Theological education isn’t what I thought it would be. I rightly expected it to be challenging, in terms of heavy workloads and difficult concepts. Although I knew that I’d have to learn massive amounts of new information, I didn’t anticipate the existential crises I’d experience. Sure, I’d just moved to the Los Angeles area from the small Georgia towns where I’d grown up (a change of scenery akin to relocating to the moon!). But more difficult than the move was that, for the first time, I had to wrestle deeply with ideas that were not just intellectually challenging; they were interlaced with my worldview, my sense of self, my relationships, and, above all, my spirituality. In my first months, I felt as if the ground beneath my feet were breaking apart, and I couldn’t predict what direction my perspectives or my faith would take.
I recall struggling, specifically, with the nature of the Bible and how to interpret it. Is it historically accurate? How do we engage these texts in conversation with other fields of study, say, those in the sciences? How can we read certain passages as authoritative when the results of doing so would potentially be harmful to others? If we always read through our own interpretive lenses, then how do we avoid reading our views into the texts—the dread specter of eisegesis that people kept talking about? I’d grown up with particular convictions about the Bible, but it seemed like everything I’d believed was suddenly up in the air. So I stumbled along, desperate to find my footing.
Now, as a professor, I regularly teach students who are working through similar difficulties. Many of them are relieved to have a space to explore questions with which they’ve wrestled. These folks don’t seem threatened by uncertainty or ambiguity. They’re “comfortable being uncomfortable,” as they say, and energized by exploring new ideas. Yet many of my students experience parts of their seminary programs more like I did—basically terrified! Because I mostly teach Bible classes, my discussions with these students often center on similar themes with which I had grappled early in my theological education. If what we’re learning is true, then how can we read the Bible as Scripture? How do we relate Scripture, as we’re beginning to understand it, to our faith? How can we interpret it in ways that are both true to its ancient intentions and meaningful for our contexts?
As with most things in theological education, there are no simple answers to such questions. I strive continually to develop and hone my perspectives on these matters. My desire to gain more clarity is, in fact, part of what drives my scholarship and teaching. Yet now, I pursue answers with much less trepidation, without that feeling of the ground giving way that I experienced in those early days of seminary. What’s made the difference between my previous, existential spiraling and my current striving to answer big, challenging questions? I attribute the difference to a single realization that I gained along the way: my faith is grounded in my experience of, and relationship with, the resurrected Lord.
That may seem obvious to other Christ-believers. I could imagine someone asking, “Your great epiphany is that your faith is in the resurrected Christ? Didn’t you believe that before you attended seminary?!” Well, yes. Now, however, I understand that my belief in the resurrected Lord was enmeshed with my theology of Scripture in problematic ways. I thought that certain opinions I’d held about the Bible had to be accurate in order for my faith in Christ to be secure. For that reason, when I was confronted with new and different ways to understand and interpret Scripture, I wondered how I could possibly safeguard my faith. That now seems backwards to me. In fact, I realize that it’s not at all how I came to faith in the first place!
I did not come to belief in Christ by being intellectually convinced of certain theological ideas, including a specific theology of Scripture, or doctrinal claims. Rather, my faith originated in experiences of God’s self-revelation and of God’s resurrected son, which are mediated not only by Scripture, but also by the church historic and the gathered body of Christ. When I study the Bible, struggle with theological questions, or experience hardships that I simply cannot make sense of, I do so while firmly anchored in my union with the resurrected Christ. I still have many uncertainties and questions. But knowing that I engage those challenges while in a relationship with the living God has helped me to recognize the true ground on which my faith stands.