Friday, January 14, 2011

Ready to be Done

OK, I've been in seminary for three years now, and I'm ready to be done. Today marked my first full day of classes for the winter quarter at Bethel Seminary. For this term, I'm continuing on in my Greek studies (with the same professor I had last quarter), I started an advanced placement hermeneutics class (advanced placement because I've already done graduate level hermeneutics, but Bethel won't acknowledge my credits from Sioux Falls seminary as being satisfactory in this area), and an Old Testament History course (which I've also already done at Sioux Falls, but the same thing applies in this area as well - not full credit). It's been a long, challenging road, and I think I'm beginning to see the pinhole that is the light at the end of my seminary tunnel. It can't come quick enough.

There have been many reasons why seminary has been challenging. The biggest one has been the effect it's had on my family. Going to school requires a lot of time away from family spent studying and going to classes. When I was going to school at Sioux Falls this was less of an issue because I was taking classes online. Now that I'm at Bethel, I'm gone for 3 hours one night of the week, and all day on another day of the week (which happens to be my day off from work!). Then pretty much every night after the kids go to bed I'm either doing school work or catching up on my regular work until I go to bed. It's a grueling schedule. Throw into the mix trying to maintain a marriage, and it gets even more difficult.

The reason for having to transfer from Sioux Falls to Bethel was because the Association of Theological Schools (the organization that accredits schools like Sioux Falls and Bethel) requires students to take a certain number of credits in an on-campus setting, all for the sake of establishing community. I think this is a bogus reason, though, and it should be re-examined by the ATS. For someone in my situation (working full time in ministry, married with kids, etc.) I've got all the community I need. I'm connected with the people at my church; I'm connected with my family and close friends. I don't need yet another network of people to interact with and get to know. That sounds rude, but consider this: in forcing me to take classes on-campus for the sake of the "community of learning" that exists there, I am forced to sacrifice the community relationships I already have (family, church, etc.). So in insisting on their community, these restrictions do damage to the existing communities I'm already a part of. Kind of ironic.

Another reason I'm ready to be done with seminary is that I am beginning to become disenfranchised with the academic establishment. Higher education should be a free marketplace of ideas, where all views and ideas are given equal consideration. And in my experience at Sioux Falls and Bethel, both schools have confessed an ideology such as this one. The reality has been significantly different, however. I have found that most professors are more interested in a closed marketplace of ideas that consists of the his or her ideas and not much else. But still, these same professors claim to be open to anything. It's rather dishonest. In many cases, the actual classroom environment that exists is one of condemning the traditional (and often times conservative) view and belittling those who adhere to it.

This was the case in my advanced placement hermeneutics course I just started yesterday. I couldn't have felt any lower, sitting in that class. I was basically told that everything I think is wrong, and that I don't care about hermeneutics or good methods of interpretation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have good reason to believe the things that I believe, and I think I can provide an adequate case for the validity of my beliefs. And if one of my views is challenged and found wanting, I'm willing to change it or adopt a different view. But the professor presented my views in such an uneven-handed way, and he made people who subscribe to those views look so ignorant, that I just kept my mouth shut (for the most part - I did comment at a few junctures). The difficult thing for students who find themselves with a different view than the professor's is that the professor has had years and years to study and perfect his view, while the student has probably only thought about the matters superficially at the least, or maybe done a small amount of study on the matter at the most. This makes for a pretty unfair intellectual fight. So the student usually submits to the professor's superior knowledge on the subject, and thus the closed marketplace of ideas takes over.

In the case of my hermeneutics class, after the class was over, I left the room and walked straight to the registrar's office and dropped the class. I can't take it. It's not that I can't take the opposing viewpoints or arguments, or that I can't handle the academic demands of the course, but rather that I can't stomach the idea of sitting in that kind of environment for the next 10 weeks.

I'm also sick of a lot of professors whose theology and/or ecclesiology turns into liberal social commentary, and then insisting that such theology/sociology is the norm of Christians and/or scripture, and then basing grades on the students' conformity to those beliefs. While I was at Sioux Falls, I respectfully refused to complete an assignment because I couldn't do it in good conscience. The assignment had to do with conforming the student's ministry to that of Shane Claiborn, which I could not do in good conscience. Thankfully the professor acknowledged my objection and let me complete the assignment using different material. But the problem remains: don't base my grades on your own political ideologies.

Don't get me wrong: I have no problem with spirited debate or disagreement. In fact, some times its necessary. But those exchanges need to be done respectfully and with open minds - on both sides of the argument. The students and professors need to approach disagreements in the same way.

I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the very positive parts of my seminary experience too. Along with all the bad professors and bad experiences I've had, I've also had a lot of good ones. My current Greek prof is maybe the best professor I've had in seminary so far. He's a great guy, he loves what he's teaching, and he loves what he's doing. It's a real pleasure to be learning from him. My systematic theology prof at Sioux Falls was also a great guy. He and I had a number of significant theological disagreements, but we were able to treat each other with respect and friendship. I talked to him on the phone before I left Sioux Falls (he was also my faculty advisor) and he told me that our relationship had "ministered" to him. That's what the educational experience in a Christian institution should be like: our disagreements with and challenges to one another should result in edification. Some profs get this, and some don't. Actually, most don't (at least in my experience).

Vladimir Kharlamov was also a great teacher. He gave you nothing but straight up lectures, but he was good. And he was open. The most fascinating lecture I've ever heard (about the Counter Reformation) was in his class. My New Testament prof at Sioux Falls was also a great encouragement to me.

I think the key to a successful and enjoyable seminary experience is humility, and humility all around. Professors need to humble themselves; they don't know everything. And just because they're really smart doesn't mean they're always right. Students need to humble themselves. They will encounter new ideas that seem strange and wrong, but intellectual honesty requires a sincere examination of opposing points of view.

The theme of the rest of my seminary experience is going to be Philippians 4.13. I'm not in literal chains, but sometimes it feels like it.

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