by the Rev. Jim Purdy

jim purdy 200 x 239A “conversation” through email with a friend this morning reminded me of heated exchanges with a divinity school professor decades ago.

Prompted by an invitation from the sub-dean, several of us first year seminarians were engaged in a forthright discussion with one of the senior faculty members of what seminary is, what it might be, what we hoped to gain in those three years and two summers of theological education, and, more importantly, what we hoped to give to parishioners and communities after our ordinations.

From the outset, it was clear that the professor and we were on different “pages.” Clearly, his beliefs and passions centered on mastering disciplines, passing tests and bluebook examinations, and developing and displaying pools of information (as my friend put it this morning). Professor S refrained countless times: “There are certain things you must know, that you need to know… that are necessary, essential for your salvation… And without those facts — and the ability to express them consistently and authoritatively, never apologetically! — without those competencies, you will serve neither God nor God’s people. You should never be ordained!”

As you can imagine, five of us disagreed with his right to live and to his tenured status — and, more particularly, with his assumptions and conclusions. We believed then (and now) that a faithful life is far more than transferring knowledge, “authoritatively, never apologetically.”   How I wish that, at that time, one of us had known and spoken the words of William Butler Yeats (of which my friend reminded me today): “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Inarticulately, we students railed and ranted about the irrelevance of precise words — of proper definitions, immutable doctrines, stern punishments — and, more vociferously, about the strong barriers that were created by fixating on those words. I recall “instructing” Dean Harris, “Mr. Dean, those words draw lines. Inevitably, they create rules. They erect walls and boundaries. They declare some people ‘in,’ and most ‘outside,’ the circle of faith, of God’s care, of God’s love. (Even more brashly, I said) Mr. Dean, I know that is not what you intend, demanding fealty to intolerant dogmas. You don’t want or hope to celebrate grand occasions of triumph, of victories of correct belief and tidy rituals over sin, the flesh, and the devil and the people who are ‘caught’ by ‘them,’ do you?”

We asked Dean Harris, Professor S, and, later, the faculty and board of trustees to consider how the school’s curriculum and “community life” might move “from knowledge to skill” — from requiring the giving of mental assent to a series of propositions, from memorizing and regurgitating factoids, to stimulating and encouraging within each student and teacher an ability and eagerness to learn and to keep learning… not to stare happily at the seemingly-hard-won diplomas or gaze contentedly at the ordination certificates on the walls of our offices, but to sift through the precious information that is available in the people we see and with whom we speak, in the books and newspapers we read, in the still, small voice we hear inside, and in all that we observe in God’s world every new day and to frame and offer faithful responses in those specific contexts.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

It seems to me that faith has little to do with the certainty of ideas, words, policies and procedures, and heavy-handed convictions. Faith is rooted in the heart. Faith is being attentive to the needs around us. Faith is committing ourselves to doing what we can with what we have, trusting that God will make use of us and of it.

Back to school, each and every day.


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