primarily associated with religion? A grand total of: four.

Here they are, in order of appearance in TIME’s unranked list. First is Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a Ugandan nun who works with young women scarred by war. Second is a trio of clerics from Central African Republic – an imam, Omar Kabine Layama; an archbishop, Dieudonné Nzapalainga; and a pastor, Nicolas Guérékoyame-Gbangou – working tirelessly for peace and unity in their country. Third is the American Episcopal writer and former pastor, Barbara Brown Taylor. And fourth is Pope Francis.

That’s it. Four out of one hundred. 4%. How should we understand this?

One initial possibility, taking the list at face value, is to be struck by the apparent lack of influence wielded by religious figures today. Think of it: if we made a list of the 100 most influential people of all time, what percentage would be clearly associated with religion? 30%? 40%? More? Surely 4% pales in comparison to similar lists for even relatively recent history. Name your “top ten influencers” of the twentieth century, for example, and you’ll scarcely be able to leave out Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Paul II – and that’s just getting started.

To put this in perspective, in TIME’s list published this week, the largest group is governmental officials, who make up more than 25% of the overall one hundred. The second largest group is “artists/art entrepreneurs,” who together comprise another quarter of the whole. The group from the business world is three times the size of the religious quartet, as is the group made up by activists.

What’s more, in the brief written pieces introducing each of the hundred influencers, even the four religious figures themselves are not described in terms that are particularly, well, religious. Sister Nyirumbe is labeled an “activist”; the most unlikely of the four, Barbara Brown Taylor, is labeled an “author” (I say “unlikely” because Taylor, whom I very much admire, is hardly on the same playing field as, say, Pope Francis, or indeed any number of other religious leaders today, in terms of influence). The three African clerics make the list because of their peace work. And President Obama, who wrote the brief blurb describing Pope Francis, extols the pontiff for his humility, inclusive style, and moral clarity with regard to serving “the least of these.” Though nearly all of these people are Christian, the name “Jesus” appears only once in these four descriptions, a brief cameo at the end of Obama’s remarks – another indicator that even these four were chosen not for reasons related to tradition-specific religious content or mission, but rather because of ways in which their work is broadly humanitarian.

So a first possible reaction to the list is to be struck by the apparently plummeting line on the chart of religious cultural capital today. Religion matters relatively little at the moment, the list seems to suggest, and when it matters, it matters primarily in humanitarian or artistic-literary terms. For those who care about religious communities and leadership, this is an important, challenging, constructive way to read TIME’s list, and it raises provocative questions such as: “If religious figures are not a major influencers in today’s world, what does that say about religion?” And: “How can we expect talented young people to consider religious leadership (or indeed religious involvement at all) as a potential pathway for serving and changing the world?” And: “If we can’t expect them to do so, then whither the church?” And: “If this is as troubling as it would seem – what can be done about it? How can we change key conditions such that religious figures become more well represented in the ‘influential’ mix?”

Without sidestepping or discarding these important questions, there is another way to read TIME’s list. Namely, it can be read as saying less about the world’s influencers and more about the magazine’s editors. After all, globally speaking, we are living through an explosion of religious life today – though much of that growth is in the Global South. The overwhelming majority of the human race today is religious, often actively and profoundly so, and so the idea that only 4% of world’s most influential people are religious figures is surely suspect. Even so, however, this alternative way of reading the list also raises the issue of religion’s declining cultural prestige, at least in the West: How is it that, in a deeply religious age such as ours, TIME’s editors would see fit to publish a list such as this one? And: Now that the list is published, won’t it perpetuate the idea that religion matters relatively little? If mass media trend-spotters and tastemakers like TIME see and present religion as markedly less influential than politics, arts, business, activism, and humanitarianism, won’t they thereby contribute to the decline of religion’s cultural standing and influence?

Whether we think religion has an influence problem or a PR problem, or indeed both, TIME’s list makes clear that those who care about religion and religious leadership today have our work cut out for us. In fact, religion matters, deeply and widely. But creating conditions that help religious figures break into the ranks and networks of perceived influencers, and getting the word out about that influence, are two crucial tasks that will help define the future of religion.

Christian Theological Seminary is a journey.

Dear CTS community,

Christian Theological Seminary is a journey.

At the core of our identity, we are not a campus or a single group of people, since so many have participated in our common work over the seminary’s nearly 160-year history.  CTS is a journey, a pilgrimage we can only travel by continually listening for God’s call, and for how we can best live out our historic mission “to form disciples of Jesus Christ for church and community leadership to serve God’s transforming of the world.”

Every journey has its stages and stations along the way, and the CTS Board of Trustees has discerned that we have come to one of those key junctures.  Like other seminaries, we face new realities in 2014, both on campus and in the surrounding world.  The shifting North American religious landscape calls for new programs and educational formats.  While the CTS student body is now half the size it was 20 years ago, our faculty size is the same, resulting in a student/faculty ratio that has reached an unsustainable level.  Higher education is in significant transition, creating new opportunities for innovation and institutional partnerships.

CTS is in a strong position today, but the path we have been on for decades is not organizationally and financially sustainable into the future.  The Board is committed to ensuring the school’s sustainability so that we can continue to accomplish our mission with excellence for generations to come.  With all this in mind, at the Board’s direction and authorization, CTS is today taking decisive steps to move onto a sustainable path – while we are still strong.

  • Allocate substantial resources toward innovative recruitment of graduate students and other learners, focusing especially on new constituencies;
  • Continue progress on enhanced CTS fundraising;
  • Offer faculty members generous and appropriate voluntary separation packages in keeping with their valued service to the seminary;
  • Explore creative partnerships with appropriate institutions; and,
  • Continue to design and reconfigure seminary programs with financial sustainability in mind.

This plan will put the seminary on a new and sustainable path, strengthening our financial stability and capacity to live out our mission in fresh and creative ways, and repositioning the school on the verge of a new leg on the journey in our long history of visionary theological education.

Change can often be difficult and painful, even when it’s motivated for sound reasons, and always when it impacts the lives of beloved colleagues.  It is fitting that we take time – with heavy and grateful hearts – to honor the lasting contributions of our colleagues, even as we look ahead to what long-term financial strength and stability can mean for Christian Theological Seminary.  Farewells and greetings, sorrows and joys, trials and blessings intertwine.  In view of all of this, we are making pastoral care available to our faculty, staff, and students, with the capable guidance of Rev. Mary Harris, our Dean of Students and longtime friend and colleague of many of us at CTS.

At times on the journey, things change and transform.  And as we look to the road ahead, the Board’s actions will result in enhanced student scholarship programs and recruitment initiatives, increased capacity to financially support the educational innovations of our faculty, more robust community engagement, and the ability to properly care for our campus.  Most importantly, however, this plan will result in a new and sustainable path for CTS into the future, enabling us to accomplish our historic mission for generations to come.

The journey continues.  CTS is strong.  What the Board of Trustees has done is direct and authorize the CTS administration to make this strength sustainable, so we can journey into the twenty-first century.

If you have any questions about this important announcement, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me.  Please keep our entire CTS community, as well as those communities we seek to serve, in your prayers.  We give thanks, especially in times of change, for the One who always travels with us on the Way.

God’s peace,



much ado about “nones”

If you’re a reader of the New York Times, or a listener to National Public Radio, or a follower of the Religion News Service, you’d have good reason over the past week or so to come to the conclusion that the United States — and indeed the world — is becoming less and less religious.

The Times recently ran an article on atheism in which, almost in passing, the author cites a Pew Forum study to support the claim that “roughly 20 percent” of Americans are “secularly inclined” as opposed to religious. National Public Radio ran a series this week entitled “Losing Our Religion.” Religion News Service ran a story that The Christian Century published under the headline, “Unbelief is world’s third-largest ‘religion’”.

And yet all of this is misleading, subtly but decisively. Each of these stories, in various ways, combines and collapses three categories:  ”Atheist,” “Agnostic” (these two combined currently constitute only about 5% of the U.S. population), and “Unaffiliated,” that is, those who do not claim a particular religious affiliation (the so-called “Nones,” who constitute about 15%). But if you read the Pew Forum’s report on the rise of the Unaffiliateds, you’ll find that 70% of them believe in God; 60% call themselves either “religious” or “spiritual,” and 40% of them pray. Lumping together this group with atheists and agnostics, or calling their increase a rise in “unbelief” or a case of “losing our religion,” is sloppy analysis at best.

Worse, this kind of categorization lends support to the false impression that U.S. society, and world society with it, is turning away from religious convictions and toward atheism or agnosticism — a conclusion the data simply do not support. Affiliation patterns are changing, it’s true (this is also true of political affiliations:  ”Independents” are on the rise in the U.S.).  But we also live in a breathtakingly religious age:  in percentage terms, religious belief and practice are basically holding steady in the U.S. overall, and globally, no less than 84% of the world’s 7 billion people claim a particular religious affiliation — and a great many of the other 16%, while they may not identify as members of a particular brand of religion, nevertheless call themselves “religious” or “spiritual.”

Religion deeply, widely matters, and will continue to do so, both at home and abroad.  Thinking otherwise will lead our thoughts astray, whether we are within or without religious communities.  And the stories we tell about religious trends matter, too.

The more we mislabel data and suggest that “roughly 20 percent” of the U.S. population are atheist or agnostic (to take the New York Times example), the more we run the risk of concluding that religion is on the way out — the “secularization thesis” that has come and gone, and now has come again, on the American scene.  What’s more, this misunderstanding runs the risk of actually contributing to the trend it falsely announces, since it conjures visions of a stampede for religion’s exit door (“20 percent!”) — and as every antelope knows, stampedes attract followers.  On the other hand, the secularization myth may be especially tempting for historically mainline churches today, since it provides a handy excuse for any failure to attract or retain younger generations (“well, it must be them, not us”).  In other words, for churches, too, mis-telling the story leads us to misinterpret our situation.

The point here is not that Christian communities should be complacent about the rise of the Unaffiliateds, or simply rest assured that religion is alive and well.  Rather, the point is that we should read the data rigorously and wisely, resisting the “secularization” interpretation as long as the data do not support it, and instead working to be nimble enough to engage Unaffiliateds according to their own cherished values:  independence and flexibility, to be sure, but also, in many cases, a genuine, vital interest in religion and spirituality.


sorrow and hope

It’s Christmastime, and our hearts are broken. Our prayers go out to our brothers and sisters in Newtown, Connecticut – and to our brothers and sisters around the world who suffer unspeakable violence each and every day. When children are killed, we mourn in a special way. And we must do all we can to do justice to our grief with our actions and our life together: reexamining not only our gun laws, not only our mental health and social practices, but also the weapon-ridden fantasy world to which the lost, angry, or ill have too often turned in recent American life. We all have work to do.

It’s Christmastime, and our hearts are full. This weekend, CTS hosted the Gifts of Grace program here in on campus, an event bringing together hundreds of families to enjoy a bounty of gifts, food, and fellowship. When children smile, we rejoice in a special way. And those smiles, along with those on the faces of their mothers and fathers and grandparents and guardians, were beyond counting. Thank you to the CTS volunteers who represented our community so generously and so well, and to the CTS facilities staff who so kindly and professionally made it all possible.

Hope and sorrow, sorrow and hope. The truth is, Advent and Christmas aren’t about glittering lights alone: they’re about the light shining in the darkness, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). In other words, every glittering Christmas light is best understood and experienced as a light shining against the encroaching shadows all around us. That’s what Christmas lights are for. The season, then, is surely one of joy and wonder and delight – but always over against injustice and heartbreak and despair. After all, it’s no accident that we celebrate Christmas morning amidst the longest nights of the year. It’s no accident that King Herod’s anxious rage is right there at the center of the story, that even as “unto us a child is born,” at the same time children are ruthlessly slaughtered and lost, and their parents refuse to be comforted (Matthew 2:16-18). And it’s no accident that God’s Incarnation is a vivid act of solidarity with the vulnerable. God arrives as a poor peasant baby in occupied territory. The Maker of Heaven and Earth comes as an infant, utterly defenseless, a soft spot on his head.

There are no easy answers here. Theology is often about knowing when to say, “We don’t know.” And yet, this season as always, we can pray together, act together, struggle together, and learn together. We can wait and watch for the mystery of Christmas morning with a special urgency. We can reach out to each other, mourning with those who mourn, rejoicing with those who rejoice. And through it all, we can give thanks for God’s presence in our sorrow, God’s presence in our hope.

I read that at one of the candlelight prayer vigils in Newtown this weekend, the assembled sang, “Silent Night.” Round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. A voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children.

Our hearts are broken. Our hearts are full.

Christmas blessings,

losing our religion?

One recent front-page Star headline, “Shifting Away from Religion,” was prompted by a new study just released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Do the study’s findings really indicate this kind of shift? There are important reasons to question that conclusion.

Protestants now make up 48% of U.S. adults, the study reports, down from 53% in 2007 (and down from 2 out of 3 in the 1960s). The so-called “Nones” – that is, those who check the box indicating “no religious affiliation” instead of any particular one – have increased by about the same percentage that Protestants have declined.

But let’s dig a little deeper into how Nones describe themselves. According to the study, they are not dominated by atheists (only 2% of American adults identify as atheists) or agnostics (only 3%). On the contrary, 70% of Nones say they believe at least somewhat in God or a higher power. That’s right: 7 out of 10 Nones say this. Even more telling, 6 of 10 describe themselves as religious or spiritual. 4 of 10 say they pray.

The takeaway here is that what most Nones seem to value is not atheism or agnosticism or anti-religiousness, but rather a kind of openness, flexibility, and independence when it comes to religious affiliation. Consider a political analogy: an uptick in those who identify as “independent” with respect to political party might indicate a shift away from a certain kind of partisanship, but not a shift away from politics itself. So too with religion.

Part of the problem here is with the word “Nones.” Digging into the data, it’s clear that this group has “no religious affiliation in particular,” but not “no religious beliefs or practices.” “Unaffiliated” is a much better, clearer term.

Two other caveats: in the supposed golden age of American Protestantism (the 1950s and 60s), significant numbers of Christians likely “checked the Protestant box,” so to speak, primarily because it was socially respectable to do so. What may be going on in the decades since is not so much a “shift away from religion” as an increase in clarity and candor about religious affiliation.

Finally, while it’s true that nearly 1 in 3 Millennials (those born after about 1980) are Unaffiliateds, the Millennial generation is also the largest in American history – and so there may well be plenty of Americans interested in religious affiliation in the years and decades to come. Moreover, down the road, the picture changes even more. Just last year, for the first time American hospitals welcomed more babies of color than Caucasian babies, and since religion so often plays such a strong role in African American and Latino communities, among others, an American religious renaissance – a “shift toward religion” – may already be on its way.

The bottom line, then, is that the Pew study has no simple bottom line. What’s really going on today in American religion – an ebb? a flow? a reconfiguration? – remains an open, important, fascinating question.

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