Sunday, August 17, 2014

The "Underground Seminary," Bonhoeffer, community and truth

Recently ChurchandWorld linked to a Presbyterian Today article about the beginnings of a seminary called ‘Underground Seminary.’ The school, formed under the leadership of teaching elder Jin S. Kim, John Nelson, and Laura Newby, of the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, is supposedly modeled after the Confessing Church’s Finkenwalde seminary, led by Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the Nazi years. Kim, head of a large multi-cultural church, states that rather than just being an academic school the students will be preparing for an “alternative way of life that is a counter-imperial witness to our faith in Jesus.”

But looking at the school’s site and information I found, with a few good exceptions, little connection to Bonhoeffer’s Christian views. Rather the influences are heavily loaded toward Marxism and anarchism in general.  I believe the coming ‘Underground Seminary’ is a sign of the many ways the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is and will be fragmenting in their attempt to attract members from our decadent culture.

With this posting I want to explore some of what the school site calls their influences and how they are both a contradiction to Christianity in general and Bonhoeffer’s desires for Finkenwalde community life and teaching. I will follow this posting with another one that looks at some of Bonhoeffer’s seminary goals which will include the letters he sent to the pastors who emerged from Finkenwalde after it was closed by the Nazis. I will add to that Bonhoeffer’s views which he articulated about how those same theology students and the Confessing Churches they were involved with should view the prevailing ‘church’ at the time, that is, the German Christians. That information can be found in “Lecture on the Path of the Young Illegal Theologians of the Confessing Church, October 26, 1938.”[1]

On the Underground Seminary web site, under ‘About’, there is this as part of the explanation, “Our focus is on intensive character formation, a rigorous post-colonial critique of our present systems, and nurturing intimate and sustainable forms of community life - basically, equipping our students to follow Jesus uncompromisingly.” And under the ‘Rationale’ it states:

The modern American way of life has proven to be bankrupt. The ideals of individualism, production and consumption that have now been exported globally are destroying the environment, fragmenting local communities, and giving rise to alienated and anxious individuals who function as mere cogs in the global market.

We believe that future Christian leaders must be equipped to swim upstream and call to account the powers and principalities, the multinational corporations and their political lackeys, that are polluting the waters of our commonwealth. Our graduates will be expected to understand the way Wall Street, global economics and geo-politics actually work. And by decolonizing our very minds and bodies, we hope to truly equip our students to live differently, rooting ourselves in history, the land, and an intimate community that gives birth to new and sustainable forms of community life.

There are a lot of truths in that statement as one begins reading, however immediately one notices that the bankrupt society is totally tied to political and economic issues.  Individual immorality and soul sickness is missing. Scrolling down, the statement focuses on a final project for students. It would be about an individual who the student might use as a life model. And the names are good examples:   Gandhi, MLK, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Oscar Romero, and Dorothy Day.

However clicking on the home page and scrolling down to the “Our Curriculum,” there are three tracks of study that follow in consecutive order. The first track is “Unveiling: Exploring the workings of empire.” Beneath that is a list of the names of those who have influenced the curriculum. Many of those influences are secular Marxist and/or liberation theologians in outlook.

One professor has taught Karl Marx’s Das Capital for forty years.  The most troubling name is the environmentalist Derrick Jensen.  Jensen is on the steering committee of Deep Green Resistance, an environmental and radical feminist group that advocates for the destruction of civilization by way of its infrastructure.  And this even when it leads to the death of innocent people. Their plans, including alternative versions, are published on their site.

Deep Green Resistance advocates for above ground groups who will ready humanity for the revolution by way of community, and underground groups who will attack, in many ways, the infrastructure of civilization. One of the jobs of the above ground groups is to cover for the underground and use the destructive event to push for solutions advanced by radical environmental groups. Those ideas are seen in the paper Four Phases of Decisive Ecological Warfare:

In this alternate future, aboveground activists in particular take on several important tasks. They push for acceptance and normalization of more militant and radical tactics where appropriate. They vocally support sabotage when it occurs. More moderate advocacy groups use the occurrence of sabotage to criticize those in power for failing to take action on critical issues like climate change (rather than criticizing the saboteurs). They argue that sabotage would not be necessary if civil society would make a reasonable response to social and ecological problems, and use the opportunity and publicity to push solutions to the problems. They do not side with those in power against the saboteurs, but argue that the situation is serious enough to make such action legitimate, even though they have personally chosen a different course.

The next curriculum track is “Reimagining: Reading the Bible as a Counter Imperial Witness.” Here some of the influences listed are Norman Gottwald who has been called a “pioneer biblical Marxist Scholar, and Laurel Dykstra who refers to herself as an out dyke and was a speaker at the 2014 Wild Goose Festival. In other words, while the first track influences are mainly secular and Marxists, the second track influences are religious with a progressive political focus.

The third track is “Birthing: Nurturing Sustainable Community Life.” The influences listed in this track are more in keeping with the original listing of models for Christian life and community. That is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. However there are also progressive theologians and activists such as Dorothee Sölle and Bell Hooks. There are no orthodox and/or reformed theologians in any of the lists except for Bonhoeffer. There are certainly no evangelicals despite the fact that Kim has, in the past, referred to himself as an evangelical. So to return to Bonhoeffer who in some ways stands alone in this list, why is his name and the seminary he led being used in such a manner?

Bonhoeffer, who was an opponent of a political régime, nonetheless focused the training of the students at Finkenwalde on biblical passages and the student’s relationships as that which is mediated through Jesus Christ. Reading the Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, both written during and after the time of Finkenwalde, gives one a clear understanding of Bonhoeffer’s views. He was no Marxist and he had a consistent biblical faith. In fact in one of Bonhoeffer’s first letters to his scattered students, after the school was declared illegal and many graduates were already in prison, mentions that he would have liked to have given them his new book, the Cost of Discipleship, as a Christmas present but was unable to. He then finishes out the letter with commentary on several biblical texts for advent. Here is one of those commentaries. May it bless the church today:

Ps. 25:10 “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.” Are you, who have experienced hardship in this year, able to speak today with all your heart that the paths of the Lord are pure goodness and truth? Did you know that God was good to you when he sent you misery and imprisonment? Has God made himself known to you as the true and faithful one when he took so much from you? No one who says No to God’s promises and commandments is able to say Yes to his paths. Agreement with God’s will occurs in daily submission to his word. Something may appear to us as minor disobedience, and it will take from our hearts the gratefulness and praise for God’s paths. It is painful and difficult to walk under Christ’s yoke when we do it against our will. It is easy and gentle when God at Christmas has overcome and won our hearts for it.”

picture by Penny Juncker
[1] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theological Education: 1937-1940, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 15.


will spotts said...

I've never quite understood how being fashionable - as in this iteration of a seminary - is somehow equated with being either counter-cultural or Christian. The attempt and the self-perceptions of those who buy into it would be laughable were the whole thing not kind of sad.

I also don't get how "individualism" is somehow something that should be rejected - in favor of what? It is entirely impossible to worship God in spirit and truth without doing so as an individual. It is entirely impossible to make moral choices without doing so as an individual. Communities of the kind emphasized here - I mean things that have existential value or moral standing - are desired fictions. Nothing more.

will spotts said...

And by the way - it is no "rigorous critique of our present systems" that does not begin with the thing itself - i.e. the seminary. That is a present system. Critiques from the outside posing as inside are never true, never accurate, never work. But they are a good opportunity to exercise bigotry against "the other" in a safe, ivory tower environment where you're guaranteed to not be challenged.

Viola Larson said...

Will I agree. The fact that the 'sin' named in this explanation of the Underground Seminary is so boxed into one progressive description, that is "ideals of individualism, production and consumption," as well as colonialism, mark this experimental seminary as someone's or several someone's focus on their pet peeves rather than a desire to make strong and faithful disciples for Jesus Christ.