As graduation approaches, the casual conversations about what I’ll be doing in the future seem to take on a sharper edge. I know it’s not just me. The innocent questions about next fall make plenty of my friends nervous as well. The real world, our elders warn, is about to begin, and we’d better be ready.
So what am I doing next year? Well, this winter I applied to a number of seminaries in the Chicago area and beyond – as far away as Southern California. I began to think about seminary a couple of years ago, as I stumbled, mortally wounded, out of a morally untenable religious tradition that I participated in for most of my life. As I began to question every scrap of my faith in search of more meaningful, wholesome ways to talk about God, I felt a deep desire to study these issues in intentional community with other people of faith.
When I was trying to figure out whether to pursue graduate studies in social work or theology, I visited a pastor friend of mine. He asked me to tell him about why I was interested in studying social work vs. theology. After a few minutes, he stopped me: “Ryan, when you talk about social work you are very matter of fact; but the way you’re talking about taking classes in theology, it’s so clear this is for you, you’re glowing.”
While I have enjoyed my social work classes in the undergraduate program in which I’m enrolled, it is the study of theology, and of the sacred relationship between religion, power, and social change, that makes me feel most alive.
My friend Claudio says that theology starts where it hurts. If that’s true, then Christianity must begin with the suffering of the poor and the downtrodden. (There’s really a lot of overlap here with social work’s commitment to serving marginalized populations.) Good theology doesn’t obscure the fact that Jesus was killed by a first century lynch mob, or that God-fearing Christians in this country lynched thousands of people in years well within recent memory. Good theology grieves and rages about Eric Garner’s death; it marches in the street and remembers how our own Lord had his breath choked out of him by brutalizing agents of the state.
This is the kind of Christianity I’m interested in telling others about – not a religion that points to the afterlife as an excuse to detach from the world’s suffering, but a tradition that in the hands of the oppressed can bring forth great life and repentance.
After a long season of searching, I believe I’ve found a place where I can study Christian theology, oppression, social movements, power, scripture, ethics, history, interfaith concerns, and tradition in healthy community with the support of a stellar team of faculty and staff.
I’m happy to relay that I’ve been accepted at my top choice for seminary, McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, about a block from the University of Chicago. The school is also offering me a generous merit scholarship that should cover tuition and housing expenses. I’m mailing my acceptance letter today, and this fall I should be moving to Chicago to pursue a Master’s in Divinity degree.
McCormick is a Presbyterian institution, and part of an ecumenical theological consortium of eleven graduate schools of theology in Chicagoland, where if you enroll at one school, you are able to easily take cross-listed courses at any of the others. (Imagine if you could attend any Big Ten school and then take classes at the other nine without hassle. Amazing, right?) This is particularly cool because there are actually more seminaries, theology professors, and books on theology in Chicago’s metropolitan area than in any other city in the world, outside of Rome.
McCormick is indeed cross-cultural, urban, ecumenical, and thoroughly reformed. It is hard to believe I’ll be attending seminary – let alone an institution as reformed as McCormick, given my general disdain for this tradition – but I have a strange, comforting (hopefully not just in my head) sense that this is a step in the right direction. From what I have gathered from research and from visiting, this is a community of people committed to living out the gospel of Jesus Christ, evident in the fact that there is no racial majority among their student body; that they center anti-racist training; that third world liberation and womanist and feminist theologies are taught and affirmed; that the professors represent various traditions and backgrounds, but share a biblically faithful vision for forming a new generation of ministers of Christian hope.
I continue to believe social institutions shape us in powerful ways we often do not recognize. Employers, churches, family structures, schools, clubs or professional associations…when we join these organizations we are doing more than lending them our name and time – we are in a very real way submitting to being formed by these structures, which in our day often dehumanize and commodify us. But I want to attend McCormick because I believe it to be the kind of institution that would shape me in positive ways, honoring my agency and challenging me to be better as I discern my calling and exercise my ministries of connection, writing, hospitality, and play.
So, to the inquisitors, what will I be doing in the future?
Well, I’m still not entirely sure. Though I’m now able to proudly sate my friends’ and family’s curiosity, I still don’t know how to describe the trajectory of the rest of my life. The future might look like me becoming ordained as a presbyter in a certain tradition. It might look like me getting a job in government, at a publishing company, a nonprofit, or even working as a social worker with a background in Christian ministry and theology.
If I had to chance any sort of hazy vision, at this point it would probably be safe to say my future will involve seminary and writing (and breathing) and family and friends and eating good hot squid, but that’s about as far as I can see ahead of me. And that should be okay, taking things one move at a time. As Dr. King (who once lectured at McCormick!) said: “faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”