Feb 9 2011

The All-Encompassing Divine

A few weeks ago, Atlanta was pounded by the biggest snow it had seen in decades. Snowmen were built, roads turned to ice blocks, and frostbitten folk were sent seeking shelter indoors. Because of the extremes of the arctic conditions, my January class was cancelled for a solid week—SEVEN whole days of complete freedom. As you might guess, my initial perspective on the break from school wasn’t entirely negative. No, I didn’t go into mourning at the thought of spending time cuddled up by a fire with a hot chocolate in hand. In fact, as a soon-to-be graduating MDiv-er, I welcomed the premature break with open arms. My plan was to rest, relax, and do a little outside reading for fun. In short, I was stoked.

On Monday, my first day of freedom, I slept ‘til 1 pm (a confession I shamefully make to my early-rising Mom), cleaned my apartment to spick and span standards (still reading, Mom?), and settled in that night with a good read that was unrelated to coursework. The day was pure bliss.

By Tuesday, I was restless and decided I couldn’t take the stale air of my apartment any longer. I opened the front door to six feet of snow, plowed my way to my car, and was one of the insane and overconfident ATLians braving the conditions of the streets. I arrived (sufficiently frightened by my stupidity that only posed as bravery) at a cafe with my outside reading in hand, salivating over the smell of pressed coffee mixed with the sweat of sledders seeking shelter from the cold.

The book I was reading was Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, a development book that had been on my reading list since it first appeared in 2006. Easterly takes a fairly secular look at the field of international development, criticizing it profusely at times yet also managing to balance his writing with a few helpful ideas to transform the industry. As a student with a focused interest in international aid and religion, Easterly was a breath of fresh air compared to commentaries out there that uncritically moralize and patronize aid. My goal for the week, however, was to take on this book and my other outside reading with a perspective that overlooked religion and theology. It was, after all, the beginning of my sixth semester of divinity school. I thought I could use a break from the complexities that religious and theological analyses sometimes unearth.

By page 200 of Easterly’s book, I was punishing myself for thoughts that kept circling back to religion. Maria, I thought, take a break. Rest your mind and read this book for what it is. Fifty pages later, I was buzzed by my third cup ‘o joe and desperately wanting to engage in a conversation with my neighbor about the possible advantages local communities of faith have over large-scale, top-down aid organizations. Though not the subject of Easterly’s book, his analysis spoke to the experiences I knew firsthand, and my study of religion had provided me with ideas for ways forward at points where he had reached standstills. On page 260, only ten pages later, I gave up my quest, turned to my neighbor and asked for her perspective on religious mission work and its correlation (or lack thereof) to grassroots development. I realized it was hopeless to seek to remove myself from the perspective that so intimately formed me, the foundational questions I have been trained to ask at Candler, and the heart of my calling in this world. After two-and-a-half years of divinity school, I embraced the fact that the Divine is not just one element that can be pieced apart from a societal perspective, but it is an all-encompassing lens that enlightens societal perspective and provides hope to transform it anew.

From that point forward, I read my other books of the week with a commitment to honest questions—a commitment to critical engagement of all forms. When the snow melted, I returned to my classes all the better, equipped with theological and religious questions influenced by real world realities and with real world perspectives connected to undeniable theological and religious implications.

And to think, all it took for me to get to this place was a pot of hot coffee, a couple of the most amazing years of my life studying at Candler, and a few snow days that left me desperate for more.

-Maria Presley

Maria is a 3rd year MDiv student from Mississippi and a Student Ambassador.

Nov 5 2010

Candler Class of 2011: Reflections on a Global Education

Maria in MexicoSome call it wanderlust. Others tell me it’s the result of growing up in a small town. My parents’ conclusion is that they let me watch the Travel Channel one too many hours as a child. Whatever the reason, I’ve never been able to sit still for long. Whether it’s backpacking across Zimbabwe, studying Ancient Christianity in Greece, or even just climbing on my bike to get out of town (and into some of the amazing trail rides outside of Atlanta), I’m usually found wherever the rubber meets the road.

During my undergraduate years, I learned how to put my thirst for travel to good use. I felt a strong desire to seek an education influenced by classroom learning and on the ground experience. Beginning my freshman year, I came to understand academia not as an ivory tower set apart from the world, but as the ivory composing the tusks of the elephants that live as part of our world. I traveled to Mozambique, Turkey, Ireland, and other locales, seeking practical application for all that I was learning. In the process, I met people who challenged me to speak, think, and care in diverse and life-giving ways.

View from MozambiqueWhen I decided to apply for divinity schools, my number one priority was finding a university where education wasn’t limited to the classroom. I looked at many places that viewed theology as an integral aspect of a global community, but Candler stood out as a place already engaged in the world even from its home space. Atlanta is a city where global NGOs converge with refugee communities, where church is not limited to local neighborhood, and where a school of theology utilizes the international perspectives all around it. Because of these reasons and more, Candler became the obvious choice.

Moving through AustraliaTwo and a half years later, I enter my last semester of divinity school having spent almost as much time inside the classroom as outside of it. Hours of contextual education in a women’s prison, three and a half months of the summer working for a development organization in Africa, two weeks at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia, and an additional summer in Mexico are all opportunities that were made possible to me because the faculty, staff, and students at Candler believe that education is at its best when it is inclusive of global perspectives. Thanks to Candler, I am equipped for leadership in the real world, and it feels bittersweet to be preparing to leave an institution that has supported my passion for a global education.

- Maria Presley

Maria is a 3rd year MDiv student from Mississippi and a Student Ambassador.