freedom

in my very first seminary class, i learned that true freedom is not what i think. it is not about personal agency. not about a capacity to choose. it’s not about having a lot of options. nothing about my ability to do whatever i want, whenever i please. freedom actually doesn’t have much to do with me at all.

true freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. this is a far cry from the way most think about freedom, as an individual’s right to act in his or her own self-interest. this is not freedom though, because i am only ever free when i am free for another. freedom is about being bound to God and God’s creation.

this is interesting to me, because i entered seminary with a deeply wounded faith, operating under the assumption that it’s up to me to determine the meaning of my religious identity. still reeling from the trauma of watching my brother die, i needed to unlearn and then relearn what it is to be christian.

i imagined myself to be at a sort of crossroads. one path led to a life with God, the other a life apart. i acted as though my Christian identity required me to exercise my freedom and agency to choose the path toward God, which also meant going to church, praying, and engaging other sacramental practices.

but i quickly learned that there was nothing “free” about choosing a life apart from God. freedom could only ever mean my decision to live life with God.

and then i quickly learned that i was wrong here again.

as i reflect upon the last five 6 years, i can only conclude that my Christian identity  has nothing to do with my choice of anything, but God’s choice for me, God’s decision to be present with me. i could have elected to deny God, but to do so would have meant turning a blind eye toward all that God was doing in my life, all the ways God had been near. it would’ve been to ignore reality, which in the end, was not really a choice at all.

i know i am free for God, free for my family and friends, free for the students that i  continue to mentor. and i know that i am free precisely because of the restraint and those relationships impose upon me. i am free to be with God because God chose to be free for me, because God did not choose to be God without me. i’m coming to understand that true freedom is indeed a freedom for.

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the formation of the student

this year, for better or worse, my school has turned its collective attention toward managing student behavior. we created a vision for how students are to behave in structured and unstructured environments, with detailed descriptions of what “good” and “bad” behavior looks like in both contexts.

our motivation for doing this is largely pragmatic: it’s just easier to teach when students aren’t going crazy. everyone is happier when the classroom is running in an orderly fashion — including the students who tend to be disorderly.

but there may be unintended consequences to this approach that may be worth reflecting upon.

the other day, one of my students was walking to his car in the parking lot when a security guard confronted him, grabbed his arm, and jerked him backward. i don’t know the particulars of the incident, but i do know the student was found to have done nothing wrong. this isn’t an unusual occurrence — my students are regularly harassed for no discernible reason. as i observed this situation unfolding outside my classroom, i found myself increasingly disturbed by my student’s lack of power to resist what was happening to him precisely because he reacted to this situation exactly the way we taught him to.

in some sense, our school is attempting to train our students to react to these (frequent) unfair situations precisely as john taylor gatto describes in his incriminating essay, “against school.” in this piece (which i had my students read and discuss), gatto claims that schools are “virtual factories of childishness” — that is, schools, by design, socialize students to never grow up. students are trained to do as they’re told, to submit to authority, and to uncritically obey the consumer ethos of american culture. we “reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” in every way, the public school is in service of the interests of the state while functioning under the misleading guise of student empowerment.

to further compound the issue, i’m wondering about how the church figures into this situation. for better or worse, the public school plays an enormous role in the formation of students, and unfortunately, as gatto might suggest, this kind of formation seems better suited to serve the interests of rome rather than the kingdom of god. as a christian teacher, i’m forced to consider what kind of student do i hope to produce, and i wonder if hauerwas’s idea of the resident alien could inform the way i think about shaping students as people who can live within a system, while looking forward to (and bringing forth) another way of being. as i explained to a few of my students, i hope that my students learn how to operate within the world, not so they can become servants of the world’s logic, but so that they can ultimately turn it upside down.

i done did it

well, it’s official now. by day, i’ll still be teaching full time. but by night, i’ll be a seminary student, working toward a masters in theology.

folks who know me well have basically all had the same response. of course you’re going to seminary, what took you so long? chris (somewhat jokingly) told me that he’d give me one more year of full time teaching before i just quit my day job and ran off to seminary full time.

but a lot of other folks have asked me what it is exactly that i hope to accomplish by going to seminary. why bother?

i’ve had a much more difficult time trying to answer this question. on one hand, i would not be disappointed at all if i finished my program, and that was it for my work in theology. if i never end up doing doctoral work, if i don’t wind up working at a church, or if i never end up “using” my theology degree in any other formal way, well that would be quite all right. it is enough for me to know i won’t wake up someday wondering what might’ve been. and if it just so happens that theology for me is meant to be a thing i read about on the side and occasionally try and live out, well then so be it. to a large extent, i’m less concerned with what i can do with theology than i am with what formal study of theology can do with me.

but on the other hand, i must admit that i’ll be a bit sad if it turns out doctoral work isn’t in the cards for me. a small part of my heart deep down hopes this is what’ll happen, and yet i can’t let that part of me speak out too loudly. what if it doesn’t work out the way i hope it will? academic work has always felt hyper-competitive, and because i’ve been surrounded by people who are much more brilliant than me since high school, i wonder about how realistic it is for me to aspire to professorial work. nevertheless, here i am with those aspirations in hand.

so what exactly do i hope for by going to seminary?

first, it’s to have a deepened faith. i have always found myself most in awe of god when reading a beautiful analysis of scripture, or some brilliantly composed theological treatise. while a rich worship experience at church is good for my soul, the written word is what drives me to my knees. quite honestly, i think i just need to go to seminary for my own spiritual vitality.

but secondly, i’m going to seminary because i think i might want to teach theology some day, and i wanna know if there is some word brewing in me that i must be obedient enough to speak to the church. i don’t know if this will ever actually happen, if this is what god wants for my life, or if i’m even smart enough to do the work well, but i guess i won’t know till i try.