Becoming a Liberal Christian Part III: Seminary (Or A Strange Experience I Would Do Again)

(Confused Looks)

68365_1588424266726_4585482_n

Usually when I tell people I’ve been to seminary, they give me a blank stare, as if I’ve told them, “I’ve decided to move to Mars,” or, “In my previous life I sold pineapples to people on a cruise ship.” A lot of times I get, “Isn’t that just for men?” (Answer: Nope, you’re thinking of a Catholic seminary that specifically trains men for priesthood). Or, “Did you pray a lot?” (Answer: Nope, people at seminary don’t just pray or sing hymns all day. Christian seminaries are academic institutions and you do… you know…  academic things.)

People’s minds are further blown when I say I studied clinical psychology at seminary. “Wait so you studied clinical psychology?” “Yes.” “But you went to seminary?” “I studied psychology at seminary.” “I’m confused.” “You can study psychology at the seminary I attended.” “Oh….”

In addition to being Rob Bell’s alma mater, Fuller is the only evangelical seminary that celebrates women in ministry (in theological terms, egalitarian). Overall, in complete nerdy disclosure, I was over the moon about my course schedule. My program at Fuller Seminary consisted of a full clinical psychology curriculum, with the addition of theology classes. I had no idea what to expect, but I was ready.

… or so I thought. These things never turn out the way you think they will.

“Come Follow Me”: A Dangerous Call

What I expectedI thought I would learn new things about God at Fuller.

What actually happened: My mind was blown completely… which I was not anticipating. After graduating from college with a minor in biblical and religious studies, I was pretty cocky. I was no longer arguing with Sunday School teachers, but I had advanced to theological discourse with other academic and pastoral individuals. I was good at theology, and I knew it.

Fuller gave me humility.

My theology classes took me verse by verse through the Sermon on the Mount and the Book of Matthew, and the more I learned, the more stunned and amazed by the beauty of Jesus I became. I took classes from Mennonites and other pacifists who questioned whether violence is permissible in the Christian life. We talked about tough issues, the global church, diversity, and social justice. Fuller helped open my eyes to my narrow, white, privileged view of Christianity.

One of my favorite classes was Systematic Theology: Ecclesiology and Eschatology, a class that sounds boring and theoretical, but was actually amazing. My professor would wear a “Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy” t-shirt to class. You know, Jonathan Edwards, the dude who wrote the ever famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I thought the shirt was hilarious.

I wrote my final exegetical paper for that class on a Jonathan Edwards sermon, called, “Heaven, A World of Love,” which is in stark contrast to the hell fire and brimstone of his most famous sermon. Turns out Jonathan Edwards could be a pretty loving guy, it is unfortunate that history has remembered him primarily for his discourse on hell.

I loved it all, but most of all I learned not to love theology as a practice in and of itself. Learning about God is well and good and all, but theology should not be done for its own sake. Discourse about God should be alive and Kingdom-driven. Peering down at ancient manuscripts in ivy towers is not bad, and in fact can be helpful, but theology should be purposeful.

I learned to check my facts and assumptions before doing any theological work. Theology and the Bible do not exist in vacuums. I bring my life framework, social contexts, and assumptions into theological discourse, and that all must not be discounted.

The phrase that Jesus uses over and over again, “Come follow me,” is a dangerous one. As I learned in seminary, Jesus invites us to dig deeper, love harder, question more, commune often, disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed. 

The scary thing about knowledge is that you can’t go back. Once I learned more about God and the issues the plague the church and world, I could no longer be a complacent, innocent white privileged Christian girl. I knew I wanted to go to Fuller and learn more things about God, but did I really want to follow the radical call of Jesus?

At Fuller, I fell more in love with this disturbing God who turns everything upside down and inside out. I spent countless hours writing exegetical papers, with multiple Greek concordances strewn open in the Fuller library until midnight, and the end result is this: God has given me too much now to stay silent. Not everyone gets to go to seminary, and now that I know what I know, I cannot be quiet. I cannot be the same. I must take up my cross, wash some feet, and follow the small, counter-cultural voice of Jesus even when it clashes with my evangelical upbringing. 

“You Don’t Have to Convert Everyone You Meet” and Other Life Lessons

As you can probably tell, I learned a lot of things studying at seminary, but I’ll leave you with three take home points:

  1. You can be both academic and a Christian- Christians have a reputation of being anti-intellectual, and at times, such a statement is not undeserved. My first boyfriend believed in a literal 7-day creation period and that the earth is 4,000 years old. In fact, for a date weekend he wanted to go to the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Some Christians negate science completely. To be honest, Christian anti-intellectualism makes me want to pull my hair out. Let me put my cards out on the table of the creation-evolution subject: evolution is real. There are some people, like my ex-boyfriend, who have sketchy evidence at best on the contrary, but in science, yeah, evolution is real. I was surprised at first when my Biology professor at Calvin College pretty much laid it out there the fact: Evolution is real. Evolution and Christianity can exist together. There is no debate in the scientific community about evolution. There might be like 2 scientists out there who believe Evolution is not real, and they appear on Fox News. Christians need to have faith big enough to reconcile science with the Bible. I don’t mean to pick on Creationists here; as I said before, I used to date one of them. At Fuller, some of my longstanding beliefs about the Bible were challenged. I remember the first time I heard a professor say, “Job was probably not a person and in fact a metaphor,” or, “Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch.” My evangelical background caused my stomach to do a backflip. And yet, these same professors were the kindest Christians, staunch believers in prayer, and active in their churches. You don’t have to toss academics out the door to be a Christian! It is possibly for a person to critically analyze ancient texts, form “liberal” beliefs about them, and then have that same individual serving at a local soup kitchen the next day. Academics and Christianity don’t have to be at odds. I became more open in my interpretation of Scripture? Do I believe that Job really existed? I don’t know. Was Mary a virgin for her entire life? I doubt it. I could go into the contextual reasons why these things are improbable. After 3 years, I came to the conclusion: who cares? The beauty of Jesus is that in the Body of Christ, theological bickering about matters that are not central to God and the person of Jesus don’t matter so much. We are redeemed and loved by the Creator of the universe who is Love. I believe it’s okay that I question the authorship of the Pentateuch because of my academic study of Scripture. Don’t get me wrong, doctrine is important, but my point is, I get worried when Christians 1) Fear or avoid academic study of Christianity and Scripture or b) Put God in neat little boxes where he has no room to be greater than our human understanding, aka… be God. Example: One of my professors had Bart Ehrman as a seminary student, and Bart was by far the most theologically conservative student in his class. Ironically, when Bart started studying Scripture academically, he made a 180 turn to agnosticism and atheism, and I wonder if part of that is because his rather anti-intellectual, fundamentalist view of God was too small. At Fuller, I concluded: Christians can reconcile the person of Jesus and academia without sacrificing faith in the process.
  2. You don’t have to convert every non-Christian you meet!– Per my prior evangelical training, I had one mission: convert souls to the Lord. Classes at Fuller turned that simplistic understanding upside down. One of my favorite classes in seminary was Interfaith Dialogue, the purpose of which is to discuss faith topics with non-Christians and come to some common understanding which discussed talking about faith with non-Christians. Here’s the revolutionary part: WITHOUT CONVERTING THEM. In fact, conversion was off the table entirely. I went to a retreat called Inter-Sem and spent time with other evangelical seminary students, as well as Jewish and Catholic seminary students. I met future priests, rabbis, and cantors, and we spent a whole weekend talking about God WITH NO INTENTION OF CONVERSION. It was liberating, really. I could just see the person for the beautiful, God-created individual he or she was without an ulterior motive of, “How can I weave Jesus into this conversation?” I think more of our theological discourse needs to involve more listening than explaining a reductionist diagram about how we sin, God is awesome, and how they need Jesus to be their “golden ticket” to heaven. I say, let’s love people more and listen to their perspectives, rather than being like, “Let me cut in with my perfect understanding of how you should be saved” (as I did in my militant evangelical years).
  3. You don’t have to run from tough questionsGod’s pretty strong, and so is the Bible. I made it a point in seminary to write theology papers on the most difficult passages in the Bible. I remember in one class, I was bothered that Jesus called a woman a “dog,” and I decided to do my 20-page final on that passage. At the end of it, I came out seeing God as more beautiful and holy than I could have ever imagined. As mentioned before, God is a pretty brilliant creator, whose knowledge and power spans more than the human mind could understand. Do you have an issue with evil in the world? Do you have an issue with asshole Christians? Rampant sexism and racism in the church? Evolution? Violence in the Old Testament? Theology provides a way of understanding tough questions. Maybe the “answer” isn’t a one-sentence simplistic explanation, and maybe in seeking the answer, you come up with 20 more questions, but GOD CAN HANDLE IT. He can handle doubt, cynicism, and pain. What God likes less, if I may be presumptuous here, is a boxed up, neat little answer that has no room for well… God. Let’s put God in boxes less and ask the tough theological questions, often with no obvious solutions, and let that be okay.

This post has become very novel-esque, so I’ll wrap this up. I learned a lot in seminary, and I’ll be forever changed by my experience at Fuller. But there is a component of Christianity that I have completely neglected in this post.

At seminary, I learned a LOT. But based on personal circumstances, my head and heart were disconnected. My seminary years were some of the most painful ones, so next post, I will talk about my own doubt and emotional and spiritual struggles during this time.

Becoming a Liberal Christian Part II: Beach Evangelism and Rob Bell

Humility

13435-woman-walking-sunset-silhouette-wide-1200w-tn

My anorexia and faith had long been intertwined, but as time went on, there was no choice for me but to fall on my knees… in a more palpable way than saying the “Jesus prayer” years earlier. After nearly 5 years of suffering from anorexia, my life had crumbled before me. A vacant, hollow shell was getting good grades and applying for college, and I ended up in residential treatment for my eating disorder and OCD shortly after graduation.

My first two days at treatment were excruciating. Without my eating disorder behaviors, I felt like I was being stripped down to nothing. Who was I? Where would I turn? The existential angst that had always plagued me came at me with a vengeance. I felt like I was internally bleeding, and I needed something– a tourniquet.

In my soul searching, I stumbled across Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” 

I wept. 

I imagined Jesus saying, “Are you downcast and hopeless? I will give you hope. Are you exhausted and riddled with addiction? I will give you peace.”

I craved the Jesus of Matthew 11:28-30. I imagined snuggling into God’s arms of love, grace, forgiveness, and rest. This was no longer the distant, aloof God of my childhood. This was a bruised, human God, with outstretched hands, giving me a chance at life… which I would never get with my eating disorder.

For the first time ever, it felt like my heart had found its home.

When I think back on this summer, I think of sweet attunement with the Lord and a huge amount of growth. I was hungry (pun partially intended) for any Christian book I could get my hands on– the Bible, devotionals, Christian inspirational books. An angel from a local Wisconsin church would transport me and some other patients to church weekly. At church, we would watch Nooma videos, Rob Bell’s mini-sermon videos that were so popular at the time. I met with the hospital chaplain often, and I asked her why God gave me an eating disorder. She replied that my sickness was akin to her own hypoglycemia. The rural Wisconsin church and this chaplain showed me grace and compassion that stayed with me.

I left treatment with a new mandate, not a zealous, argumentative quest, but a desire to live for God– whatever that meant. I was never going to be the same.

Paradigm Shift

At the beginning of college, my mind’s focus was no longer on the college experience of football, drinking, and joining a sorority: I wanted to honor God in every way, and that started with church. I got involved in a fairly conservative evangelical church, and by the end of my freshman year, I was on a certain conservative evangelical trajectory.

On a church level, this trajectory encompassed quiet times (i.e. extended prayer times) and beach evangelism– oh yes, I did beach evangelism. I felt dirty approaching random people on the street simultaneously trying to be friendly while attempting to convert them, but I did it. That was what my church was telling me to do. 

My first boyfriend and I even “courted” instead of dated, in the style of the once-popular I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the implications of which included saving kissing for marriage. (Note: Don’t read that book. Don’t kiss dating goodbye).

And yet… more and more, there were reverberations in my mind that something was amiss. One of the people that catapulted my paradigm shift was Rob Bell (the picture below was taken of Rob and I at one of his tours).

1928970_566608050783_5432_n

First it started with watching his Nooma videos while at treatment, and then I religiously started following his church’s podcast. I read Rob’s books and even handled marketing for his Sex God tour. Rob was the “spiritual mentor” who I met all of two times but changed the way I saw God. He was also perhaps my transitional object, my bridge to an adult worldview. Rob was the first one I heard say, over and over in sermons, “God is the God of the oppressed.” He talked about Jesus’ Third Way, one that does not incorporate violence or keeping the status quo. Rob was authentic and mobilized his listeners to go out and be the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth. He preached social justice and Jesus’ subversive message. Rob talked about difficult subjects, like Leviticus and violence in the Old Testament.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I read the book The Irresistable Revolution by Shane Claiborne. A Mennonite and pacifist, Claiborne clinched my belief that God is the God of the hurting, vulnerable, and oppressed. In his book, Claiborne talks about going to Iraq to sit with Iraqi civilians following America’s Iraq invasion. Claiborne wrote,

“We must mourn the lives of the soldiers. But with the same passion and outrage, we must mourn the lives of every Iraqi who is lost. They are just as precious, no more, no less. In our rebirth, every life lost in Iraq is just as tragic as a life lost in New York or D.C. And the lives of the thirty thousand children who die of starvation each day is like six September 11ths every single day, a silent tsunami that happens every week.”

Reading this book, it was clear that I was having a faith identity crisis. I started to wonder if my version of Christianity was inclusive of the fact that EVERY life is precious, even the lives of our enemies. In the upside-down Kingdom of God, God was calling the church to something so different than beach evangelism and Bible thumping. He was calling the church to be with the sick and hurting; to provide holistic care that involved theology but also catering to physical needs; to go to the ends of the earth, not just to save souls but to turn the entire world upside down.

Did I know what that looked like? Absolutely not. On the contrary, I barely knew anyone of different socioeconomic classes, races, or sexual orientations. I didn’t know what God was calling me to do.

One thing I did know is that I was no longer at “home” with traditional conservative evangelicalism. I couldn’t live in an insulated church that didn’t have room for these ideas. At the same time, I wasn’t ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I still attended evangelical churches, and I even voted for John McCain in 2008.

As I inched nearer to college graduation, I wondered about my vocation. I switched professionals tracks from psychology, my first love, to ministry. My thought process was this: I loved theology. I loved helping people. How best serve God besides go into full-time ministry? Here’s where my “crazy liberal ideas” started: I wanted to be a minister or pastor. Not just a youth director or secretary, as most conservative evangelical churches utilize women. I wanted to be a legit, ordained minister. At my Christian college, I was on the “pre-seminary” track because my school affirmed women going into ministry (go Calvin!). I even took a summer internship at a church to “discern my calling” (i.e. think about whether or not to go to seminary).

I was learning a lot, but I was torn about grad school. At my summer internship, I had a revelation: there is much value in psychology for the church. I saw a church riddled with wounds and mental health issues, and here I was with a gift to understand and help people with these issues.

At school, I learned in psychology and theology classes that all that is good is God’s. I believe at the core of my being that psychology is good and useful. It is much needed in the church, and I love it. If God is involved in the restoration of ALL things, that means I could both be devoted to God’s work AND choose a full-time profession besides ministry. In the end, I decided to graduate school in psychology. In full disclosure, I went to Fuller Seminary partly because they have a clinical psychology program that incorporates theology classes and partly because that is Rob Bell’s alma mater.

I went to Fuller with no expectations but also searching for something . I wanted a broader knowledge of psychology and theology, but also a deeper relationship with an infinitely beautiful God whose love has no bounds.

In my nomadic way, I picked up and moved to southern California, with no idea what I was in for.

Becoming a Liberal Christian Part I: High Church and Militant Evangelicalism

The Early Years

border_copy

Prior to my birth, my mom (a staunch Episcopalian) and my dad (a lapsed Jew) met with a Rabbi to discuss my religious upbringing. His advice was, “Pick one, and don’t make the child go to two Sunday schools.” They laughed. It was a joke between them for most of my childhood that also reflected a certain religious ambivalence, as if religion was like, “Do you want chocolate or vanilla ice cream?”

Even though I’m 100% sure my mom would never have raised me Jewish anyway because she was the only one with firm religious beliefs, my parents went through the trouble of giving me a Jewish baby naming AND traditional infant baptism.

Needless to say, I grew up going to the Episcopal church where my grandparents have been members since 1950.

I was always fascinated with God. At age 3 or 4, I told my mom that when I grew up, I wanted to be a “storyteller for God.” One time I was praying so fervently in church, I lied that I saw Jesus on the huge crucifix in the sanctuary. I don’t know why I felt the need to make that up. Part of me wanted so badly to see Jesus, in flesh and blood.

I was an dedicated Sunday School student with good attendance. If the task at hand was to memorize the Lord’s Prayer or Nicene Creed, I did it. Most of my memories of Sunday school involve discussing church holidays or memorizing prayers. I sang in the church choir (shocking for those of you who know me now) and played bells. I sang and memorized things about God, but I didn’t really “get” God. God seemed distant and aloof, communicating to people using “thee” and “thou.”

My “Conversion” Moment

People in the world of evangelicalism will often tell you that there is a “moment” when you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Some celebrate “spiritual birthdays.” One of my previous churches did an Easter campaign, in which you would hold a sign up of your “date” of salvation and post it to social media.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in God, but when I was 13, I went to an evangelical summer camp. At this time, I was knee-deep in anorexia and equally deep in denial. In my starved state, I remember people were jumping up and down to worship songs I didn’t like, and all I wanted was to sleep. One thing they did that I do remember, however, is “share the Gospel.” In evangelical Christian terms, this means a basic summary of this message: In all of his perfection, God loved us and we rebelled. All of us, no matter how moral, are sinners, and God is our enemy. However, we are in luck. Jesus paid the ultimate price for all of humanity, and all you have to do is accept Jesus’ gift, and you will be saved. 

I heard this message for the first time, and everything made sense to me. The mosaic pieces I had gotten from my Episcopal upbringing and this new wording of what Jesus did came together for me. I looked up in the stars that spanned the sky night and said, “I’m in.” And so began my “Christian journey” (again, not really sure now if it was a “new” journey or rather repackaging  of what I learned growing up).

Militant Evangelicalism

bible-thumper

With my new found life quest, preaching Jesus to the ends of the earth, I began Jesus’ work. And by Jesus’ work I mean my 13-year-old understanding of Jesus’ work, which meant theological arguments with my Jewish family members and getting them passive aggressive Christmas gifts, such as a book on apologetics… which I now understand was not Jesus’ mandate at all. Hostile conversations with my agnostic grandpa about why he should believe in Jesus RIGHT NOW are hardly effective or Christlike.

I became a nightmarish Sunday School student. I admonished our priest because he didn’t talk about “relevant” topics in the Bible such as abortion (he noted that abortion is not actually specifically mentioned in the Bible despite what my Teen Study Bible told me). I argued with my high school Bible Study leader. I would bring up my superior knowledge at every turn, such as my certainty that, “God has a reason for everything.” She disagreed with me, saying that things like disease and war are not in God’s will, although he allows them. I was pompous and arrogant. I thought I knew everything because I checked out a bunch of books on Creationism from the library and read my Teen Study Bible.

One of my camp counselors told me, “Think about the end of time, when you’re taking a staircase up to heaven, and you see people walking down the other way to hell because you didn’t tell them about Jesus. That’s why you need to spread the Good News!” I never wanted that to happen. I would cry at the very thought of half my family descending to hell on my watch. So I would argue with anyone who didn’t know the Lord, partly to alleviate my own anxiety and guilt about hell.

My method wasn’t great. I am lucky nobody slapped me, because I definitely deserved it. That’s why I call these years my “militant evangelical years.” I had good intentions, maybe, but then again, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Stay tuned! There is more to the story.