A seminary education can change a lot. Many I know at Fuller, for instance, have encountered deep personal struggles due to discussions in a class, reading material, or lecture from professors that perhaps hasn’t exactly lined up with or maybe even directly contradicted what they had previously held to be concrete and absolute truth. For instance, with regard to the issue of Foundationalism (see The Chainless Mind Problematic), if we no longer see scripture or belief in God as a foundational, absolute belief, how do we defend our faith or develop doctrine?
I won’t get into the answer to that question here. Rather, I’ll emphasize the fact that a question like this, raised in many courses, can be extremely troubling for someone from a more orthodox or conservative background. And there’s another problem. As I’ve been engaged in discussion with others at Fuller, many have said in frustration: “How do we explain this to people? How is this important to anyone sitting in a pew?”
This problem is compounded sometimes by ill-prepared professors and poorly explained concepts. Once in a New Testament exegetical course, a professor demonstrated the deconstruction of a text. After the professor was finished, a student asked: “Okay, so–how do I preach that?”
The professor replied: “You don’t.”
In my last post, I expressed some frustration with what I and others perceive as a lack of reading among Christian scholars when it comes to postmodern philosophy. This professor’s comment demonstrates that. Not because he said you don’t explain a deconstruction of a text to a congregation—he’s absolutely right about that. But because he left it there. He could have raised the possibility for postmodern philosophy to shape our thinking about how we approach a biblical text to begin with—not that deconstruction specifically, as an act in itself, should.
He should have assured that student that deconstruction is one mode, one small facet of what it means to think postmodernly—it’s not necessarily important for someone behind the pulpit to know how to read a text that way.
Throughout the course of conversation with others, invariably someone will say to me: “You seem to be one step ahead of me in your thinking with this. I feel like I’m still in crisis. It seems like you’re past that point.”
They’re absolutely right. My faith was thrown in the fire and hammered out as I wrote my thesis from 2007-2009 for my MA in English. I was trying to understand how a deconstruction of the word sacred as it’s used in Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions could end up affirming the sacredness of human beings, which is how I read the novel. Deconstruction was supposed to be the thing that destroyed any notions of transcendence whatsoever–at least according to the chair of my thesis committee. I really can’t explain the process better than just to say this: It was a difficult road. But when I came out on the other end, I understood the importance of confronting and wrestling with tough questions, to be able to reconcile my belief while in crisis.
Now I seek out these situations. Not because I want to defeat them like some kind of bully looking for people to beat down in order to exercise some demons, but because I want to refined in the fire again and again.
And in many ways, I think I’m pretty fortunate to have experienced the fire within the secular academy. That fire is expected for a Christian. I wasn’t under the impression that the professors and other students in my program would answer questions the same way I did. But in seminary, that’s a huge expectation, and when it’s not met (and it never should be), it can be frightening.
The conversations I’ve alluded to thus far always seem to end this way:
“But this can be so painful at times. Everything I’ve known and found comfort in has been turned upside down. I don’t want to drag my congregation through the same thing that I’m going through now.”
There are people at Fuller wrestling with an epistemological crisis as I did while I was writing my thesis. That is, they’ve encountered a roadblock in their faith journey—something they’ve run up against that their old tradition won’t allow them to reconcile, so they’re seeking out reconciliation.
I don’t think, however, that this experience is restricted to those in seminary. Death will do it. The death of a child. A parent. A spouse—of anyone before their time, really (and who’s to say when that is?) I also think of Paul on the road to Damascus, blinded by God’s glory, convicted in such away that there was no possibility of return to his old way.
In other words, our congregations don’t have to encounter an academic epistemological crisis in order to wrestle with their most deeply held beliefs about who God is and how he interacts with the world. In fact, I can say without a doubt that I will encounter people as I do ministry who are struggling with roadblocks but who have never read Derrida, Zizek, MacIntyre, or taken a class with Nancy Murphy.
That’s a good thing.
It’s necessary for us to struggle with our faith. That’s the first Beattitude, after all. To be poor in spirit is to struggle with faith. (See Dallas Willard.) God doesn’t want us to get to a place where we’re comfortable, complacent, or satisfied in the sense that we don’t need anything else from Him or that we think we understand Him completely. This doesn’t mean we have to be miserable either. We’ve heard countless sermons on Hebrews or James about being tested and persevering. Just open up to any random psalm and start reading. Faith in God means being uncomfortable in a way that makes us better, more faithful people. Crises don’t have to be walls we hit and never overcome. They’re turning points, allowing us to never see the same way again, just like Paul.
No seminary education required.
by Joel Harrison