Usually when I tell people I’ve been to seminary, they give me a blank stare, as if I’ve told them, “I’ve decided to move to Mars,” or, “In my previous life I sold pineapples to people on a cruise ship.” A lot of times I get, “Isn’t that just for men?” (Answer: Nope, you’re thinking of a Catholic seminary that specifically trains men for priesthood). Or, “Did you pray a lot?” (Answer: Nope, people at seminary don’t just pray or sing hymns all day. Christian seminaries are academic institutions and you do… you know… academic things.)
People’s minds are further blown when I say I studied clinical psychology at seminary. “Wait so you studied clinical psychology?” “Yes.” “But you went to seminary?” “I studied psychology at seminary.” “I’m confused.” “You can study psychology at the seminary I attended.” “Oh….”
In addition to being Rob Bell’s alma mater, Fuller is the only evangelical seminary that celebrates women in ministry (in theological terms, egalitarian). Overall, in complete nerdy disclosure, I was over the moon about my course schedule. My program at Fuller Seminary consisted of a full clinical psychology curriculum, with the addition of theology classes. I had no idea what to expect, but I was ready.
… or so I thought. These things never turn out the way you think they will.
“Come Follow Me”: A Dangerous Call
What I expected: I thought I would learn new things about God at Fuller.
What actually happened: My mind was blown completely… which I was not anticipating. After graduating from college with a minor in biblical and religious studies, I was pretty cocky. I was no longer arguing with Sunday School teachers, but I had advanced to theological discourse with other academic and pastoral individuals. I was good at theology, and I knew it.
Fuller gave me humility.
My theology classes took me verse by verse through the Sermon on the Mount and the Book of Matthew, and the more I learned, the more stunned and amazed by the beauty of Jesus I became. I took classes from Mennonites and other pacifists who questioned whether violence is permissible in the Christian life. We talked about tough issues, the global church, diversity, and social justice. Fuller helped open my eyes to my narrow, white, privileged view of Christianity.
One of my favorite classes was Systematic Theology: Ecclesiology and Eschatology, a class that sounds boring and theoretical, but was actually amazing. My professor would wear a “Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy” t-shirt to class. You know, Jonathan Edwards, the dude who wrote the ever famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I thought the shirt was hilarious.
I wrote my final exegetical paper for that class on a Jonathan Edwards sermon, called, “Heaven, A World of Love,” which is in stark contrast to the hell fire and brimstone of his most famous sermon. Turns out Jonathan Edwards could be a pretty loving guy, it is unfortunate that history has remembered him primarily for his discourse on hell.
I loved it all, but most of all I learned not to love theology as a practice in and of itself. Learning about God is well and good and all, but theology should not be done for its own sake. Discourse about God should be alive and Kingdom-driven. Peering down at ancient manuscripts in ivy towers is not bad, and in fact can be helpful, but theology should be purposeful.
I learned to check my facts and assumptions before doing any theological work. Theology and the Bible do not exist in vacuums. I bring my life framework, social contexts, and assumptions into theological discourse, and that all must not be discounted.
The phrase that Jesus uses over and over again, “Come follow me,” is a dangerous one. As I learned in seminary, Jesus invites us to dig deeper, love harder, question more, commune often, disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed.
The scary thing about knowledge is that you can’t go back. Once I learned more about God and the issues the plague the church and world, I could no longer be a complacent, innocent white privileged Christian girl. I knew I wanted to go to Fuller and learn more things about God, but did I really want to follow the radical call of Jesus?
At Fuller, I fell more in love with this disturbing God who turns everything upside down and inside out. I spent countless hours writing exegetical papers, with multiple Greek concordances strewn open in the Fuller library until midnight, and the end result is this: God has given me too much now to stay silent. Not everyone gets to go to seminary, and now that I know what I know, I cannot be quiet. I cannot be the same. I must take up my cross, wash some feet, and follow the small, counter-cultural voice of Jesus even when it clashes with my evangelical upbringing.
“You Don’t Have to Convert Everyone You Meet” and Other Life Lessons
As you can probably tell, I learned a lot of things studying at seminary, but I’ll leave you with three take home points:
- You can be both academic and a Christian- Christians have a reputation of being anti-intellectual, and at times, such a statement is not undeserved. My first boyfriend believed in a literal 7-day creation period and that the earth is 4,000 years old. In fact, for a date weekend he wanted to go to the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Some Christians negate science completely. To be honest, Christian anti-intellectualism makes me want to pull my hair out. Let me put my cards out on the table of the creation-evolution subject: evolution is real. There are some people, like my ex-boyfriend, who have sketchy evidence at best on the contrary, but in science, yeah, evolution is real. I was surprised at first when my Biology professor at Calvin College pretty much laid it out there the fact: Evolution is real. Evolution and Christianity can exist together. There is no debate in the scientific community about evolution. There might be like 2 scientists out there who believe Evolution is not real, and they appear on Fox News. Christians need to have faith big enough to reconcile science with the Bible. I don’t mean to pick on Creationists here; as I said before, I used to date one of them. At Fuller, some of my longstanding beliefs about the Bible were challenged. I remember the first time I heard a professor say, “Job was probably not a person and in fact a metaphor,” or, “Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch.” My evangelical background caused my stomach to do a backflip. And yet, these same professors were the kindest Christians, staunch believers in prayer, and active in their churches. You don’t have to toss academics out the door to be a Christian! It is possibly for a person to critically analyze ancient texts, form “liberal” beliefs about them, and then have that same individual serving at a local soup kitchen the next day. Academics and Christianity don’t have to be at odds. I became more open in my interpretation of Scripture? Do I believe that Job really existed? I don’t know. Was Mary a virgin for her entire life? I doubt it. I could go into the contextual reasons why these things are improbable. After 3 years, I came to the conclusion: who cares? The beauty of Jesus is that in the Body of Christ, theological bickering about matters that are not central to God and the person of Jesus don’t matter so much. We are redeemed and loved by the Creator of the universe who is Love. I believe it’s okay that I question the authorship of the Pentateuch because of my academic study of Scripture. Don’t get me wrong, doctrine is important, but my point is, I get worried when Christians 1) Fear or avoid academic study of Christianity and Scripture or b) Put God in neat little boxes where he has no room to be greater than our human understanding, aka… be God. Example: One of my professors had Bart Ehrman as a seminary student, and Bart was by far the most theologically conservative student in his class. Ironically, when Bart started studying Scripture academically, he made a 180 turn to agnosticism and atheism, and I wonder if part of that is because his rather anti-intellectual, fundamentalist view of God was too small. At Fuller, I concluded: Christians can reconcile the person of Jesus and academia without sacrificing faith in the process.
- You don’t have to convert every non-Christian you meet!– Per my prior evangelical training, I had one mission: convert souls to the Lord. Classes at Fuller turned that simplistic understanding upside down. One of my favorite classes in seminary was Interfaith Dialogue, the purpose of which is to discuss faith topics with non-Christians and come to some common understanding which discussed talking about faith with non-Christians. Here’s the revolutionary part: WITHOUT CONVERTING THEM. In fact, conversion was off the table entirely. I went to a retreat called Inter-Sem and spent time with other evangelical seminary students, as well as Jewish and Catholic seminary students. I met future priests, rabbis, and cantors, and we spent a whole weekend talking about God WITH NO INTENTION OF CONVERSION. It was liberating, really. I could just see the person for the beautiful, God-created individual he or she was without an ulterior motive of, “How can I weave Jesus into this conversation?” I think more of our theological discourse needs to involve more listening than explaining a reductionist diagram about how we sin, God is awesome, and how they need Jesus to be their “golden ticket” to heaven. I say, let’s love people more and listen to their perspectives, rather than being like, “Let me cut in with my perfect understanding of how you should be saved” (as I did in my militant evangelical years).
- You don’t have to run from tough questions– God’s pretty strong, and so is the Bible. I made it a point in seminary to write theology papers on the most difficult passages in the Bible. I remember in one class, I was bothered that Jesus called a woman a “dog,” and I decided to do my 20-page final on that passage. At the end of it, I came out seeing God as more beautiful and holy than I could have ever imagined. As mentioned before, God is a pretty brilliant creator, whose knowledge and power spans more than the human mind could understand. Do you have an issue with evil in the world? Do you have an issue with asshole Christians? Rampant sexism and racism in the church? Evolution? Violence in the Old Testament? Theology provides a way of understanding tough questions. Maybe the “answer” isn’t a one-sentence simplistic explanation, and maybe in seeking the answer, you come up with 20 more questions, but GOD CAN HANDLE IT. He can handle doubt, cynicism, and pain. What God likes less, if I may be presumptuous here, is a boxed up, neat little answer that has no room for well… God. Let’s put God in boxes less and ask the tough theological questions, often with no obvious solutions, and let that be okay.
This post has become very novel-esque, so I’ll wrap this up. I learned a lot in seminary, and I’ll be forever changed by my experience at Fuller. But there is a component of Christianity that I have completely neglected in this post.
At seminary, I learned a LOT. But based on personal circumstances, my head and heart were disconnected. My seminary years were some of the most painful ones, so next post, I will talk about my own doubt and emotional and spiritual struggles during this time.