Union Theological Seminary Needs a Humanist Studies Program


Just a week or so ago it was announced that Episcopal Divinity School is moving to the Union campus and will be leasing office space in the new building, offering an Anglican Studies program in cooperation with UTS, allowing the former institution to continue its mission, and the latter to expand its course offerings and hopefully draw in more new students. Now UTS is going a step further with Master of Divinity tracks, two of which appear to be oriented towards those preparing for non-Christian ministry. The new tracks are:

  • Ministerial Leadership
  • Islam, Social Justice, and Interreligious Engagement
  • Socially Engaged Buddhism and Interreligious Engagement.

To begin, what is ‘Ministerial Leadership?’ It has a nice ring to it, but isn’t the MDiv itself already the standard degree for ministerial preparation? That’s historically been the key purpose of an MDiv…to prepare clergy leadership. The description of this new track doesn’t provide much help either:

The Master of Divinity Oriented Toward Ministerial Leadership, the most flexible of the pathways, offers different options in required courses and numerous concentrations. Persons interested in preparing for Christian ordination or other credentialed ministry within a church or a vocation of service will find the requisite courses for those vocations. Those interested in preparing for non-credentialed ministry, non-profit leadership, or vocations in contexts outside of or beyond a church will find alternative courses that will prepare them for their own calling.

That description is so generic as to be useless, and the pdf purporting to provide more details is no better.

The other two degree tracks make more sense to me, as they both appear clearly oriented towards preparing people for leadership roles in Muslim and Buddhist circles, respectively. The oddity here is that Bible and church history are among the courses that remain mandatory. Perhaps this is necessary for Union Theological Seminary to maintain membership in the Association of Theological Schools, though I’m not aware of any such requirement on the part of ATS. It is also possible that either these courses are needed to fill out the program, or else it’s a requirement of the seminary’s charter or board.

The part that puzzles me about all this isn’t an overly general course track (befuddling though it may be) or that arrangements are being made to train Buddhist and Muslim leadership (I’m in favor of it). What I would like to know is why UTS has not yet caught on to the fact that the ‘nones’ are growing fast as a demographic, and that Humanist communities are beginning to be established in many and varied locations throughout the US.

If Union Theological Seminary wants to get ahead of the curve, or at least catch up, it needs to move quickly and decisively to begin offering a Humanist Studies program. It couldn’t be too difficult to do, I imagine, given that the Humanist Institute is already in operation and could likely be persuaded to take part. Humanism needs more organizers, community leaders, chaplains, and celebrants. Union needs more students, and it’s certainly progressive enough to handle such an endeavor.

Union, it’s time.

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