Abandoning Caution for Chaos…

“You have burned the bridges to naïveté, and there is no more turning back.”[1]

This quotation was shared with me and 20-some other seminarians my first night of classes at Fox in 2013. At the time, reading this quote was relieving. I had spent several years either remaining silent in church over “controversial” issues out of fear of being ostracized or picked small things to challenge because I felt safe enough to get a point across without being labeled a “heretic” or “false teacher.” The only places I found where I could truly express my thoughts were with a couple people who had similar experiences with evangelical churches. Knowing that at seminary, I’d not only be free to ask questions and explore the theological fringes, but in fact it was a necessity, was comforting.

Honestly, I think seminary provided a space where my faith could breathe.

In the month I’ve been out of seminary, though, it hasn’t quite been the same. In a lot of ways, it feels like the world I left behind when I went to seminary – a world of unhealthy boundaries where you can ask questions insofar as you don’t disrupt the structure. Theological discussions regarding male headship are allowed, only if they’re led by men and everyone comes to agreement with the previously established hierarchy. Change is a curse word in this world. Justice is something that describes God, but strangely not those who bear God’s image. It’s a world that sings “Come as you are,” but closes its doors to entire LGTBQ communities. It prays for the safety of police officers, but not for the healing of or the justice for Tamir Rice’s family. It’s a world of long sermons, but minimal action.

When I encountered my first “controversy” with the evangelical world, I encountered a particular phrase again and again. My question was something like, “Can we still be Christians without believing the Bible is perfect?” Compared to the questions I encountered in seminary, this was harmless. But it rocked the boat too much for many people, so, in the attempt to sound “engaged” (it’s one of those “relevant” buzzwords, right?), they often said, “Well, I would rather err on the side of caution.”

This is one of the key phrases used to guard communities from unbelief, from falling away from Christ – as if one is incapable of asking questions that challenge hierarchical systems and remain a devout follower of Christ; as if Christ wasn’t already doing that when he quoted Isaiah 61 and declared that he was setting the captives free.[2] This phrase is used in a world that believes as long as it operates “by what the Bible says,” it can never take part in the oppression of others. What this world would learn if it ventured across that proverbial bridge is that the church has a long and terrible history of being on the side of the oppressor. And that this little phrase is often used to justify oppression against women, blacks, Indians, gays, lesbians, queers, bisexuals, transgender people, Muslims, or basically anyone who isn’t a cishet, white, male Christian.[3]

What happens, though, when these “other” identities get labeled as “heretical” is that the humanity of those who bear the same amount of God’s image as the cishet, white, male Christians gets erased. Look at the way many white Christians have reacted to Muhammad Ali’s death. Instead of saying that he was a powerful figure for black and Muslim communities, they say he “transcended race.” We’re still waiting for this to be said regarding any white celebrity.

My point is simply that remaining on the side of caution when it comes to “controversial issues” is not good news for the marginalized. It’s deadly. Suicide, genocide, and outright murder have faced and still face many marginalized groups – precisely because it is believed that helping them wouldn’t be erring on the side of caution. It would risk something. But when I read what Jesus does, it seems apparent to me that risk is part of the deal – part of considering the cost of following him.

“Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before them all, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”[4]

Your Bible probably has a footnote for this passage because it actually doesn’t appear in a lot of the early Greek manuscripts that scholars have today. The footnote in the beloved ESV Study Bible even says it “should not be considered as part of Scripture,” (pg. 2039). But it certainly gets treated as Scripture when Christians want to focus on the “sinful woman.” Notice how they don’t bring the man with whom the woman was caught in adultery before Jesus. They only brought her. Notice also Jesus using his status – his privilege – to dispense her accusers. The text doesn’t say so, but it seems likely that they had stones in hand when they brought her to Jesus. By not erring on the side of caution by following Moses’s command, Jesus may very well have been risking his life.

Jesus’s gospel gets treated as the most exciting thing ever. Sure, it is good news. But in certain contexts, one has to ask, “Good news for whom?” If embracing the gospel of Jesus means rejecting one’s sexuality, gender identity, or cultural expression, then it is not good news for everyone. If it means not calling out the white supremacist undertone in governmental structures, then it is not good news for everyone. And if it means not questioning the theological justification of “discovering” America (rather than embracing the Logos – the expression of God’s presence – within the Indigenous cultures already here), then it is not good news for everyone.

Following Jesus’s teachings is risky business. And nothing is risked when one “errs on the side of caution.” Instead, oppressive systems already in place simply continue on. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biggest enemy to equality wasn’t the KKK; it was the moderate whites who wanted to err on the side of caution. Their silence meant his imprisonment. In what areas are we being cautious? In what areas are we dehumanizing marginalized groups? Following Jesus means asking these questions because it is in the answers that we discover how the gospel can truly be for everyone.

In these post-seminary days, I’m encountering the challenge of abandoning naïveté by taking a risk with God. In some ways, my life might not be at stake. But someone else’s might be.

I think Jesus would want me to make sure they don’t feel alone.


[1] David Scholer. I wrote a post close to when seminary began, which you can read here.

[2] Luke 4:16-21.

[3] “cis” is an abbreviation of “cisgender,” which merely means that one identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth; “het” is an abbreviation for heterosexual.

[4] John 8: 2-11.

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Tearing Down to Build Up…

Earlier this week, a classmate of mine (Emily) wrote a post acknowledging her difficulty maintaining faith during her studies in seminary. Although the specific things I’m wrestling with are different, I found myself relating to her sentiment. Like I’ve shared before, being a seminarian is to abandon naiveté and that process is incredibly uncomfortable.

Reading scholars like Jon D. Levenson, John J. Collins, and even tidbits of Michael D. Coogan has left me feeling as though anything I once believed to be true isn’t really true. Of course this feeling I have isn’t true in its entirety, but I’m finding extreme difficulty (and even exhaustion) in trying to maintain the implicit beliefs I’ve either acquired from someone else or created in my own head. While I love learning new ways of viewing Scripture, letting go of the countless assumptions I have isn’t the easiest.

This sense of unease is especially present in my Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) class. We’re reading through many of the gritty parts of the early days of Judaism (or as tradition holds as “the early days”) and being asked to focus in on moments that do not jive at all with our idea of “God is love,” or at least how we commonly understand that idea. For instance, in Joshua 7 a man named Achan sinned by coveting and then taking gold that he wasn’t supposed to. After discovering his gold stash (no, not a golden mustache), they brought him and his entire family to the Valley of Achor:

“Joshua said, ‘Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.’ And all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger.” (7:25-26)

We’ve covered many passages like this, but this one particularly troubles me because God becomes angry against the people He chose, which, if we understand God as all-knowing, makes you wonder why He chose Israel in the first place, and doesn’t calm down until after an entire family has been, essentially, lynched. “All [of] Israel” had gathered to cast stones and set their own people on fire – if we take this passage to be literally true. And this is precisely the spot that, like my classmate, shakes my faith: who am I to decide which parts of Scripture are literally true and which parts are metaphorically true (not that Emily is asking this question; but rather that we’re both having our faith shaken)? A tougher question would be, am I supposed to assume that it is either metaphorically or literally true in the first place?

Prominent teaching within evangelical Christianity today carries a heavy emphasis on Scripture being true – whether that means metaphorically or literally is another matter (depends on the church you attend, I suppose). What this teaching guards against is the process of “picking and choosing” – dicing up Scripture in ways that fit (as is assumed) particular pre-conceived notions regarding the Bible, God, and/or Jesus. What this anti-picking-and-choosing doctrine causes one to ignore, though, is the process of how the Bible came to be. It certainly didn’t just fall from the sky.

Burning the bridge to naiveté is to echo Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). It oftentimes feels like the background to everything I read, write, or study in class. Having the constant practice of questioning everything leaves one feeling estranged – adrift at sea or wandering a desert. Having some theological home is necessary and yet I feel as though I don’t have one.

No, I don’t mean a community of believers, although that is currently lacking as well. But I do mean that my own systematic theology or set of beliefs that I developed over the last six or seven years has all but evaporated in the eight weeks of seminary. To a certain extent I love it because I’m finally in a community that is critically engaging Scripture. But there’s still an element I find unsettling. I couldn’t pinpoint the reason until last night during class.

After reading another blog by Peter Enns, we were asked to share our likes and dislikes. Our professor, Dr. Roger Nam, wrote some of these up on the board. Once everyone shared their thoughts, I felt a small amount of tension in the atmosphere – tension not with each other, but with the realization that many of our previously held beliefs were dissolving in front of us. Roger acknowledged this tension by saying this material is difficult to wrestle with. He also referenced a time early in his walk with God when he was reading through the Gospel of John.

Thinking back on the hours he spent reading through the entire Gospel, he said that the overall experience was transformative for his faith. Drawing our attention back to the board that encapsulated our sentiment he said that this is why we’re here at seminary – not to be persuaded to believe a particular set of beliefs, but to develop a more robust set of beliefs for ourselves. In essence, we’re building new bridges to enhance our faith and the faith of those whom we lead.

As Emily said in her post, there’s a very earthy taste to faith, God, and Scripture at the moment. And I think it’s earthy because in eight short weeks one bridge was destroyed while ground was broken to build another. Blood, sweat, and tears are covering my face as I try to picture the blueprints for the new bridge. Yet this sort of bridge, discomfortingly enough, isn’t built on belief statements and dogmas; it’s built on a stronger understanding of faith. Building that is going to take a long time and a lot of work.

Knowing that much, while slightly disheartening, is actually relieving. Yeah it sucks that I have to work on it, but it’s nice to know that I don’t have to finish it overnight. I’m allowed to be comfortable, at least for a while, in the desert.

And honestly, I won’t have what I need until I rest awhile in the desert.

God bless.

Abandoning Naïveté…

It would be an understatement to say that I’ve learned a lot in the first six weeks of seminary. Truth is, there’s no telling how much I’ve actually learned; only how many pages I’ve read and how many hours I’ve spent doing homework and studying (a lot). What I can’t help but notice is that none of what I’m learning is shaking up my faith in any way. If anything, what I’m learning in school now is only telling me that I’ve found an academic home.

I say nothing is shaking up my faith because typically in seminary people learn things that they were never taught in Sunday school. Such heavy amounts of unfamiliar information can be overwhelming and so one’s faith suddenly becomes in jeopardy (because if a few truths you learned and believed since you were ten were suddenly altered in a few minutes when you’re 25, then you might start questioning a lot of other things).

Not to say that I’m learning a bunch of heretical things or that I was misled by my Sunday school teacher, because 1. My Sunday school teacher taught me more about God than any professor I’ve ever had and 2. Every bit of what I’ve learned so far has enhanced my walk with Him.

What I am pointing out, though, is that there is a bit of an education shock for a lot of seminarians because we’re drawing information from a source much bigger than most – if not all – commentaries and from people who’ve studied the Bible more than most pastors, but yet may not share the same level of faith. So we’re getting much different interpretations on how the Bible was created or if there really was an Exodus – stuff that would make the average congregant shift awkwardly in their pew. Why am I not having an issue with all of this? And what does it really matter?

It matters much more than one may realize, but I’ll get to that in a bit. As for why I’m not having much of an issue at all is because I did something that not too many do before coming to seminary. During my undergraduate studies at the University of Oregon, I took four Religious Studies classes regarding the Bible or ancient Judaism. I loved every minute of those classes – even the ones that met at eight in the morning. What I didn’t notice at the time, though, is that I was being ushered across a metaphorical bridge – a bridge that I can no longer go back over.

“Seminarians are called to a higher standard and greater understanding. You have burned the bridges of naïveté, and there is no more turning back.” – Dr. David Scholer

This quote was shared with me and 20-some others during our first night of classes at GFES. It acts both as an invitation and as a warning – that there is a deep sense of purpose embedded within studying in seminary and there is also no going back to the way things were before. Despite my journey away from naïveté beginning in college, I know things will not be as simple and fluffy as they were before.

I use the word “fluffy” because that’s how an old pastor of mine describes much of Christianity today: fluffy. We take the figure of Jesus Christ and package Him into our little, neat theology boxes and teach Him to others as we have Him displayed – leaving out all the arm-twisting and leg-bending we had to do to get Him to fit our boxes. We find ways to pack action figures into Matchbox cars and pretend everything’s normal.

Seminary is a place where all those Matchbox cars and action figures of Jesus get taken apart, evaluated, and pieced together in completely different ways than they were before. What everyone quickly begins to realize is that He is neither a Matchbox car nor an action figure, but instead something much, much bigger and much more mysterious. He is something that we cannot fit into any clever little package we create.

Abandoning naiveté is simply encountering God as He is – not as what our theologies say He is. This process is a long and terribly uncomfortable one because it compels us to confront our assumptions about God and His Son Jesus, which includes the things we learned when we were little. Yet this isn’t to say that everything we learned when we were little is a lie; it’s to say we’re called to test everything, even the things we’ve already learned.

If our naïveté was truly burned up, then we’re able to see what was left behind. It is then that we begin to see God as He wants to be seen.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

and knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

                                    -Proverbs 9:10

When we begin to see God as He wants to be seen, we begin to see others as He wants us to see them. Only then can we truly begin to help.

No, you don’t have to become a seminarian to see God in the “right” way (nor am I claiming that I see God in that “right” way). But you probably will have to confront your assumptions about Him, His Son, or the text that tells us about them. All those preconceived beliefs just might be right; but you will never know until you confront and test them.

God bless.