Iliff School of Theology is an official theological school and approved seminary of the United Methodist Church that in 2017 received $806,763 from the denomination to train future ordinands. The school was founded in 1892 as part of Colorado Seminary (now the University of Denver) by Episcopal Methodists and became its own institution in 1903.
Today, the school shies away from an explicit relationship with Christianity. On the “about” section of Iliff’s website, the school avoids calling itself “Christian” and doesn’t mention Jesus or God. Instead, their webpage reads, “Related to the United Methodist Church, Iliff serves more than 30 denominations and faith traditions.”
Iliff is what happens when a historically Christian institution discovers that it is embarrassed by its Christianity. As teaching Christianity as truth is not an option in that view, Iliff sells itself as a neutral arbiter of transformative debate and dialogue for students of every faith background. Students who step into Iliff Hall and pay $19,824 each year in pursuit of a master’s degree can expect to break down everything they ever thought they believed and challenge their every preconception — including the existence of the divinity behind the theology that they ostensibly came to study.
“Iliff is a great place to question and learn about the issues that have faced the world,” the “about” section of the school’s website continues. “At Iliff, we recognize that dialogue is important, no matter how complicated or uncomfortable that may feel.”
Gianna Elvia, who graduated in 2019, says that her professors created a “safe space” for questioning “almost everything.” Those professors, she said, pushed her to “re-examine” her beliefs. Another student, Tiffanie Lyon, a Methodist pastor who graduated in 2020, reported that Iliff “challenged” and “enriched” her Christian perspective, which she called a “double blessing.”
Tom Wolfe, the president of Iliff, who has been an ordained Methodist elder for over forty years, said in 2020 that the school’s focus is “engaging the moral discourse in the context of multiple cultural constructions of human meaning.”
Here’s where it becomes stranger than fiction: Iliff takes Wolfe’s mandate seriously. The school gives alternative “constructions of human meaning” the same weight as Christianity.
The school employs as an admissions representative a Norse Heathen named Alexandra Ravenscroft, who is the head clergy, or Gudellri, of her pagan organization, Forn Sidr of America. Ravenscroft joined Iliff in 2021. In her job at Iliff, she recruits and develops relationships with potential students.
Ravenscroft says she grew up in a conservative Christian family but at the age of seventeen began experimenting with paganism. First, it was Wicca, which incorporates Celtic mythology and occultist beliefs. Next, it was Roman Polytheism, the religion of ancient Rome, which includes gods such as Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Minerva, Mars, Venus, Apollo, and so on. She followed that with Tibetan Esotericism while attending “Tibetan-inspired” Naropa University, a Colorado college founded by a Buddhist. It was after those explorations that she settled on Norse Paganism.
Forn Sidr of America says of Ravenscroft:
Alexandra was called to Heathenry unexpectedly by Odin and her Dísir (female ancestors) during a ritual, drawn to the Norse worldview for its views on personal sovereignty and identity. Her current practice focuses upon reparative ancestral work, transitional work, death work, spirit relationships, landvaettir, space cleansing, banishment, Spacecraft, Seidr, and transformative mysticism. She maintains close relationships with Hel, Freya, her Dísir, and others.
Imagine how much the leadership of a Christian school must hate Christianity to hire a pagan priestess to recruit its students. And she is indeed a priestess: her specialties include “facilitating spiritual rites, ceremonies, and services.”
Ravenscroft is not alone in bringing paganism to Iliff. The school actively promotes other students and alumni who are pagans.
Student David Dashifen Kees, a Wicca priest who identifies as a “nonbinary transperson” and uses “they” and “them” as his pronouns, says in a feature of himself promoted by Iliff and marketed towards potential students that he knew there was a place for him at Iliff after he sat next to someone on a plane who was also a pagan and who had graduated from the school.
Iliff’s mandate to “challenge everything” applies to pagans as well as Christians. Kees says that he was surprised by how much he was challenged in his own faith at Iliff. “Studying the great theological debates of the last few thousand years or discussing the intersection between race and racism and religion,” he said, “has forced me to examine and re-examine parts of myself that I thought were built on firmer spiritual foundations.”
He found himself grappling with “the startling lack of diversity in some Pagan groups”:
As an intentionally Eurocentric religious path, it means that we have always struggled with race and racism, but in the last few years, some of our symbols have been used by white supremacist organizations to promote their work. This only exacerbates the situation. Furthermore, the language and ritual structure of many traditions is explicitly linked to a gender binary, something that has caused strife within the trans* community within Wicca.
Tearing down anything anyone thought they ever believed seems to be the mandate of Iliff.
Kees was elected last fall to the student Senate, which has five members. He was not the only pagan. A person who goes by the name Kyndyl Greyland, uses “they/them” pronouns, and works at “Wyte Ravyn Church, an inclusive Wiccan Church,” was also elected.
Another non-Christian who has graced the halls of Iliff is Kirt Hodges, who graduated in 2018. When he arrived at Iliff, he had a “leadership role” with “an Earth-based spiritual community.” During his time there, however, he began dabbling in Unitarian Universalism before eventually adopting that as his “home” after a class challenged him to consider the importance of “traditional institutionalization.” Unitarian Universalism does not have a particular set of beliefs and encourages its members to develop their own theology.
Hodges says on a webpage oriented to recruiting students that for non-Christians at Iliff, “100% of the time there is a place for you that will ultimately enrich the class.”
Iliff faculty members have even taught classes on paganism. In the spring of 2020, students were given the opportunity to take “Social Justice in Western Earth-Honoring Traditions.” The course description says:
In this course we explore primarily modern, Western earth-honoring traditions as they intersect with social and ecological justice. The course materials and discussions consider the ways these Western earth-honoring traditions, such as goddess spirituality/Wicca, polytheism/animism, eco-womanism, creation spirituality and deep ecology: 1) provide unique resources for the pursuit of justice and, 2) both critique and reinscribe systems of social inequality and violence. Students will explore the ways in which their own religious, a-religious and spiritual perspectives might more effectively empower them and their communities to create justice with both human and other-than-human communities.
Even the most progressive of Christian students who attend Iliff are surprised by the presence of these non-Christians at their seminary.
“I did not expect the diversity that Iliff has,” said Sam Fisher, a United Methodist pastor who graduated from Iliff with a Master of Divinity degree last year. “One cannot overestimate what it is like to sit in a Bible class with people who have never read or heard many of the stories.”
While Iliff has many classes that teach explicitly Christian and Methodist subjects, such as “Intro to the History of Christianity,” “New Testament Greek Exegesis,” and “Intro to the New Testament,” it has many others whose religion seems to be twenty-first-century American wokeism. Classes for the spring 2022 semester also include “Exploring Womanist Perspectives: A Practice in Solidarity,” “Earth Activism,” “Justice and Spiritual Care,” “Decolonizing Congregational Leadership,” and “Race, Religion and Constructive Theologies.”
Another class, from 2018, was titled “Queer Spirituality in the Visual Arts” and included topics such as “Queer Tarot,” “Sacred bodies of People of Color,” “Lesbian feminist art,” “Contemporary images of a queer Christ,” and “Use of traditional techniques/imagery to express queer sacred reality.”
Some students have made wokeism a religion unto itself. Student Isabela Leonor Rosales says in a promotional video for Iliff, “I fell in love with the study of religion because it was so much more than Bible. It was also a different lens to approach social justice issues and in a way that really meshed with my values.”
Iliff’s mandate to question everything is really a cover for relativism. The true dogma of Iliff is the belief that there are no moral truths or absolute facts — including the veracity of Christianity.
But humans wither under relativism. Eventually, a person must grasp onto something — we’re not made to be in a state of constant questioning, as some answers must be settled and some conclusions must be drawn.
At Iliff, many are embracing wokeism as a substitution for Christianity. But for many, wokeism is not enough to satisfy the enduring human need for worship and ritual which has shaped all of known human history. Thus, Iliff and the United Methodist Church’s crisis in confidence in teaching the faith leads people to flail about in even wackier spiritual and political directions.
Similarly, our society cannot survive without a god to turn to and without answers to any of the important questions in life. The infiltration of paganism at a Methodist theological school is just one bizarre example of the dangerous beliefs that are rushing to fill the West’s moral void. We should pray that they don’t soon take hold over us.
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