Losing My Religion: How Seminary Set Me Free (Part One)

    Three years after graduating from college, and about one year after returning from my somewhat reluctant missionary exploits in the South Pacific, I decided to go to graduate school. It took me a while to decide for what. I briefly considered English (which is what I had studied as an undergrad), but decided that I didn’t want to put up with the snobbery and competitiveness I assumed any literature program worth its salt would entail. Then I got really into the idea of photojournalism--there was a great program in Montana--but it still didn’t feel like a field that made complete sense for me given the size of the investment. Eventually, through a variety of circumstances including a dream in which I was told by a friend that I needed to go to seminary, I settled on theology.

     The story of how I chose where to apply, how I got funding, and why I decided to move to a city toward which I felt great antipathy for the sake of studying God is quite the tale in its own right. For the purposes of this post, however, what matters is that I went, and that I stayed.

    According to classmates from other parts of the country (read: not the West Coast), plus a couple of hometown friends who revealed themselves to be more conservative than I had realized, the seminary I attended is generally considered to be pretty liberal. Of course, the line demarcating “liberal” appears to be in a much different place when one is looking at it from within the Christian community than it does when one is looking at it from a more global perspective. Still, through these people I learned that there were a great number of Christians who considered this particular seminary a dangerous place for one’s faith--a place where foundations may be shaken and even whole city blocks of belief systems razed.

    This mistrust sounded ridiculous to me at the time--how can learning be dangerous? How can more knowledge be bad? Isn't it a joy to realize new things? Interestingly enough, the fear-mongers were right. Within two years of graduating from my program, I would no longer be a Christian.

    One of the main sources of concern regarding the institution I attended, as far as I understand it, had to do with the school’s approach to the study of the Bible. In general, the school encouraged and employed a historical-critical perspective, in which the historical context of the authors and their subjects is seriously considered when interpreting the text. While a Biblical literalist might believe that, since it is the word of God, every part of the text must have happened, in real life, otherwise it is not telling the truth, someone coming from a historical-critical perspective might say, ‘Hey, the book of Job is pretty insane, and it was written at a time when myth-type genres were commonly used, so maybe it’s “truth” lies in something other than it being literal.’ Yes, maybe things that are not literally true can be about true things. So scary.

    Anyway, having studied literature pretty intensely as a college student, thinking critically about the Bible was not all that world-shaking to me. And, as I’ve mentioned before, critical thinking in general was something in which I was always encouraged by my family. No, it wasn’t the experiences in textual examination that threw me for a loop; it was the idea, presented by multiple professors over the two years I was a student there, that certain tenets I’d considered to be cold hard fact about Christianity (and thus the world) could be openly, decidedly disbelieved altogether while one still managed to stand under the "Christian" umbrella. But more on that later....