Losing My Religion: How Seminary Set Me Free
Three years after graduating from college, and about one year after returning from my somewhat reluctant missionary exploits in the South Pacific, I decided to go to graduate school.
It took me a while to decide for what. I briefly considered English, which is what I had studied as an undergrad, but decided that I didn’t want to put up with the snobbery and competitiveness I assumed any literature program worth its salt would entail. Then I got really into the idea of photojournalism — there was a great program in Montana — but it still didn’t feel like a field that made complete sense for me given the size of the investment.
Eventually, through a variety of circumstances including a dream in which I was told by a friend that I needed to go to seminary, I settled on theology.
The story of how I chose where to apply, how I got funding, and why I decided to move to a city toward which I felt great antipathy for the sake of studying God is quite the tale in its own right. For the purposes of this post, what matters is that I went, and that I stayed.
According to classmates from other parts of the country (read: not the West Coast), plus a couple of hometown friends who revealed themselves to be more conservative than I had realized, the seminary I attended is generally considered to be pretty liberal. Of course, the line demarcating “liberal” appears to be in a much different place when one is looking at it from within the Christian community than it does when one is looking at it from a more global perspective. Still, through these people I learned that there were a great number of Christians who considered this particular seminary a dangerous place for one’s faith — a place where foundations may be shaken and even whole city blocks of belief systems razed.
This mistrust sounded ridiculous to me at the time. How can learning be dangerous? How can more knowledge be bad? Isn’t it a joy to realize new things?
Interestingly enough, the fear-mongers were right. Within two years of graduating from my program, I would no longer be a Christian.
One of the main sources of concern regarding the institution I attended, as far as I understand it, had to do with the school’s approach to the study of the Bible. In general, the school encouraged and employed a historical-critical perspective, in which the historical context of the authors and their subjects is seriously considered when interpreting the text. While a Biblical literalist might believe that, since the text is the word of God, every part of it must have happened, in real life, otherwise it is not telling the truth, someone coming from a historical-critical perspective might say, “Hey, the book of Job is pretty bonkers, and it was written at a time when myth-type genres were commonly used, so maybe it’s ‘truth’ lies in something other than it being literal.”
In other words, maybe things that are not literally true can be about true things. Scary indeed!
Having studied literature pretty intensely as a college student, thinking critically about the Bible was not all that world-shaking to me. And, as I’ve mentioned before, critical thinking in general was something always encouraged by my family. So it wasn’t the experiences in textual examination that threw me for a loop; it was the idea, presented by multiple professors over the two years I was a student there, that certain tenets I’d considered to be cold hard fact about Christianity (and thus the world) could be openly, decidedly disbelieved altogether by those who still managed to stand under the “Christian” umbrella.
I remember a strange moment in the first semester of my program. It was in a New Testament survey course, and the professor was lecturing on some verse or verses about the resurrection — not Jesus’ resurrection, but the resurrection of us regular humans — and where our souls and/or bodies go post-life. What I had been taught growing up was that when a person dies, their soul is released from their body and it ends up in either heaven or hell. In some versions of the story, there’s a waiting room of sorts — a foyer, if you will — just outside the ultimate destination wherein God Himself lets you know which door to walk through. Some denominations even believe that the soul does not immediately ascend to the afterlife, but waits in a kind of sleep until Jesus’ return to and judgment of the earth (often called “the Second Coming”) at some indeterminate time in the future. Clearly, there are a number of variations within the doctrine. There was always, though — always — some kind of immortality.
What this professor said in class, to my quiet astonishment, was that he did not really believe in an eternal soul. He said, “I think, maybe, when you’re dead, you’re dead.”
It wasn’t that it didn’t make logical sense. I mean, yes, scientifically, empirically, that is exactly what happens. But how could a Christian — a theology professor, no less — just not believe in heaven or hell?
He acknowledged that it’s not a popular view among Christians, and that the notion that a person’s loved ones are still “living,” joyfully and pain-free, in another dimension is clearly quite comforting to many people. He said he would never go out of his way to tell his mother that, as far as he was concerned, his father was now only a decaying body in the ground. But did he personally believe that there was a version of his father existing in a supernatural place, unseen? No.
My curiosity was piqued. I was not conscious of any instantaneous worldview changes, but I think the experience planted in my brain a number of ideas: that one could, using one’s own intellect and observations, choose not to believe certain parts of a doctrine if one saw evidence to the contrary; that one could be open and confident about one’s divergence from orthodoxy; and that one could, within the divergence, still have understanding and compassion for those who continue to stand by the things one no longer holds true.
I was fortunate enough to have a number of similar learning experiences over the course of my seminary studies. True to the rule of diminishing returns, with increased frequency they became less stark in their impact, but through the overall process I was able to participate in an incredibly honest exploration of what I, personally, believed — or, did not believe.
I can see how it might sound like I was ruined by seminary, like the people there did something wrong and turned me off. On the contrary, I was enlightened. I was not exposed to the worst of Christianity; I was exposed, most of the time, to the best of it. And thus I was, eventually, in the perfect position to make the most authentic decision about my true convictions, once I was ready to take the leap.