Doing Theology In Seminary (1)


“Disconnecting from change does not recapture the past. It loses the future.” – Kathleen Norris (Dakota, 65)
higher education reconceived
The quote is on page two of Higher Education Reconceived, co-written by Professors Reynolds and Craven. The passage is in Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company).

You Must Learn

It may seem obvious, but many people who start their theological journey in seminaries surprisingly refuse to “learn.” What do I mean? Let me talk about it.

During my doctoral course work, I took an “education” class taught by Dr. Sherrie Reynolds, an educational studies scholar, as a summer intensive class. I took the course because it was co-taught by Dr. Toni Craven, a professor at the seminary I attended. The quote in the image above is in the first section of the textbook for this course.

This quote is the core of the book and the most important lesson I learned in the course about what learning is: ultimately, learning is an activity that involves changes.

I am starting my advice to those who are beginning their theological studies with the theme of ‘change’ because, generally speaking, those with a strong faith do not tend to pursue changes.

Whether someone is entering a theological school or beginning to delve into the professional world of theology for personal reasons, it is vital to remember that a theological journey presupposes radical changes in one’s life.

If you are not ready to accept this fact, then there is no reason to study theology. If you have the mindset that there is nothing wrong with your belief system, the way you have lived as a Christian, or with your way of conducting your faith, and only seek to confirm the fact that what you know and believe is correct, then ultimately you cannot learn anything.

Those who are starting their theological journeys need to remember, above all else, that the new knowledge and information acquired in their seminaries is different from the knowledge acquired when reading mere gadget manual booklets. Theological knowledge has the potential to completely flip over the notion of what ‘correct faith’ is that you have had up until now and can create a ripple effect that causes changes in your identity. Therefore, this process requires enduring quite a bit of pain.

Unfortunately, many people are not ready to take this pain and refuse to change. In that case, they are likely just to attend school to obtain their degrees and become a minister without actually learning anything.

The study of theology is a challenging process, so it is understandable to have a defensive reaction that rejects changes, but for someone who is training to become a leader, such an attitude should not be tolerated. Leading a church community based on the limited knowledge and experience learned in one or two churches you have attended is inappropriate.

Leaders must broaden their horizons of thought, which is why they must learn and endure the changes that come with learning.

What Do You Learn?

One of the professors at Emory University (Candler School of Theology) once in his class said that doing theology felt like a “curse” for him when he was young. I couldn’t help but deeply empathize with his words.

Theological studies gave me some knowledge vastly different from what I learned in church, and some were even shocking. Accepting the knowledge made me feel like my beliefs were becoming strange, and I was afraid that I would end up going down a completely different path from the people I had been practicing my faith with. So the professor’s provocative statement resonated with me.

You may wonder what exactly you would learn in seminaries. I may not be able to explain every subject, but as a biblical scholar majoring in the Hebrew Bible, I can tell you one thing that can be broadly applied to other subjects.

Theology is an “academic discipline.” Academic disciplines are based on reason. Prior to doing theology, we all viewed the Bible as God’s word” and a guidebook for our faith. However, theology (biblical studies) approaches the Bible as an ancient text and thoroughly analyzes it in a rational way, respecting both the process and the results of that analysis. Most of the posts I have published on this blog might show, to some extent, what such analysis is, so please refer to them.

Let’s take an example. Is Solomon the author of Ecclesiastes? Most lay people would answer “yes” to the question based on the phrase “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” in Eccl 1:1. They accept this as a historical fact because they believe that this verse is God’s word and that God’s word is an infallible truth without any error.

However, biblical scholars do not accept this phrase literally. Based on the linguistic characteristics of this book, the history of its existing manuscripts, and the underlying thoughts, most scholars view that Ecclesiastes was written in the 3rd century BCE (during the Ptolemaic dynasty, the Hellenistic era).Some scholars believe it could have been written earlier, but they estimate the date of the book to be around the 4th or 5th century BC at the earliest (during the Persian era).

In other words, scholars almost unanimously reject the possibility that Solomon, who lived in the 10th century BCE, is the author of Ecclesiastes (for more details, see this post).

What does this difference of opinion mean? To those who have learned and believed that the sacrality of the Bible as “God’s word” lies in its being a document that records only infallible facts, the scholars’ opinion that this record may not be a historical fact can shake the foundation of their faith.

This is the dilemma that most people face when they first start studying theology. From my experience, many people cannot handle this confusing situation and ignore it rather than confront the difficulty of learning and changing. Studying theology is challenging not only in terms of academic difficulty but also in accepting its radical views.

So how should you cope with the situations? Let me continue in the next post.

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