A Letter to Undergraduate Students of Religion
When I finished my undergraduate education, I was a very different kind of Christian than when I had started. I was better at reading the Bible; I understood the historical roots of theology that ground contemporary discussions; I knew better how to investigate truth claims and note flaws or inconsistencies in an argument. Simply put: I was a smarter, more confident, and theologically-inclined me.
I also never spent time to meditate in scripture, I had no connection with an actual church body, and I acted as if theology was meant to simply unweave the complex tapestry of various doctrines. I let myself get cynical, lazy, and judgmental. I had learned about doctrine but little about faith.
It seems common for students of religion and philosophy to end up cynical and combative, oftentimes losing their faith at an unmarked signpost on the path to graduation (or their first year of seminary). To avoid this godless approach to the Christian faith, I propose three things undergraduates ought to remember that will help keep their faith and character alive throughout their studies.
Theology is too vast and complex to simplify it into small formals or tropes.
Every denomination and sect has theological commitments that separate one sect from another. Too easily do we brush off thinkers (and fellow students) from another tradition because they do not share our exact theological commitments. This makes us poor readers of those who paved the way for us to think theologically. What is more, the multiplicity of ideas from people who smarter than us demands humility enough to be read carefully and graciously. Whatever helpful formulas we may have to speak of God, there are certainly more out there that warrant our attention. Approaching these ideas humbly will bolster our faith, our reading of scripture, and our approach to the theology.
You are probably not going to fix your church or denomination.
This is the other side of the coin above. Because we have found compelling ideas outside of our denomination or church circle, we often want to come back and fix everything. No doubt, a lot of people belong to heterodox churches that probably warrant the criticisms offered; however, the role of most 18-to-22-year-old undergraduate students in the church is not to be John the Baptist. Rather than to being the person critiquing everything said by the pastor, bishop, or founding documents, it is better to sit down humbly and engage carefully, or go elsewhere (to sit down humbly and engage carefully). For those of us that are part of a large denomination, it is likely that there are already men and women critiquing our tradition constructively, helping to create important conversations and subtly shift the direction of the church. Follow those people. Be involved in those conversations. It is better to sit patiently and humbly than to play a pseudo-reformer.
Do not let the study of theology and scripture separate you from encountering God.
It is important that one’s academics and worship be not bracketed from each other. If our theology is actually an explication of the Christian faith, then we cannot forget what provides entrance into that faith, specifically, Christ’s life and death and the work of the Spirit. Too easily do we turn Christianity into theological abstraction; we must remember that it is primarily about an encounter with a person. Thus, a central goal of theology is to help facilitate that encounter, whether through the work of the church or in the daily life of an individual. Doing this requires the cultivation of habits. However one’s denomination performs its rites, ground yourself in them. Prayer, meditation on scripture, Eucharist—these are the means by which God sustains us in our comings and goings. The best minds in theology often belong to great men and women of substantial faith and commitment to the church. Academics should foster faith. When theology is done as a spiritual exercise, it will do just that.
With enough space and time to reflect, I am certain this list would grow exponentially, but the three comments above reflect, as a whole, what I wish I could have heard more often. Though my college had numerous professors who were concerned with the personal faith of their students, it seems to me that many theological institutions fail to properly build up the soul along with the mind of their students. Some pedagogical changes need to be made in our colleges, universities, and seminaries. If students could find the center of theological reflection in their own living faith, much harm would be avoided. And better theology will be done.
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