To Future Seminarians, From a Mad Scientist

Ever since I graduated from seminary a few months back I’ve been wanting to write an entry for future seminarians. I don’t presume to know everything about seminaries nor the academic life; I simply share this as a brother who has just spent a season there. I have some friends who are planning to start seminary soon. This entry is for them and anyone else who’d like to listen in.

When I arrived at seminary I was amazed at how hesitant people were to speak of God using language that might sound devotional or emotional. It was as if theology was merely another subject like math or science, so they wanted distance between themselves and that which they were studying. I had a lurking fear that this scientific approach would rub off on me. This is what I journaled my first week:

“God, it often feels like people here would rather study you than know you. I fear I’ll be tempted to approach Christianity as a science to be studied rather than a faith to be lived out. Well, God, I’ve decided that I, too, will approach you as a science – but only if it’s like how a mad scientist approaches his work. I want to be in the lab testing and experimenting it on myself. I plan on drinking the potion and breaking the beaker over my head. I want the deep theological truths I discover here not to simply enlarge my brain but to change my being.”

Here’s my first piece of advice: approach your studies as a mad scientist. This is because seminaries are infamous for creating people with giant heads and tiny hearts.

Maybe this isn’t true for all seminaries, but it is for mine. The school I attended is steeped in a rich tradition of scholarship and rigorous academics, both of which I value. But in such a setting it’s easy to know God in only a detached, cool, academic way. It’s easy to get caught up in the arguments, polemics, theological puzzles, historical criticism, systematic this and systematic that. Now all these things are good and have their place. But they were never meant to replace white-hot worship of Jesus Christ and passion for his glory. In fact, they were meant to fuel it. I keep a yellow post-it note on my desk with these words: “Theology exists for doxology.”

It is not enough to have knowledge of God and his ways sealed off inside of us. It must stir within us, do something to us, fuse and mix with our affections and passions, leading us into deeper adoration and worship of King Jesus. Jonathan Edwards said that a truth is not fully known until one experiences the affections which are appropriate for such truth. Our faith consists of more than mere head knowledge; it’s heart knowledge. John Wesley believed Christian scholarship must seek not only light but also heat if it is to be true unto its design.
Journaling has been an important discipline in my life for over a decade now. It’s one of the main ways I flesh out my thoughts, emotions, and fears, and bare my soul before God. It’s also one way I stay honest with myself because I ask myself hard questions. And a question I was constantly asking myself these past three years was, “Is this place domesticating you, Keas?”

To help you understand why this is a genuine fear, let me share some sobering words from the Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard. Reflecting on the usual outcome of “Christian scholarship,” he writes:

“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand it, we must act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God.”

I remember riding on a motorcycle with a missionary in Asia, having a lively conversation about Christian higher education. As we cruised along, he turned his head and asked, “If Karl Marx got to teach 10 students for a whole year, how radical do you think those students would be when he finished?” Noticing that we were speeding up, I answered, “Um, I reckon they’d be pretty radical.” He replied – while gunning the engine - “Then how much more so should students taught by a Christian teacher! Our message is far more revolutionary than Marxism!”

Seminary ought to make us more radical, not less. Yet for whatever reason, this is seldom the case. Diplomas and degrees appear to have a taming effect upon us. I was fortunate to study under some of the best professors out there, yet the mood I’m describing – it’s bigger than a faculty or student body.

Either we believe in the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of or we don’t. If we do, then seminaries shouldn’t be like other graduate schools; they should be the central place that teaches us to think subversively. God’s kingdom turns the wisdom of the world on its head. There’s nothing normal about, for instance, valuing the meek and poor in spirit, or loving your enemies. In short, Christian education ought to reflect the subversive reality it attests to.

I contend that seminary has done its job if when you leave you not only know more Bible, theology, and church history but are willing to take more risks, make more sacrifices, and live more radically for the kingdom of God.

Fall in Love With the Church

My second piece of advice has to do with the social arrangement known as the church. For many of us, going to seminary involves relocating to an area away from our home church or the worshiping community we’ve been a part of. Living in a new place with new people while trying to negotiate an exorbitant amount of studying, this thought will cross your mind from time to time: “I’ll attend church when I can, but I’m not going to make it the most important thing in my life. Right now I need to just focus on my studies.”

And it’s at these times that you need to gently remind yourself how broken such thinking really is. Without the church, your studies have no meaning. Let me explain what I mean.

The Creator-Redeemer God is putting the world back to rights, and it’s for this reason that the church exists. As my good friend in New Zealand says, “God’s church doesn’t have a mission; God’s mission has a church.” In the time between the cross and ‘the consummation of all things,’ the church is God’s primary agent in the world, called and commissioned to mediate his healing love. And here’s where seminaries come into the picture. They exist in order to aid the church in its task by training its leaders, pastors, and theologians. Just as the church has meaning only in relation to God’s mission, the seminary has meaning only in relation to the church.

For the last two years I belonged to an Anabaptist church in Philadelphia. I carpooled twice a week – an hour each way – to their worship gathering and a small group. That’s four hours a week of just traveling, but I would have traveled twice as far if need be. The small group was especially meaningful for me. I loved sitting on Josh’s old, beat-up sofa with a giant mug of coffee, listening to Sara, Edward, and the others talk about their week. At seminary I sat at round tables talking theology all day. That’s fantastic – it’s just not real. People don’t live like that outside of seminary. But on Thursday nights I sat with a group of ordinary people trying to figure out how to live the way of Jesus together. I’m pretty sure my time in Philly was just as important for my “education” as my time in Princeton.
Seminary shouldn’t be a break from the church but an opportunity to fall more deeply in love with her. Your professors will assign – as they should – a massive amount of work. Writing one paper after another will exhaust you and you’ll soon learn that there’s always more reading to do. Don’t let this keep you away from being involved in a local congregation. Close the book, put down the pen, and head to church. You might just discover you’ve been sitting on a gold mine and didn’t know it. Then you will be able to figure out why, as Ephesians 5 says, Christ would give his life for this community.

Don’t Make the Journey Alone

This next bit of advice is the result of something that happened to me quite unexpectedly. And I’m sure glad it did. In the summer between my first and second years of seminary I was on the phone with a pastor-friend in Chicago discussing a few decisions I was needing to make about ministry and my studies. Midway through the conversation he said, “You know, Keas, you really shouldn’t be making these decisions on your own. You need a handful of folks to walk with you and pray for you during this season in your life.” Shortly after, I asked five friends if they would make this journey with me.

These five included friends and mentors, ages 25 to 65, living in New Mexico, Chicago, Miami, and England. We decided to have a conference call once a month in which we prayed together and they offered advice and discernment. Many of the decisions I ended up making these past two years were the result of this group. Then one of them suggested that they each choose a day of the week to pray for me. I began receiving an email each morning with their prayers, and on weekends I would send them short updates so they knew how to specifically pray for me.

They functioned almost like a group of elders over my life. They cared about not only my studies and service, but also my soul. They provided support and accountability, and pushed me to live out what I believe. And they made sure that I didn’t lose the plot; they constantly reminded me why I was at seminary and what it had to do with the calling upon my life. Then, as one more sign of their love and encouragement, they all made it to New Jersey for my graduation.
Here’s an example of a prayer I received one morning by email:
“Jesus, I pray for clarity in my brother’s vision and sight. May he see the reality of the kingdom of God today in the midst of his responsibilities, relationships, and the world. Remind him of the dreams that you’ve put into his heart and mind. Re-awaken those dreams if they’ve become dormant. Solidify the convictions that you desire to use to guide, protect, and form Keas. May he trust you with these convictions. Help my brother to see your vision of a better world…Keep Keas simple. Simple in his love for you, his lifestyle, his obedience to your voice, his relationships, and his ministry. Amen.”

I share this prayer simply so you can imagine the sort of impact it had upon me to receive these daily. What would it be like if all seminarians had small support groups like this?

Ask some folks to walk with you and cover you with prayer during this season in your life. Maybe begin with a few people that you know love you and you deem to be wise. Perhaps they’re from your church back home or the congregation you’re a part of at seminary. Figure out a way to periodically pray and dialogue together – if not by conference call, then try group email or (if they live close enough) meeting up for coffee.

Living in the wake of the Enlightenment, we’ve come to believe it’s best to make decisions as an autonomous self, free from the constraints and concerns of others. “I” is more valuable than “we” in decision-making. Yet this idea is Cartesian, not Christian. Your seminary years will be more fruitful if you’re able to move toward relationship-based discernment. One of the most significant aspects of my journey at seminary is that I didn’t do it alone.

Don’t Use the Dirty Word “Laity”

My last piece of advice is to watch your mouth. Folks who hang around seminary too long often start using the “L” word. They use it to denote the majority of believers who, unlike themselves, haven’t received formal training in theology and ministry. This divide between “laity” and “clergy” is a bit like JV and Varsity. If only there was a way to receive a seminary degree without also receiving a sense of entitlement.

What’s ironic, however, is that this term “laity” and its definition are quite foreign to the New Testament. Surveying the NT writings, John Howard Yoder notes, “Sometimes the early Christians said they were all priests; sometimes they said that the priesthood was done away with. The concrete social meanings of the two statements, though verbally opposite, were the same. All members of the body alike are Spirit-empowered.”

In Christ, the professionalization of ministry has been relativized. The distinction between clergy and laity no longer exists. The church is God’s “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2) and the ministry of the priesthood belongs to the entire congregation.

This should help us rethink how we understand ordination. Baptism is our universal ordination into the ministry. All who baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus are also baptized into his ministry. Then there is a second ordination, which many of you will experience, done with the laying of hands and prayer. This is how the church sets apart those whom the Spirit has called into special leadership. These individuals are not supposed to do the church’s ministry, but rather lead and organize the church so it can do the ministry.

We don’t need professional ministers; we need humble pastors who will lead by living and learning alongside their communities. Here’s how Jesus defined leadership for his disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your servant.”

Don’t lord your seminary degree over others. Consider it a commissioning to serve others using all you’ve received while in seminary. If you end up hanging it on your wall (I still haven’t decided what I’ll do with mine), let it be a reminder that to whom much is given, much is expected.
Well, that’s my advice for future seminarians. Pursue your studies like a mad scientist; fall in love with the church; don’t make the journey alone; and don’t start using the dirty word “laity.”

And by the way, when it’s all said and done they’ll hand you a diploma that says you’re now a “Master of Divinity.” Don’t be fooled by this. You’re not. No matter how many years we spend studying at seminary, we never become masters of divinity. As Karl Barth said, “When it comes to God, we’re always beginners.”