So it hit me again this last week. It was the first day of classes for a new semester. I’ve now been in seminary for a year and am beginning my second year.
As I was sitting in a Spiritual Formation course, it hit me that I’m in a classroom, there’s a teacher up front, all the students are at our chair-desks listening and discussing the topic at hand. Now in all my decades of going to school which include elementary and high school, as well as community college provided by the good tax-payers of California, then on to both undergraduate and graduate degrees – all those years and diplomas, certificates, and a few letters behind my name – for all those years the purpose of education was completely secular and practical.
In elementary school, it was my ‘job’ to learn to read, write, and do ‘rithmatic. I learned those skills, a bit of science, history, and some arts, as well as playing well with others. Those skills allowed me to make my way through much of modern society – not well, but at an ‘elementary’ level. In High School (“Go Spartans!”), I did more of the same with a hope that I would be prepared for even greater educational challenges (remember the term, “college prep courses?”) – but basically it was the same: language skills, mathematics, social studies, physical education, some life-skills, and some vocational skills. At the end of the diploma track, I was ready to take my place in adult society, especially the economic part – I could now hold down a job.
I went to college. The first two years were at a community college (we called them “junior colleges” then), then I went off to a private school and learned that education was costly! But my major was Business Administration and, clearly, that was a secular purpose. I happened to go to a Christian college so was able to ‘sneak in’ stuff that I was interested in like Bible, theology, and some ministry things. But the strictly Christian stuff was – as I sold it to my parents (who were not wild about me going to a Christian college) – collateral material. You don’t go to school to learn how to love God and Man!
About 15 years ago, I went to law school, graduated, and passed the California Bar exam (first time!). Again, the purpose of law school is to teach knowledge and skills to accomplish a straight-forward secular purpose. The classrooms were larger, the academic demands were greater, the tuition more expensive (!), but the purpose was recognizable by anyone walking by the campus.
So it hit me as I was in this seminary classroom that seminary is a massive paradigm shift. I am, in fact, here in this place and paying this money, to better learn how to love God and others. It is not the goal to competitively get the best grades, but to cooperatively become people of godly character.
My mind rebelled: that’s nuts! That’s crazy! People go to school to learn ‘practical’ things like reading, writing, ‘rithmatic, and how to sue people in a court of law – school is secular! Sitting in a classroom learning why and how we can love God better is, is, well, it is just … absurd!!
Now my mind returned to a less-fevered pitch and I realized my misconceptions. First, if I really believe all that “God, Jesus, and the Bible” stuff, then I’ve got to admit that the most pragmatic and practical skill I can posses is how to love God and others. And, oh by the way, because I’m privileged to learn these things, it is required of me that I teach these things well to others. Second, that learning how to love God and others in a class room sure seems absurd, but my teacher does it rather well without being reductionistic or losing the heart of love that such a class requires. Third, it really is not my concern how people walking by the campus react to the purpose of the campus, it is my concern how they may react to an invitation to live their lives with Jesus.
So, at the end of this, seminary is a very different educational experience than I have had before and because of that, it seems a bit surreal. But that may well be because I am, in fact, learning about the transcendent which is imminent.