Before I left Seattle to move across the country for a Master of Divinity program, I met with about a dozen Christians whose faith and leadership I’ve come to respect over the years. Their insights have been immensely helpful so far, and highlighted a lot of concepts I think academia – especially dominant culture academia – can tend to overlook.
That said, one piece of advice caught me a bit off guard.
I was expecting a few people to be concerned that I’d “lose my faith” in seminary: you know, that I would enter as a committed Christian and leave an atheist. But I wasn’t concerned: between my undergraduate Scripture minor and the two seminary classes I took while working, I’ve studied theology and scriptures academically long enough that I feel pretty certain I’ve passed that stage. I fought hard to develop a faith that is both academically informed and deeply personal – a faith that durable and resilient enough to not be shattered when it encounters doubt, fear, or when someone else insists that its wrong.
I wasn’t concerned about losing my Christian faith. But I was caught off guard by a somewhat similar concern: Don’t forget about the Gospel.
Like a lot people, I tend to think of myself as pretty self-aware … so my immediate response was to write this off. Of course I’m not going to forget about the Gospel. I learned a long time ago that faith and intellect don’t have to be mutually exclusive, so of course I can get a theology masters and not forget about the Gospel.
But now that I’m home for winter break, it came up again. Sure, I can recite all 39 books of the Old Testament – I had to for my OT final. A week ago, I could give you a rough outline of the chapters and divisions of maybe about six of them. And at some point, I’ll be able to read and understand the New Testament in the original Greek. (Probably next year, though. Greek is … slow-going.)
But none of that is the Gospel. And even when I talk with other Christians – talking specifically about seminary – I don’t really talk about the Gospel that much. This is partly because of how personal the Gospel is. My story of wrestling with God for control of my life, and all the ways I’ve experienced healing, is deeply powerful for me – but I often don’t feel like it translates well. It’s not as gripping as the stories of folks who found God while fighting to overcome addiction or personal tragedy. And I worry my story can be misunderstood in ways that aren’t helpful. It’s powerful for me. And I know I’m spending the rest of my life seeking to die to myself and live for Christ, but I just don’t really talk about it out loud that often. I don’t really know how, at least not how to do it well.
Now that I’ve quit my job to spend the next three years pursuing a Master of Divinity, I have a list of the ways I don’t want academia to change me. I don’t want to play into its inherent competitiveness or the sense of superiority that can hang in the air. Engaging with the world from a place of humility is important to me. It’s one of the things about myself in which I take the most pride (ironic, of course, and also completely unhelpful).
As I head back to begin my second semester of seminary, I want to add this to my list: I don’t want this season of academia to lead to a mindset where I don’t value the Gospel.
Potential for narrow-mindedness
I worked in Christian higher education for three years. So while it’s one of my favorite environments to work in, I’m also a bit more familiar with some of the downsides of higher education. For me, one of its biggest blindspots is the tendency to assume that understanding something academically and intellectually means you automatically understand it how it works and plays our practically in the world.
The most obvious example of this, for me, can be seen when higher education talks about diversity. When I first started working in higher ed, I felt bad because I couldn’t talk about diversity the “right way.” I didn’t articulate it as well as all the confident and obviously very woke white people around me. They seemed to have such a better grasp on how to talk about things.
But after a few months, I realized that the white people who seemed to have all the right answers during diversity trainings — and could talk about it so eloquently — often didn’t really seem to understand the practical realities behind the concepts they were talking about. They’d give a perfect answer in a seminar and then not even 20 minutes later, say something in casual conversation that strongly suggested they didn’t at all grasp basic ways the concept they’d articulated played out in real life.
And if whatever they said was minimizing, casting doubt on the credibility of, or contributing to the creation of an environment that was unwelcoming and de-valuing of people of color, women, or anyone who doesn’t fit into the dominant culture … that annoyed me. A lot.
So I get it. I get that academia is great at understanding things intellectually, but then not realizing that they don’t automatically also know how those same concepts play out practically in the world. I don’t think it’s intentional, either. Most people seem to have completely positive intentions — they just didn’t see the realities outside of their frame of reference, and didn’t seem to be encountering those realities elsewhere in their lives or relationships, either.
In contrast, my job required that I engage with questions of diversity and systemic disparities. I worked for a very multiethnic and multicultural team, managed a diverse group of students, and I’d very quickly lose credibility with our a large portion of our audience if I didn’t constantly seek to invest in understanding America’s history of systemic whiteness. I’m so grateful to have been in that environment – for how much I was able to grow because of it. But not everyone happens to fall backwards into such an amazing environment. I know my experience was relatively rare.
Now that I’m in seminary, I don’t want to make this same mistake of valuing intellectual understanding and lip service over honest and authentic engagement in our world. I don’t want to assume that memorizing the books of the Bible and learning Greek means that I’m prioritizing and giving full weight to the power of the Gospel and Christ’s message of healing and freedom.
I don’t talk about the Gospel in casual conversation – even with people whose experience with the Gospel hasn’t been tainted by bad theology, fear-mongering, or institutional corruption. I still don’t talk about it.
It’s too personal. The Gospel is something powerful and meaningful between God and me. I don’t know how to talk about it with other people. And it’s really not a story that makes me look like that great of a person, either.
A Life Fully Centered Around Christ
I didn’t fully commit to this whole “die to yourself and live for Christ” thing until I had wrestled pretty extensively with God over who gets to have control over my life … and had had it all implode on me pretty spectacularly three different times. I consider myself to be a smart and competent person, and I have grades and specific career accomplishments on my resume I can cite if I need to back that up.
But I’ve come to the point where I’ve finally grasped that just because I can research, plan, prepare, work myself into the ground and get a good GPA in school or win awards or develop proven strategies at work, that doesn’t mean I have the knowledge, insight, and understanding to plan and work hard enough for the grand plan of my life to work out exactly how I want it to.
By age 27, I’d already landed two of what I thought at the time were absolutely dream jobs. And both “dream jobs” were perfect for almost exactly six months before a variety of different factors I had not accounted for and had no control over 😫 swept in and promptly made my magical dream world crumble to pieces. Not that they both weren’t still beautifully solid jobs that paid my bills and let me work alongside talented people. They absolutely were. But they weren’t the dream jobs I expected them to be. They weren’t the idealistic dreams I’d built up in my head. They weren’t the happily ever afters I’d worked so hard for. Instead, I was left with was a perfectly average job that almost anyone could do — and all I had left my tendency for boundary-averse workaholism. I kept sacrificing so much for dream jobs that never really panned out long term.
Giving up control of my life – every career move, relationship, big or small decision – and committing to fully live my life for Christ, was huge for me. But on top of that, there are the ways I’ve experienced in the core of my being the depths of Christ’s healing and love. That is something I can get very emotional about, but I still haven’t figured out how to talk about it in a way that makes sense, or where I feel like I’m actually explaining it accurately.
But I know how deeply I believe that God wants us to be healed: not just 85% and functioning enough to be fine, thanks but 100% healed and whole.
I’ve experienced that healing in ways that are powerful for me, and I feel so strongly that God wants everyone to be able to experience healing and wholeness in the ways that are most meaningful for them.
The Gospel is the story of God’s suffering and immense, unfathomable sacrifice. It’s the story of God who willingly chose to suffer and die so that we could be healed.
It’s also the story of a God who suffers with us. In all of our world’s injustice, pain, and brokenness … a God who suffers next to us, and cries with us, as we wait for God’s new creation. A new creation that is coming, but isn’t here yet. This is how I’ve experienced the Gospel, and it’s a lens that has made room for me to wrestle with doubt and uncertainty in a way I couldn’t in the way my younger self understood the Gospel.
I want to partner with Christ to help people experience God’s healing, justice, and wholeness. That’s how I want to spend my life. I’ve dedicated so much time and energy to trying to find purpose other places … in jobs, in what I look like, or in how I think other people see me. I don’t really want my life, my goals, my purpose to be all about me anymore.
I don’t want to focus so much on intellectual pursuit of faith and ministry that I forget about or don’t prioritize the Gospel. But I know that explaining it accurately and effectively is tricky and I want to put in the work to help me be able to explain it well.
That will take work. But I don’t think the healing and wholeness I’ve experienced are just for me.
Putting God at the center of my life has made me come face to face with the reality that I’m not as great of a person as I’d like to think I am. With how selfish I can be, and with all the ways I can hurt people, whether I mean to or not. It’s made me realize how much I need Christ. Not in the lip-service way — where you recite back all the right lines and phrases like many white folks do in diversity trainings — but in a way that is personal. Where it’s something you say because you’ve experienced the reality behind the buzzwords. And it convicts you deeply…because (speaking from my experience as a white person) you know you’re not the good guy here. You’re – to some extent – at fault. The world is broken and we’re a part of the problem.
I have spent my life chasing after so many idols: my grades, my career, how I think other people see me. Gaining my value and worth from those things has backfired pretty spectacularly multiple times.
I want other people to experience this healing and wholeness. It’s a free gift, but we also have to want to be healed—and turn our backs on idols of power, money, career, and other things society says we need to get our value from. Plus, the process of healing can be painful. And it can take a while. But with so many forces in our world painting Christ, and the Gospel, as something so opposite and unrecognizable from what I’ve experienced them to be, I want to do something. Honestly, with all I’ve learned and been given, to not do something with it would feel almost irresponsible at this point.
I have no other career plans that take precedent. I tried most of them already, and they weren’t all they were cracked up to be. I’m so grateful to be in seminary, but with my track record, I don’t want to mess it up by trying to plan and micromanage what comes next. Because that’s not really up to me, anyway.
So I don’t really know what’s next after I get my Master of Divinity. But I am so excited to see what God has planned.