The Commons: Our Blog

Timely, sometimes tough, questions and insights from NAES and Episcopal school leaders on leadership, governance, Episcopal identity, community life, and other issues.

Living the Questions and the Answers

What does it mean to be a religious school during a period of widespread religious illiteracy? I frequently ask myself variations of this question, and I think it’s a crucial one for leaders and members of Episcopal schools to productively wrestle with.  

To help me understand how we got to our current situation, not too long ago I read the book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero, a scholar in the field of Religious Studies (and an Episcopalian). Beginning with the ironic observation that “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion,” Prothero goes on to explore two main causes of religious illiteracy that are themselves religious. The first cause driving religious illiteracy, he says, is the evangelicalism that originated with the Second Great Awakening and prioritizes emotions, enthusiastic experiences, and ecumenical action at the expense of study, intellect, and doctrine. The second driving cause behind illiteracy was that liberal and conservative Christians alike partook in a general “shift from theology to morality”, or, put differently, reduced religion to ethics. As religion became dominated by emotional and moral projects, the Biblical narrative and doctrinal teachings receded from collective consciousness and understanding.

Notable for Episcopal schools, the shift from theology to morals took place most significantly within educational settings. According to Prothero, as America became more diverse and its schools started reflecting the religious plurality of the population, it became apparent that Biblical approaches, theological claims, religious doctrines, and liturgical practices are sectarian in nature and inevitably prioritize some approaches, claims, doctrines, or practices over others. It seemed easier to agree on morality than to learn, debate, and possibly unite around the particulars of theology and religion. 

To my mind, this challenges each Episcopal school to be transparent about Episcopal theology, liturgy, and spiritual formation, while simultaneously honoring the plurality of religious differences among the community. This is a balancing act, to be sure; but I am convinced that retaining this tension is central to the health of a school’s religious identity.

Prothero notes that early educators made the mistake of “assuming that religion could be made generic. It cannot. Just as it is not possible to speak language in general (at any given moment, you have to pick one), it is not possible to inculcate religion in general. That is because religion in general does not exist; all that we have are specific religious expressions.” Mirroring the response to the pluralism of the 19th century, within Episcopal schools of the 21st century I often detect the temptation to prioritize what is generic and avoid or downplay the specific religious expressions, and this, I think, results in a tendency to downplay or push religious literacy and theology to the background while placing morality at the foreground of religious life within the school. 

Attempting to understand or practice morality when it is separated from particular theological traditions and religious practices, however, makes a great deal of the moral world unintelligible—producing what I would call a ‘moral illiteracy.’ The morality embodied by Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, is unintelligible without knowledge of his particular religious convictions and practices (his roots in African American religion, his theology of personhood, his commitment to Gandhian non-violence). While religious and moral literacy are not reducible to one another, they nevertheless need and illuminate each other—they’re complementary and mutually reinforcing. Success or failure in one area can be gauged by success and failure in the other.

To specifically be an Episcopal school during a period of widespread religious and moral illiteracy means not only expecting those within our schools to ask the great religious and moral questions of our time, it also means sharing how Episcopal theological claims, religious doctrines, Biblical approaches, and liturgical practices provide unique answers to those great questions. Exploring uniquely Episcopal answers alongside the unique answers of neighboring spiritual traditions will only make for a healthier, more robust religious and moral education. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke advised the youth to live the questions. Many stop at that inspiring ambiguity, but by exploring the answers, an Episcopal education takes the next a crucial step forward—for it is only living the question and the answers that we arrive at religious and moral literacy.

The Rev. Timothy J.S. Seamans is an Episcopal priest, author, and Associate Chaplain & member of the Religion, Ethics, & Philosophy Department at the Episcopal School of Los Angeles.

The Mysterious Elsewhere

Frank Lloyd Wright once reflected, “I’ve been about the world a lot, and pretty much over the country, but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the ‘Dakota Badlands.’ What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere—a distant architecture, ethereal… an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.” Many summers of life I spent working alongside the Oglala Lakota in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. As soon as the Badlands and other signs of entry to the reservation were in sight, I felt the world kind of fall away. What were essential—the moments for connection and relationship in a sacred place—took precedence and were the only things that mattered. Holy encounter met me. Read More »

The Repair Shop

One might say it's a cop-out to just blog about whatever I've been watching on television recently. As the person tasked with editing this blog, I am constantly wowed by our writers' depth of lived experience or vast wealth of highly nuanced texts from which they draw inspiration.. However, these are the times of Covid, creative pickings are slim, and so I will continue doing what most of us have been for the past year or so—making do. Read More »

Jesus of Nazareth Walks Into a School…

One of the most vexing questions in an Episcopal school is how to be authentically Episcopal and welcoming of all. This question is especially vexing when it comes to religious pluralism among and within the school’s many constituents: students, parents, faculty, trustees, alums, and, if your school is associated with a parish or cathedral, parishioners and Episcopal clergy. Read More »

Becoming a Nobody: an Ash Wednesday Reflection

One of the many reasons I have enjoyed being Chaplain in Episcopal Schools is that I probably spend more time than the average parish priest reading, thinking about, and teaching from wisdom traditions other than Christianity. I’m a Jesus guy at heart—and I know where my allegiances are—but my experience teaching the great wisdom traditions of the world has opened my mind to new ways of thinking and approaching problems that arise in life. Occasionally, I learn something from another tradition that feels entirely compatible with my Christian faith, so much so that I have to remind myself it doesn’t appear anywhere in the gospels. Today I’m referencing the Buddhist idea of nirvana. Read More »

More Patriots, Less Patriarchy

On Monday and Wednesday of this week, we observe two monumental national celebrations, both of which have significant implications for the moral life of the nation—the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday and the Inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. The juxtaposition of these two celebrations invites us to think deeply about two major themes, patriotism and patriarchy. Read More »

Another Way

Last January, I preached a sermon on the Sunday nearest Epiphany, focusing on the theme of “another way.” Matthew’s gospel tells us about how the Magi, having paid homage to Jesus, were warned in a dream to return to their homes “by another way.” What other ways, I asked that Sunday, would God be asking us to ponder, indeed travel this year? Little did I know just what dramatic “other ways” would befall us in 2020. Read More »

Morning Meditation from Biennial Conference 2020

When I first began teaching, I thought academics were all that really mattered. But the more I worked with young people, the more I came to see that great intellect did not always come with a warm heart or a clear moral compass. I saw students crippled by sadness in their lives, or worry, or anxiety or anger and hurt that made learning a shadowy process. Slowly, I came to see not merely their minds but the totality of who they were, and who they were becoming. Read More »

Foundation and Community

In my twenty five years in education, I never thought I would see the day when our country was at such unrest. In every corner of the world, there seems to be chaos. The health and well-being of our neighbors, along with the major shutdown of our country is a stark contrast to what it was this time last year. Read More »