This semester marks the beginning of my third year at Vanderbilt Divinity School. It also marks a return to a required MDiv course after two semesters of Ph.D. level seminars. As I am once again confronted with future social organizers, ministers, and other religious leaders who seem to default to contrarian heterodoxy I have found myself taking a step back to reflect on where I’m at theologically. Has Vanderbilt Divinity changed me and — as this is most likely true — has it changed me for the better?
I attended Vanderbilt Divinity School (VDS) to prove to myself and the church that the orthodox Christian faith can withstand progressive, heterodox, academic critique. I wanted to prove that the faith of the apostles had nothing to fear from the likes of Havard and Vanderbilt. My goal at VDS was to ensure that through me the historic faith of the catholic church had an earned and validated seat at the table of theological dialog. If I could graduate from VDS, progressive theologians and church people could disagree with my views, but they couldn’t discount a conversation with me. My degree from Vanderbilt would give the church a voice that required engagement. With a VDS education, I could proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints in the language of progressive Christian Academia and in my own way keep the light of the gospel alive in an unfriendly place.
As I look backwards, I thank God for the strength he has given me over the last two years. He has given me the courage to move forward when I really wanted to turn back. When the name of my Savior has been discounted, when the great salvivic acts of Jesus Christ have been belittled or discarded, when anger and hate have been directed towards the martyrs, the saints, and even Christ’s Holy Church, God has been by my side. Each time I enter the Divinity School the Holy Spirit has been my constant aid, comfort, and light. As fire swells inside me, the Holy Spirit calms my tongue and opens my heart to love. When I want so badly to avoid the anger and sadness of those in open rebellion against God, the Holy Spirit moves me to listen, love, and engage. God has truly been my strength and protection in this journey!
Has Vanderbilt Divinity School changed me? Yes. The once evangelical register of my Christian voice now speaks in the foreign language of progressive Christian Academia. Though this now makes it difficult to communicate and relate to my own people, I find God’s grace in this change. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit I have had amazing conversations with people who would never seriously converse with someone like me. Much to my surprise — but not to St. Paul — the Logos wrapped in the language of the academy is still the Living Word. When one allows the love of the Triune God to flow through one’s very being, even the worst of situations can be made open to his presence.
In the many situations at VDS where I am surrounded by poisonous tongues ready to strike, God has taught me how to speak my theology without words. Vanderbilt has moved me towards a pious faith of loving presence rather an evangelical faith of open correction. Rather than falling into the academic trap of needing to explain and systematize the Divine, God has strengthened me in accepting the mystery of his love and his ways with and amongst his creation. With faith in God and his providence over his church I have found freedom in accepting the mysteries of the faith and the teachings of the church before I move to critique and exploration. There is freedom in defaulting to God. There is peace in deferring to the wisdom of the church. There is truly rest in a world where I can work within the theological conversation of the catholic church rather than outside and against.
Two years into my Vanderbilt experience I know now more than ever that “Christ has died, Christ has Risen, [and that] Christ will come again.” Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has conquered death and offers us, his human creatures, a part of his eternal divine life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He gives us grace through his church — the Body of Christ —, through his sacraments, and through his very presence in our daily lives. May the Triune God continue to watch over me and guide me along this journey to serve him and his Holy Church. Amen.