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.

2. Professors
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.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

TIm Keller breifly addresses the problem of suffering

Tim Keller recently wrote a great article for CNN where he looks at four different responses to the question, "Why did God let this happen?" Here's most of it:
The first answer is, "This makes no sense—I guess this proves there is no God." But the problem of senseless suffering does not go away if you abandon belief in God. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, said that if there was no higher divine Law, there would be no way to tell if any particular human law was unjust or not. If there is no God, then why have a sense of outrage and horror when suffering and tragedy occur? The strong eat the weak—that’s life—so why not? When Friedrich Nietzsche heard that a natural disaster had destroyed Java in 1883, he wrote a friend: “Two hundred thousand wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!” Nietzsche was relentless in his logic. Because if there is no God, all value judgments are arbitrary. All definitions of justice are just the results of your culture or temperament. As different as they were in other ways, King and Nietzsche agreed on this point. If there is no God or higher divine Law, then violence is perfectly natural. So abandoning belief in God doesn’t help with the problem of suffering at all, and as we will see, it removes many resources for facing it.

The second answer is, “If there is a God, senseless suffering proves that God is not completely in control of everything. He couldn’t stop this.” As many thinkers have pointed out—both devout believers as well as atheists—such a being, whatever it is, doesn’t really fit our definition of God. And this leaves you with the same problems mentioned above. If you don’t believe in a God powerful enough to create and sustain the whole world, then the world came about through natural forces, and that means, again, that violence is natural. Or if you think that God is an impersonal life force and this whole material world is just an illusion, again you remove any reason to be outraged at evil and suffering or to resist it.

The third answer to seemingly sudden, random death is, "God saves some people and lets others die because he favors and rewards good people." But the Bible forcefully rejects the idea that people who suffer more are worse people than those who are spared suffering. This was the self-righteous premise of Job’s friends in that great Old Testament book. They sat around Job, who was experiencing one sorrow in life after another, and said, "the reason this is happening to you and not us is because we are living right and you are not." At the end of the book, God expresses his fury at Job’s "miserable comforters." The world is too fallen and deeply broken to issue in neat patterns of good people having good lives and bad people having bad lives.

The fourth answer is, "God knows what he’s doing, so be quiet and trust him." This is partly right, but inadequate. It is inadequate because it is cold and because the Bible gives us more with which to face the terrors of life.

God did not create a world with death and evil in it. It is the result of humankind turning away from him. We were put into this world to live wholly for him, and when instead we began to live for ourselves everything in our created reality began to fall apart—physically, socially, and spiritually. Everything became subject to decay. But God did not abandon us. Of all the world's major religions, only Christianity teaches that God came to earth (in Jesus Christ) and became subject to suffering and death himself—dying on the Cross to take the punishment our sins deserved—so that some day he can return to earth to end all suffering without ending us.

Do you see what this means? Yes, we don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason isn’t—what it can’t be. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us! It can’t be that he doesn’t care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself.

He understands us, he’s been there, and he assures us that he has a plan to eventually to wipe away every tear, to make "everything sad come untrue," as J.R.R. Tolkien put it at the end of his Christian allegory The Lord of the Rings.

Someone might say, "But that’s only half an answer to the question 'Why?'" Yes, but it is the half that we need.

If God actually explained all the reasons why he allows things to happen as they do, it would be too much for our finite brains. Think of small children and their relationship to their parents. Three-year-olds can’t understand most of what their parents allow and disallow for them. But though they aren’t capable of comprehending their parents’ reasons, they are capable of knowing their parents’ love, and therefore capable of trusting them and living securely. That is what they really need. Now the difference between God and human beings would be infinitely greater than the difference between a thirty-year-old parent and a three-year-old child. So we should not expect to be able to grasp all God’s purposes, but through the Cross and gospel of Jesus Christ, we can know his love. And that is what we need most.