Seminary

Various writings from my experiences in Seminary

Home Cooking and Theological Questions

This fall I am taking Theology 1 in seminary and struggling greatly with it. Some of this is because I do not yet have a sufficient theological language to respond to the questions being asked. Because of this I can only respond with statements of belief and analogies to try and help explain my beliefs. Another part is because it feels like many of the underlying theological questions are superfluous.

We are asked to say why we think theological questions are important and what is at stake with them. To me, mostly they seem fairly unimportant with little if anything at stake. It seems like the response acceptable in class is, because God is this or did that, then we should do something in particular. Because God created the world ex nihilo or out of chaos we should care for creation. Because we hold a social trinitarian view of God when should love our neighbor.

These responses seem to me to be at best superfluous. I care for creation and love my neighbor because of my loving experience of God.

As an illustration, I will turn to my mother’s home cooking. We are approaching the sixth anniversary of the death of my mother and I will say something it may seem incredible for a loving son to say, but my mother really wasn’t a great cook. There was often not enough food. Spices were a luxury rarely used. The meals were often utilitarian and boiled to blandness.

Yet it was also, other than my wife’s cooking, the best food I ever ate. The spices or lack thereof did not really matter. What mattered was that the food was prepared and served with love, with a deeper love than I could fully comprehend. My mother wasn’t looking for praise for her cooking. While she might have gotten some pleasure if I said I really appreciated the way the flavors complimented one another, what she was more concerned about was that we were nourished. If anything, the response that meant the most was, “Thank you, mommy. I love you.”

The Psalm 51 says

Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.

For me, the key theological question is, “how do I praise God from my place of brokenness”? Starting anywhere other than “Thank you God, I love you” seems superfluous.

Christian Education and Brett Kavanaugh

Recently, for the Postmodern Christian Education class that I’m taking at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, we were presented with several case studies. An affluent white man who has always been involved in church but not in Christian education is facing retirement and about to become a grandfather. A group of urban singles and couples in their twenties who grew up in the church but are no longer involved in church struggle with their multicultural friends to find stable jobs and housing. A retired African American social worker in her eighties who has always been involved in her church and now many of her friends are passing away.

We were invited to think about where they are on their faith journey, the issues they face, and how we might design Christian education opportunities that meet their needs. I thought of these scenarios as another played out on the national stage; a highly successful white man in his early fifties about to be awarded an incredible honor, a lifetime appointment to a job that will help shape the course of our country, who sees his success threatened by a ghost from his past.

It has been a tough week. I have seen friend after friend post on Facebook about their experiences of sexual abuse in years past. I have read about record call volumes to rape crisis lines as the unfolding news triggers painful memories. I have read about seeking self-care during this time.
For me, some of this self-care has come in spending time in my studies. I look at what is going on in Washington and then I read about theologians thinking about important attributes to the concept of God. I wonder, “what can we do about the moral crisis our country is in?” Then I read about reflective, liberative, and transformative pedagogy. I am incredibly blessed to be in seminary right now.

A friend of mine posted about the Kavanaugh hearings. She spoke about his testimony about getting into Yale and Yale Law school.

From the way he spoke of it, it sounds as if his academic journey was hideous and soul-destroying, and only to be justified by a very specific reward, dangled in front of him for decades, and now to be inexplicably, outrageously, snatched away by conniving enemies.

It is a stark contrast to my experiences in seminary. One of the texts we are using for Postmodern Christian Education is Parker Palmer’s, To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education. In chapter 3, Palmer talks about the “hidden curriculum”. He quotes Schumacher,

Meanwhile, world crises multiply and everybody deplores the shortage, or even total lack, of 'wise' men or women, unselfish leaders, trustworthy counsellors etc. It is hardly rational to expect such high qualities from people who have never done any inner work and would not even understand what was meant by the words

This takes me back to the exercises in Postmodern Christian Education: How might we design Christian Educational opportunities for Brett Kavanaugh and his friends?

Postmodern Online Seminary Water

This is a discussion post for the class Post Modern Christian Education that I’m taking at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, adapted to the blog. The references are to James K.A Smith How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor and John Roberto Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century. The discussion questions

To me, the enlightenment and modernity with their focus on rationality presented a greater challenge to Christian Education than postmodernism. I tend to think of God as being so much greater than what we can approach rationally. We need stories and metaphors and with my strong leaning to apophatic approaches to God, I wonder if that is even enough. Postmodern questions of our ways of understanding, challenges of binaries, and promotion of counter narratives provides rich ways in which we can expand our experience of God.

A good illustration of this right at the beginning of Smith where he asks, “Where should we look for the ‘thin spaces’ that still seem haunted by transcendence? Or have they disappeared…?” (Smith, 1). The idea of “thin spaces” doesn’t seem very modern or enlightened either in terms of rationality or in terms of the dominant narratives. Postmodernism allows us to talk about other narratives that go beyond rationalism to make space for the transcendent.

Smith goes on to talk about the secular “shift in the ‘conditions of belief’” (Smith, 22) which he does in the context of David Foster Wallace (Smith, 14-17). Many people know Wallace through his famous 2005 Commencement address at Kenyon College, this is water. The ‘conditions of belief’ are the water we find ourselves in. The full text of Wallace’s speech also talks about an atheist and a religious person discussing God and what it takes to believe.

This leads to Roberto’s list of forces affective religious identify formation in the twenty-first century. Roberto mentions the “increasing impact of digital media and web technologies”. (Roberto, Kindle Location 173). The fact that I reference this from a Kindle in a post to an online discussion forum illustrates this point.

Wallace talks about the water of the modern human condition. In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks about “living water”. How do we talk about this living water in a Postmodern digital world?

Post Modern Christian Education, #CDSPTheology, and the Decline of Church Involvement

Tomorrow, classes start for my second fall semester at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Since I started, I’ve had much less time for writing in my blog, so I figured I’d try to get this post written before all my writing energy goes elsewhere. If I can manage it, I’ll post extracts from some of what I’m reading and writing for class here, but don’t be surprised if there are fewer posts here over the coming few months.

This semester, I’m taking Post Modern Christian Education and Theology 1. I’ve done my readings for the first week and find them overlapping in some interesting ways. I’m also thinking about current events and how they might relate to these classes.

Morgan Guyton has a post up on Patheos about the Roman Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse Scandals in Pennsylvania and the call by Archbishop Vigano for Pope Francis to resign. No, You Can’t Blame Pope Francis For This. He writes, “It is not simply a matter of policy; it is a theological issue.” The original post got a bunch of comments and my sharing of it on Facebook got its share of comments too.

It seems like there are several different components to the discussion that seem to be talking past each other. How should the church be organized and how hierarchical should the organization be? Richard Hooker, an influential sixteenth century Anglican theologian, in his “Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie”, considers the role of bishops or presbyters in church polity to be adiaphora, or a matter indifferent to salvation.

How libertarian or authoritarian should church leadership be? What role should gender play in church leadership? How do we understand sexuality? Lots of fun topics to explore. Is lack of consensus on these issues leading to a decline in church attendance?

Yesterday, after nearly 200 years, the UCC Church of the Redeemer in New Haven, CT had its final service. Around me, more and more Episcopal churches are moving to part-time priests. What is the future for churches in the United States?

As I think about clergy sexual abuse scandals, the decline of church attendance in the United States, not to mention the impact of climate change on our world, it seems like all that is missing is a pre-exilic prophet, from the time before the Babylonian exile, putting things all into a greater context. It could be supplemented by more readings of the current U.S. Presidency in the context of The Scottish Play.

How do we link the stories of pre-exilic prophets and Shakespeare to our situation today? One of the books I’m reading for Post Modern Christian Education, Soul Stories: African American Christian Education by Anne Streaty Wimberly talks about “storylinking”. It will be interesting to explore how we can link some of these stories.

One interesting exploration of this was the introduction to James K.A Smith’s “How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor” which we read for this week. I appreciated the references to David Foster Wallace’s stories (pages 14-17).

Yet what I found even more interesting was the discussion of different aspects of “secular”. Smith describes Taylor’s view of secularism this way:

A society is secular3 insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested).

(pages 21-22)

This leads me over to my thoughts about Theology 1. We’ve started off with Alister E. McGrath’s “Christian Theology: An Introduction” and Ralph McMichael’s “The Vocation of Anglican Theology”. I’ve been thinking a lot about western Christianity’s apparent need for its theology to be systematic and rational, especially after the Enlightenment.

How does a systematic rational theology help us deal with the aftermath of the Great War, with the Holocaust, with nuclear weapons, and with climate change? Are there limits to our systematic rationalism?

Has western culture fallen into a form of idolatry where created rationality is worshiped instead of the creator of all that is rational or beyond what can be understood rationally? How does this fit with Taylor’s talk about secular society and the decline of church involvement in the United States?

Recently, a friend spoke about her thoughts on why religion is declining in the United States. She attributed it to problems people have believing in the angry God of the Old Testament and the religion of angry white men who worship this God and hate homosexuals.

I don’t believe that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is this angry God that many people caricaturize God as. Perhaps the bigger issue is that the assumption is that we live in a rational world and we can understand God rationally. It seems like we’ve lost our ability to see and appreciate that which transcends our understanding, and that this is the great loss. It is where I find common ground with those who have little use for God that are seeking to reconnect life to art. It is like trying to reconnect life to spirit and things that go beyond rationality.

It will be interesting to see how my thoughts and feeling evolve over the coming term. It will be interesting to see how some of our national and global dramas shake out over the coming months, and, of course, it will be interesting to see how much time I can make for posting to my blog.

Writing and Thinking - Fiona's First Day at Simon's Rock

There were times around the dinner table when my eldest daughter would say, “I think I feel a blog post coming”. It was the world they grew up in, a world where we talked about life, education, religion, politics, music, poetry, and grasshoppers. These discussions helped shape all of us.

Now, my daughters are scattered. The eldest is currently working a doctorate at Doshisha University in Japan. The middle is building a community of artists around Boston and the youngest has just started at Bard College at Simon’s Rock at the other end of the Massachusetts.

Besides the discussions around the dinner table, we have sought to give all our daughters educational opportunities to nurture and develop a lifelong love of learning. They have been brought up in families where this lifelong love of learning is multigenerational. It is in their DNA.

At the break of day Saturday morning, Kim, Fiona, and I set forth from our home in Connecticut. I am working on a Masters of Divinity degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific. So, as my wife and youngest daughter mostly slept, as I listened to The Vocation of Anglican Theology by Ralph McMichael on my Kindle. What is theology? How important is it for theology to be systematic or critical? What makes a theology ‘Anglican’? How do we think about other forms of theology? Reformed? Roman Catholic? Eastern Orthodox?

It isn’t so much about learning new information. When did St. Augustine of Hippo live? it is about being transformed by what we learn. What will Fiona learn at Simon’s Rock? How will it change her? How am I being changed by my studies at CDSP?

We went through all the check-in processes and then started moving Fiona into her dorm. We had a great lunch together and then headed off to the opening convocation. The sky opened up pouring down tears of sadness as parents prepared to say goodbye to their children and tears of joy at the prospect of the adults these students would become.

The students went of to their first writing and thinking workshop and the adults stuck remained in the auditorium. I whispered to my wife that the kids would probably have a better time that we would. I suspect that many of these students are apples that have not fallen far from the tree and their parents would love writing and thinking workshop.

To my pleasant surprise, the adults were given the opportunity to do a little bit of a writing and thinking workshop themselves. I thought and wrote about education. I will need to write a paper about this for the Postmodern Christian Education class I’m taking this fall. What is my theology of Christian Education? My current teaching philosophy? My learning goals for the semester?

These are great questions. Some I have clear thoughts on, others are more vague. I am influenced by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. My thinking follows the shape of a rhizome; interconnected without a clear starting point or endpoint. My goal is transformation, and I’m open to being transformed into something unexpected. I hope my daughters are seeking similar transformations.

Later in the afternoon, we all returned to Fiona’s dorm to finish off the unpacking and say our goodbyes. Fiona spoke about a poem they read, which Miranda immediately recognized, Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day which ends asking,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I look forward to seeing Fiona’s wild and precious life unfold at Simon’s Rock. It made me think of Robin Williams telling his students, Carpe Diem, Seize the Day. It is my hope that Fiona will seize the day at Simon’s Rock. It is my hope that Fiona will “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” as Thoreau says in Walden.

At the end of the day, (yes, another metaphor our schedule gave us), after we left Fiona at college, we headed off to visit my father in a nursing home. Much of his short-term memory is gone and he’s had a rough few days. We got there and one of my brothers was visiting with him. Despite his health issues, he was lucid and coherent. We had a pleasant discussion, often returning to the same topic. In the background there was another patient who simply repeated “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Cinderella. It had the feeling of a strange absurdist play being performed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

On the way home, we received a text message from Fiona about “Air Traffic”. We didn’t have the context and weren’t sure what to make of it. We found out it was a reference to the book, “Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America” by Gregory Pardlo.

It is hard to face our mortality, even if it comes simply in the reminder to seize the day. It can be harder to face the mortality of our parents, especially if our relationship with our parents is complicated, like Gregory Pardlo’s was with his father. Do I see Gregory’s father in my father? Do my daughters see Gregory’s father in me? These are perhaps some good questions for us all to think about but may also be beyond the scope of this blog.

This morning as I was preparing for church, Fiona messaged me asking my opinion about St. Augustine of Hippo. It is hard to go into details over Facebook Messenger, especially without knowing the context. I noted his important role in church history and his writings about grace. I am reading Christian Theology, An Introduction by Alister E. McGrath. McGrath focuses on Augustine’s view of grace, salvation, and original sin. He contrasts this to Pelagius in an either/or, black/white sort of way. It reflects a common view in Christianity that talks about Pelagianism as heresy. However, it seems like often both sides views are exaggerated. I think about the great quote from the Pope in Brother Sun, Sister Moon, “In our obsession of original sin, we too often forget original innocence”.

Fiona and I are also very interested in the Eastern Orthodox church and there is a lot we could explore on various Orthodox views of Augustine, but this is more than long enough already.

Now that my daughters are all off in different locations, I wonder to what extent we can have some of the old dinner discussions in longer form online posts. I am wondering if others want to join in.

What are you thinking? What are you writing about? What are your reactions to these thoughts?

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