What I Learned in Seminary (the short version)

I had two goals in coming to seminary: I was planning to become a chaplain and I wanted my Bible back from narrow-minded fundamentalists.

I can check both boxes. I now work part-time as a pastoral care associate at a large Chicago suburban hospital, and in September I will start a one-year paid residency at that hospital that will give me additional training that couldn’t be crammed into one clinical pastoral education unit and will also pay me to learn. (Unlike seminary.)

As to the Bible, I now generally know which part of the book to open when I am looking for something in it. It was actually fun to read the two-volume commentary on the Gospel of John by Craig Keener that was assigned by the instructor –six years in seminary have changed my idea of what is fun – and it was even more fun to read trashy novels about Jesus in the Reimagining the Gospels course and be able to spot the scriptural errors. I have learned enough about the Bible to not take it in vain or hit people over the head with it.


Here are some of the other things I learned.

  1. How to use soteriology correctly in a sentence: By contrast, post-scholastic theologians have shifted focus within Christology toward soteriology – doctrines of the work of Christ and, specifically, how salvation has been accomplished, a theological discussion that has animated post-Anselm Christology and especially post-Calvinist Christology. I wrote that sentence in 2011 in my introductory theology course. (Bonus point for using Christology correctly.)
  2. How to drive 85 miles an hour, which I did when my first residential intensive in spiritual formation in 2012 was disrupted by my husband’s having a car accident and I had to return home to Chicago. I did not miss a class because the instructor kindly worked out a Skype connection. An update: today my husband is hiking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, where I will join him next month.
  3. How rich education can be when you do it later in life when everyone in the classroom is highly motivated and brings a lifetime of experience into the room, making for deeply satisfying and stimulating discussions. I often describe the Earlham School of Religion to people who don’t know it as a place where you can learn as much from your fellow students as you can from the instructor, and I did.
  4. How to make spiritual friends. This has been precious and sustaining to me.
  5. How to be still and know God.

And finally. How to discern and enjoy the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I do wish the apostle Paul had added gratitude – a lot of us wish Paul had said a few things differently – and as a trained exegete I am prepared to argue that’s surely what he meant.

Thanks to you all, faculty, staff, fellow students.


On first looking into the Quran

If I were one of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, this might be a rite of passage for me. But I am an American Quaker Christian studying the Quran at my seminary. I’ve been to mosques, read books, attended numerous iftars (fast-breaking dinners during the holy month of Ramadan) and interfaith dinners, heard panels and lectures, and learned from my Muslim friends. So I am using a sympathetic lens informed by more than two decades of exposure to Islam.

But I’ve always been a little frightened by the Quran with what I anticipated might be its judgments and commands and justifications. (Sacred texts have a reputation for that.) It stands there in my imagination like a very tall man I met many years ago from Kuwait. He was dressed in traditional garb, except for the wingtips on his feet. He looked down at me during our conversation about Islam and asked, “Now that you have seen the truth, why don’t you accept it?”

His question rings for me when we discuss at seminary the “truth claims” made by religions. When in the Gospel of John the Roman governor Pilate asks his prisoner Jesus “What is truth?” I have a certain amount of sympathy for that even though I know Pilate is supposed to be the bad guy in the story. I have taken biblical studies courses and have found myself able to at least dogpaddle in the deepest waters of centuries of interpretation. But the Quran, and its centuries of tradition and multiplicity of cultural heritages, comes at me like a flood of foreignness, surprising me with my own assumptions as well as its teachings.

The Quran is written in Arabic, a language foreign to me, and I know next to nothing about the history of 7th century Arabia. But familiar characters appear: Isa (Jesus), Musa (Moses), Yusuf (Joseph), Maryam (Mary, the mother of Jesus). Maryam is more developed in the Quran than in Christian Scripture; I want to enter the text through that inviting open door. Central themes are also familiar: justice (adl), mercy (rahma), beauty (jamal). What the believers ought to believe is threaded through the text, of course.studyquran

My beautiful text (The Study Quran, a beautifully designed edition) comes with footnotes, as all study versions of sacred texts do. They promise to be helpful when I come to the texts of terror, to use the phrase of biblical scholar Phyllis Trible. But she didn’t get that phrase from a study of the Quran; that comes courtesy of close reading of the Scripture that Jews and Christians share. (Significantly, the Quran offers an alternative merciful reading of Hagar.)

While knowing biblical texts helps, I am also leaning on the poet John Keats, who wrote memorably about his encounter with Chapman’s translation of Homer. Poetry is (or was?) my first love, and phrases from Keats have popped up for me mentally throughout my life. I may be a writer but I cannot fully explain the power of being struck “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” I’ve spotted a new world that is all the horizon there is for so many, thrilling, intimidating, and vast, vast, inviting contemplation.