In a recent post, I discussed how biblical scholarship led me to wrestle with atheistic thoughts. One would think that a biblical scholar would be closer to God, spending so much time in sacred Scripture. Yet stories of abandoned faith are not uncommon in the academy. The last six years have been a long and hard but important period of my life. This post describes how my faith has survived.
Some years ago, I was walking down the street on an ordinary day when suddenly a thought inserted itself out of the blue: What if there is no God? Given that I was not pondering the subject at the time, the intruding thought felt strangely self-animating. But rather than disturbing me, I felt relieved. My body began to relax and an exhilarating sense of freedom washed over me. I was surprised by my reaction. Why would I, a devout Christian, dedicated to studying the Scriptures feel relief at the thought of no God? As I pondered my response, I realized God felt suffocating to me. If there was no God I would not need to worry about getting all the answers right. I would not have to worry about getting the answers wrong. It was like someone telling me I didn’t have to take that nerve wracking exam. I could go through life with kindness toward others the best I knew how and not worry if there was a deity ready to pull the lever if I didn’t check the right box.
In 2009, when I was ending a stable career, packing my bags, and moving across the country to pursue a new dream, David died. I didn’t know David, but his death hit me hard and his memory has remained with me over the last six years. I was starting my Th.M. at Duke Divinity School with hopes of going on for a Ph.D. in Old Testament at the same time David had just completed his Ph.D. in Old Testament. He was headed to the mission field to teach at a university in Brazil when he died of a heart attack at age 38. The funeral was held at a local church in Durham, North Carolina. I watched as his wife and four young children (ages 4-11) walked down the aisle past me to the front pew. The little ones placed flowers on their father’s casket. I had never attended a stranger’s funeral before, but I felt connected to David in our shared dreams. The abrupt ending to his aspirations served as a sobering reminder that there was nothing certain about my own.
After several years of graduate and postgraduate work in biblical studies, I am beginning to form an identity as a biblical scholar. When I first set out on this scholarly adventure several years ago, I jumped in with excited anticipation not realizing the ways the academy would force me to wrestle with complexities I hadn’t known existed. The academy has both invigorated and frustrated me. It has provoked, inspired, prodded, challenged, and even taunted. I love being in a world of constant learning and discovery. Yet, I am mindful of how the academy not only desires to teach me, but also to shape me. There are competing bids for worldviews, methodologies, and research objectives. Without proper care, professional identity can end up a product of the “academic machine” rather than wise reflection on vocation. My purpose in writing this post is put “legs” to my own identity by publicly clarifying and articulating how I understand my work. I also hope by sharing my own process to encourage other academics to reflect on what kind of scholar they are and why. Continue reading
“Students like you scare me.” Those were the words a well-known biblical scholar at a well-known evangelical seminary said to me when I sent an enthusiastic inquiry about the possibility of studying under him in a Ph.D. program. I made the “mistake” of conveying that I dreamed of being a scholar who would make a difference in the world. Deflated, and not a little irritated, I shot back, “Don’t you find any greater meaning in your work than intellectual entertainment?” When pressed, he conceded that, yes, he did hope his research and teaching had significance beyond the academic tower. That was about eight years ago. Needless to say, I did not apply to that school. But, it was not the last time I heard a professor issue similar warnings. Continue reading