I am sitting here at my desk on a frigid bright morning, missing a class on Genesis 22 because of car fires and accidents on the highway that takes me out to the seminary. My brain and my soul are still full from last night’s discussion of the Holiness Code and its role in the land promises of the Pentateuch. And, if I haven’t lost you already in the face of this biblical techno-speak, I would point out to you what might not be obvious — I GRADUATED IN MAY. WHY AM I TAKING TWO BIBLICAL STUDIES CLASSES?
Because, my friends, over the past months, I have understood some important things about myself and what it means for me to live as a disciple. Most importantly, I have learned that the quirk in my personality that I thought was an inability to launch was, in fact, the call to practice what is for me the most important of all spiritual disciplines, my most cherished path to a deeper relationship with my God, that of study and learning.
When I began my series called “What I’ve Learned so Far…”, I thought of the title as a way to shine a light on the particular gleanings I gathered during my seminary study experience. I thought that was important since those experiences came as I blended two (well, more than two really) traditions: I was following a learning path that was primarily designed for the formation of those in the Episcopal church when I was, well, certainly not a practicing Episcopalian. Not much time needed to pass after graduation for me to understand that the seminary experience can (and in my case did), stoke the fire of a life long quest for learning. I realized that at seminary I had truly discovered, well, my people — the questioning.
Richard Forster’s description of study as a spiritual discipline has finally come to life for me in my own spiritual journey:
Many Christians remain in bondage to fears and anxieties simply because they do not avail themselves of the Discipline of study. They may be faithful in church attendance and earnest in fulfilling their religious duties, and still they are not changed. I am not here speaking only of those who are going through mere religious forms, but of those who are genuinely seeking to worship and obey Jesus Christ as Lord and Master. They may sing with gusto, pray in the Spirit, live as obediently as they know, even receive divine visions and revelations, and yet the tenor of their lives remains unchanged. Why? Because they have never taken up one of the central ways God uses to change us: study.
Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Kindle Edition (San Francisco: Harper Collins Inc., 2009) 62-63.
You see, I do not study out of a sense of vocation in any way that this word vocation is understood in my cultural context. I do not study to get a better job or a certain job. I do not study to objectify or to control or even really to understand. My call to study comes out of the very mystery that is God — through study and learning, I walk more closely with God, I love more deeply, I experience love more clearly. I hear God’s voice through hours spent learning to read the Hebrew Bible in its original language; I learn of God’s love through source criticism and literary analysis and inter-textual study of the sacred books. At this time in my life, the classroom and the fellowship of others in this kind of study is the most sacred place on earth for me, more sacred than any cathedral or church sanctuary. And at last I understand that, for me, there is no separation between my intellect and my heart; those walls have come a tumblin’ down, as the song says.
Even ten years ago, I would have interpreted this kind of call to discipline as a sign that I should redouble my efforts, get the PhD.D., make the sacrifices, fight the age and sex discrimination present in the academic community and go for a life in academia. The call is strong, right? That is the way I experience God, right? I must be meant to follow this path as my way of living, surely?
Well, yes and know. Part of my post-seminary learning is this: God’s call to know you, God’s call to embrace you, frankly, has not one thing to do with the structures of this human world. That invitation has nothing to do with making a living in this world; there is no worldly career advice embedded in it. It has nothing to do with success or fame or even acceptance and belonging. And it has no relationship to the institutions we have created, even (or perhaps especially) those created in His name.
So if you wonder where I am, I am probably in the corner with my nose stuck in a commentary, puzzling over the role of the ancestors in the Genesis narrative. Or maybe I’m sitting in a classroom or a library somewhere, following some tantalizing crooked finger of God that is leading me on to some new piece of understanding. One of the great learnings I have received is that thinking about your faith as a scholar and living into your faith as a mystic are not mutually exclusive — that, friends, is my life. And for that lesson, Virginia Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Columbia Theological Seminary, I will give thanks to the end of my days.