Confessions of a Black Seminarian
Seven years ago I walked onto the campus at Fuller Theological Seminary completely unaware of what to expect. I’d already gotten some ill-fated advice from others about my decision to attend seminary for my formal theological education. A black pastor who’d earned his Master of Divinity (M. Div.) told me, “I wouldn’t suggest you go to seminary. There’s a reason they call them cemeteries. People go there to die [spiritually].”
Not the response I expected. I thought he’d be excited about my decision to immerse myself in theological reflection and education. Others shared his thoughts, though —especially others in the African American community. For some, there’s a stigma attached to seminary training. For these people, this training shouldn’t be necessary for those who are attuned to God’s Spirit.
In the African American community, there’s always been a real tension between faith and reason. Dr. Riggins Earl, in his work Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs: God, Self, and Community in the Slave Mind, writes, “black church leadership, since slavery, has been unable to hold reason and faith in critical tension with each other for holistic institutional development and progress.”
[Tweet “In the African American community, there’s always been a real tension between faith and reason.”]
What’s a TULIP?
This is part of the reason that many in the African American community have been isolated from the teachings of great Reformed thinkers like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. Ask most black churchgoers today what TULIP is and they’ll point you to a local garden. There’s little thought that goes into the five points of Calvinism, or theology as it pertains to soteriology or predestination.
In the past, there were both internal and external barriers that prevented many blacks from attending seminary. Internally, many felt attending seminary was some kind of “Spirit-grieving” endeavor. There was no way they’d venture to a place that would hinder their spiritual growth and development. Externally, many seminaries in a segregated America just didn’t allow blacks to attend. The same racism present in the Civil Rights era South was present in seminary institutions across the country.
No wonder so many black pastors refused to attend seminary for decades. Historically, African American culture has rejected the idea that you needed to attend school to “hear from God.” Today, there are many large churches in the African American community that are led by pastors who have little or no seminary training. Whether it’s an access issue (not allowed to attend) or excess issue (too much head knowledge, not enough heart knowledge), seminary or theological training hasn’t always been at the top of black clergy’s list.
Making Sense of It All
So that was the history that followed me as I walked onto Fuller’s campus my first day. Those voices followed me. Was I making the right decision? Could that pastor have been right about the lack of spiritual awareness on seminary campuses? Would I lose my faith?
To be transparent here, my first Systematic Theology class made me think twice about my decision. Following Bultmann and other German theologians as they set out on a quest for the historical Jesus was, at times, a tough process. But then I started to see how important form criticism and historical criticism were in the exposition of Scripture. I started seeing how that original quest led other biblical scholars to think through Scripture critically. I learned how it helped strengthen Christian apologetics at a time where numerous skeptics questioned the veracity of Scripture.
As I matriculated the M.Div. program, I learned to read Hebrew and Greek, to preach and communicate by new methods, and to grasp Church history in unthinkable ways. And something strange began to happen. My faith began to grow. The same place I was told would serve as a cemetery helped buttress my already strong faith in Christ. I left seminary fully equipped for ministry.
[Tweet “The place I was told would serve as a cemetery helped buttress my already strong faith in Christ.”]
The Tension Between Faith and Reason
Throughout my seminary experience, I’ve learned to ease that tension between faith and reason—a tension that some African Americans continue to live with. But there are others out there who have learned to navigate that tension. Ironically, many in the Christian hip-hop community have been the forerunners as it pertains to theological reflection in the African American community. As a result, Reformed Theology is becoming increasingly popular among black millennials.
One of the lamentable facts about the lack of access to formal seminary training is the dearth of substantive commentaries written by African Americans. While I respect and admire our Anglo brothers and sisters for their contributions, I sat in some classes hoping for a day when there would be a considerable amount of African American scholars and theologians involved in this process. Given the interest in RAAN among African Americans, I have to believe we aren’t too far away.
[Tweet “Reformed Theology is becoming increasingly popular among black millennials.”]
As the Deer…
I visited Fuller Seminary recently while on vacation. As I walked into the prayer garden, I couldn’t help but think about the consternation I felt my first time on campus. The prayer garden has an inscription and Psalm that has always stuck with me: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God” (Psalm 42:1, ESV). That pretty much sums up my seminary experience: thirst. A thirst for God’s Word and God’s presence. A thirst that an increasing number of African Americans are starting to develop. In attending, I learned that faith and reason can live in perfect harmony. And I’m grateful for other brothers and sisters who have discovered the same.
[Tweet “I learned that faith and reason can live in perfect harmony.”]