Wednesday, September 14, 2016

John Silber and Bad Theology

Marsh Chapel with Memorial to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the foreground.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God is One. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9

On a beautiful day in early September in 1971 I sat in Marsh Chapel for the first time. Dean Walter Muelder smiled warmly as he welcomed the new class of students to Boston University School of Theology and introduced us to the incoming University President, John Silber. He spoke of Dr. Silber’s study of Kant’s philosophy, of the great leadership he had shown in his previous position at the University of Texas, of his intellect and his commitment to learning.

We gave him a standing ovation. 

And while we were still standing, Dr. Silber began to speak.

There were many, he said, who questioned whether the study of theology should even be part of a university or whether it might more appropriately be left  to what he called “the backwaters of civilization.”

I did not have a warm feeling.

We stood, awkwardly, waiting politely for him to indicate that we could be seated. He just kept talking. A few people sat down, but that seemed impolite. 

President Silber posed a question and asked for a show of hands. “How many of you believe that God exists?”

I was new to the study of theology, but I had read enough of Paul Tillich to know that the question was very poorly phrased. Existence is a limited and contingent category. God cannot “exist” in the way that other people and animals and things exist.

Reluctantly, I raised my hand. 

“I see,” said President Silber, “Now, how many of you believe that you can answer that question through rational inquiry?”

I lowered my hand. 

“Theoretically,” he said, we should see at least as many hands as before, plus a few who do not presently believe in the existence of God but are willing to submit that belief to rational inquiry and academic study.”

No, I thought. Wrong again. This is not a question that can be answered through academic research or analysis. It’s an existential question. What we can do intellectually is to frame the question, and put ourselves in a position to answer it in our lives.

Then Dr. Muelder interrupted and invited us to be seated. The Dean was no longer smiling.

And all at once, that was my introduction to Boston University School of Theology, John Silber, and bad theology.

My first impression of President Silber was confirmed by his relentless antipathy toward the School of Theology. My impression of Dean Muelder as an academic functionary was completely wrong. It did not take long for me to realize that he had an incredible grasp of philosophy and theology and could bring that to bear on any discussion or inquiry. 

But I totally missed the significance of John Silber’s question.

I had been exposed to bad theology before. I probably heard some of it from well-meaning adults. I certainly heard it from other children in elementary school, and I’m sure I offered my own versions back to them. 

But this was the first time I heard bad theology from a well-educated adult, and I did not recognize how much of a problem that would become. 

To be fair, it could have been a lot worse. Silber did not ask, “How many of you believe in a god?” 

I’m not sure how we got there, but that’s where we are. The truth is that even within the church, we do not do theology very well anymore.

Paul Tillich pointed out that when we speak of “God,” we are always speaking symbolically. We do not really have a word for that reality. And so he spoke of God as the Ground of Being, Being Itself, and Ultimate Reality. 

Tillich liked to speak of faith rather than belief, because believing is generally associated with a conviction or certainty that something is true although it cannot be proven. Faith, for Tillich, is ultimate concern; it is being grasped by ultimate questions.

But setting aside Tillich’s aversion to the word “belief.”

We do not believe in “a god.” 

We do not even believe in “a God.” 

We believe in God.

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1 comment:

  1. As a native Texan, I feel I should apologize to you for producing a man like John Silber, but I guess it's too late now.