An M.Divian Confession – How Master’s Degrees Can Be Like the Scientists’ Special Potion – Inspired by my experiences, and also Captain America

Introduction:

I found the plot-line of the the movie very intriguing. Essentially, the story is all about a scientist who discovers a special serum which he can put into a person’s body in order to make that person extra-powerful. But actually the compound simply brings to light what is already there… it is a sort of steroid. If a person is good – then the potion makes the injected person really powerful, and also really good. Conversely, if the person who receives the potion is bad, then that person becomes all the more evil. This is the background which becomes the foreground and propels the movie plotline – We come to find out the scientist had previously and unwittingly injected his serum into a bad person who is now intent on destroying the world and now has a bunch of power to do it. In order to save humanity, this same scientist must find an inherently good person to do the opposite. In the movie the scientist finds this good person, (the initially tiny and frail but all-the-while brave Steve Rogers) and then cements the serum into his system. Now there are two superhero’s going at it – one good and one bad… and… then… (if you want to see what happens, and I haven’t ruined too much already, watch the movie).

I’m curious… Is it not true that at its’ worst, the M.Div. functions as a publically accepted sort of steroidal serum? That is, instead of the degree forming or changing the person for the better (which is in some sense what should happen when a person is learning new things, right?) – the achievement of the M.Div. simply makes a person more of what they already were in the first place. This is a strange thing indeed… I admit, it has been a strange phenomenon for me to watch. How am I to respond when I see an M.Div graduate (whom I had known before he had an M.Div.,) let’s call this hypothetical person “Z,” saying the same things, thinking the same things, doing the same things… even after Z’s program is complete. Z has in effect drunk (sic) the serum, but the effects aren’t obvious, or overt. Z came in with certain beliefs/ideas and Z is now one degree later and has the exact same ideas, convictions, and lifestyle. Now, maybe Z truly did have it all figured out before Z began his degree. But I doubt it. Do any of us have it figured out before we begin our program of study, or even after? What Z has done, correct me if I’m wrong here, is that Z has taken all of Z’s class experiences and has found ways to use that information to simply support what Z already believed. The M.Div. just ends up being a sort of very expensive mirror – where Z has put the information into his system and what comes out is not a new person, but just a more “powerful” or “souped-up” version of what Z already was before Z started – for good or for ill. This is unfortunate. For Z, the Master degree is nothing more than a “shot.” It’s simply a piece of reflective paper Z waives around for all to see, while “who I am” remains the same old me. Poor Z has not been shaped anew…  in these last 3-or-so years Z somehow chose not to wrestle too much over, “what this text means for me right now” or “what does this information mean for my previous belief about X,” etc. Z simply took what Z liked, disregarded what he didn’t, and then became the same sort of person all over again. Or, at least, this is what I assume the internal process has consisted of.

I’d like to think I’m different. I’m not Z… but am I?

Body:

When I arrived at Gordon-Conwell, I anticipated a certain kind of experience. One that was supposed to rock me, put me outside my comfort zone, challenge my preconceived notions, humble me, quiet me, and so on and so forth. For one, it was going to be the first time I had classes with professors who were all Christian. Woa. I was excited about having professors push and prod me on my own convictions and preconceived notions. And for me, the M.Div. experience has been all of that and more… and I’m left wondering, how does one experience it any other way? How can anyone get through the program I just went through without both an intense awareness of that person’s desperate need for Jesus as well as some radical realignments in belief because of the now-all-so-different intellectual climate in which that person now travels? Put simply, how can this experience not be one of extreme formation? Even worse, how can a person get through here without feeling broken, destroyed, demolished?

I cannot count the amount of days and nights in these past three years where I’ve had to say to God things like, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to write here, I have no idea what I think, I have no strength to do this on my own, so God, help me… please help me” or “I cannot do this alone. This is wrecking what I used to think was true… this text is showing me my failures, my ignorances, etc.” Or the times I’ve simply felt the Lord’s presence and could not even speak… I’ve been speechless so many times and in so many conversations…  I ask many more questions now than I used to. At times I’ve even lost sleep  – and not because I’m stressed – although this has been the case – but because either I’ve been so overwhelmed with the beauty of the Gospel. What of the times I’ve walked out of class teary-eyed?… How many times have I had to simply get on my knees and beg for God’s forgiveness for my pride and confidence in my own ego; my own ability to “get er done;” my accomplishments; my status; my knowledge; my grades, etc. It’s like the M.Div. was a wrecking ball and came in and utterly destroyed all this ugly stuff inside… of course there is still lots of ugly stuff there, but man… this degree has done a number on me. It has operated me… Triple-bypass surgery style – I feel like I’ve been laid out on the table in full view of God and man and have been shown to be much less than I ever thought I was. And now I don’t talk the same, I don’t think the same, I don’t do the same things. I can’t… I feel like I’m kind of a different person. What makes me laugh….what I obsess over… how I spend my “free time.” Different. Maybe this says more about my own shortcomings than it does the M.Div. Program at Gordon-Conwell… but I’m still left with the question – how do people make it through this experience without feeling this way? How does Z manage? I almost have more respect for people who have “lost their faith” after the M.Div. as opposed to those who have not changed – because at least for the former they have grappled seriously with what all this is about. Personally, it feels like the Holy Spirit has taken these books and notes and lectures and has divinely slapped me clear across the room (of course I deserve it). At least half of this process has been absolutely shameful and I realize that I have no justification for lifting my eyes… but in all of this I can’t not look up at my beautiful Savior who has saved me from myself and is making me a new person. Jesus is doing more in my life than I could have “ever hoped or imagined.” I’m much less confident in myself… much more confident in the transforming power of my Savior.

I’d like to believe that I am a much different person than who I was three years ago before I started this M.Div. Program (After all, this would signal to myself a sort of at-the-least spiritual growth). I’d like to think these 30 classes, the mentored ministry, the papers I’ve written, the questions I’ve had to answer (and couldn’t)… etc… that it has changed me. I’d like to believe that. Because I think that is in some sense kind of what is supposed to happen.  Of course the very title of the degree is silly, as if anyone could “Master Divinity.” It seems to me, if we’ve done it right, we come out at the end feeling mastered by the text and the God who has inspired the text, not so much believing we are in any sense a master ourselves. The M.Div. program is designed to help people concentrate on God. To help people think through who God is, what God has done, what God is doing, etc. So we learn our Greek and our Hebrew (and maybe even Aramaic, and Syriac, and Ugaritic, and Arabic, Latin, French, German, etc). We learn about church history, and we take classes in systematic theology, preaching, counseling, exegesis, spiritual formation, and the like. We think and think and think about God… we read and read and read about God. We write and write and write about God. It isn’t a joke… It’s a lot of hard work. One of the reasons I came to Gordon-Conwell and opted out of those great seminaries down the street… was because I knew it wouldn’t be easy… I just had to get out of my comfort zone. In my time here I’ve done quite a bit of soul searching, and in the end I must admit to how little I actually know. Yet I know a lot more than I did previously. I keep learning. I must keep learning. Why? Because God is the very locus of beauty itself – Beauty comes from God and is given by God. God emanates beauty. So all of this is beautiful – which is what I am not – thus I cannot get enough. When I study God I see beauty in front of me and it reminds me of how much I need Him.

At the same time –  even as I am learning many new things – I translate the material and self-organize it according to my own pre-conceived (or pre-conceiving) and pre-determined ideas, questions, and even answers… The Program is supposed to help me get outside myself, but even as I try I keep running back… I keep running into me. I’m comfortable, to me. And I’m a stubborn lot. So is Z, in a way. I’m quite impressed with myself… I was before I had a Master’s degree, now imagine myself with a Master’s degree! I try to coalesce all of this information and experience into a meaningful context… and I try to allow this God and this knowledge about God to change me… but my worst fear is that I only allow it to make me more like me. Kind of like what Z does, accidentally (?). Here I have at least some comfort… I came in believing a host of things – and I’ve found I have good reason to abandon lots of those ideas… and I’ve even picked up a few new beliefs about the infinite God along the way – not because new ideas are necessarily better, but because my old ideas were probably worse. My pre-M.Div. thoughts on Divinity were not as thought-through as they are now. So I’m at most – a work in process (progress?). But am I a changed person? I hope so. Do I not like Z because Z is so different from me? Or do I not like Z because in thinking about him, I keep picturing myself? Unfortunately, “becoming a changed person” is not a requirement of the degree… At its’ worst, the M.Div. works as a serum which Z injects upon himself in order to believe himself to be a better version of what he was – yet Z remains the same thing Z always had been – only with less excuses for his stubbornness. In my first semester Dr. Haddon Robinson told us, “It took me three years to get through seminary, and it took me three years to get over it.” I’ve now finished my first three years, and I’m about to embark on the next three – which should be pretty painful. I can’t go back now… I’ve drunk the serum – it is in my body… what are the results? Maybe I can’t know that yet… I probably have to wait…  And I suppose that is appropriate…

Conclusion – A Prayer:

“Lord, have mercy on me. Holy Spirit, please help me, a seminary graduate, to remember what this is all about. Be patient with me as I grapple over who I am in light of who YOU are. Holy Spirit, please guide me into all truth. Please be patient with me as I constantly obsess over myself… I have a lot to learn. Amen.”

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Why Franke’s Project Might be Pointless.

Yesterday John Franke gave an open lecture at Gordon-Conwell. I was excited about this for a few reasons. The primary reason being I recently read his Character of Theology book and agreed with just about everything he said! Quite honestly, this was a tad disconcerting to me and thus I am thinking more deeply about my own convictions. I’ve never viewed myself as “postmodern,” “emergent,” or even “postconservative” yet I agree with so much of what they say! From what I can tell, Emergents got it going on… they are definetely on to something! Of course many pomo’s reject epistemological foundationalism and adopt nonfoundational and contextual conceptions of epistomology. Many go way too far and thats probably why I’m still a little nervous about the term. I think we DO need to question the universality, objectivity and certainty of truth… Let’s be honest about it. However, I DON’T think we should give up on the idea of truth all together (neither would Franke). I may be holding on to Descartes’ foundationalism too much to be labeled a “postmodern” but alas, this is not the purpose of this post. It prolly isn’t fair to lump all these terms together either. I’ll stop.

I want to share the main thrust of his lecture with you and offer one reflection/critique. Basically Franke’s lecture revolved around his new book I haven’t read yet, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth. He began his lecture by asking, “If the Holy Spirit is guiding the whole church into the whole truth, what’s up with all the plurality?” His main thesis was that the Plurality of the church is a good thing, Plurality is not a problem to be solved. Franke says Orthodox Biblical Christianity is characterized by an irreducible plurality which is the norm and intention of God. Plurality is part of the divine plan.

In explaining this he talks about Truth and God. Truth, he says, “IS God, in God’s self.” He added, “God in God’s self is the plurality of truth.” He says the Trinity joyfully exists in its’ interdependent relationality with all the separate parts. The missional love they share “is not the kind of love that seeks to engage the other and make it the same… rather God simply lives life with the other.” Franke suggests if this is true, then revelation and humanity ought to bear that image. Basically, if God is all about plurality, why aren’t we?

He followed with an important question… Does Scripture (Revelation) mirror this thesis about GOD? Franke says Scripture itself is a manifold witness to the plurality of truth since it “neither contradicts nor perfectly coheres with itself.”  Scripture is a manifold reflection of God since God is the foundation of that plurality of truth. Franke says the Word of God is our Normative witness to revelation (right on!). Scripture is “Truth written” and those pages show inherent plurality of that truth. Supposedly, Scripture as our paradigmatic witness also invites “greater plurality than even that which is contained in its own pages.” Franke says the church should be continually expanded in keeping with the mission of God. After all, Chrisianity started in the Jewish Context of the Roman Empire, but was meant to expand. Again, I agree.

He then said that an appropriate understanding of the theology of the church includes a plurality of voices including black, feminist and liberal theology since “black theology is not only for blacks and feminist theology is not only for women.” I really liked this point, especially since I’ve realized I’m more feminist than my wife! I find some feminist theory quite refreshing! Franke would be pleased since he believes by listening attentively to these voices we make sense out of Christian History and move closer to a good theology.

Franke made it clear that although he is committed to plurality, he does not affirm an “anything goes” attitude. “Christian faith is plural but not all forms of faith are legit.” If I had to sum his talk up in one short paragraph it would be this:

Hey White American Christians, you aren’t the only ones who exist. Decentralize yourself and start listening. Open your eyes to the pluralism around you and get with the program. God is ok with it and you should be too. Admit it, your peers in other circles and different places have important things to say. Get over yourself, open your eyes, and embrace the pluralism you are trying so hard to deny/suppress.

Here is my one critique: His pluralistic program can’t work in his system. In Franke’s Character of Theology, page 90, he tells us that the quest for a transcultural theology is theologically and Biblically unwarranted since all theology is embedded in culture. If this is the case, why should we listen? If White Americans have their own theology [according to white American experience] figured out, [and shouldn’t push their own theology on others, and likewise shouldn’t be pushed upon by others,] why should they listen to other voices? Shouldn’t we only listen to others IF we want to unify? A Latin American Theologian may say some good stuff, but does it apply to white Americans? If not, then we are listening only for the sake of listening. Franke’s basic purpose of theology forces us to de-pluralize ourselves from each other, and this is the very thing he is fighting against! Hmmm. All in all, I like his style. He doesn’t shy away from controversy… how liberating!