Monday, November 4, 2013

Flexibly Faithful: A Dispatch from Divinity School

“Blessed are the flexible, for they will never be bent out of shape.” With those words, the host preacher opened our Saturday “Next Church” conference. I will spend the day doing church instead of doing homework for divinity school. A flexible faith seems like a prerequisite for theological education in the 21st century.

Last week in one of my seminars, I learned that most did not consider Vanderbilt a seminary at all because the distinction for a divinity school comes with its secular location and its scholarly credentials. I never got that memo and had been telling all my Facebook friends & Twitter followers that I was a seminarian. One of my fellow students delicately explained that seminaries were denominationally and doctrinally affiliated and required confessional faith from their students. When I replied that our school’s “Living The Commitments” document had a kind of confessional aspect to it, I am not sure that folks understood what I meant.

When I got my first exam handed back in the history of Christianity class that occupies more of my time than any other course this semester and for which I am composing this blog, I was emotionally distraught, disappointed, and on-the-spot decided that evaluative, numerical grades were proof of the persistent atheism inherent in studying the divine in any kind of systematic fashion. How could we measure comprehension of the incomprehensible!?!?

When we read about the orthodox roots of our faith, I worried I could never be orthodox enough. When we read about the heretics, I was sure I might possibly be one. When we read about the martyrs, I first confessed my lack of faith and fear that I could never be one. Then I confessed that the martyrs creeped-me-out anyways and were evidence of a selfish deathwish among early followers. Why would anyone today want to die for their faith when we are still learning how to live our faith in a profoundly disorienting postmodern period?

I remember posting on Facebook about some of my frustrations with the orthodoxy versus heresy discussion and getting rhetorically blindsided by a conservative Catholic friend. I’m grateful that my professors, two wildly intelligent and compassionate chaps who are both historically grounded yet faithfully flexible in their own regard, seem to appreciate some pushback against the ancient texts—even though my pushback is usually too speculative and contemporary and editorial and not nearly historically grounded enough.

It seems each ancient text we’ve read presents me with new challenges. Despite my best efforts to gently wear the historical lens suggested by my teachers, I always ended up in the rose-tinted goggles of a deep and desiring interpretation, as if these early Christian texts were being presented to me as is for immediate immersion, investigation, and evaluation. Which brings us to my encounter with Basil of Caesarea, a fourth century church father. From reading our required text Basil of Caesarea: A Guide to His Lifeand Doctrine by Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, I gleaned several key nuggets that confirm Basil as a liturgical, theological, and monastic badass.

Radde-Gallwitz’s introduction begins with Basil standing up to power to defend his understanding of the Trinity. According to the author, “Basil was calling the emperor’s religion a sham maintained by force rather than genuine faith.” Radde-Gallwitz goes on to frame Basil as a people’s theologian, wrestling with doctrine in a dynamic, communal, and practical context. Foreshadowing today’s “sermon series” shtick with a string of homilies to shame the rich, Basil’s faith fought famine. Basil wasn’t above using slick deception to prompt a meeting with his close colleague Gregory, a sign to me that piety sometimes takes the form of trickery. But the best of what Basil brings can be found in a brief statement by Radde-Gallwitz regarding Basil’s “stance of theological humility” suggesting “we not claim to know more about God than we can.” This admission of knowing what we don’t know about God as well as what we do know about God can be profoundly liberating regardless of the era in which we believe. This sense of humility serves us well when we arrive at the creeds.

Over the summer, I attended the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. We had the joy of hearing the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weberwhen she was interviewed by Krista Tippet from the NPR program On Being. In the course of the conversation, they addressed the creeds. Bolz-Weber shares this insight concerning parishioners who might resist reciting creeds. She explains how it might go: “I can’t say the Creed because I don’t know if I believe every line in the Creed. I'm like, oh, my God. Nobody believes every line of the Creed. But in a room of people, for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right? So it’s not — this is Western individualism run amok in religion. It’s not your creed. It’s the church’s creed . . .”

When I reconverted to Christianity after a spiritual awakening in 2009, I spoke the creeds in church as though my life depended on it, because to me in a very real sense, it did. I’ve never tested or tried to prove each line of the creed in an abstract or rational manner, for the meaning seems written in a different language, composed in the contrast of salvation and sin, in the light and dark places of the human spirit. But at the same time, the intellectual skepticism and doubt of an academic approach to theology suggests that we might simultaneously inhabit more than one space. 

If I’ve learned anything about the spiritual stance one should claim to maintain sanity while pursuing theological education, for me it’s that we need a simultaneously high Christology and low Christology, a firm yet flexible faith. Nothing less than such a dramatic dance in both extremes allows me to enjoy the academic adventure of advanced theological education without engaging in an endless inner duel to destroy all duality and do all doubt.  

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