Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, Ga.
When I told my mother I was going to seminary she looked up from her tomato plants long enough to say, “Why do you want to go and mess yourself up like that?” She took advantage of my meager protests, followed by my stunned silence to go back to talking about her tomato plants.
Her words rattle around in my head nearly everyday. Am I messing myself up by getting a theological education? And what exactly does she mean by messed up?
I have a friend who went to seminary years ago. He was even part of a group that smuggled Bibles into China. But, he told me he quit seminary because he decided Christianity in general was a bunch of hooey. [Those were not his exact words, but this is a church and all.] I suppose that could be what my mother means. I think she would say that a theological education messed up my friend, who is now an atheist.
What getting messed up means to me is that a theological education demystifies many of the things about the Bible and the Christian religion that have always seemed magical. Many people enjoy magic shows. You want to be amazed by the magician’s craft. The sleight of hand, the card up his sleeve. There are many people who have no interest in seeing how the magician performs the trick. That would take the fun out of it. Knowing the secret would mess up the show for them.
I’ve always been the kid who was first to ask .. how did you do that? when a magician performed a trick for me. Once I started to peek behind the curtain that shrouds the mysteries of the church, I also wanted to know .. how did you do that? where did that doctrine come from? why do Christians assent to this set of beliefs over this other set of beliefs? A myriad of questions came to mind.
Not everyone poses those sorts of questions to their religious beliefs, however. You probably wouldn’t be amazed at how many Christians want their religion to seem like magic. There are some people who believe the Bible fell from heaven written in perfect King James English. It’s embarrassing to admit how old I was when I discovered it was originally written in Greek and Hebrew. There are some who believe the doctrines and the creeds of the church came fully formed with the religion … and that Christianity itself sprung full and complete from the mind of Jesus. For them, this is the magic of Christianity.
When people lose the sense of magic that surrounds Christianity, they tend to lose their faith, just like my friend. Demystified, Christianity can seem like a bunch of hooey. But even with the little bit of theological education I have attained, I still see magic in the church. Just my being here today is a work of mystery and magic to me. First, I’m not a big fan of public speaking. This is the third time I’ve been before a church body talking about my recent experiences, and it doesn’t seem to get easier. But just the fact that I seem to have the strength to do it at all is mysterious and magical to me. Second, it was not so long ago that the church would not allow women to speak in the building, much less address the congregation. Yet here I am, a woman talking about my experiences in front of a congregation. That’s magical. Finally, it’s still common practice today to keep gays and lesbians outside the church, both physically and figuratively. Just the fact that a lesbian is addressing a church, and a Presbyterian church, at that, is like wonderful magic to me.
The other magical quality is the call that came on my life to go to seminary. Many people speak of a call, and I’ve felt God’s call in my life from a very early age. I always knew I was supposed to do something, some manner of work for God. Discovering my lesbianism put a big kink my confidence in that call. How could I work for God in a world that denied that I could be both gay and Christian? It seemed like an impossibility until those two parts of my world joined in the form of Whosoever, my internet magazine, for gay and lesbian Christians. The call became so clear when those two contradictory parts of my life met in Christ. With my faith and my sexuality reconciled, the call grew stronger, and led me to Candler. I had second, third and fourth thoughts about the call, but knew deep in my heart, it was something I could not walk away from. That’s the magical power of God’s call; the realization that you can’t turn your back on the work God has laid out for you to do.
Even with my growing theological training, Christianity is still magical. God’s wonderworking power has not stopped being real to me just because I now know a little more about how the faith began and the growing pains it has been through over the centuries.
My questioning of many of the magical qualities of Christianity played only a small part in my decision to go back to school. Much of the impetus came because of Whosoever. In defending the right of gays and lesbians to be part of the life of the church, I received many letters challenging my assertion on the basis of Biblical texts that seem to condemn homosexuality. I had read many defenses of gays and lesbians from a biblical standpoint, but I could not recite them, and discovered I was woefully unprepared to answer many questions posed to me by critics. I began my search for theological knowledge by digging into the scriptures used to condemn gays and lesbians, in an effort to find out if they did or not.
My search for scriptural clarity led me to the works of many theologians including C.S. Lewis, Soren Kierkegaard, Hans Kung, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hahn, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Joseph Fletcher, Walter Wink .. just to name a few. I read many books by these authors, and hounded my spouse to talk theology with me. Amanda pointed out to me that with each new theologian I read, my worldview and opinions seemed to match theirs. I was being influenced by all of these great thinkers, but I had no point of reference, no measuring stick to hold their works against. With no formal training, it was hard to know why I agreed or disagreed with them. Instead, their good ideas, even some of their bad ideas, came to be represented in my own theology without any real criticism or depth of thought or experience to temper my new-found enthusiasm.
It was then I realized I must pursue my theological training in community, instead of in a vacuum. I agree now with theologian Karl Barth who says “theology cannot be pursued in the private lighthouses of any kind of merely personal discoveries or views. It can only be church theology, which means that in all its elements it can only be set to work within the context of the questions and the answers which that community raises and in the hard services of its commission to all people.”
The community at Candler seems to understand this concept of abandoning the “private lighthouses” of theology. Exploring the questions and answers in community is the only way to really do theology.
I have only just begun my theological education within the past few weeks, and what strikes me first is that for all I know about theology, there is so much I do not know. I look forward, with great eagerness to learn more. I want to know the history of the church, the truth behind the dogma, and the thought behind the theology.
The catch phrase of the first class I’m taking on systematic theology is “faith seeking understanding.” That’s what I think my goal is with a theological education. Faith has always seemed one of the most magical of concepts in Christianity. We don’t actually see God, yet we can have faith in God. Yet, even among the seminarians I have met there is a very real fear of having their faith and their lives “messed up” by a theological education. One woman I met even did a paper called “frustration seeking relief” to detail her struggle with the beast called theology. But a faith that has not been put to the test, a faith that has not struggled against frustration and confusion and doubt is, to me, not a faith worth having. Without a very real understanding of God on a theological level, my faith would wither and die.
In one of my all time favorite t.v. shows, The Wild, Wild West, Dr. Loveless tells Jim West, “all faith must have a little doubt mixed in … otherwise it’s just flabby sentimentality.”
I think that’s very true. Faith without doubt is flabby, unreal, an illusion. Faith without doubt is untested, a romantic notion that will eventually be crushed by the hard realities of life.
Faith with doubt mixed in is strong, resilient, firm in the face of challenges. Why? It’s your doubt that keeps you searching for the perfect will of God in your life. If you’re sure of everything, why keep searching? Why talk to God on a daily basis if you’re certain of everything you need to know? Why read your Bible if you’re certain you know everything there is to know?
Just as our bodies get stronger when we work out, our faith becomes stronger when it’s exercised. We exercise our faith by questioning things, by taking our faith out daily and measuring it against the events around us. How would we know what God was asking of us, prodding us to do, if we kept our faith on the shelf and refused to take it down and use it?
Faith that sits around, sure of itself is like a lazy human being .. eventually it becomes flabby. I’ve found seminary is like a gym for my soul and my faith. They get a great workout. And sometimes, just like working the body, my faith gets tired, sore and achy. But, like magic, my faith, through the exercise becomes strong, just like my body does when I exercise.
With a strong faith we are promised that we will run and not be weary, we shall walk and not faint. [Isaiah 41:31]
Despite all that, my mom’s words are a powerful reminder, “why do you want to go and mess yourself up like that?” Will a theological education mess me up?
My partner, Amanda, tells me she has a friend whose office at Emory is near the counseling center. Her friend says they see a lot of theology students coming and going from that office. My mother would say, “See? Theological education has messed them up. They don’t know what they believe anymore.”
That may be true to a certain extent. They may not be sure what they believe anymore, but they’re willing to take the chance to find out. They have a faith that seeks understanding. The key word here is “seek.” A theological search for God doesn’t promise instant understanding, it doesn’t even promise final understanding, but it can bring about an informed and strong faith if that search for understanding is genuine, open-minded and tireless.
Sure, some will say you’ve messed yourself up by seeking understanding for your faith. But, if questioning the church and its history, dogma, creeds and beliefs is a way to mess yourself up, I submit that more people should get messed up. By messing ourselves up we grow our faith, our understanding and our knowledge about God. By messing ourselves up we learn how to make the church a better institution as we face a changing and growing society. By messing ourselves up we become better witnesses to the grace and love of God through Jesus Christ. By messing ourselves up, we learn that we are all one in Christ Jesus and through our shared faith we have a message to proclaim that has been shared through the ages.
Don’t be afraid of a little theological education. Yes, it can mess you up. But by messing yourself up you can strengthen your faith, renew your contact with God, and revitalize your commitment to seeing God’s church grow in this age and meet the needs of a changing society.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.