Archive: The Faith Crisis in a Seminary

By Dale A. Sanders, Pastor, United Methodist Churches of Bartley and Indianola, Nebraska

Ever since high school, I knew I was called to the Methodist ministry. At a young age I was in love with Our Lord, His Church—and  I was deeply impressed by the sometimes quiet, sometimes desperate search for faith made grateful for sure peace by my peers and elders.

Like the apocryphal story of the caretaker at Westminster Abbey who said he had worked there for 40 years and “Thank God, I’m still a Christian!” my involvement in high school Youth for Christ and college Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship did much to keep me true. Then came seminary.

I attended United Methodism’s most self-proclaimedly liberal seminary. During the first year I was shook hard. I vaguely knew this school had a reputation for liberalism.  Indeed, when a local pastor learned of my seminary, he put his arm around my shoulders and said “I hope you are well-grounded in the Word.”·

It would be getting ahead of the story to say I graduated with a stronger evangelical faith—a faith made grateful for the sureties of the Gospel. Let me tell you a little of what it was like.

My seminary is not theologically oriented. Oh, there are courses in historical theology and some with dogmatic sounding titles which read like the Apostles’ Creed. But theology was minimal, even in these told that if we wanted easy beliefs we ought to transfer to a Baptist seminary. So we wrestled with all the other ologies—and called it theology. The seminary was psychologically oriented. My immediate impression was not the ritual of new acquaintances but the process of being “psyched out.” That process lasted three years. It is a terrifying experience if one is converted to it. Nothing changes faster than the fads of psychology (unless it be contemporary theology). And several professors and most students were so sold on psychology that nothing a student said escaped Freudian analysis. I might add that an evangelical Freudian slip was always given special consideration.

Why special consideration? I suppose because I didn’t fit the usual liberal “pattern of expectations.” You see, except for a few discerning liberals, they are content to label all conservative evangelicals as fundamentalists (too little fun, too much damn, and too little mental). But I didn’t fit the formula, so consequently I was a creature to be alternately shunned and examined.

I had a lot of fun at seminary. One of the oddest aspects of my liberal colleagues (and there are all sorts of liberals) was their inability to have fun. They laughed-but most often it was over some witty cynicism or theological snideness or Freudian flareup. And there were parties—such sad parties! They usually turned into drinking sessions loaded with existential crises (all verbal of course). The stock phrase was “you’re feeling threatened.” Almost every encounter was a shade of psyche.

Essentially my fellow seminarians were prudes. They dressed conservatively—spent conservatively—and thought conservatively. By conservative I mean they were in a rut. They could engage in only one kind of fun—destruction. What “fun” to be self-flagellated at “true confession” movies and parties and discussion groups! Certainly orthodoxy was a priori out-of-date and out-of-the-question. The fact that most of my seminary classmates knew next to nothing about the Bible and Christian philosophy and history is beside the point … “irrelevant” to use a seminary cliche.

Admittedly, a number of students were rebelling against loveless fundamentalism. And not a few professors also. Almost half the faculty were exiles from the deep South. They forever ridiculed all conservative evangelicals above the Mason-Dixon Line as Southern wolves in Northern sheep’s wool. Very few could conceive of Christianity as a redemptive religion of love. Words like “hell” and concepts like “eternal separation from God” were stumbling blocks equated with bigotry.

In my opinion these were largely emotional rather than intellectual stumbling blocks. Faculty and students could not overcome the stultifying experiences of growing up in the Church. This partially accounts for the incredible degrees of hatred for the Church I encountered at seminary. Yes, I said hatred. There was more “curse the Church and its Gospel” at seminary than I have met in all my years outside seminary.

The mental life at seminary was unquestionably challenging. What proved a real challenge to others was an evangelical who refused to fill the popular role of well-meaning ignoramus. Not a few were dismayed at my receiving the National Methodist Seminary Award for 1968, plus graduating with a high grade point average.

It is my observation that the least intellectually capable students are the most self-assuredly liberal. Why? I do not know.

The list of unorthodoxies taught at seminary was ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Psychology and sociology did explain away personal conversion experiences and the community of faith. Philosophy and ethics did teach the inferiority of Christian thinking and a radically confusing situation ethic. Biblical studies were never about the Bible itself, but theories of 19th century criticism. History and historical theology delighted in the sins of Christendom. Theology was non-existent except in terms of Tillich. Absolutely no historic Christian teaching was sacrosanct—least of all the Person of Our Lord. Not only was God dead but also Jesus and the Spirit.

What, then, kept me true to the faith? First, praying parents. I know my parents well enough to thank God for their constant prayers on my behalf. Second, faithful ministers and good churches. Third, extra-church ministries like Inter-Varsity which helped me over critical doubts and spiritual drought. And fourth, I have never forgotten the reality of Christ’s coming into and remaining in my heart and life. Often when plagued by doubt and confusion at what was occurring in seminary classrooms I turned to the Lord. In prayer and Scripture I found that He stood sure in the vagaries of seminary which have already shifted radically since my recent graduation.

Dale A. Sanders, the author of this article, serves as Pastor of the United Methodist Churches in Indianola and Bartley, Nebraska. He was educated at California State College and Seattle Pacific College, where he earned his B.A. degree. He did graduate work at Oregon State University and Portland State College. He graduated in 1968 from Methodism’s Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, with a Master of Divinity degree. In seminary he was chairman of the program committee and registrar of the Iliff Week of Lectures. He was recipient of the National Methodist Seminary award in 1968.


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