By Julia Kim
“Spiritual graveyard.” This is not a phrase I expected would be used to describe seminary, but there I was, sitting in a pew on my first day of orientation, being told this was what seminary could be like. Graveyard? Wasn’t this supposed to be a place where people came to be trained deeper in the knowledge of the Word and grow closer to God? Isn’t that why I had come here? How could it then be a spiritual graveyard?
Burying relationship under knowledge
Now, three years later, with just about one semester left, I think I have an answer. I said I’d come to seminary in order to be trained deeper of the Word and grow closer to God. However, the truth is—deep down, I thought I already knew Scripture quite well, and had been very reluctant in even going to seminary for the very reason that I thought I could learn most of the material on my own. For a while, I found I wasn’t completely wrong. In many ways, I did already have a strong knowledge of Scripture, and as I studied more, that knowledge even grew. However, even as that knowledge grew, rather than drawing closer to God, I felt more distant. Busy reading and talking about him, I neglected actually listening to him and talking to him. I forgot the most important thing. Scripture is all about getting to know God and becoming more like him. Disconnected from this purpose, the Bible can easily become just a textbook, or a tool to make us even more proud and far from God than when we didn’t know much at all. This is how seminary could become a spiritual graveyard.
I’ve also discovered another way seminary could be a spiritual graveyard. At seminary, I’ve been forced to read books from the Bible I often had not read, and read works from authors of more diverse backgrounds than I had been used to. This taught me that while I may have had much knowledge, much of the knowledge I had was still limited and skewed. It was only knowledge that had been filtered through my own particular lens or worldview. This lens allowed me to see certain themes or messages very well in Scripture but also prevented me from seeing other equally important ones. It determined which books I read, what verses stuck out, and what questions I asked. In my pride that I could learn most of the material on my own, I held the false notion that I was fully capable of really understanding Scripture on my own. I thought understanding Scripture was just a matter of acquiring more knowledge or ‘downloading’ more information. I never really questioned how that information was downloaded nor suspected that I had been programmed or hard-wired to receive that information in a certain way. Sinful pride was not the only thing that prevented me from seeing well. I was also limited by my own creatureliness—the fact that I’m a person with a specific context/background. Previously, unaware of my own contextual lens, I had been blind to the ways in which my spirituality was severely lacking. In this way, seminary has become a graveyard for these false understandings and spiritualities.
Graveyard for both good and evil
Seminary thus has shown me the potential to be both a graveyard for true spirituality centered on a relationship with Christ and also false spirituality centered on pride. However, I don’t believe these pitfalls of missing the main point that all of Scripture is about knowing God and blindness to our own contextualization/lens are unique to seminary. Scripture reveals that all of us are prone to both. Perhaps the clearest example of the first are the Pharisees. They knew the Law well, down to the finest detail. However, although they may have known the details of the law well, blinded by their own prideful conviction of the rightness of their interpretation of the law, they missed its greater purpose, which was to foreshadow Christ. As a result, they failed to recognize the Messiah when he came.
In contrast, the apostle Peter, by God’s grace, recognized and followed the Lord. However, he, like me and like all of us, was still limited by his own contextualized lens. The Lord clearly gave Peter and all his disciples the command to make disciples of all peoples, and told them that they would become his witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Yet, although the Lord had given them this command, at first Peter seemed to have only preached to Jews. That is, until the Holy Spirit gave him a vision, and directed him to the gentile Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48). Though the Lord had already given the command, Peter needed this vision. Why was this the case? Peter, perhaps inhibited by Jewish ceremonial laws, which greatly restricted interaction with Gentiles who were considered unclean, and also the long tense history with Gentiles and the not too distant memory of the exile, was unable to understand and receive the Lord’s command. His eyes needed to be opened to new possibilities by the Holy Spirit. Even after this vision and clear message from the Lord that he had overturned the ceremonial law, reconciling this separation of Jew and Gentile, Peter was still inhibited. In Galatians 2, we see that apostle Peter, inhibited by the social pressure of the group of Jewish disciples who believed the Gentiles needed to be circumcised, again separated himself from the Gentile believers. He needed to then be rebuked by the apostle Paul, a Roman citizen, Hellenic Jew, and ex-Pharisee, who grew amongst many cultures, to be reminded of and follow the Lord’s command.
Clearly, if the apostle Peter, on whom Christ said he would build his church, was limited in his ability to rightly interpret and obey the Lord’s words, then we, too, are all similarly limited. So, what do we do about this? Scripture gives us some clues. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” On this side of heaven, we will always be seeing dimly or knowing only in part. Thus, it’s not just a matter of trying harder, but of acknowledging that we as individuals have some blind spots both due to our sin and also our contextual lenses. However, there is still hope both for now and also in the future. Jesus promised his disciples, which also includes us, that he would send the Helper, the Holy Spirit, who would teach them all things and help them remember all the things that he has taught (John 14:26). The context of this passage is not Jesus talking to an individual but to a group of his disciples. This means that he would not be teaching us alone as individuals but within a real community—not just any community, but his very own body. That body is made up of not just the same type of people but consists of people from different contexts and backgrounds (e.g. cultures, socioeconomic classes, languages, and genders, etc.) with different lenses. On our own or with people just like ourselves, we might not be able to see our blind spots, but together, with others from different lenses, those blind spots can become exposed just as the apostle Paul helped Peter. My prayer is that we would not dwell in prideful blindness to our limitations, but that we would all have the courage to approach other brothers and sisters who are different from us with humility and a willingness to listen. There may always be something that someone else can help us see.