From the Dean: The Experiences Leading Us Down a Road Less Traveled

September 27, 2017

Column by Mark Markuly, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry

We are, in many ways, the product of our experiences.  But, many of you also realize that we are connected organically to the experiences of others, and even the ancestors that came before us.  The wildly popular tests on genetic heritage, like, 23andMe, LivingDNA, and GPS Origins, are a commercial demonstration of this fascination.  In looking for our place in the world, we are hungering for a better understanding of our roots, and perhaps a deeper appreciation for the complexity of our identities, in a time in which “identity” is a pervasive topic of discussion.  Although lots of us are spending time and energy trying to explore the tendrils of genetic connection and causality that contribute to who we are, less of us are thinking about how institutions, in present and past forms, do the same. 

On July 1, Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry (STM) celebrated the completion of 20 years of educating women and men for professional ministry and helping other students develop a “ministerial consciousness” for service in industry, social services and government.  The school has had nearly 4,000 graduates over the past two decades.  Many of them are making remarkable contributions to the spiritual health and vitality of faith communities and faith-based organizations.  Increasingly, graduates have also become transformative thinkers and leaders in different sectors of society, discovering creative pathways for participating in the co-creation of a more just and humane world

The real legacy of our school is the contribution graduates are making to the communities, organizations and individuals they serve.  But, STM is itself part of many legacies.  In an attempt to understand the breadth and depth of our inheritance, the School of Theology and Ministry has been engaged in an 18-month effort called Project Wisdom that has captured some of the stories that gave birth and sustained the educational institution of the school, and before it, Seattle University’s commitment to graduate level theological education.  This historical archival process concludes with a November 13 event celebrating the different institutional transitions SU has had, and the way in which each era has given birth to the next.  From a more discrete understanding of the experiences of the past, the school will take a more informed and sensitive look at where it is headed.  (See the end of this column for event details)

There are many layers in trying to tell the story of a school like the School of Theology and Ministry, which has held many different institutional forms before it formally became a school. The more you talk to people associated with an institution like STM, the more you realize the cross-breeding from the “genetic“ material in the life of the many communities wrapped up in the school‘s work over two decades.  The more we have surfaced stories, the more I have come to realize how little Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry has to do with brick and mortar.  It is really best described as an organizational receptacle for life altering human experiences and choices, a gathering place of people who have taken roads less traveled.  It is people who have been driven by haunting questions that brought them to the school, or deep pulls to do something quite extraordinary with their lives.  Most people associated with the school, though not all, describe their experiences, and the life-shifting questions and pulls as a type of “divine encounter.”  For most, getting to the school and through a degree program was not an easy process; it constituted struggle, discomfort, and even suffering.  But, virtually all of the people who have associated themselves with the school do not regret taking that less traveled road.  It has been, in fact, exhilarating, life defining, and as the poem says, has “made all the difference,” in rich lives of service and love for others.

Taking a look at STM’s 20-year history has been rewarding.  But, it is clearly just a snap shot of a larger, longer, and richer history.  The DNA of the school leads back to many different people and organizations.  Twenty-eight years prior to the establishment of the School of Theology and Ministry, the university began professional theological and ministerial education in the form of a summer program, mostly for Catholic religious women and clergy trying to make sense of the recently completed Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965.  But, to understand our institutional genome, it is necessary to reach back even farther than that 1969 program launch to the three-year global gathering of Catholic leaders (and the historic participation of many Protestant and some interfaith leaders) at Vatican II, whose experiences of the ups and downs of the early and mid-20th century (especially World War I and II, and the Great Depression) led them to discussions of the world‘s desperate need for different kinds of institutions.  Yet, like all quests for ancestry, the story is still older.  J. Bryan Hehir, a Catholic priest and professor of religion and public life at Harvard, has noted that the Vatican Council came about because of the theological reflection of the Church’s relationship with the world through a generation of theologians between the 1930s and 1960s.  Those conversations and experiences gave form to the conversations of the Council attendees, and this, in turn, altered the way the Catholic church thought about itself and how it lived its common life; how this ancient faith community engaged, collaborated and learned from other people of faith, and those with no faith at all; and particularly how the members of this faith tradition could and should participate and contribute to the human search for solutions to the problems causing suffering in the world.  

It is a long conceptual and spiritual journey from those early 20th century theological discussions, that led to the Council, to the founding of an “intentionally ecumenical“ school that is shared by Catholics and Protestants, and still further to the grafting of other religious traditions, from Jewish and Muslim to Buddhist and Hindu into the educational activities and vision of the School of Theology and Ministry’s current mission. The school has tried to create a space in which all people of faith and good will can stand in the relentless gushing stream of religious experience, and the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual conversion that changes hearts, minds and life choices.  It is a messy, incomplete process, but the world is desperately in need of receptacles for these kinds of common experiences so that we can develop a bigger sense of ourselves and God, and a deeper appreciation of our potential as people of faith and spiritual depth and integrity to shape a different kind of world.

Because of the School’s Project Wisdom initiative, I have been immersed in reflection on the roots and branches of human existence – both personal and institutional – for months.  In keeping with this ancestral theme, I recently had a chance to attend an academic conference in St. Louis that celebrated the 50-year anniversary of a short and deceptively inconspicuous article written in 1967 by a small group of American Catholic college presidents known as the Land O’ Lakes Statement.  It turns out this 2,106-word document played an indirect role in bringing about the School of Theology and Ministry.  It is yet another piece of our DNA.

Land O’ Lakes is largely unknown even to most faculty and staff working in the approximately 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.  But, the ideas in the statement combusted American Catholic higher education with the energy, enthusiasm, optimism and commitments of the Second Vatican Council, particularly in regards to the development of a spiritually-informed, religious-motivated sense of social justice.  The document also inspired the mixture of a vision of academic freedom in Catholic universities that included the critical role of theology in a higher education curriculum.  It is perhaps not surprising that the Seattle University president at the time that the school was imagined, a Jesuit priest named Bill Sullivan, SJ, knew the Land O’ Lakes arguments well.  He even participated in some of the early conversations giving birth to the recognized need for the document, particularly those discussions trying to re-imagine the role of theology in a Catholic university curriculum in the 1950s.

Perhaps the greatest gift Land O’ Lakes Statement bequeathed to American Catholic universities, and American society, is that it drove the vision of a particular Vatican II document, The Church in the Modern World (or as it is known in Latin, Gaudium et Spes) deep into the heart of the mission of American Catholic higher education.  Gaudium et Spes called for a justice-inspired and oriented spirituality and faith, one that made the world’s problems an urgent and integral part of the church’s problems.  For universities, this meant building learning environments that included discussions designed to challenge intellectual understandings of social and cultural issues, but also an analysis and critique of the values society used to guide choices for creating a common life around these issues.  The Church in the Modern World, and Land O’ Lakes, were both written in times like our own, when societies and cultures debated critical public policies that had profound consequences on immigration, poverty, healthcare, access to education and technology, war and peace, international relations, and economics.  Such policies will make life better for vast populations of the nation, or it will make life harsher, more oppressive and destructive.

The scholars attending the Land O’ Lakes conference in St. Louis explored the forces within the church and outside of it that led to the statement’s authorship.  For those interested in the complexities of changing institutions, religious or otherwise, the story behind the curtain of the creation and implementation of Land O’ Lakes is instructional.  The process included the clash of theological worldviews among theologians, religious leadership, and laity; behind-the-scenes drama of political maneuvering to advantage one perspective over another; and, demonstrations of the sometimes brilliant and other times toxic dance of strong, confident and religiously committed personalities.  In short, it was fundamentally human.  But, it was also something more.  This narrative of religiously-motivated humans, sometimes acting nobly and wisely, sometimes less so, resulted in the transformation of an ancient religious tradition that once reflexively retracted from the world and its social and political problems into a global institutional leader in the promotion of a faith-informed contemporary humanism.  A humanism that encourages a sophisticated legacy of a faith that does justice.

Of course, the full story of the intellectual, religious, moral and spiritual ancestry in the Catholic tradition that made room for a school like STM, it is essential to include the experiences and transformations within the Society of Jesus itself, the religious community known more commonly as the Jesuits.  It is not a coincidence that a member of the Society of Jesus wrote the Land O’ Lakes, or that among 26 signers of the document, ten were Jesuits.  The British theologian, Michael Barnes, SJ, believes the post-Vatican II rediscovery of Ignatian spirituality cultivated a distinctive dimension of “compassionate openness to the other,” which has made the Society more pre-disposed to dialogues across religious differences – and differences of other kinds, too.  Ignatian scholar Ron Modras believes this re-discovery also precipitated the crafting of a contemporary “theocentric humanism” that has shaped the Society and its educational institutions in ways predisposed to standing in the eye of the world’s storms, with a capacity to envision a humanity that transcends the storm.  Through the rediscovery of their own roots after Vatican II, the Jesuits developed a keener sense of spiritual discernment and decision making and recovered practices that made a Jesuit’s faith more personal and attentive to cooperating with all the ways that God is loving and laboring on behalf of the flourishing every individual person, group, society and culture. 

At the Land O’ Lakes conference in St. Louis, we spent quite a bit of time discussing the complexity of the document’s implementation in American Catholic university systems, and listened to frank and honest assessments of what has been lost and what has been gained in the Catholic community.  Land O’ Lakes gave American Catholicism a lot, but it also changed Catholic higher education in ways that have left some grieving.  Catholic higher universities, for instance, never completed its task of re-imaging the role of theology and religion in the overall university curriculum.  This is a task left for the future, and one of the reasons Seattle University started STM.

Of course, grief is to be expected.  The experiences that change us most fundamentally and send us down roads less traveled always result in grief, as well as joy.  Most people who quote Frost’s famous poem forget the title is, “The Road Not Taken,” and that the first two lines contain a lament:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both

The poet notes that he will one day speak of his choice with a “sigh” because he hoped to return and explore the well-trodden path in the future, but knew that “way leads on to way,” one door opens another, and the likelihood of returning to the other path would become lost.  Robert Frost understood that we like to think we are captains of our own destiny, but we are really ship mates on something much bigger. Developing the eyes of faith to see this unfolding is the task of a lifetime and looking closely and reflectively at the past and the way it has shaped us (and our institutions) is a good way to develop those eyes.  And, this has been the work of the School, in current and previous institutional forms.  Look for bold new efforts in this regard through our up-coming school year! 


Event Details:

Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the School of Theology and Ministry
and 50 Years of Graduate Theological Education

Alumni, former Faculty and Staff are welcomed to join the celebration which includes an STM archives tour, reception, dinner with President, Fr. Stephen Sundborg, and two panel discussions. More details to come, RSVP today!

Date: Monday, November 13
Time: 5:30 p.m.
Location: Seattle University, Student Center 160
RSVP: Rachael Belvin, or 206-296-5339