By Rev. Brandon T. Maxwell, Dean of Students, Columbia Theological Seminary
When I started seminary a third-year student pulled me aside to offer a forecast of the next three years of my life. She said, “You know, seminary is a lot like Holy Week. During orientation, everyone is excited, waving palm branches in the air, celebrating your arrival. But by midterms, you’re being crucified. They’re taking all those things you learned in Sunday School and Wednesday night Bible Study, and they’re nailing them to the cross. The second year, it’s like you’re in the tomb. It gets real dark in there some time. But by your third year – yeah, that third year – it starts to feel a little like resurrection. The stone is rolled away, and light begins to fill the tomb.”
I did not take the third-year student’s words seriously. I was a religion major in undergrad, after all, and my professors prepared me well for seminary. My worldview had already been shattered in my undergraduate REL1010 class wherein the professor told me the Hebrew Bible contained two creation accounts. Another professor stole my Jesus in REL1250 when he introduced exegetical methodologies to the class and told us that the Left Behind series would not help us chart the end times. How much more could my faith be challenged? What worldviews were left to shatter? I invited seminary to hit me with its best shot. And, in some ways, it did.
By November of my first year, I started to feel the metaphorical crucifixion. I went home for Thanksgiving, and my mother asked how things were going. I shared with her that there is no experience quite like seminary. Seminary can challenge one spiritually, academically, professionally, even physically – the freshman fifteen had nothing on the seminary sixteen (sixty, for some). Seminary offered me the unique opportunity to dive into the deep end of the pool, question everything – at times, deny it all. By the end of my first year, I was asking questions about the psycho-social implications of theologies that had sustained me up until seminary: can’t nobody do me like Jesus, there’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus, God is good all the time… By the end of my first year, I had become a great interrogator. I could ask questions and deconstruct things with the best of them. Answers were quite elusive.
As I reflect on my seminary experience, I am grateful for the process. My third year was a lot like the resurrection. I was finally able to put some of the pieces back together and begin reclaiming, redefining the faith of my ancestors in ways that were meaningful and authentic to the person I was becoming. Furthermore, I realized that the Holy Week journey was one to which I would repeatedly return for years to come. Seminary gave me the tools to faithfully live in the tensions of faith and doubt, light and darkness, death and life. It helped me realized that faith and doubt work in tandem. It taught me to appreciate both the beauty of light and the comfort of darkness; to honor both as holy opportunities for growth and formation.
Today, answers remain elusive. In many ways, my faith continues to be about asking the right questions. Patiently journeying through the ever-changing seasons of life: seasons of anticipation, darkness, hope, desperation, new life, chaos, joy. Befriending every season, being grateful for whatever comes, knowing that each new season is sent as a guide from beyond. Seminary taught me that; it hit me with its best shot, and, I like to believe I am a better, more faithful, human being on the other side of the process.
I maintain, there is no experience quite like seminary. There is much to learn here – at least for those who are willing to faithfully go through the process. And we mustn’t privatize the knowledge we gain in seminary. This knowledge, this wisdom is meant to share with the world. I am persuaded that, now more than ever, the world needs faithful, alive human beings who are willing to journey alongside others in the ever-changing seasons of life. Embracing the light. Hallowing the darkness. Asking faithful questions. Knowing when to be silent. Reminding the world that, sometimes, life can be a lot like Holy Week: celebration, death, darkness, light, new life.
Brandon is the Dean of Students at Columbia Theological Seminary. He is also a (recovering Baptist) pastor currently serving at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Grant Park. You can read more of Brandon’s writing here.
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