Losing My Religion, Part IV: Where Faith Goes to Die
If you're a young person hoping to strengthen your tentative faith in God, seminary is the last place you should go. And yet that's exactly what I did.
I need to back up a bit here: in the fall of 1984, I took my newly minted Masters degree in music education to the only school in Oregon that would hire me. The place was North Powder, a tiny community halfway between La Grande and Baker City. I lasted eleven weeks. I spent the rest of the year subbing, growing more and more disillusioned with the profession I had believed was my vocation. In March, 1985, I attended a convocation for persons considering entering the ministry, heard several preachers (including Bishop Calvin McConnell and John Schweibert) say things that spoke directly to me, and decided on the spot to enter the candidacy program. I applied to two seminaries, Boston and Perkins (part of SMU), because they were the only Methodist schools with sacred music programs, and at this point I didn't want that Masters degree to go to waste. Boston appeared to lose my application, and Perkins accepted it, though to enter the sacred music program, I'd have to audition, something I didn't think I could afford to do until I was on campus in August. And that was it: after one unpleasant year, I was abandoning teaching.
To be fair, I had been reading the Bible, from cover to cover, since the previous summer. Initially it was a scholarly quest, a search for contradictions and inconsistencies I could use to do battle with a fundamentalist friend who kept insisting on the existence of hell. While I found plenty of those scriptural glitches, I also found the book winning me over as it hadn't on the previous occasion when I read the whole thing, my junior year of high school. I was hoping then that it would deepen my faith. It didn't. But now, in 1984-5, I found many passages speaking directly to my quarter-life crisis, as the career I'd sacrificed my youth to seemed to be rejecting me.
In August, I drove down to Dallas to begin seminary. I was thrilled to be heading back to university, an environment that had always felt safe and secure to me. I arrived on campus late at night, unloaded my paltry possessions, and the next day, auditioned.
I didn't make it in.
In retrospect, I know my skills as both a pianist and a conductor were still rough at that point in my life. I'd had very little experience, and I was only 24, extremely insecure about my singing voice, and had little knowledge of the sacred music world apart from being in church choirs. The professors who'd auditioned me told me I should go ahead and take all the Master of Divinity classes--which I'd intended to do, anyway, hoping to come out of seminary that rare bird, a fully ordained music minister--and inviting me to audit the sacred music seminar, and if I was still interested after a year, to apply again. I agreed, doing my best to hide my disappointment.
Then classes began, and so did the tug of war on my fragile faith.
Studying the Bible electrified me. I found I could analyze scripture in the same ways I'd learned to analyze music. It didn't take me long to realize that much that I had believed about the authority of scripture was problematic. Clearly this was a human document, and all the claims made about its divine inspiration were specious. Over those first two years, I constructed a more nuanced role for scripture in my spiritual life. Even though reading the Bible had gotten me to seminary, I would never again view it as the chief cornerstone of my faith.
Studying theology mystified me. I quickly found myself out of my depth. Whenever professors talked theology, they used the language of philosophy, a discipline I had never studied. To master this field, I would have to spend a great deal of time reading, discussing, and thinking about the very framework of religious thought. It took me my entire seminary experience, including three years of supervised work in the field, to begin to think of myself as a competent theologian.
Studying ministry frustrated me. What I wanted most in that first year was a class on how to do basic pastoral tasks: what to do on a home visit, a hospital call, during a counseling session; how to pray with people, bless church dinners, lead study groups; and so on. The thought of performing all these tasks was overwhelming. The introduction to ministry class was the exact opposite: impractical, theoretical, a useless waste of our time.
There was a lot to study. There was also a lot to do: a formation group where I met with other first year students to hash out our hopes and fears; evening devotions; early morning communion; twice weekly chapel services; the seminary choir; continuing candidacy studies with an assistant dean; a food co-op. There was my church job, directing a youth choir at a Presbyterian church. There was also the case study I performed on a progressive Methodist church across the street from the one where I worked.
For all that activity, I was desperately lonely my first semester, to the point of deep depression. I began seeing a counselor at the health center, journaled, prayed. Why, in this place where I was supposed to be figuring out exactly who God was, and how to share God with ordinary people, did I feel God's absence so starkly? One Friday night, sitting on the floor of my dorm room, my journal before me, I wrote in capital letters: WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? Then I collapsed in tears. As I wept, I had a gentle sensation of hands on my shoulders. I sat up, startled: I was still alone, and yet somehow I felt comforted.
That's the only time I had that sensation. Many times in the following years, I yearned for something like it, and never got it. For that one brief moment, though, my mind concluded I had been in the presence of God. Now I could go on.
I finished that year more confident of many things. Part of that confidence was new-found love: after 24 years of celibacy, I was finally having my first, then my second relationship. Now I was engaged. I was also receiving encouragement from my professors, who seemed to like what they saw in me. Finally, after a year of auditing the sacred music seminar, and of being in the seminary choir with sacred music majors, I concluded that was decidedly not for me. It was too much like musicology, a field I'd been encouraged to enter while an undergrad, but just couldn't imagine myself doing.
As for theology and Biblical studies, the two areas I more-or-less majored in: I immersed myself in the intellectual rigor, reveled in the subversive pleasure of deconstructing truth-claims, myths, and poorly examined beliefs. I loved it when a professor reminded us that the Bible is a book, not an idol; when another irascibly threw out the notion that anything that is too hard or dangerous for theology to explain is a "mystery"; and delighted in the schadenfreude of seeing an evangelical reduced to tears by the relentless logic of the academy. This was my bread and butter: dissecting dogma, challenging its inconsistencies and contradictions, discarding beliefs that couldn't hold up to the scrutiny of rationalism.
If you're wondering how this prepared me, or any of my classmates, for ministry, the simple answer is that it didn't. The goal appeared to be distillation, boiling off our minds to clean them of all the folderol we'd amassed sitting through Sunday School lessons and half-baked sermons. Purified of that nonsense, we could then begin replacing those ideas with something more intellectually honest. Of course, those who practice pure academic theology are called professors, not pastors, and as I was to learn, first on internship, then in England, and finally back home in Oregon, that's not what feeds the flock.
I don't regret seminary. Far from it, I'm grateful for the way it equipped me to take on the claims of religion, to fight back against contradictory doctrines, and to think through my spiritual struggles to their logical conclusion. The absurdity, though, is that I went to seminary to learn how to have a stronger faith, and instead, was given the tools to dismantle what faith I had. By the time I graduated in May, 1991, I was solidly on the road to agnosticism.