Ever since I made it public and have begun attending Candler I have, inevitably, had conversations with well-meaning people about their “concerns” with my choice for graduate education institutions. The other day I had a very similar conversation with a current first year student who seemed to voice the very same “concerns” with Candler. So I think being almost halfway done with my 3-year seminary experience it is time to reflect on my experience of Candler as a school and the culture of Candler and whether it lives up to or defies the “myths” that are spread in so many circles.
“Candler is a liberal school that will take your Jesus away is you aren’t careful“-
This is a favorite of many well-meaning people who seem to be concerned that seminary will make one think too much and, inevitably, seek to destroy someone’s faith. I remember comments that Dr. Brent Strawn made at my orientation last year before my first day at Candler. He said something like “If a school can ‘take Jesus from you’ you probably didn’t have much of a relationship to begin with.” He went on to implore us to not only seek academic and intellectual endeavors in graduate school but to also open our faith lives to new lessons and revelations of God. Often, if someone has a major crisis of faith in seminary it can be attributed to a lack of continuing to cultivate one’s faith life. In other words, we are not at our home churches anymore, we are not in youth group, and we are not here to have our faith lives spoon fed by professors. It is up to us to seek to find God and to have eyes to see where God is seeking us.
I am also reminded of some words I heard Fred Craddock say once when he said he found his studies not only influenced his thought but also his faith. He said he was tired of reading materials that might be an inch deep in theology in the spirit of keeping one’s studies always separate from one’s faith life. I have always remembered this and have found there are actually some very influential materials that have greatly influenced my faith and helped shape me in new ways-materials I would not have read if not assigned in a class to read them.
“Candler is just a liberal school that will push liberal ideals on you-you can’t go back to South GA preaching that kind of stuff”-
Well many at Candler are liberal. I won’t act like that’s a myth. Many do have liberal agendas they use to approach their various areas of ministry. But the real question I have is “should one keep out that which one does not agree with?” I mean, are we that weak-minded that we can’t use the God-given gift of discernment to weed out that which we don’t agree with? And even more, can we not make friends with even those who we don’t always agree with? I have over the last year and half sought to champion views that many consider “conservative” and “evangelical.” I have found nothing but support from Candler administration. In fact, I have had more conversations about how glad they are the view is being represented and have not yet had a conversation to the contrary. I have also met wonderful people who love God and don’t always agree with me-nor I with them. But they are good people and friends the same. This is the real world and we are going to have to learn to live with and love even those we don’t agree with. I will not let differences silence my voice to those views I feel deserve voice in theological discussion. But I will also not let differences keep me from learning valuable lessons-even lessons from someone I don’t agree with. I have found that in many respects my views to the contrary of that which is the majority at Candler have been strengthened by my minority status. I understand the “other side” in a way I would never understand had I chosen a school where I was in the majority. Not to mention I get to enjoy being someone’s “token evangelical friend”.
It is a sad thought that we feel we have to be in a majority all the time. It is as though we feel the compulsion to be justified in everything we do. And if we risk being wrong then at least we have a majority to fall back on.
Yesterday, in a sermon in Chapel, Dr. Tom Long made a statement that just stuck with me all day. He said, “Sometimes it seems we would rather be right than free.” Whether one is liberal or conservative I think this way of living and thinking is symptomatic in our petty arguments over right vs. wrong. In the middle of our seeking to lobby for support for our various views and in our efforts to dispel that which we don’t agree with I wonder if God is not sitting right next to us in class, at Brooks Commons, in Chapel, in Pitts Library, and in the halls of our school seeking to set us free. Free, not to our own beliefs, but to new beliefs. Free to new understanding of what biblical text says and what the Kingdom of God looks like. And, most of all, free to live abundantly as a child of God-even a child of God in the setting of a liberal seminary.
A particular passage in Ephesians was brought to light this morning in New Testament and I wanted to reflect on it because it has, I feel, a lot of merit especially considering the state of the Church in our modern era.
Ephesians 2:11-22 says:
11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
I had a friend mention the statement they hear all the time earlier today: “I love God, it’s the Church I have a problem with.” Oh if I had a nickel for every time I have heard that myself. When did the church get out of the business of reconciliation? Well some might contend around the time Constantine made Christianity legal and it became the national religion of Rome. Others may even contend, as I do, that the Church never quite got into the business of reconciliation if we use Paul’s other letters as our evidence.
So what does reconciliation look like? Well for Christians it is the very essence of our salvation. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are reconciled into a relationship with God that, before that time, was never quite possible in the same way it was after. How ironic it is, then, that Christians and the Church seems to forget this fact so quickly. We establish our institutions. We build our steeples and set our rules and we’ll be damned in we are going to let anyone in who does not first adhere to the arbitrary conditions we set.
Now please keep in mind that I am not advocating for a free-for-all in terms of Christian conduct. I don’t think Paul would either. Opening the doors of church wider does not mean we say we can behave however we please in hopes of not seeming judgmental. But it does mean we choose those standards, as Paul did, that matter to God. I don’t think hymnal singing vs. projector and screen singing was one of those standards. I don’t think organ music vs. live band music was one either. I really don’t think political ideology was a standard. And I know for a fact (as attested to by many of Paul’s writings) that racial, ethnic, gender, social, and even (yes, even) sexual orientation was meant to be a standard which one had to adhere to a “correct” policy before they could be in the community of Jesus Christ.
We are called as the Church to build one another up in love and seek to serve each other in the spirit of mutual edification (cf. Eph 4:1-3; Rom 14:19; Gal 5:13; 1 Thess 5:15). As Luke Timothy Johnson said this morning, “If the Church is not in the business of reconciliation it’s doing anything.”
It is an interesting idea that our primary job as the Church could be to work to reconcile the world to God. If we are called to be the body of Christ then how shall this body behave? What are the primary tasks of existence in this body? If God seeks to reconcile the world then I do believe the Church is one of the primary vehicles of this mission. But this means attitudes within the Church must change. We can not be about building up our institutions. We can not be about “converting” everyone to our way of doing things. We must be about reconciliation if this passage is to be taken seriously. Self-preservation is nothing more than an attempt to continue the existence of the institution in a statement that we lack the faith that God will preserve the Church to do the very work of God. Reconciliation is the Missio Dei and the Church is summoned to be the vehicle of this radical love God has for the world.
And the ironic thing is, I can’t think of anything more Evangelical than this!
So the other my New Testament professor pointed out a text from Paul used in both Romans and Galatians. In Greek it is Pistis Christeou. Translated it is “Faith Christ.” Now the debate is whether this text refers to “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ.” And the implications of the translation could be very meaningful to the text and its interpretation. ”Faith in Christ” refers to the traditional Xhristocentric claim that salvation comes through belief in Christ alone. But if one translates the phrase to mean “faith of Christ” then universalist claims could be given more validity. In other words, if we are justified by the faith of Christ then is that exclusive for Christians alone or for everyone? And what is the nature of our understanding of salvation? I will say that I don’t know and don’t have a clear stand on either option. The discussion served to raise more questions for me than answers. But it did make me reflect on a couple ideas:
I know for some this may anger you that a self-avowed Evangelical Christian writes such things that go against the very tradition of Evangelicalism. I know for others you may be glad to hear that maybe I think a more universalist notion of salvation is in order-well don’t put me over there either. I wonder if the real answer here is the non-answer? Maybe the beauty of this particular debate is that we aren’t the ones who have to give the answers? Maybe we shouldn’t worry about the after-life nearly as much as we always have. And if that’s the case, then what does that mean for how we live the life we have RIGHT NOW???
Sunday served as a great reminder of how much a preacher needs God and how easy it is to forget that. Please note before continuing reading that I am not in need of encouragement nor am I feeling uber discouraged after my sermon Sunday. I am actually very excited at what seems to have been a great learning opportunity.
Right after I finished my sermon Sunday I knew something didn’t feel right. ”It was rushed”, I thought. Even my ultra-honest but so far very impressed with my preaching wife said, “You seemed off…were you nervous…I didn’t follow it well.” My Con-Ed supervisor and Associate Pastor even asked me when the last time I preached was. ”A few months ago in my home church,” I responded. ”Well it was a bit academic,” he said. Now don’t get me wrong. He said it was good. I hit he text hard and didn’t go for the easy answer in Job. I left it open-ended as any good Job sermon should be. But it was lacking a personal touch. It was lacking that personal invitation to the listener to join me in the text. Instead, I kept the distance there and did the best I could tell them what it was like in the text-rather than inviting them there with me.
Over the last few days I have come to the conclusion that I really envy student pastors in this area. Sure, they do have to work harder than those of us not serving a church. But they never have to make that awkward transition from seminary to the “real world.” And most in seminary would probably argue that seminary is very far from the “real world” or even the “real church.” But student pastors continually keep one foot in the church and one foot in seminary. They never really run the risk of losing their zest for relevance in the church. They don’t normally become cynics of the church as many in seminary do. And most of all, they don’t normally fall prey to the trap of never inviting their listeners to where they are.
I am convinced this is a gift all preachers must master. This doesn’t mean we water down the gospel to “meet people where they are.” But it does mean we don’t get too haughty in our assumption that an M.Div automatically makes us the smartest person in the room. After all, “the last shall be first and the first will be last.” And “all of us are to be like a little child.” It is this lesson I am thankful to have had taught to me after this past weekend.
Interesting article from Hauerwas on Christian Education in the Academy. Curious to know what people think of this one.