Mystery, Marketing, and the Mess at General Theological Seminary

by The link is to a blog by Frederick William Schmidt about the conflict at General Theological Seminary in New York City.  In recent weeks, from what I can make out on the Quaker sidelines, several faculty members registered complaints with the Board of Trustees about the dean. Matters got to a point where eight faculty members wrote to the trustees saying that they would stop teaching until matters were resolved. The trustees took this as a letter of resignation from the eight faculty members, accepted it as such, and relieved the eight of their positions on the faculty. The eight faculty members said it was never meant as a resignation. Questions about the right to organize, the right to strike, freedom of speech, and academic freedom are swirling around.

On Friday, October 17, the trustees reaffirmed that the dean was the dean they wanted and the eight faculty members could apply for provisional reinstatement on an individual basis—which I’m told is a classic union-busting technique. I’m posting about this on Among Friends because there are things in Schmidt’s blog and in the comments on his blog that got me thinking about Quaker life and New York Yearly Meeting. For example, Schmidt says that seminaries were created by the Council of Trent to be “seedbeds.”

“Over time, seminaries have become something very different.  They are no longer seedbeds, they are dispensaries, sources of information, places where commodities are sold, factories. . . . And, now, as numbers and money begin to become acute issues for seminaries, boards and seminary leaders without any deep sympathy for that seedbed model are beginning to ask themselves, ‘How can we distribute this information and collect tuition for it in a more efficient fashion?'”

In the last paragraph of his post, Schmidt talks about mystery— “Therein lies the message to the seminaries left standing: Consider your purpose.  If you are simply dispensing information, your days are numbered.  The product can be codified, recorded, and dispensed.  A seedbed is a different matter.  It is baptism into a mystery – an experience of God – a relationship with God and those who have been touched by the Divine.  Mystery is not something that is simply learned, it is absorbed and the few that choose to offer that gift have a future.  For those that don’t offer that mystery, there isn’t one.”

Those last two sentences opened to me why effective Quaker religious education is so difficult. How do you teach a mystery? How do you teach the mystery that is Quaker meeting for worship? Schmidt’s words help explain to me why we leave so much to the notorious Quaker ‘process of osmosis.’ Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. But is there a way to engage people in that osmotic process more effectively in our monthly meetings? 

I got more explanations—these about yearly meeting life—as I read the comments on Schmidt’s blog. In one by Roy Herndon Smith, I found this— “As Bernard Brandon Scott observes, in any age, the dominant institution in society becomes the model for churches and church-related institutions. In sixteenth-century Europe, the feudal court was the model for the church. In twenty-first century America, the corporation is the model.”

And there we are: the ‘priorities’ models of marketing that New York and Philadelphia yearly meetings (are there others?) adopted this summer. To adapt Schmidt’s quote, I heard my yearly meeting asking of itself: ‘How can we . . . collect [money] in a more efficient fashion?’”

Early Friends witnessed against the feudal court–model of the church and “the dominant institution” of society. Friends today are falling nicely into step with the wisdom to be found in the life of the successful capitalist corporation. In another comment, I learned about Juergen Habermas from someone going by his Twitter handle of frharry. Frharry has a somewhat heavy style that needs a little ear-of-the-heart translating. Bear with it—

“Juergen Habermas spoke of the colonization of the lifeworld by its business quadrant as early as the 1980s. With the political quadrant neutralized, business construction of the lifeworld based in business values of profit and the commodification of all aspects of that world (including its human “resources”) no longer had any checks. As a result, all social institutions and cultural values become colonized, taking on business values and goals. Education becomes knowledge fluency, higher education becomes job training, students become consumers. It is an impoverishment of the lifeworld that ironically sells itself to the public as the best of possible worlds, a la Pangloss. Most of the time we are so voluntarily distracted that we don’t notice.”

I lift up for your attention the concept of becoming colonized, taking on business values and goals.

The mention of Pangloss with its reference to Voltaire’s Candide was especially meaningful to me. As part of the summer’s Priorities business, New York Yearly Meeting Friends are being urged to contribute to the Make Our Garden Grow web page:

I keep wanting to post the Leonard Bernstein–Stephen Sondheim song there.


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2 Responses to “Mystery, Marketing, and the Mess at General Theological Seminary”

  1. John Edminster Says:

    This is excellent ministry, Carol, and it leaves me wrestling with this query, important to everyone concerned with religious education among unprogrammed Friends: “How do you teach a mystery? How do you teach the mystery that is Quaker meeting for worship? Schmidt’s words help explain to me why we leave so much to the notorious Quaker ‘process of osmosis.’ Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. But is there a way to engage people in that osmotic process more effectively in our monthly meetings?”

    I can only think of two ways to improve the osmotic process, the carrot and the stick, but they’re both in the hands of God, not something that Ministry and Counsel can make happen by a clever initiative of its own:

    (1) The carrot is for God to raise up more gifted and effective prophets and evangelists to proclaim the wonderful, all-forgiving love of God, and beg sinners to repent and turn from their fruitless ways. And then there’s the interior carrot, the “butter and honey” of Isaiah 7:15, the sweetness of God that God allows us foretastes of.

    (2) The stick is for God to let life on earth get more solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, for example by loosing the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, or the Famine of Hearing the Words of the Lord prophesied in Amos 8:11, two measures that would make the alternatives to seeking the living God, our unconscious programs for happiness, less appealing. The Holy Spirit may be actively using both carrot and stick now on a global scale, with the evident spiritual bankruptcy of the seminary being part of the stick (and the environmental crisis, another part).

    It took both carrot and stick to bring my unruly life into the fold of Christ, applied by the Holy Spirit in ways exquisitely tailored to my own condition. My personal experience tells me “Don’t worry, God is already on the case.”

    The description of the capitalist corporation as the dominant institution that shapes the church in our time rang true in my mind. Centuries ago, the dominant institution was Constantine’s imperial army, and we got a state church that treated theological deviance as crime and ruled by fear; today we use targeted marketing strategies and leverage to shape the church’s life with smooth deceits. The worldly spirit will always want to smear such rouge and lipstick on Christ’s bride, defacing her to satisfy contemporary fashion. But this is the world that “hateth Christ alway, because He testifieth that the works thereof are evil” (John 7:7), and Christ knows how to wash off its ugly cosmetics. Quaker yearly meetings that choose to be bottom-line driven rather than driven by self-querying about “are we being faithful?” may die out. But Christ’s bride will not die out

  2. QuaCarol Says:

    John, your carrot-and-stick strategy is a way to get people in the door. The question of how to teach a mystery has to do with what we do with them once they’re there.

    I don’t have the experience to answer this. I first experienced meeting for worship as a young child. My faith, my commitment to Quakerism, grew as I grew—including a ‘leave of absence’ from my mid-twenties to my late thirties.

    When I came back to meeting for worship it had nothing to do with repentance, or the desire for it. I came because I was gravely wounded and I found a place to heal and grow. (A kind of salvation, perhaps?)

    I think of some very smart and very cerebral newcomers I know. They’re latching on to the silence as a kind of restful novelty, a way of using their minds differently. From time to time I’ve suggested at social hour that they try contacting their souls during worship and for a split second I see an abyss opening behind their eyes.

    Rex Ambler’s Experiment with Light texts and tapes have helped my intellectually high-powered F/friends go out of their minds and into the mystery a bit.

    Is more out-of-your-mind-into-the-mystery material possible? Patricia Loring’s ‘Listening Spirituality’ comes very close.

    As to the corporation/capitalism question, I’ve been wondering when faith communities began keeping membership statistics. Would a statistics fast be possible? What would it be like to stop counting how many members New York Yearly Meeting had and how many meetings?

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