After a particularly long day of classes about half way through my first semester of seminary, a group of us went to the bar down the road from the school to do “theology.” It was something recommended to us by a professor who always said: “the worst place for learning theology is in a classroom!” As true as that statement was, it held spades that day!
The year I entered seminary, SFTS was going through one of its many transitions. We were the largest class the school had in many years, as well as the youngest with nearly half of the class under 30. And for the younger crowd, we found something that we were not expecting, fights! You name it, from feminism to literalism, we were not expecting that, especially on a seminary campus. Naïve, most of us thought we were going to learn theology, gain tools for ministry, but not be embroiled in controversies. Like I said, we were young!
That day it had been an incredibly intense class and we were processing. As we were making understanding of the class, we began to recognize something that we could not put our finger on while the debates were flying. We saw that much of the anger and vitriol that was being spouted had very little to do with faith and even less with God, but had everything to do with power, positioning, and “the win!”
The interesting thing, as we sat and analyzed what was going on, was that we realized one of the most important lessons in all of seminary. We learned that theology is not about positions or even being right, let alone winning a position, it is how we speak about God. We talked about how ignorant both sides of the issue sounded in class and, more importantly, we realized that neither side ever actually painted a picture of God.
In essence, theology is the words we use to describe God, or as the famous seminary textbook coined “Faith seeking understanding.” But the problem with words and understanding is that it is easily corrupted, not only from outside but also inside. When positions are mixed with theology, something corrosive always seems to come out. In the case of the class, the desire to be right made the debate not about God, but about proving the other wrong. The problem was that by the end of the debate each side might have easily won, but we still did not know much more about God than when it all began.
This week as we encounter the text from James, we are reminded of our humanity and imperfection and that can impact our speech. When we are not thinking and paying attention we can often say and do things that are far from Godly. Often when we get caught up “in the fight” we lose sight of the reason behind it all. That is a huge problem, as it must have been for the community that James was addressing. As we see, the words people used did more destruction than they did building and left the people without a clear understanding of God, only a desire to fight. And what good comes from that?
I am glad to say that the seminary really changed while I was there. Though just under half of the group I came in with transferred or left after the first year, there was a recognition that while the issues were important, talking and learning were far more important. I know I often say that wisdom comes when you step back, and that is what I saw there. When we took the collective breath and looked at the issues we were able to see God clearly and had an easier path negotiating through all of the difficult, heated debates of the last 20 years.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen