A friend told me years ago, “Once you’re in Seminary, you need to forget everything you learned about the Bible before then.” Is this a slight exaggeration? Probably. But, it flies awfully close to my truth in Seminary. There are often more times though that I find myself in the opposite scenario where I learn something in class and think, “I don’t remember hearing about this before.” Either I was not paying attention during Pastor Russell’s confirmation classes and Betty Flohr’s Sunday School lessons, or I’ve simply forgotten it all.
I possess what could be termed as a passion to learn – or as I like to call it – an expensive hobby (seminary school is not cheap). Each semester, I enthusiastically read book chapters and scholarly articles, jot down questions and make notes in the margins. I sit in class and find myself learning from my classmates while feverishly taking lecture notes. I have been a sponge soaking up all I can. My favorite part of this experience has been talking about theological topics and the Bible outside of the classroom walls. At work. At the gym. Hanging out with friends. Even at the dentist. It is a rare moment I am not reading and I have discovered people love to ask questions when they see you have an academic book in your hand. It’s been said you remember more when you have to explain it to someone else.
The most surprising conversations though have been with my mother. Since starting my studies, I have shared my lessons and readings with her and we have enjoyed some very enlightening discussions – and if you know my mother, they are entertaining also. She and I have talked about Islam and the differences between Muslim beliefs and the cultural customs. We have talked about ‘ecological theology’, that the earth does not belong to humans but to God, and what it means to care of the earth and its inhabitants. I even tried to explain why we should refer to God as ‘God’ instead of ‘He’ or ‘Him’, but Mom’s not quite there yet on that one.
The conversations which are the hardest to have are about evil and suffering in the world and why it exists in the presence of God. As humans, we want answers and something to blame when disasters or hurting take place. We want an answer to the question of why did this happen. Eventually, this question becomes, “Why did God allow this to happen?” This is known as The Theodicy Question. The response to this question can be found in the theology of the cross (Largen, 2013). Notice, I didn’t use the word answer.
Suffering and hurting are sadly inevitable. We are finite creatures made by God and this means we experience pain and hurt of all types. We will feel regret, grief and mourning, mostly likely become ill during our lifetime, and we will all eventually pass away. To not suffer at all would be asking not to be created in the first place. As we watch our television screens and news stories on hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, and wildfires, as well as humans hurting humans and other creatures, this is all too difficult to understand. When we hurt, God hurts. When we are sick, God is too. Where there is hurting and despair, God is there in the people who rescue the abused and help the abandoned and provide comfort to the fallen. God is present in those who provide refuge from the storms and from the fires. I take comfort in knowing there is no suffering or pain God does not hurt from also, including each one of ours. There is no distance the resurrection of Christ does not reach. This is one of the best lessons I have learned thus far.
God has also given us free will, and the price for that is everyone else has free will too. We were made to be relational and connected to God and to others, whether we like it or not. Without relationships, we would be like Tom Hanks’ character in the movie, Cast Away. Secluded from civilization and suffering, even he was so desperate for conversation and a human connection that he fashioned “Wilson” from a volleyball. Personally, I prefer real people to volleyballs… Well, most days I do.
Johnson, E. A. (2011). Quest for the living God: Mapping frontiers in the theology of God. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Largen, K. J. (2013). Finding God among our neighbors: An interfaith systematic theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Migliore, D. L. (2014). Faith seeking understanding: An introduction to Christian theology (3rd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.