What’s it Like Doing Theology With a Room Full of Philosophers

The following is a guest post by a friend of mine Derek Saenz. Here he reflects upon his past experience as a theology student at Talbot Seminary (which happens to be FULL of philosophy students).

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If you think that many seminary students look at philosophy students and think, “These guys are just a bunch of know it alls, gibbering on about a bunch of theoretical nonsense,” then you’d be right.

Why is this the case?  What is a philosophy student to do?

I’m glad you asked:

Many of us are fundamentally oriented toward more concrete thinking.

When we get some, “Really smart Philosophy guys,” in our classes we don’t know quite what to do with you all.

Sure, we can get a bit abstract with talk of different doctrines.  But the great simple truth of Christianity is that Jesus was a real man, who really lived, and really died – like physically.  And the resurrected and rose – again physically.  That’s the beauty of our faith, we can tell the story of Jesus to illiterate seven year olds anywhere in the world and they can rrock it.

Many of your non-philosophizing seminary classmates were those illiterate seven year olds.  And the sad truth is that many of us never gained a deeper understanding of our faith.

Which leads to my next point:

We come from fundamentally different backgrounds.

The last philosophy class I took was in my second year of junior college and it had to do with virtue ethics – and I was a little lost even then!  Philosophy folks eat this stuff for breakfast before pondering the deep significances of the Theory of the Analytic Whatever.

For many unwashed, dull, normal seminary students we come from the stale scent of old pizza and spilled soda from so many church youth rooms.  We love Jesus.  We got a Bachelor’s in something.  The sad thing is, our Bachelor’s degrees were focused on the retention of information.  Many times we were never pushed to question or truly understand what we were being taught.  We were incented to simply study the required information and bubble it in on a Scantron.

We do topical sermons based around the Ten Commandments.  We spend a week apiece on the different Fruits of the Spirit.  We are simple-minded.  We are concrete-thinkers.

Simply thinking concretely is dangerous because abstract ideas are actually the tool used in real life change.  You can tell a man to, “Be nicer to your wife,” but the real reason he is so terrible to her is that he is a misogynist who truly believes women are worth less than men.  You can’t combat this concretely, you must go to the magical land of abstract ideas – where real heart change happens.

Which leads to the greatest skills that all seminary students can learn from philosophy students:

We need to learn precision and tenacious curiosity from philosophy students.

I can’t tell you how many times a Master’s level student would say in class, “Well, I don’t get it!  But you know what, none of this has to do with real ministry anyway.”

Can I tell you a story from the aforementioned “real ministry” about why precision in language is important?

I recently started listening to a message from the senior pastor of a church I was trying to work at.  He was outlining his position on the roles women can hold in ministry.  I cannot tell you how confused this guy sounded in his own church, in front of his own people, talking about a subject that he was “very passionate” about.

He started discussing “how to really read the Bible,” yet he conflated genre and context when explaining hermeneutics to his people.  He was basically espousing a trajectory hermeneutic on stage, but he never used those words, he never even brought up to his people where he got the idea.*

At a church where nearly 500 people rely on this man to lead them in their pursuit of God, he was being more confusing than helpful.    I wasn’t convinced that he knew what he was talking about.  And in fact, it seemed like he was trying to hide that he didn’t really understand what he was saying by using common flowery preacher cliches.  He went on and on about the “beauty of this,” and “the gospel that,” oh, and my favorite, “the beautiful, broken story that God weaves throughout and scripture and our lives.”  These sayings can be used effectively, but if your main point is murky and all you can speak are these sayings, you’ve got trouble.

Here’s why this preacher was in trouble:

  1. He wasn’t precise in his language because he didn’t understand what he was talking about.
  2. He didn’t understand what he was talking about because he didn’t study enough.
  3. He didn’t study because he wasn’t really curious for the truth.

What can I do to help these poor, pathetic senior pastors to be?

Dear reader, I’m glad you asked:

Ask good questions, but don’t leave your classmates in the dust.

When you are in class, ask great questions of your professors.  Many of my, “Oh, I get it now,” moments in seminary happened when a really bright philosophy student would ask an incisive question.  The best questions brought clarity and precision to what the professor was trying to teach.  Many times I didn’t know that I was lost in a discussion until a philosophy student would ask a great question.  Remember, many of our undergraduate programs didn’t value questions or truly understanding material, they only valued the retention of information.

Philosophers, you are all experts in argument, logic, and the abstract.  Will you use your powers for good or for evil?  Will you shepherd those who are leading God’s people in their intellectual and spiritual pursuits?  Or will you tire of us and let us drown in the filth of our own incompetent, narrow-mindedness?

Grab lunch or coffee or vending machine goodies with your non-philosophy classmates.  Find a good blog or book that puts the Philosophy cookies on the low shelf for them.  Ask them thought provoking questions.  Teach and guide from a place of humility.

Because no one wants to listen to a know-it-all gibbering on about a bunch of theoretical nonsense.

*Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals, Webb.
Bio:  Derek Saenz went to Talbot and got an M. Div.  He has a wife, a daughter, and a cat.  He is too dependent on caffeine.  Follow him on Twitter @TheDerekSaenz

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