surrounded by clouds

On what I wish I’d known before studying theology.

Me in my Divinity Undergraduate gown (c.Oct 2003)

Ten years ago I was just beginning four years of a Theology degree at St Andrews.

This week a whole bunch of students are starting Theology degrees at Durham, and so today I went to meet them and give them a few bits of ‘What I wish I’d known before studying Theology’ advice.

Here’s what I told them:

I wish I’d known that I had chosen the best degree going.

Now, of course, everyone says that, but I think only theologians are actually right.
You’ll probably hear some criticism of their choice over the next few years, perhaps you already have. Parents might have questioned whether theology is a terribly useful degree for getting a job, scientist friends might mock the amount of classes you have (or don’t have, as the case may be), and church leaders might have expressed concern over the wisdom of studying theology at a secular academic institution. I want to put your mind at ease:
– Theology is actually one of the broadest degrees going; in the next three years you will study a number of different subjects, including, but not limited to: history, languages, philosophy, sociology, literary criticism, rhetoric, the origins of language, feminist criticism, political theory, ethics, and many more. I’m pretty sure at least five of those areas featured in my final dissertation, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a more useful Arts degree.
– Scientists are always going to be jealous when they have something in the region of 30 hours of class a week. Try not to rub it in their faces too much, but take advantage of a flexible schedule to get involved in loads of other activities, as well as doing a wee bit of reading now and again.
– Church people can be awful worriers sometimes. It’s lovely that they are concerned for you, but don’t freak out too much! Often the concern is that being taught theology will cause you to doubt your faith, and perhaps it will, but here’s the good news – firstly, doubt is okay, and often, as we work through it, our faith grows; secondly, if God is real (and he is!) then he will stand up to all the criticism that academia can throw at him.
Sometimes well-meaning Christians will try and help us ‘cope’ with studying theology at uni, instead, I’d like to encourage you that in fact, many people have found studying theology to be enormously enriching to their faith in God – I am one of those people. I’m praying that you will experience something similar.

I wish I’d known that it’s possible to be rigourously academic and genuinely Christian at the same time.

You may be led to believe, by lecturers and church people alike, that you have to pick one or the other.
It will be suggested to you that you have to embrace a secular, suspicious, academic approach in class, and an unthinking, unreasoned approach in church, but it’s not true. There are many Christian academics in the world, some of them are in Durham, some of them will be your lecturers and tutors this year.
Again, this is not about just ‘coping’, but enjoying the way that your academic study can encourage and spur you on in your life as a Christian. I remember reading a paper about creation and church, written by one of my lecturers when I was in third year and being genuinely moved to worship God because of it. I was surprised by my reaction, initially, but then realised I shouldn’t find it so. If I believe that this world is created by God (and I do) then I shouldn’t be surprised that any number of things that I read and watch and listen to will cause me to be moved to worship the one who made and inspired the authors, least of all a theology article, I suppose!
Go into every class expecting to find that your studies will enrich your faith.

I wish I’d known that people can be clever and wrong at the same time.

You’re about to spend three years being taught by some extremely clever people. People who are experts in their fields, and great thinkers, and talented teachers. But, just because someone is clever, doesn’t meant that they’re right.
When I was in my second year I sat in a lecture in and listened to a very clever man teach us something and for the first time I was moved to put my hand up and ask a question. The conversation went along these lines:

Me: ‘Are you really saying X & Y?’
Him: ‘Yes.’
Me: ‘Oh, well, I really disagree.’
Him: ‘That’s fine. You’re allowed to.’

It seems small, but it was life-changing for me to understand that it was okay for me to disagree. It took me a year and a half to understand, but I’d love it if you guys could go into your degree knowing this. These Professors and Doctors may be clever and brilliant, and the authors of many, many volumes of work, but they can still be wrong. That’s okay. You can still learn from them, and listen to them, and read what they’ve written, and ask them questions, and then you can think and pray and weigh up what they’re saying, and decide if you agree or not.

I wish I’d known how quickly the time would pass.

At the moment, as you sit, waiting for Freshers’ week to end, and the real uni stuff to begin, it probably feels like three years will last for ever, but believe me when I tell you that the time will fly by, so make the most of it.
Make brilliant friends, join clubs and teams, try new things, and also, work hard. You’re at a pretty good university, studying the best subject there is, being taught by some of the cleverest people around – take advantage. Do the reading, turn up to lectures, revise, and do well. Not just for the sake of your degree, but in the hope that through it all, God will teach you and change you, and use you to introduce your friends to Him.
Other Christian students will pray for opportunities to talk about Jesus with their classmates – you will have a chance to do that in every single lecture and tutorial that you have. Do the reading, pray, and the turn up to class, ready to learn, and to talk about your Saviour.

That’s all the advice I had for them yesterday. What tips would you pass on to those following in your footsteps?

In summary: what I wish I’d known.

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This entry was published on October 3, 2013 at 9:50 pm. It’s filed under Work and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “On what I wish I’d known before studying theology.

  1. fiona lynne on said:

    Love this x

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