Half-way Done…

During last semester, I was required to do my candidacy assessment for George Fox Seminary – where a team of professors come together, review my work, read my reflection of how life is going for me in seminary, and determine whether or not it is spiritually healthy for me to continue. I think every student goes through this assessment, so it is basically part of the routine. When I wrote the reflection essay, though, I became aware of something: I miss church.

It may be a shock for some to imagine how a seminarian could go through the majority of their classes without being “plugged in,” as the Christianese phrase goes. But that has been me; I have not been a part of a church community since I left Eugene. There are a number of reasons as to why I have not joined with any community, but a major one is that I no longer feel comfortable in the evangelical, “Reformed” settings. Why? Because in many of these environments, to extend critical thought on a particular matter – especially a theological matter that has long been tightly held (e.g. inerrancy) – would bring about shame, as if I were heretical for even asking the questions.

Seminary has changed me, but while I see all these changes as great, many in some of my former environments would not. Instead, they would likely give me the “You are walking dangerously close to that slippery slope” type of stuff and encourage me to read another book by a white, heterosexual male pastor with an “authoritative” perspective – as if I were going to simply agree with everything this person wrote because he’s a pastor and, well, a “he.” And it is not at all too farfetched to imagine these types of statements being made to me, either; after all, many have already said these things to me (especially about inerrancy).

My seminary education has given me wonderful lenses through which to view not only Scripture, but church traditions, customs, and spiritual practices as well. I have been introduced to feminism, womanism, and indigenous spiritual practices – all of which have shaped how I approach modern issues like yoga pants, Ferguson, and the “anomaly” of the gay Christian. Being taught lenses that challenge my previous understanding of how the world works in an environment that provides the space for me to think alone and formulate my own ideas has changed the way I think completely. I simply have a hard time – based upon previous experiences – imagining my own acceptance into the evangelical church setting.

And yet, I know that seminary will not last forever. The beginning of this semester marks my halfway point; this time next year will be my final semester in seminary. The reality of this is beginning, already, to settle in. My hope is to be somewhere pursuing a PhD, but who knows what kind of environment that will be like? Assuming the best, that I get into a great and fully-funded program, will it be conducive to a healthier faith? Will I be challenged in constructive ways rather than warned against the dangers of the “slippery slope”? I know for a fact that it will be a difficult task; PhDs are nothing to scoff at. But will the environment be conducive to a healthier, stronger walk with God? Will the challenges and difficulties be worth it?

Thus the need for a community outside of school.

No, I am not asking people for church recommendations. I am in no hurry right now to find a place. Instead, I want to go about this carefully so that I can find a community who loves God and their neighbors without judgment, shame, or the need to operate “as has always been done.” I need a community that seeks God, but also diversity within the congregation as well as the leadership. I need a community where we are asked to help our neighbor with what they need rather than telling our neighbors what they need to believe. No, I will not need for this community to be full of Master’s and PhD students. But I will need this community to accept me for all of me.

For those reading, what, if anything, has your community done to create an environment more conducive to the critical thinker/skeptic types? For those like me, what have you done to find and/or build a like-minded community? Has that gone well for you or are there serious setbacks that you are discovering?

Thank you for reading and God bless!


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“Do not mistake me for a conjuror of cheap tricks.”

3 thoughts on “Half-way Done…”

  1. Honestly, I think of the eight or nine churches I’ve attended in my life three of them were open to my academic journey. Sadly, I’d say that both the college I attended for my undergraduate degree and the seminary I attended for my graduate degrees were suspicious of mainstream academia and they did everything possible to do “scholarship” in a bubble. If you want to do doctoral work, find a church that respects what you bring to the table as a potential scholar, not what you may become as a youth pastor, pastor, or whatever when you “come down” from the “ivory tower.” Focus on being the best scholar you can become, asking the hard questions, living faithful criticism/a critical faith. If you do that when you do find a church both that church and yourself will be better off for it. One of my biggest regrets is worrying too much about church-y stuff that distracted me from scholarship. That’s not to say I regret (a) being part of a community or (b) doing things like teaching a Bible class, but instead the politicking, the rhetoric that makes one feel like your scholarship isn’t a service to the church unless it is published by Zondervan or Broadman and Holmes (or whatever that publisher is called).

  2. You’re exactly right, Brian. The PhD pursuit ought to be my focus through and through, while “church-y stuff” takes the back seat. This also matches some of the advice from my classmates/professors, too. My concern is still what might happen if I’m doing PhD work through a university with zero spiritual support – zero colleagues being believers. I can glean quite a bit from non-believers from within the scholarly realm (I did with Ehrman’s NT Intro), but I think at some point there ought to be engagement with fellow believers about this stuff. I suppose that’s where the online communities can play a role, but I would prefer face-to-face communities, you know? Apart from SBL/AAR, that is, haha.

    Speaking of which, are you going to Atlanta this year?

    1. Yes, I plan on being in Atlanta! We’ll have to meet up again.

      I hear what you’re saying. Both of my doctoral advisors are openly Christian as are all of the students in my program. That said, where I am now in San Antonio, I don’t find myself surrounded by confessing Christian scholars. The professor who is mentoring me with whom I am doing my internship is a Christian, but he is about scholarship first and he does his best to avoid overly theological/ecclesial conversations with students when he is trying to teach them how to read the Bible in a liberal arts context. I’ve been trying to learn that as well. I know many fellow Christians scoff at this, but in my present context I don’t find it to be my role to try to convince students what to believe. I am trying to teach them how to read ancient texts. So my present environment has been, for lack of a better word, thoroughly secular.

      I do gain a lot of support from the church where I’m a member. It is mainline: United Methodist. There are some more conservative types; others more liberal. Methodists tend to be more concerned with action and discipleship than biblicism, so that’s allowed me to share common ground with them while being comfortable with differences of interpretation and theology. That is the sort of community where you’d probably thrive. One where they don’t heresy hunt scholars. Don’t go to that sort of church!

      FWIW, who knows, maybe being in a place where your forced to wrestle with the Bible outside a confessional context will be the best thing for you. It is bound to remove any pretense regarding your Christianity. You’ll come to a better understanding of what you believe and to what degree you believe it (e.g., I am far more confident that Jesus existed as a first century Jewish teacher than that Jesus was resurrected and more confident that Jesus was resurrected than that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe the latter two things, only that I have a better understanding of where “knowledge” ends and faith begins, and I can admit that rather than trying to blur the lines via apologetics).

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