Aug  2017 08
Theological Education Saved My Faith

When I was headed to seminary, or when I filled a pulpit while working on my PhD, I heard from congregants “Don’t let seminary steal your faith” or “I hope your doctoral studies don’t ruin your ability to preach.”

But my story is just the opposite: I don’t know if I’d be a person of faith today without my theological education.

The church in which I was raised was a white, middle-class, suburban expression of mainline Protestant post-World War II “we won the war and the culture” religion.

The pastor was a decent man and a good and present friend for troubled persons. He graduated from Boston, pronounced “experiences” by rolling the “r,” and put insufficient time into worship preparation.

Church school was very basic. I was beloved by teachers because I showed up and paid attention. But there was not much to stretch one’s mind.

My highest aptitudes were math and science, as judged by standardized tests we schoolkids in the 1960s took. I read all the Tom Swift, Jr. books (he was a teenage inventor who used science to solve problems).

Still today, I love books and movies like The Martian, in which the protagonist, stranded on Mars, relies on science (a need he expresses in a colorful way) to stay alive until a rescue ship can arrive.

“How does that work?” and “What evidence to you have to support your claim?” are still among my favorite questions. These are science questions. Those questions might have led me out of faith. But I now know these questions are integral rather than antithetical to a faith worth having.

Thank God for my theological education. It saved my faith.

There were three moments in my theological education that I think of as saving moments.

Moment one. College. Freshman year. I was enrolled in Introduction to the New Testament. In preparing for that class, I read through the New Testament during the summer. Full of arrogance and ignorance (a deadly combination), I figured my study would put me ahead of the game.

Wrong! Before the New Testament course, I was unaware of the previous two-plus centuries of critical scholarship that utilizes sociology, archaeology, linguistics, literary studies, textual studies, culture studies, history of religions, and history per se to study biblical texts.

Never heard about such scholarship in church, or church school. I was shocked, disoriented—and utterly smitten. I awoke to the requirement that each reader must take the responsibility to interpret, which also means claiming a seat in a particular community of interpreters.

Moment two. Wesley Seminary, Washington, D.C. I participated in the inaugural term of the National Capital Semester for Seminarians. The class spent every Monday afternoon somewhere on Capitol Hill, or at a think tank, or at a faith-based organization, and even at FBI and CIA headquarters (where we debated with an agent about the ethics of Joshua’s spy-trip into Canaan).

There was my internship at the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, and a research project that included attending hours of Federal Trade Commission hearings on Saturday morning child-targeted advertising. I learned a great deal about how people of faith can and should exercise their faith commitments in public life.

Moment three. PhD program at the University of Chicago. The Div School was not seminary. Faith was not assumed or, sometimes, welcomed. At the Div School I encountered the philosophical streams that comprise modernity (a word I learned there), analytical perspectives that challenged every faith tradition, and historical perspectives that challenged the claims to unity and goodness in any faith tradition.

And yet, there was Don Browning, and Martin Marty, and Anne Carr, and Robin Lovin, and David Tracy—all people of faith, people of a particular faith (a Disciple, a Lutheran, a United Methodist, and two Catholics) who lived and thrived at Chicago.

At the Div School, I often felt as stripped down as I did in my first semester in college. I felt atomized as my “social location” got more and more particular and small.

That atomization made writing a dissertation on the ecumenical movement more challenging! But being more radically dis-located in my time at Chicago from previously unexamined claims forced me to grow. Again.

Theological education has not stolen my faith. On the contrary, at least for a person constituted as I am, 37 years of theological education is providing a faith worth claiming.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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