Friday, March 12, 2010

Seminary Reflections: Raising the Question

I am happy to say that the first paper of the semester has come and gone, my academic standing none the worse for wear. The only major critique/suggestion I received was that I should “try to resist making as many claims about the meaning of the text at this point. Focus instead on raising questions.”

Looking back, I can see that I didn’t follow directions as well as I could have. The assignment was never intended to be a thesis-driven argumentative essay but rather an exploration of potential avenues for exegesis in a particular passage. This one’s on me; I was never great at following directions.

That being said, there’s something about this that just cuts deeply against the grain, isn’t there? Try to resist making claims. Focus instead on raising questions.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I was taught to write papers. Five-paragraph essay: make a claim, three points to support it, and summarize. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them. Write a thesis statement. Underline it. Make a claim.

Ask questions? You’ve got to be kidding me. A generation of junior high and high school english teachers – at least all the ones I had – are recoiling in disgust, red pens at the ready.

But I also have to admit that there’s something deeply Presbyterian – or, at least, deeply Seminary-an – about raising questions. Seminary, we are told, is a place and time in which we are encouraged to question, to ask ourselves and God about our faith and about our vocation. It’s written into the language of our ordination process: I, like a number of my classmates, am an Inquirer for PCUSA ordination. We’re asking questions.

A friend recently told me that he was entering the PCUSA ordination process himself. He told the pastor at the church under whose care he will be that he was “going to take this ‘Inquirer’ thing seriously.” I told him that I thought that was the whole point. The PCUSA ordination process is a fairly open invitation. We want people to enter, to inquire, to ask questions of themselves and the denomination, to have questions asked of them. Getting in, as they say, is the easy part.

My wife is an Episcopal priest. In their ordination process, the discernment and evaluation of the candidate is done largely prior to seminary enrollment. The result is that the M.Div. population itself is almost entirely vocationally homogenous: her peers were almost 100% Episcopal clergy-to-be.

Here at Princeton, on the other hand, we’re all over the place. The student population is 50% PCUSA, and a good number of those are ordination-track. But we also have quite a few students eyeing Ph.D. work, and a number of others just here to ask questions. And every day those numbers change: ordination-track Presbyterians start to look at doctorates instead. Students from nondenominational backgrounds hitch their wagons to PCUSA, and vice-versa. We’re in a constantly encouraged state of flux.

As for me, I came into school already in the ordination process, fairly sure of what I wanted, and nothing yet has happened to make me seriously doubt that calling. But, of course, it’s early. There’s much water left to go under this particular bridge. And maybe one of these days I’ll learn to read the directions.

1 comment:

NicodemusLegend said...

I would submit that (although I'm far from unbiased, asking far more questions of texts in my blog posts than making claims), while making claims is actually very important, the "at this point," was more the key aspect of the note than the "resist making... claims" part.

The idea (as I understand it) is that, especially in academic study, you need to learn how to identify and ask questions. Too many people miss the point of a text because they simply haven't thought to look at the text in a different way. By asking questions, you probe more deeply, and thus learn more things about the text than might have been done otherwise. Then, only after this deeper probing, should one make claims.

(Interestingly, I'm also currently a PC(USA) Inquirer with a wife who's Episcopalian--very near to being a priest, but not quite yet--myself. However, she was very much an oddball, in that she was largely done with her MDiv--and at a non-Episcopalian institution--before starting the process. As you indicate, this is very unusual.)