I like to do What I’ve Learned posts periodically, especially during chunks of my life where so much is happening all the time. My life has been like that this semester since we recently moved to a new place, started at a new church, JD has a new job, I started seminary, we are looking for our first house, and now we are getting a new car.
When I imagined moving here, I thought about how uneventful our life would be for a few months because we wouldn’t have many friends or routines, but I was so wrong. I feel like every weekend has been packed with events: traveling, house-sitting, so many dinner dates, house-hunting, concerts, the State Fair, seminars, family get-togethers, etc.
On top of our social life, I started graduate school—a long-time dream of mine, especially seminary, and I’ve gone from being the teacher to being the student again. In a seminary that is very different from the school I taught at for the past 3 years, and very different from my undergraduate experience, my life this semester has been bursting full of challenging ideas and joy and existential crises—all the things you’d expect from seminary.
I began the semester with a post about the permission slips I gave myself as I entered into graduate school, and I have referred back to those slips from time to time over the past few months, mostly when I’ve been feeling defeated or discouraged. I will end the semester with a post about what I have learned in my first semester of graduate school—but it won’t really be about the content I’ve learned because that would be 10,000 words long and you would stop reading soon after this paragraph. But it will be all the other lessons that accompany actual classroom learning.
1. Just because you entertain an idea does not mean you are married to it for life. One of my students last year wrote an essay about a group she was in where they discussed ideas from different religions and philosophies, and she wrote about how enriching that was for her because it gave her a safe place to think about things she had never dared to consider. And she didn’t feel pressured to think one or the other, but she was simply encouraged to think. I thought about that essay a lot this semester, especially during my existential crises.
It gave me permission to allow myself to read controversial theologians without anxiety because no one was going to zap me for reading it; global warming wasn’t going to speed up just because I had considered an idea vastly different than what I thought I believed. Because if I’m going to invest time and money into graduate school, if I’m going to do seminary, then what is the point in being there if I’m not going to go into it fully open?
For my very first essay in theology, I talked with my professor about what I was wanting to write about it, but I was full of anxiety because I wasn’t exactly sure where I landed on the topic, and I didn’t want to say something heretical or untrue of what I believed. He told me that I may not agree with what I wrote two years from now, and that’s okay. I may not agree with it two weeks from now, and that’s okay. This essay was to work out my own theology, and it was just a step in the process, not the end result. That was so freeing to me because it allowed me to take risks without feeling like my house would come crumbling down.
2. Physical activity is a safe place. Going for a walk, working out at the rec center, doing yoga in the living room, taking Lucy to the park—all of these things that require my body to move have been ways to let my mind recharge.
I read for hours every day and think about crazy things (2nd century heresies, process theologians talking plurisingularity, the construction of the Hebrew Bible, and ecofeminism and its connection to theology, to name a few), and when my brain is full, I need to move my body.
I started going to work out right after my classes in order to clear my head, and that has been the best idea I’ve had with how to spend my time. This semester I had a 6 hour stretch between two of my classes, so working out before tackling homework was a good fit. I’m not sure how next semester will bode with time allocation, but I know doing some kind of physical activity will be a part of my schedule.
3. We learn from people not like us, and find out that perhaps we are more alike than we thought. I knew this on an intellectual level going in, but I am surrounded by people who have had very different faith experiences than me (some very similar—shoutout to the all the former Southern Baptists) and who think about God in very different ways. Interacting and taking part in discussion with my peers has made my rate of learning in the classroom exponentially higher.
I learn so much from the discussions with my classmates. 10 years ago Ashley would have been frightened to discuss theology with people who believe so differently, but now it’s like checking out books from the library without reading the back cover and being pleasantly surprised every time.
In these discussions, it’s been beautiful to see how much common ground we have. We may have different worldviews, but our worldviews intersect a lot at places like a desire for peace, a desire for justice, a nerdy fascination with Christianity’s relationship with power in history, compassion for others, mutual love for rockstars like Anne Lamott, and so on.
4. Existential crises are normal, so just breathe and go for a walk. There have been quite a few moments, especially in my first month, in which I walked out of class feeling like I didn’t know which way was up or down. I would lay in bed wondering if everything I knew was a lie and was I even real?
My mind would flash back to a poet I read in 20th century Spanish Literature in college who talked about life as one long dream of God—which meant God was asleep and not paying attention. What was his name again? If you know the poet, let me know.
I cried because it was as though I was floating like a plastic bag through the air (I had always thought that simile was stupid, but I was wrong, Katy Perry. It’s actually quite apt). I cried because I missed my friends and my church and my favorite taco place. I cried in anxiety, in grief, in stress, in exhaustion.
But do you know what was most helpful to me in sliding me along those existential train tracks? Ordinary things like taking Lucy for a walk. Or chopping vegetables. Or folding laundry. Or spending the day outside. In the midst of my plastic bag experience, what brought me back to earth was doing ordinary life things.
5. There should be a day, if possible, when you do not touch your schoolwork. Sometimes, that’s impossible (take Thanksgiving week—so many words to write), but if you can work your schedule out, set aside a day where you can lay in your bed in your pajamas watching Netflix without a shred of guilt. Or you can spend hours with your family and friends because you don’t have to get back to Augustine. Better yet, stay offline so you don’t get worked up about politics or see a Gilmore Girls spoiler.
6. Read something completely disconnected to seminary (which I suppose seminarians could argue that all things are theological, but let’s tune us out for a moment). I’ve read a few novels that never mention God or theology or homework, and they have been good for me. Some things I’ve read: Lila (okay, so this one mentions God) by Marilynne Robinson, The Namesake Jhumpa Lahiri, What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, Paper Towns by John Green, and Rosie by Anne Lamott.
Next semester, I plan to read through the Harry Potter series. When I start stressing about theories of justice or Pauline arguments, I will retreat to Hogwarts. Nothing bad ever happens there, right?
7. Often it is better to listen, especially when you are new to a conversation. It has been a tough year for all of us. And the last 4 months have been especially disorienting, heartbreaking, challenging, frustrating, etc. With the continued police shootings of unarmed black men and the Trump presidency and all that it means for my friends, I have been able to participate in conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, privilege, economic and social justice, and oppression. If my mind wasn’t blown by plurisingularities before, it was in these conversations.
The most significant thing I’ve learned is that when I am new to the conversation, it is better to listen. It is better to hear from people who know about these things first hand. It is better to listen to what is said and what is not said.
I have bought a stack of books recommended from these conversations and read articles and blogs that my friends post because I want to know more. I have the privilege to stay ignorant, but I don’t want to.
I have also been a part of many conversations about faith, God, tradition, and scripture in which the views being discussed are new to me. Sometimes I want to say, “But I know the right answer!”
But more often, I want to remember that perhaps there is more than one right answer. Perhaps being right is not what matters. Perhaps there is no right answer. Perhaps I don’t understand what right means. Perhaps I don’t get to decide what is right. Perhaps I don’t understand the conversation if I care about being right. Perhaps this conversation is not a problem or a question that requires an answer. So I listen.
There were many things I learned this semester, but I will end at 7 because it’s a holy number, and I make lots of nerdy theological jokes like that now.