When I registered for fall quarter a few weeks ago, I was able to register on a Wednesday instead of waiting till Thursday. Students at Fuller are able to register for classes in an order based on the hours of work that they have completed. (I assume most programs work that way but realize I could be wrong.) The more classes you have taken, the sooner you get to register. That way, if you are close to the end of your program, you get first access to the classes you need to finish. If you just started, you pick from what’s still available because there will be something you need to take that’s still open.
Registering a day earlier was a small moment, but it reminded me that I am completing the work. Slowly, I’m pacing through the program. I’m practicing celebrating so I probably should have had some cake. What am I saying? Of course I should have had cake.
This summer, I’ve struggled with feeling like seminary is a waste of time. I love it, but I questioned what good it will do to put this much time and effort and money into it. I’m ok. I don’t need an intervention, but I am trying to be honest about attending seminary in these reflections. I keep preaching the same truths to myself. One, I do believe that God has directed me to seminary and there’s a reason for that. Two, I decided when I started that if I never did anything different than the work I was already doing, seminary would be worth it.
That wasn’t my only struggle this summer. The world is still on fire. I’m slowly settling into the idea that the world has always been on fire. There have been times where people had much less access to the entirety of the world, but a quick look through history reveals that we’ve always been in a mess. Natural disasters occur in cascading order: wildfire, hurricane, flooding, more wildfires. We slander and scream in public squares. Scandal erupts in the church. Governments are violently overthrown; our own country even experienced an attempted insurrection. A global pandemic rages. We also upended our own private world and moved six hours away. Everything on all sides has felt unsettled.
To finish our systematic theology class this summer, we had to write a final research paper on literally anything we wanted. I don’t like those metrics; it’s too broad. So I flipped through my class notes, making a list of ideas from the lectures. Somehow in the midst of 2021, I decided it was a good idea to look at the behavior of the church during the Holocaust. Spoiler: it’s not great. One could easily make the argument that the church is often a dumpster fire right along with the world. In my research, however, I started stumbling upon small pockets of resistance from the church. It wasn’t only resistance to Hitler’s regime, but also resistance to the broader church culture of silence, complicity, and cooperation.
Of course, I “know” about Bonhoeffer. I haven’t read his work or read much about him though. This journal article and its small snippets moved reading Bonhoeffer’s work much farther up my priority list. I found where you can read the article if you’re interested. It’s short: only 10 pages. I’m going to quote the lines where something shifted in me. “To put it bluntly, the world appeared to be going to hell. Yet despite this devastation, Bonhoeffer wrote with passion and clarity of God’s love for this world.” (This is on page 5 of the link.)
God loves this world, these people. He’s proclaimed His reconciliation with the world through the work of Jesus and we are to carry that message as God’s ambassadors. Even with natural disasters and violence and pandemics and hate-filled speech and actions, God loves this world. As I’ve been reading the news, I’ve been whispering that God loves this world. As I look at the sometimes monotonous routines of my own life, I’ve been whispering that God loves this world. As I hike and stare at the sky through the treetops, I’ve been whispering that God loves this world. As I work and contribute to community, I’ve been whispering that God loves this world.
Eschatology, or our study of end times, is something I refuse to argue about even though I have opinions. I do think there are two specific ways we can err with our end times theology and one of those is when it leads us to live in fear, seeing every headline as a verse in Revelation and reading America into the Bible. Jesus’s return is something we should await with anticipation and expectation, not dread. The other way is tamed gnosticism. Nerd alert for a moment, but hang with me. Gnosticism is a belief that there is a secret knowledge that not everyone can have. It espouses a dualism or divide between the spiritual and the physical and teaches that an escape from the physical to the spiritual is desired and necessary. Typically matter is regarded as evil. Historically gnostics have held the incarnation (or Christ becoming human) was only supposed, that Christ didn’t actually become human. Most of us raise our eyebrows at a statement like that, but here’s the kicker we don’t always recognize: in gnostic thought, salvation was an escape from the physical world.
The long explanation might have seemed unnecessary, but you should know gnosticism is a heresy. We need to recognize it for what it is when we encounter it. Gnosticism has been soundly denounced by the church because the incarnation is a central point of the faith. Our beliefs about creation also refute gnosticism, but often our eschatology does not. We often frame our end times beliefs with an “I’ll fly away” or “what does any of this matter because it’s going to burn” mindset that is dangerous. It is this tamed gnosticism that allows us to ignore the world and dismiss our responsibility to participate in God’s love for this world. We believe that God is going to make the world new, not that we’re going to escape from the earth. One day God will reign over the world in a new creation and we will live in resurrected bodies on a physical earth. This world matters because we are made to live in a world; we are called to steward the earth.
God loves this world. God is calling us to live in His kingdom here, not just wait to leave. Bonhoeffer defined “this worldliness” this way: “living fully in the midst of life’s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences, and perplexities–then one takes seriously no longer one’s own suffering but rather the suffering of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane.” I can hear you wondering how on earth could this be helpful. Isn’t it just as discouraging as many of the other things I’ve said? But what I find is this: God’s people have had the courage to live faithfully with God in this life in much worse times than I’m experiencing. Writing this seminary paper turned into nourishment for my soul; I was encouraged by that great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.
Sometimes well-meaning people warn others away from seminary. You’ll go and lose your faith. It will all be head knowledge and no transformation. Of course that could happen, but one doesn’t need seminary for it to happen either. On the contrary, I’ve found that seminary has fanned the sparks of my own faith when fuel was scarce. I’ve learned facts, yes; but I’ve also changed. I’ve let what I’m learning transform how I’m living. Part of that is due to excellent professors who are seeking to nurture growth and not just instruct for exams.
As a slight aside, you might have noticed that I’ve been uncharacteristically silent on Instagram. I’m taking a break there and playing around with writing weekly emails with more of an-instagram-like-caption and links and these blog posts instead. It’s been life-giving for me and I hope it will be for you as well. I’m consistently asked about seminary and I’d like to semi-regularly discuss seminary and my journey there in the emails. If you want to join in, subscribe to the list and let me know what questions you have.
Gnosticism descriptors taken from An Introduction to Christian Theology, which was our main textbook for class this summer.
Here’s the link to the Bonhoeffer article again.
N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope is a great resource if you want to learn more about new creation.