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