As the summer months come to a close and the brisk chill of fall returns to the air, people across the country transition into a season of learning and study. For those who love the church and Christian theology, seminary is one place to study these topics in-depth. Each year, thousands of budding pastors, theologians, and activists travel to seminaries across the country in order to study the complex issues of our society from a theological perspective.
We are students of theology. One of us (Amar) has just recently graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. The other one of us (Yanan) is currently in his first year at Princeton Theological Seminary. Bringing our perspectives together, we hope to offer advice for seminarians from two sides — beginning and end — of the degree program.
Theological education must create places of belonging
When I (Yanan) arrived in the United States in 2015, it wasn’t an easy transition. I was constantly ostracized from predominantly white churches where people mocked my name and ridiculed the Filipino dishes I brought for lunches. As I studied at an evangelical Bible college, I also faced different forms of exclusion due to my immigrant/international/racial status: derogatory comments, microaggressions, and social isolation. This put a sour taste in my mouth for theological education. The racism I experienced made me ask, “How can fellow Christians treat me this way when they say they follow Jesus?”
Sadly, my experience is common among many international students. Whether it be racial discrimination in seminaries, the entanglement of Christian institutions with slavery, threats of deportation, being underpaid and overworked by their supervisors, or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement setting up a fake university in 2015 to lure hundreds of international students and arrest 250 of them for false accusations, many international students in the United States face xenophobic exclusion.
Theological education must struggle against these paradigms of exclusion and instead build shared communities where diverse peoples can fully belong.
Christian students and educators have a particular calling to create environments of belonging where immigrants feel the tangible love of God through our solidarity. In many ways, this begins with hearing the stories of immigrants and international students and then advocating for their rights to remain in the country. To each seminarian: Get involved with local immigrant communities by participating in organizations that protect refugees and undocumented immigrants from racism, deportation, and/or detention.
Seminaries should not be places of financial insecurity
Theologian Norman Wirzba writes in This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World, that “the measure of well-educated persons is not how many facts they can repeat but whether or not they can tell how their lives, and the lives of others, emerge out of their entanglements with others, depend upon them, and so must also include a measure of responsibility for them.”
Today, due to Christian schools’ entanglement with consumer capitalism, many of these institutions have commodified theology, masquerading their corporate ambitions under the guise of theological education. Seminary is an expensive endeavor, and it often requires that people who wish to access education take on student debt. This consumerist logic has contributed greatly to the student loan debt crisis in the United States, which researchers have shown disproportionately hurts Black borrowers.
One recent study reports that 30 percent of Black seminary graduates are burdened with student debt of $40,000 or more. In comparison, only 11 percent of white seminary graduates have a debt of $40,000 or more. Racial disparities and economic disparities are of one piece.
As seminarians, our advice is to apply for scholarships like The Agnes Jones Jackson Scholarship or the Forum for Theological Exploration Doctoral Fellowships for Students of Color, which prioritizes Black, brown, and Indigenous students. We would also suggest getting involved in mutual aid networks that focus on alleviating debt, and reaching out to your local church leaders for financial support as some denominations are beginning to allocate funds toward the education of minoritized students within their communities.
Seminary is for education, not indoctrination
Dominant theological traditions should not be assumed as normative for all Christians. When “normativity” is assumed, theological education becomes a colonial endeavor meant to indoctrinate students in a particular tradition instead of inviting them to wrestle with the diversity of Christianity.
As theologians and educators, we must remember that Christian doctrines and traditions are bound to the limitations of particular contexts, cultures, and histories. This is why we want to encourage seminary students to pursue diverse theological perspectives outside of their particular contexts. When exposing ourselves to different contextual theologies, we broaden our imaginations and envision a Christian faith that is diverse, ecumenical, and inclusive. In this way, engaging with contextual theologies provides a rebuttal against a “traditional” or “doctrinaire” Christianity, creating spaces where different theological voices can be heard.
Theological knowledge doesn’t mean anything if we don’t love our neighbors
In the story of the rich young ruler, Jesus is approached by a man of wealth with knowledge of the law who has kept the commandments of Moses since his youth. Jesus does not compliment or affirm the ruler’s individual piety. Instead, Jesus targets the source of the ruler’s confidence (his wealth) and challenges him to give it up. “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).
In a brilliant essay on this passage, theologian Willie James Jennings observes how, “This rich ruler enacts a moment with Jesus centered between possession and aspiration[.]” Jennings continues, “His question to Jesus locates Jesus with him in the realm of authority. Jesus’s response, however, sharpens the contrast between himself and the rich ruler by refusing the designation of [good], which belongs only to God.” In his conclusion, Jennings highlights Jesus’ reply to the rich ruler’s self-perception. “It is Jesus who recognizes what the rich ruler does not recognize—that what is lacking is precisely what he possesses.”
In our theological studies, we will be tempted, like the rich young ruler, to locate ourselves with Jesus in the realm of spiritual and intellectual authority. The awards, accolades, and high marks of the classroom threaten to warp our self-perception — offering the illusion of completeness and full maturation.
While it is a good and joyful thing to celebrate our accomplishments, we must also cultivate spiritual practices of generosity and humility. This can take many different shapes from longstanding disciplines like tithing, fasting, and almsgiving to small acts of service that are often overlooked or left to cafeteria workers, facilities teams, and desk attendants who serve the larger campus community.
This orientation toward service guards our hearts and minds against the self-perception of the rich ruler. Are we willing to give away our riches because of our love for God and our neighbor?
The greatest advice we can offer any student is to strive to answer this question with a resounding “yes.” In doing so, we may humbly receive the words of Jesus withheld from the ruler yet offered to those willing to follow God wherever the sojourn may lead: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).