Slow Dancing with Seminary
My favorite place in Washington, DC is the United States Botanic Garden. Squeezed in between the House of Representatives and our Nation’s Capitol, it is a large greenhouse filled with exotic plants and the wet, cool smell of the Amazon rainforest. Beautiful flora of all shapes and sizes coexist magically, sharing common soil and interweaving their root systems —a connectedness the rest of Capitol Hill could certainly benefit from. My favorite thing about the Garden is the millions of colors that show up there. Just a quick walk around and I am left with a great sense of awe at the complexity of life and color. The millions of shades of green alone are surely more than we could ever fully label or classify. Leaving the greenhouse and walking back into the bustle of the city never fails to present a stark contrast. It is like going from a box of 96 Crayola crayons into a world of only primary colors.
I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend in American culture and language today. We categorize and dichotomize most everything: Democrat/Republican, Public Sphere/Private Sphere, Rich/Poor, Educated/Uneducated, Politics/Religion, Male/Female, and the list goes on. These dichotomies often create a lack of ability to see outside the established boxes. It is easy to get so fixed in seeing through these lenses—in primary colors, if you will—that we forget that the people and ideas we encounter are far more complex than the categories we place them in. The language of dichotomies helps us to order our lives—divisions provide us a way of defining and clarifying our world and our everyday encounters—but I’m beginning to wonder if these binaries have maimed our capacity for creative and integrated thinking. Instead of connections, we see divisions. Instead of issues, we see political parties. Instead of people, we see opinions. There is little space for the millions of shades of green in between the “blue” category and the “yellow” category. We are living in a primary-color world.
The Church, in all her complexity, is not exempt from this type of narrow categorical thinking. Like society, we classify our doctrines, our denominations, and our practices. We dichotomize humanity/divinity, belief/praxis, personal piety/social justice, sacred/secular, charismatic/liturgical. And let’s not forget the one that many of us ministerial students fear (and hear) the most: the Church and the Academy. Despite the fact that we tend to function in these divided spheres, I find hope in the various people and institutions that are unafraid to explore the overlap between them. These individuals and organizations are acutely aware that their faithfulness is to a God that transcends our categories and defies our logic. Their work restores brilliant shades of color to an increasingly primary-color world. Candler is one of these institutions. An integrated curriculum and faithful faculty beautifully blend ministerial excellence with academic rigor, a commitment to spiritual formation as well as public praxis, and an understanding of ministry that transcends the walls of the Church. As an entering seminarian, it was my frustrations with traditional dichotomies that led me to apply to Candler, and Candler’s ability to expose the complexity of colors alive in our world that took me from a perspective student to an enrolled Candler seminarian. What a colorful paradise this School of Theology is in the Kingdom-garden!
The Church and the Academy
The division between the Church and the Academy perplexed me as undergrad. For those who thought being a Religion major would be something similar to Sunday School, boy did they have a rude awakening! The world of Christian Education inside the church differs drastically from Religion or Biblical Studies as an academic disciple. In fact, we often think of these two institutions as having two very different purposes: the Academy is to educate, and the Church is to incarnate. The problem lies in that fact that these are often seen as mutually exclusive endeavors and the relationship between the two institutions is jagged, at best. This poses a problem for many of us who wish to serve the Church but are at the mercy of the Academy. I mean, if we didn’t believe that the sacred was somehow spilling into the secular, would we really be pursuing a career built on the spiritual life? In my seminary selection process, I craved a place that valued both academic rigor and ministerial excellence—and I heard this desire echoed by many friends with similar frustrations. I hoped to find a school that saw the Church and the Academy as two sides of the same institutional coin, engaged in a beautiful dance that informs hearts and minds simultaneously. My craving led me to Candler—a seminary that is practically slow-dancing with the Church! The work of blending academic excellence and ministerial integrity is truly an art form. My experience of Candler has been revealed the school’s dedication to this delicate balance. While Candler’s academic excellence ranks at the top of most charts, it is not at the cost of ministerial integrity. The school’s faculty is a blend of pastor-theologians, community leaders, and lay leaders who have a personal investment in the life of the Church. They teach from podium and pulpit alike. Candler’s commitment to holistic contextual education is paired with demanding coursework that integrates theology and praxis in an unparalleled way. It is this marriage, of education and incarnation that produces true ministerial excellence. It is this unification than led me to Candler.
Personal Piety & Social Justice
I was raised in a thoroughly Evangelical household, and one of the byproducts of this upbringing was the deeply relational spirituality I inherited. Even the language we used to talk about conversion reflects this: phrases like “asking Jesus to live in your heart” and having “a personal relationship with God.” While these platitudes often get a bad rap due to their stale overuse, they are remarkably revolutionary! They speak of an inconceivably intimate God—whose covenantal marriage-like relationship with the Israelites births redemption; who incarnates the holy and lives among us in the form of a carpenter. But I was often taught this relational and personal piety at the cost of a lived theology—a spirituality of action and social justice, a love of neighbor and care for the least of these.
During my time in college, I spent a few semesters in a not-so-evangelical context. A passion for incarnational ministry and social justice pervaded the Church’s mission and focus. I was at home among my kinda’ people—people who saw God’s redemptive work as much bigger than personal salvation. Despite my resonance with this activism-oriented congregation, I missed the intimacy of the tradition I was raised in. A focus on action and justice often came at the cost of personal spiritual formation. Too often, categorizing and dichotomizing leads to this sort of imbalance, a separation between congregations who believe in Jesus (the spiritual) and those who believe Jesus (the practitioners). As I looked for a home in which to continue my theological education, I wanted to find a place that exposed the complex variety of colors and hues that exist in the overlap between personal piety and social justice. I wanted to find a school in which both were seen as necessary components of faith—as flowing from one another like James 2 (faith without works is dead) and 1 Corinthians 13 (without love as the source of action, works are useless) suggest. My visit to Candler this spring was an inspiring embodiment of such a blend. Before I even stepped foot on campus, I had examined and dissected Candler’s curriculum. It seemed obvious to me that the school cared deeply about justice and activism. Candler’s contextual education program encourages diverse ministerial experiences in parachurch contexts addressing issues of poverty and homelessness, paired with classes that teach the art of preaching as a prophetic necessity or provide insight on community ministry. But being on Candler soil—meeting with students, sitting in on classes, and experiencing worship—I was moved by the institutional and individual commitment to spiritual formation that I encountered. Candler is a place that worships together, prays together, and breaks bread together. My visit was filled with prayers—before the beginning of a class, before a meal, in a meeting—and a deep sense of value for worship as a transcended experience necessary for the hard work that is theology, both studied and lived. I caught just a glimpse of this beautiful merger of inner spirituality and outward action, but it was an infections taste that stuck with me and came back to me. As I was contemplating my seminary decision with a minister-friend, she said—“God’s will is for you to go where you can love God best,” and the place that came to mind was Candler—a place that loves God in the most holistic sense.
The Church and the World
The same categorizing and dichotomizing that is typically applied to Church/Academy or personal piety/social justice, also occurs in the broader academic world. Disciplines are sorted and relegated to particular fields of study—designating health to science, policy to law, and corporate affairs to the business world. While there is no denying that this methodology is practical, I sometimes wonder if it creates leaders who are unprepared for the complexity of the world, trained solely in one discipline and taught to keep their interests tapered. When education is approached in this primary-color way, it is easy to miss the beauty of the brilliant hues that are created when disciples overlap and ideological lenses converge. One of my favorite things about Candler is the strong desire for interdisciplinary theology that characterizes the students and professors alike. If you peruse through Candler’s list of degree programs or the M.Div concentration guide, it quickly becomes apparent that Candler’s definition of minister reaches far beyond the walls of the Church. Candler pairs ministry with science, politics, business, ethics, sociology, and psychology (just to name a few), empowering ministers in a variety of vocations—even if their profession isn’t blatantly theological. This interdisciplinary approach does more than just blend diverse areas of study, it also serves as a reminder, at least to me, that faith is meant to permeate far beyond the walls of the Church. Theology should inform every aspect of our lives, from the way we do business, to what we buy and how we vote. Candler is not only committed to a voice in the Church, but also to engaging the Church and the world.
I am acutely aware that my expectations for Candler may seem impossibly high. I mean, really? What institution can live up to this romanticized version of theological education? Maybe it sounds like I am a marketer selling an ideal or a naive undergrad with unrealistic expectations. And maybe these are true, in some way or another. But believe me, trying to articulate why you made a choice before you’ve actually experienced its ramifications is quite a challenge! The core components that led me to Candler—a dedication to the church and ministerial excellence, an integrated and holistic curriculum, and a desire to see theology reach beyond the private sphere—might say more about me than the actual than it does about the school. I feel called to a life that exposes the brilliant colors that we sometimes miss with our narrow labels. I want to work in the margins between Church and Academy, formation and ministry, and politics and religion. I chose Candler because it was a place committed to the millions of shades of green that lie outside our everyday classifications. It is a place I could find a home in the margins, and be supported in a call to the Church and to the world.
Meg is an entering 1st year MDiv student and a graduate of Samford University. She spent this summer as a CBF Fellow at Bread for the World in Washington, DC.