Well readers, as usual, the semester kept me so busy that I wasn’t able to write here. But overall, it was a successful semester. This past Monday was my first full day of summer vacation! My Systematic Theology professor gave us until this upcoming Saturday to submit the final research paper, but I was so close to having it finished this past Saturday that I decided to stay up until 1am Sunday morning to just finish it! The reason it took me so long is that the paper required footnotes, and unfortunately the BrailleNote uses a simplified version of Microsoft Word that does not delineate pages or have a feature to insert footnotes, so I have to use the iPad where it is harder to “see” what I am doing. Only after I meticulously typed all 28 footnotes, it occurred to me that the paper was only 8 pages. Given that my essay came to 3,300 words, it seemed like it should have been at least 10 pages. The paper was required to be between 10 and 12 pages. Sure enough when I checked my BrailleNote, I found that for some reason, many paragraphs were not double-spaced, even though I thought the default setting of the document was double-spaced. I corrected the paragraphs, but then realized I would have to re-type the footnotes. Otherwise the paper would look sloppy as the footnotes wouldn’t match up at all to the pages. I had worked so hard, and was so proud of this paper that I knew my conscience would bother me if I knowingly turned in a sloppy-looking paper, and as I have been told in other contexts, like it or not, it is a visual world, and no matter how intelligent and accomplished you are otherwise, a sloppy visual presentation (such as leaving the house having made no effort to comb your hair) is the only thing people will notice. I didn’t want my paper to be the equivalent of that, with a sloppy appearance distracting the professor from the message. But I persevered, and when all was said and done, the paper came to 12 pages.
I actually plan to share this research paper in my next post because for me, the research paper wasn’t just an assignment to complete, but something that became personal for me and kind of wrote itself. The topic I chose for the paper was the biblical perspective of human dignity. Just as I was starting to do my research for this paper, the leak of the Supreme Court draft opinion signalling the possible overturn of Roe v. Wade brought the abortion debate to the forefront of the news cycle again, and then I came across a shocking article about how ever since 2004 when Denmark started offering universal prenatal screening for Down syndrome, 95 percent of women that receive a positive test result terminate the pregnancy. These events combined to inspire me. After submitting the paper, it occurred to me that I might receive a lower grade for not exploring the topic in broader terms, as the textbook reading related to biblical anthropology discussed human dignity regarding all races, even unmarried people who often feel excluded by churches whose ministry priorities unwittingly perpetuate a one-size-fits-all Christian life where the assumed norm is to get married and start a family. My paper focused on abortion and physician-assisted suicide–I found some disturbing information on that subject too–and argued that the Bible commands respect at the very beginning, and the end of human life. But the wonderful thing about seminary school professors, at least at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is that while professors set high academic expectations, they also encourage an integrated mindset. In other words, they encourage students not to compartmentalize their lives by turning off their brains during worship and personal devotional time, or by being so academically oriented that they fill their minds with knowledge but loose all sense of personal reverence. In fact, God gave us brains precisely because he intended for us to use them, so ideally, our academic studies should themselves be thought of as worship. Given this culture, I have been shown grace on other assignments when the professor could tell the subject was personal for me, even if it strayed slightly from the parameters of the assignment. Regardless of my grade, I plan to share this essay, but I thought I would wait until I received the grade and read the professor’s feedback–this particular professor provides wonderful, detailed feedback–as this theology course has really been akin to an intense workout for my brain, forcing me to think in ways I have never thought before, and when it comes to issues as serious as abortion and physician-assisted suicide, I want to make sure my thinking is on the right track before sharing it with you readers.
Last semester, I took a Biblical Theology course. Although preparing for the test was brutal, requiring a lot of memorization, not so much of specific Bible verses but the chronology of the Bible as a whole so that I could trace various themes from their first appearance in the Old Testament through their full revelation in the New Testament, I did really well in this course because it was pretty straight-forward. Though some of the reading involved learning about the history of biblical interpretation and how it evolved, most of the time, the only book we interacted with was the Bible itself because the primary purpose of the course was just appreciating how various themes unfold as the Bible progresses. But Systematic Theology involves a lot more interaction with outside authorities. When in doubt, the final authority is still the Bible, but the Bible is actually analogous to the U.S. Constitution. As one of my Paralegal professors pointed out in 2014, the U.S. Constitution is a relatively short document, and yet thousands of volumes have been written questioning how to interpret it. This is partly because the U.S. Constitution was written 240 years ago in a different cultural context, and as such, the Constitution could not possibly foresee every situation that would arise in real life. This is true to an even greater extent for the Bible which was written thousands of years ago over the course of multiple cultural contexts: the Old Testament was written in the ancient Near East and the New Testament was written during the Roman empire. Thus the methodology behind Systematic Theology involves not merely reading the Bible, but weighing evidence from Scripture, and studying the insights of well-respected theologians including but not limited to Augustine and Aquinas (first few centuries after Christ) Luther and Calvin (middle ages) Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann (modern theologians). For example, as a preview to my research paper, one argument I address is that the Bible does not conclusively state that God considers a fetus to be a person, but passages such as Exodus 21:22-25 or Hebrews 7:9-10 have led theologians to advocate a conservative course of action given how seriously God condemns murder.
I am so glad that I took this course, as it has enriched my own faith, and given me tools to engage more thoughtfully with people who don’t understand/believe in concepts like the Trinity or predestination. But I am also glad I waited until my second year of seminary school when my brain had recovered from the atrophy caused by working a corporate job and reading nothing but magazine articles with simple sentences for five years. As it was, I still couldn’t fully wrap my mind around some of the abstract concepts covered in this course, as the feedback on my first two research papers can attest. But although this class made my head hurt, it was a good kind of pain, and in fact, even though I technically have earned all the required credits for my certificate in Christian studies, I am taking the sequel to this course in the Fall.
In addition to Systematic Theology, I also took a course on American Church History. Unfortunately, as a practical matter, history isn’t the most blind-friendly field to go into, as most primary sources composed before the computer age are preserved as scanned images which proved super-annoying to read as my KNFB reader app could not correctly recognize many letters. (I found out during one Zoom session that this wasn’t the result of an inferior app, but was because the images were grainy even for my sighted classmates.) On a few occasions, I was able to find more readable versions of these documents online, or on Bookshare, but oftentimes, I couldn’t and so would have to go through the document once to correct as many words as I could, and then read it again to actually absorb the content. But my persistence paid off and I learned a lot.
In future posts, I look forward to sharing some specific tidbits of insight I gained about this course relevant to current events. But for now as an overview, I will say that I vividly remember a day in fifth grade when I was frustrated and did not feel like doing my Social Studies homework. That day I asked my sister, a junior in high school at the time why I had to study history. My sister replied with the commonly asserted maxim that “those who fail to study history are condemned to repeat it.” Fortunately by the time I reached high school, I had matured and actually found U.S. history very interesting, but I still didn’t quite understand this maxim. I couldn’t help noticing irony in the fact that as I studied the catastrophic failure of the Vietnam war, our country was mired in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I got to college and took another history course my freshman year, irony occurred to me once again as we studied the corporate greed that led to the Great Depression just as in real time, the country was entering into the Great Recession. Though ignorance about history is certainly a factor in some cases (as in certain celebrities who choose to enter Politics), John Fea points out in the introduction of his book “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” that history is complex, and the way every historic event unfolds is influenced by prior historic events. So although in some ways the war in Vietnam feels similar to the war in Iraq, the responsible historian recognizes the complexity of the past and tries to be impartial. But I personally have come to believe through this course, but also in reflecting on my previous study of the history of ancient Israel, the Roman empire, and Christian missionary outreach that history is cyclical, not in the pagan sense of an infinite cycle that ultimately has no meaning, but in the sense that in our fallen state, we seldom seem to learn from our mistakes, and usually let personal or national self-interest take precedence over doing what is right. Fortunately, God is well-aware of this shortcoming in our nature, and therefore will one day break the cycle, bring an end to human history as it currently is and redeem all of creation. But if I ever had the opportunity to mentor a younger student who questions the necessity of studying history, I would explain that when we study history, we have a much better sense of our identity and the factors that shaped it long before we were even a thought. And while much of the power to control the course of history is out of our control, as we are only a drop in the ocean of the billions of people in this world, and most of us will never be in positions of power that shape history, an understanding of the past positions us better to be on the right side of history as we go about our ordinary lives. For example, if we are familiar with our country’s dark history of racism, we are better able to recognize how as Jemar Tisby states, racism has not gone away. It has just adapted. This positions us better to recognize racism when political candidates campaign on the promise of restoring “law and order” or when a local suburban skating rink decides to ban kids from Milwaukee. A white alderman from Milwaukee confirmed and exposed the coded racism behind this policy when he brought his child to the rink and had no trouble getting in. So I suppose this maxim really is accurate in the sense that if we understand the dark parts of our history, we really can play a small, but significant (especially to God) part in ensuring it is not repeated.
In a future post, I will share some other things that have been going on in my life besides school work. But I don’t want to ruin the academic vibe of this post by launching into other topics. So for now I will close by saying that although I feel a little fried and am glad to be on summer break, and although sometimes I have anxiety about my future financial security, I cannot tell you how blessed I feel that I am able to study and reflect on these academic subjects when so many people (many far smarter than me) have life circumstances that do not facilitate this privilege. Most days, I also still have this wonderful, God-given sense that resigning from my paralegal job at the start of the pandemic and taking seminary courses is what God wanted me to do. I have no idea what my future holds beyond Fall 2022, and I will be honest and say I hate uncertainty. Just as I hate going to new restaurants if I don’t know exactly what I will order well in advance, sometimes it drives me crazy that I don’t have a life plan either. But perhaps in regard to both scenarios, God is testing me, asking me to be patient and have trust that all will work out according to his plan, and for my good.