Last semester, a handful of students (most of them in their senior year) shared with me that they silenced their voices again and again during seminary. Something happened along the way, in the midst of learning Bible, theology, church history, and the arts of ministry, which led them to feel as though they lost themselves in the process of their education. They knew the “right” answers to give to their professors and judicatories, but their faith had been tamed, their questions suppressed, and their passion dulled.
Two years ago I sat with a group of professors nearing tenure and wondering about the degree to which they, too, had lost their spiritual creativity and vitality in the midst of completing their doctoral degrees. One poignantly shared, “I’d never write the same dissertation today that I wrote a few years ago. Too much of what I did had to do with my professors’ expectations and much too little to do with my own passion.”
Undoubtedly, there’s a complex web of reasons (psychological, sociological, religious, etc.) that students might experience this shutting-down of themselves in seminary. That’s not something that I’m going to try and tackle in this blog–(I fear that’s becoming a refrain of mine)–but I would like at least to express my concerns and prayers about this aspect of the human predicament.
Seminary, at its best, is a time to be encountered by a God who leads us on unexpected paths into new life. It is a time to see and be seen by Christ anew; a time in which our hardened ideas get cracked open; a time for our faith to be awakened; a time of discovering the delight of service, care, and love in God’s kingdom.
And perhaps for precisely these reasons, insecurities abound at seminary. Anxiety and frantic attempts to tame God (and one another) come in many forms: that deadening pressure to get our theology right, to prove to our candidacy committees that we are good-enough Reformed, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Methodist ministers-to-be, or to please professors who sometimes claim to know more than they actually do.
It’s frightfully easy to suppress one’s own voice in seminary, easy to lose awareness of the beauty of God’s embrace. In a culture marked by constant encounter with otherness, many of us may be tempted to purchase security by clinging to and spouting off the right religious answers, and paradoxically lose the deep security that comes from knowing the vastness and mystery of God’s love.
Thankfully the life-changing God revealed to us in Jesus Christ cannot be harnessed by our doctrine, even though sometimes our theology (or the way we use it) actually harnesses us. God revealed to us in Jesus Christ cannot be hemmed in by our policies and procedures, our ambitions, or even our doctrine. Human anxiety, insecurity, and the desperate striving for certitude cannot constrain God in Jesus Christ.
So I pray that Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit will put-to-death our religious expectations and the rigid limitations that we place on ourselves and one another. And that he will raise us up to a whole different kind of discipleship, one that takes us right into the grit and grime of human existence, right into the aching of our hearts–that well of life from which faith, hope, and love spring when we are encountered by and grounded in the living God.