Seminary, Maps, and the Questions I’ll be Keeping

Hello from Charleston!

I’m home for a short week, between a January intensive and the beginning of the spring semester. I have accomplished very little of academic significance over my break, and I can’t say I rightly mind.

I could not overstate how encouraging it has been to be home. Time with family, time with friends, time walking the pine forests and watching the salt creeks rise and fall. I think the lowcountry is at its most elegant this time of year, the spartina grass silvering as the river darkens, cobalt under the sky.  And snow on live oaks! Tracing the weathered branches out and down to the ground- that was a rare treat. When life carries on at a whirlwind pace, each day seeming too important to stop to rest or play or worship, there is something wonderful about weather ‘putting us in our place,’ teaching us to stop and wonder again at the created world.

The break also gave me much-needed time to reflect on my first semester in Ambridge. Frankly, it was harder than I expected. Letting go of my expectations for school and what it would be like, being challenged in the most fundamental parts of my faith, leaving the community I love- these all left me rather worn down. And much of it I’m still processing. Much wisdom is gained in waiting, I think, if only we have the patience to wait in ignorance. Still, I’ll hazard one early reflection on seminary.

When I decided to go to Trinity, I began collecting questions that I hoped to answer there. They ranged from the particular to the general, but most centered on the ‘big ideas’ of Christianity. A small sampling:

  • Was sin necessary for the working of God’s plan?
  • What has ‘salvation’ meant to Christians over the ages?
  • What is communion with God supposed to look like?

Here’s the problem, of course. Theologians have written tomes on each of these questions. They would not be fully answered in decades of study. I know that- I knew that going in. But still, it was deeply disconcerting to be ‘finished’ with the incarnation in a matter of days. God comes to earth and gets a lecture or two; that hardly seems sufficient. Still, this is ‘the seminary problem.’ How can you explain an infinite God saving mankind in His unfathomable wisdom, and do it in three years max? No, if this is the goal of seminary, it’s a fool’s errand.

Instead, I think seminary must be understood as drawing a map. It’s a guided tour of a magnificent wilderness, a forest and mountains and a river that run ever out and down into the fields and the silvered marshes. This tour shows you the landmarks, the strange boundaries. It names the river, the mountain range and its peaks. It points to the paths in the forest, and explains where each ends. It lets you begin to draw your map in pencil, ready to be edited and refined over years and years of life and ministry.

And then it leaves you to explore.

Indeed, there are better tour guides and better teachers. There are helpful classes and (as far as I can tell) unhelpful ones. But at the end of the day, they cannot be expected to give us students answers. At least sufficient answers for the big questions. Working definitions, maybe. General ideas, the essential bounds of orthodoxy, sure. But perhaps the most dangerous thing a seminary could do would be to make its students think they have all the answers. This would be the failure of wisdom. We’re all fools before God, no matter how many letters we attach to our names.

There are forests to explore, marshes to traverse, rivers to sit and sketch and read beside. There are mountains which we will never summit, no matter how often we attempt them, and snowy fields that, no matter how often we cross them, always seem to be alive in a different way. This I have learned so far: seminary must be just the beginning. If it isn’t, I’m not sure I will have learned anything at all.

I’m so grateful for you, my friends and companions, and especially for those who gave me such a warm welcome in Charleston. After nights below zero, warm welcomes are all the more heavenly. I’m sorry about all the snow- I’ll try to take it back up with me!

Prayers:

  • Thanksgiving! For sufficient financial support for the year, for the resolution of some housing confusion, for a good semester down, and for good community in Ambridge!
  • Ministry. I’ve been asked to help lead a bible study at my local church up here, and I’m itching to get back in the saddle. But, this is likely my last chance to not do ministry for the foreseeable future, and I don’t want to take that lightly. I might still have more to learn from the bench.
  • Summer plans. I have some ideas, and am pursuing them, but would love for more direction.
  • Personal devotion. When my regular rhythms of life change (like over vacation), I struggle to maintain any discipline of prayer and study. Stepping back into an overloaded semester, I’d be grateful for prayers for focus and regular devotions, especially in the morning.
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