350. gut check results are in and…
This post turned out to be WAY longer than I’d planned.
If you just wanna know about whether I’m still an MDiv student or if I’m still planning on planting a church, feel free to skip the indented bit – all the stuff about my classes. Just read the bit before and the bit after. That middle bit is just MDiv academic geekery.
I’ve been meaning to write a followup to a post I put up back in August where I wrote about how the frustrations of a particularly difficult Summer semester led me to reconsider my thoughts around planting a church back in Hawaii after graduating. In preparation for writing this response, I went back and re-read that post and I was struck by how dark it was. I mean, by the end of it I went so far as to consider what it might be like for me to leave the church altogether. I remember being really burnt out and discouraged at the end of the Summer semester, but I don’t remember being THAT burnt out.
I suppose, in part, I don’t remember because this previous semester has been the complete opposite. Whereas that was my most difficult semester (academically and personally), this has been the most rewarding one. The classes, the instructors, even the assignments were as challenging as they were instructional. It was a stelar experience.
Some of the highlights of what I learned:
1. Church history.
Although it was only a one-week intensive class, the Church History class had a dramatic effect on everything else I learned this semester. This class blew my mind. I could go on and on about things I learned but the idea that has had the greatest impact is this one: theology and doctrine do not arise purely, pristinely from the Bible itself. Theology has always come about as a reaction to something that was taking place within the church at some particular point in time.
Take the doctrine of the trinity, for example. The word never appears anywhere in the Bible yet this is one of the central facets of Christianity. In part, the doctrine of the trinity arose as a reaction to heretical ideas that threatened some aspect of the divinity or humanity of Christ – because without a triune theology, how do you explain the fact that Jesus was both truly God AND truly human?
I had always been led to believe that Biblical theology was something that just popped cleanly out of the Bible when it was studied. This class got me to see that doctrine has always emerged as a reaction to particular problems that the church has faced. This is significant because it means that theology is not static, rather it is dynamic and this process of change continues through to today. And maybe that sounds scary, as if doctrine is an ever-moving target, subject to the whims and tides of history. But the history of the church is one where truths are passed from generation to generation while at the same time, doctrines that are harmful or inconsistent with the overarching themes of the Bible or are no longer relevant, are jettisoned or modified. (And this is not a new, contemporary development. Paul advocated the same for the church in his day – 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).
For example, consider the idea of geocentrism – the idea that the earth is the center of the universe. This used to be church doctrine. People like Tycho and Galileo were considered heretics for advocating heliocentrism – the idea that the sun is the center of our solar system. At the time, the church decreed that heliocentrism was a threat to Biblical Christianity – that it was a clear contradiction of the Biblical account of the structure of creation.
But the church of the time faced one big problem. As the science of astronomy was blooming, it became possible to predict the motions of the stars and planets in the night sky. Without getting too bogged down in technicalities, geocentrists had a hard time explaining planetary retrograde motion – the way planets behave in the night sky. Whereas heliocentrists could simply and elegantly describe this phenomenon (that led to astonishingly precise predictions of how heavenly bodies behaved), geocentrists had to resort to cumbersome, complex systems of deferents and epicycles to describe the same behavior (and their predictions were far less accurate than the heliocentrists).
Long story short, the truth of the heliocentric model eventually won out and even the Catholic Church had to admit it had been wrong about geocentrism and that they were wrong to have deemed those early astronomers as heretics.
2. Jewish readings of Ruth
Over the Summer semester (from hell) I took Hebrew. In this past semester, we used some of that Hebrew to look at the book of Ruth. In this class, the students got to pick among three different reading perspectives (Jewish, Feminist, and Post-Colonial) and I picked Jewish. I’ve always been curious about how Jewish ways of reading the Bible differed from Christian ones. I mean, for one thing, they’ve been reading it a lot longer than Christians have and for another thing, I’m curious about how Jesus himself may have read the Hebrew Bible (and how that might inform how we read it today).
I won’t go into all of what I found in researching how Jews read the Bible but one bit I found particularly insightful was this list of four assumptions that most Jews have when they read.
- They assumed that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text. . .
- Interpreters also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day.
- …the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes…
- …the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through His prophets.1
I find assumptions one and three fascinating. They support one another such that the Bible is “cryptic” and is that way on purpose (because it contains no mistakes). These assumptions allow Jewish readings to tolerate different interpretations far more than most Christian ways of reading – because if it is cryptic on purpose then there is no one correct, definitive reading of any particular text. So whereas some Christians read in such a way as to find the one correct meaning of, say, Jesus’ parables and disagree with those who arrive at different meanings, Jewish readers hold to their interpretations more loosely. As they approach a given text, they consider the range of different interpretations that rabbis have found there. And they do so not to find the one correct reading, but to open up its possibilities. This, in turn, allows the Bible to speak anew to changing social/cultural contexts. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if Christians could embrace a bit more ambiguity regarding the Bible. I wonder if this would allow more of us to respect different interpretations of text, particularly on divisive issues like same sex marriage.
On another note, studying a short book like Ruth for a whole semester with some really sharp divinity students (and an amazing instructor) reveals the fascinating depth and range of the Biblical text. That’s not to say that we have the book figured out. Far from it. While we all left with a deeper appreciation for its layers of meaning, we also all left with a number of difficult, unanswered questions.
And I think that’s how the Bible is supposed to work.
Similar to the Ruth class, in my Theology I class, students divided up into different theological perspectives. I chose the liberation theology group in part because I didn’t know anything about it but also because I knew that South America was where liberation theology began – it has since morphed into and informed other theological disciplines like Black liberation theology, Asian minjung theology, and feminist theology to name just a few.
The defining factor of liberation theology is that it approaches the Bible from the perspective of the poor and oppressed. It does so as a corrective to the fact that the Bible has previously been studied primarily from the perspective of the religiously powerful and privileged (basically educated, Western white males). The problem with the traditional perspective is that every perspective has blind spots and will read in a way that addresses issues that are most important to them. Thus, as the Bible has been traditionally studied from a Western, male perspective, it has neglected issues relevant to the poor, marginalized, and oppressed.
For example, I wrote above about how the doctrine of the Trinity came about. Liberation theologians also see the Trinity as a way to avoid heretical ideas regarding Jesus but they go beyond clinical, academic, theological musing to examine how it can be applied to combatting contemporary ills of society. Thus, a liberation theologian speaking on the Trinity would say that just as Father, Son, and Spirit commune without hierarchy and in complete unity, so should we seek to transform society so that it conforms to the model of the Trinity. But this isn’t happening. Instead, the current structure of society (and the church) reflects a unitarian, hierarchal theology where power is centralized and unequally distributed, thereby favoring the rich and powerful while neglecting the needs and the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed.
Powerful stuff there!
4. And I’ve already written a bit about how great my Spiritual Theology class was.
So all that to say, that I had an awesome semester. Probably the best one so far because many of the things I was learning in one class informed the others. I learned a ton and I’m also finding myself asking better questions as a result (which is just as important as the learning itself).
And you know? I have to say that beyond the academics, I felt…cared for. And I’m not talking about the faculty (although I feel cared for by them as well), I’m talking about something…else. As much as I say I have a hard time experiencing/hearing from God, I can’t explain away this feeling that God was really taking care of me throughout this semester – that He knew how beat up I felt after the Summer semester and so He somehow helped make this one a great experience for me.
Now I don’t want to seem like those sports stars who attribute touchdowns and home runs to God while attributing tackles and strikeouts to lack of faith or satan or Democrats. No, I think it’s all from God – the good and the bad. What felt nice was the timing – how the best semester followed the worst when I needed it most, when I was on the verge of giving it all up. As for why God allowed the Summer semester to be so difficult for me, I think it’s like the title I gave that post. It was a gut check – a crisis of faith where I had to truly come to grips with what it is that I’m taking on.
It’s kind of like this. Lots of people want to take up surfing. And maybe they get out there with a surfer friend or an instructor and maybe they pick up the basics pretty quick. Next thing, they’re out there regularly and getting better at it and having a blast. But then at some point they get a nasty wipe out. I mean a really bad one where they almost don’t make it back to shore alive. It’s at that point that they see that surfing, fun as it is, is serious business that could get them killed. It’s only at that point, if they decide to continue surfing, that they truly become a surfer – someone who knows and has counted the cost and has chosen to keep going.
That summer semester was like my big wipe out. Before that, I was more lax about my church planting ideas because school and learning is fun (mostly) and I was coming up with all kind of grand ideas about what my church might be and do and that’s fun too. But then I got pounded, worked, run through the washing machine, and I almost didn’t make it. The costs became clear and then I had to decide whether I really had it in me to continue.
And I do.
Of course, it helps that I just came out of a great semester and maybe it’s just a coincidence that this great semester followed a really awful one. I don’t know what decision I would have come to if I had had another shitty semester. I don’t know. All I know is what happened and what it’s done for me and that’s that it has renewed me. At the same time, it has also sobered me to what it may cost for me to take this on – the task of church planting. There will be some really big decisions I’ll have to make in the next few months/years and that’s before I even get close to planting the actual church.
But I feel, at least at this point in time, that God is with me somehow. Maybe not as close as I’d wish but there nevertheless. And that’s enough for me to continue pressing on.
Gut check result?
I’m staying MDiv and I’m planting a church after I graduate.
1James L. Kugel, How To Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York, NY: Free Press, 2007), 14-15.