Thursday, August 23, 2012
Reflecting on my time at Fuller Seminary
As of a couple of hours ago, I turned in my last paper as a student of Fuller Theological Seminary. I am now a master...or at least I have a Master of Arts in Theology. I came to Fuller about a year and a half ago, after starting about 25% of my degree at RTS in Atlanta. As I reflect on my time here, there are a number of things that I really appreciated about being here.
1. The Diversity
I love that fact that my being a white American male made me a minority at Fuller. There seemed to be just as many women as men studying here and there are students here from all over the world. I had classes with students from Mexico, Greece, South Korea, El Salvador, China, Malaysia, Canada, Bolivia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Haiti, Jamaica, and Ethopia. And those are just the ones I was aware of.
There was also a great diversity among denominations and theological backgrounds. From Presbyterians to Methodists, from Pentacostals to Episcopalians, from open theists to Calvinists, from conservatives to liberals, the student body here was made up of many different beliefs about the Bible and the way to do church.
The main thing this diversity breeds is humility. I remember sitting in class my first quarter and figuring out that if you took all the Christians in the world, the ones that fit into my specific belief system on salvation, atonement, eschatology, doctrine of the church, doctrine of the Holy Spirit, etc. are probably only about 3-4%! The beauty of this is that I learned to be more compassionate and open-minded as I sought to have fruitful conversations with people who believed differently than me in many ways.
I have heard people say that you should choose a seminary based on its professors. I am now a firm believer in that as well. It's kind of crazy to look back and see how many of the professors I had are world-renowned in their respective fields: Marianne Thompson, John and NT theology; John Thompson, Calvin; John Goldingay, Isaiah and OT theology; Don Hagner, Matthew and NT theology; David Augsburger, Pastoral counseling and conflict management.
What most of my professors did best was teach me how to think, not necessarily what to think. This is one of the biggest differences between Fuller and seminaries that are tied to denominations or specific theologies. During my first quarter I was frustrated by this. The class would be trying to pin the professor on what to think and he/she would keep us guessing, allowing us to wrestle with the issue. Over time I began to really appreciate this, because I have learned how vast the spectrum is as far as what Christians believe around the world. Fuller professors were trying to show that to us and then help us come to some conclusions on our own.
3. Being challenged in what I believe
I heard many times that those who are conservative in their theology will find Fuller too liberal and those who are liberal in their theology will find Fuller too conservative. Coming in as more conservative and Reformed, I knew that I would face some ideas that I did not agree with. I came in believing that complementarianism was the only true biblical position concerning men and women's roles. Now I'm not too sure of that. There were also many ways I was challenged in the ways I think about ethics. There has been a large contingent of Mennonites and pacifists that have taught here and I have been challenged in the ways in which I think about issues like war, the death penalty, and nonviolence in general. I'm also coming away with different positions concerning the Old Testament, being okay with the fact that Moses probably didn't write the Pentateuch and that the two different creation accounts aren't necessarily meant to be taken as literal historical explanations.
The net result of all this is greater humility and more understanding with people who differ from me. I have been humbled by how much I don't know and how many issues aren't as black and white as I thought they were. I've also been helped in appreciating different pastors/theologians who I didn't appreciate before. For instance, I did not think much of N.T. Wright when I came in because I disagreed with his views on justification. However, Wright is an incredibly thoughtful and helpful writer that has so many great things to say. Also, I didn't like Rob Bell very much when I came in, but God seemed to have a sense of humor in having me befriend many people who love him, including one of my current roommates who was very involved in Mars Hill in the early days. I have even learned to appreciate Bell in some different ways.
The point is, I will now be less inclined to blacklist or demonize someone because they happen to disagree with me in a particular area. The disconnectedness of the internet and conversations with like-minded people are easy avenues for this kind of thing. I hope that I can be removed from this type of behavior in the future.
4. Learning more about Pastoral counseling issues
Between David Augsburger and Dale Ryan, I took classes on grief and loss, conflict and conciliation, caring for the abused, and spirituality and recovery. These were some of my favorite classes and help confirm a calling towards pastoring and caring for people. The class on a recovery model of spirituality was probably one of the most impactful classes I took here (see an earlier blog post on that).
There certainly were some things that have been downsides to my experience at Fuller. The cost is one huge factor as it was probably about twice as expensive as RTS. Also, the student environment at Fuller was sometimes discouraging. There were a lot of students struggling with their faith here and public behavior of certain people did not always match up expectations I had of seminary life. However, the struggle wasn't just with "them." I probably had one of the driest devotional periods of my Christian life while here. I have been told the this is often the case in seminary, though I don't fully understand why.
As I leave this place and head back to Atlanta, I still don't know what the next few years will hold for me. I can say though, that Fuller has helped prepare me for whatever that is. Whether I am in full time ministry or not, I feel more equipped to bring the gracious gospel of Jesus to those I am in contact with. I have no regrets about moving out here a year and a half ago. Though there have been many ups and downs, I will always appreciate the things I've learned here and the relationships I was able to invest in. Thank you to all who supported me and were along for the ride with me, both here in Pasadena and across the country. I am deeply grateful.