Part 3: The Clash of Two Systems:
Between the Seminary and the University and Me
In the essay below, I shall discuss two major transformative forces that I experienced both as a seminary and university student. As a student (and even now), I was not able to reconcile these two worldviews and conflicting world of ideas, but I knew that I needed both in my intellectual formation as a scholar and theological training as a theologian. From 2002 to 2006, I was enrolled at the “Seminary” pursuing an Advanced Master of Divinity and simultaneously taking classes at the University of Louisville (Uofl) for a dual M.A. in French Language and Literature and an M.A. in Humanities with a concentration in Religious Studies. The conflict that I experienced was internal, intellectual, and perspectival. The people, events, texts, ideas, and movement that formed me radically transformed me intellectually and relationally; they hit me very hard like an “intellectual storm,” and in the form of a clash of worldviews and a system of difference. As the famous Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe put it, things were “falling apart” for me.
1. Clash of Two Systems:
While at the Seminary, I was learning about the sacred world, at the University, I was learning about the secular world. Both systems did not cohere cogently in my mind and intellectual journey. I experienced a sense of intellectual shielding and an epistemological constraint at the Seminary. On the contrary, the University encouraged intellectual curiosity and epistemological flexibility. It was like the two opposing worlds and systems James Baldwin described in his thought-provoking first novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” The protagonist John, the literary representation for Baldwin, wrestled between the life of the church and the curious life of the City streets, and lived a life of tension, both at the religious level and intellectual level. Yet from a theological perspective, as that pertained to the way I was being formed at the Seminary, I could also say that I experienced some kind of intellectual isolation at the University—because some of the things that I was learning at the Seminary was being challenged and deconstructed there.
(I remember I was in a French Literature course, in which we were studying the rise of French “Enlightenment Literature” in the Enlightenment era or the Age of Reason, the Professor, a specialist in French Medieval and Enlightenment Literature and Thought, spent almost the entire class challenging the doctrine of biblical authority and pointing out problems with the textual variants in the Bible. I was not intellectually and psychologically armed for this encounter in the classroom. The seminary did not equip me with the right intellectual tools to engage in rigorous, but friendly conversations with my “secular skeptics,” as we often viewed those outside our circle. Nonetheless, I stood up in class and spoke arrogantly to Dr. X., “You are not a Biblical scholar, and how can we trust what you are saying to us.” Later on, as I progressed toward intellectual maturity and humility, I realized that I was wrong to question the Professor’s authority and knowledge in that conceited style. Interestingly, the Professor was Jewish!) This may sound paradoxical to some readers, but it was my personal experience.
2. Two Different Ways to See and Live in the World:
At the Seminary, I was learning about the impact of famous “white theologians” and “white Christian thinkers” on the Christian world and theological enterprise. By contrast, at Uofl, I was introduced to a wide range of thinkers (most of them were not Christians, but some were champions of human rights and equality, critical theorists, feminists, anti-racist thinkers, anti-colonial revolutionaries, anti-imperial radicals, Marxists, Socialists, Communalists, Humanists, Atheists, etc.), in an interdisciplinary style, who transgressed the boundary of disciplinary knowledge and geography of reason. For example, I was reading seminal texts and thinkers (i.e. Voltaire, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Jung, Freud, Nietzsche, Russell, Hegel, Sartre, Camus, Du Bois, Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Jacques Roumain, Jean Price-Mars, Simone de Beauvoir, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Mead, Frantz Fanon) who were challenging everything I was learning at the seminary. University courses on Critical Theory, Methodology and Research, Postcolonial Francophone Literature, French Intellectual Culture, World Literature, etc., provided a different intellectual circuit to me. In one particular course on “Religious Methodology and Theory of Religion,” the Professor was explaining to us how religious ideas and theological beliefs were human inventions and creation, and that the religious traditions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, for instance, were products of the human mind (We were then reading Emile Durkheim’s 1912 classic text, “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life;” Sigmund Freud’s 1927 revolutionary book, “The Future of an Illusion”; and Carl Jung’s 1938 important book, “Psychology and Religion.”) That class shook my little world and I could not reconcile my seminary’s epistemology with my university’s epistemology.
Unfortunately, at the seminary, we were not being taught about the ontology and theory of knowledge–be it secular, disciplinary, theological, doctrinal, creedal, and intellectual). Knowledge was simply given or deposited into our brain; yet its sources, origins, processes, sequences, evolution, and transmission to the world of ideas were not fully explored in a critical and analytical fashion. (Yet certain theological knowledge and doctrinal beliefs of the Christian faith were carefully examined and scrutinized.) I must confirm that I was mad at the University (Religious) Professor for providing a different perspective than to that which I was accustomed; however, deep inside, I knew that she was telling the truth and making sense to me intellectually and “archeologically,” in the Foucaultian reason (See his book, “The Archeology of Knowledge and the Order of Things”). Certainly, I needed to learn an alternative view, a different position, and a different way of understanding the world of ideas and the formation of knowledge, both in the academia and the walls of the theological curriculum and religious education—even if that would involve an intellectual risk, but it was a step of faith for me.
Similarly, I was getting mad at the Seminary professors for hiding these things from me. I pondered and asked that why they were not teaching me about the real world of ideas such as systems and structures of oppression, abuse, colonization, sexism, slavery, racism, capitalism, poverty, hunger, etc., which were integrative in my University courses, readings, and lectures. Yet my Seminary professors were teaching me about the holiness and sovereignty of God, sin and the fall of humanity, and God’s redemptive provision for the world through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, which were and are biblical truths and claims that I still believe. The central problem with my seminary education was that my seminary professors were not teaching me about how various societal, generational, interracial, corporate, inter-ethnic, and corporate sins and transgressions came to be and functioned in a social context, even in the historical frame and structure of the Western civilization. In other words, the “real world” was hidden from me. I was intellectually terrified that the “order of things,” as interpreted by my University professors and the required readings, was categorically a human invention entailing systems and structures, knowledge and ideas, ideologies and absolutisms, history and the past, myths and legends. While most of those systems and structures were/are corrupt, unequal, racist, racialized, sexist, sexualized, dehumanized, colonized, and oppressive, the University professors taught me that they all could be transformed and redeemed by human power and resources, reason and knowledge, and through the practice of an ethics of relationality and reciprocity.
By contrast, my Seminary professors were not only disengaged with the ills and problems of society, they were telling us that all we need was the Gospel and that the Gospel was enough and the only solution to all societal transgressions, sins, and oppression. Hence, we should not be anxious or concerned about exegeting the culture, our community, or even the way things are in the nation. The seminary’s theological curriculum did, in fact, exegete the culture and world of ideas. However, it was done in a way to show that they were contradicting the claims of Christianity and biblical authority. It was also done within an apologetic approach to the best defense of the validity, plausibility, and credibility of the Bible and Christian faith, which was/is fine by me. I did not object to that “discriminatory approach.” However, it was not adequate for students who were being trained to engage the seas of ideas in our pluralistic culture and were told to transform the unchurched, the agnostic, the atheist, the humanist with the truths and absolute claims of Christianity! At the Seminary, while our “Christian mind” was being changed and challenged intellectually (to a certain degree), our other selves (i.e. our hearts and world of sense/ideas) were not being transformed relationally, culturally, rationally, and interdisciplinarily.
In addition, I should also attest that the Seminary’s way of looking at society and the (American nation or the world’s nations), and the systems and structures that regulate them and control human relations and behavior was quite selective and preferential. For example, in the matter of “Christian” ethics, my instructors put great emphasis on the sins of abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, adultery in marriage, the family, etc. In the case of analyzing “war theories,” few individuals were carrying out constructive conversations about the practicality and existential consequences of modern wars in the geographical zones and countries subjected to American-European military interventions and hegemonic control, the so-called developing nations or uncivilized peoples. Correspondingly, there were few critical conversations engaging the intimate rapport between war and American-European imperialism, war and greed, war and American-European hegemony and political expansion in the world.
In closing, theological education and religious formation should not be at war with secular education. The secular education should not see religious education as a hindrance to human flourishing and enlightenment, or even to the advancement of modern societies and cultures. Perhaps, contemporary seminary instructors could learn one or two things from the so-called “pagan” world. Similarly, contemporary university professors could benefit greatly from the world of theologians and religious scholars.