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.”
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.