Semester in Review…

by Travis Pickell

I went to bed last night at 7:30pm. That was after taking a nap yesterday afternoon from 3:30-4:30 pm. I believe that my body is in Recovery Mode after an intense week of writing final papers (55 pages and a take-home final!). Not only that, I believe my body is in Recovery Mode after what was, perhaps, the hardest semester of my life. Nevertheless, the exhaustion I feel is like the exhaustion at the end of a good work-out or a competitive game of basketball; not like the exhaustion of being tossed overboard and swimming for dear life. There is a sense of accomplishment and growth, and for that I am truly thankful.

Two classes in particular have challenged me this semester, though in different ways.

The first was Ethics and the Problem of Evil. From the beginning, the professor made it clear that it was not going to be a Theodicy class [i.e. how to justify God in light of the existence of evil]. Rather, it was an ethics class, meaning that our main objective would be to think about how we ought to respond to evil in practical ways. That being said, it quickly became apparent that there is a constant tension between practical responses to evil and theoretical concepts about evil. Our view of who God is and what the world in which we live is really like, affects the way we respond to evil and suffering. But! to think and wonder about God and the world in a detached way [i.e. from the relative safety and comfort of a seminary classroom] tends not to lead to a sufficiently deep description of the very real ambiguities that evil and suffering occasion. In the end, every attempt to “answer the problem of evil” with a tidy system did not do justice to reality and left one [me] feeling unsatisfied. And yet, and yet… one cannot simply avoid the problem altogether. The problem of evil, it seems, from an intellectual point of view is un-answerable. From a faith point of view, however, the most satisfying approaches we covered were the ones that were utterly realistic about the existence of evil and suffering, yet somehow found a way to confess the goodness of God in the midst of it [I’m thinking, especially, here of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s short-classic Lament for a Son].

The oddest thing that I found while taking this class, was that everywhere I turned, in all of my other classes, the subject material overlapped considerably. Recently, it dawned on me that there is a very simple reason for this. So much of what is done in theology and philosophy is an extended reflection on the following fact: life is often unimaginably difficult. There is a reason that the Bible calls Satan “the prince of this world” (John 12:31). If we take the time to be honest, and reflect upon the suffering all around us, and within our own lives (not something that I am very good at… optimism is far safer), we will see that something is terribly wrong. Thank God, however, that is not all there is to that verse: “the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (vv 21-22). After a semester of wrestling with the objections to the [all too easy] answers to the [all to often wrong] questions about evil and suffering, I am left with two things: hope and the conviction that hope is more important than answers.

The other class that challenged me was The Theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Before I took the class, all that I knew about him was that Wikipedia said he was the “Father of Modern Protestant Theology” and that Karl Barth tried “to overturn his influence.” Given the way that St. Karl seems to be venerated here at PTS, I was sure that this class would teach me how to dissect Schleiermacher’s harmful theology, showing particularly how far we have come since he messed up Protestantism during the Enlightenment. Much to my surprise (and probably chagrin) the professor (a renowned Barth scholar) taught Schleiermacher with grace and respect, never critiquing him based on criteria that were alien to Schleiermacher’s day, and more often than not, finding some way to affirm and even appropriate Schleiermacher’s intentions and instincts in a generous fashion. While I doubt that Schleiermacher will ever become a central figure or influence in my own theology [although who knows?], what I learned most in this class was not contained in the books we read. All semester I have described the task of reading and understanding Schleiermacher as “wrestling with a big-hairy monster.” Every time you think you have a handle on him, he breaks free and shows you that you do not. He will not be tamed by simple explanations or surface-level reading. But I am only stronger for having tried, and will only be made stronger the more that I do so. I suppose this is the case with any theologian worth his/her salt. They must be taken on their own terms. We must allow them to challenge our own presuppositions. Otherwise the playing field is not even and the game is pointless. The more honestly, vulnerably, and winsomely we play the game, however, the more God may use others to press us farther up and further in.

All in all, this has been the hardest, and best, semester of my life. The hardest part about it was the difficulty of the subject matter and the isolating nature of the work [lots of research in the library, not so much time to hang out with friends and wife]. The best parts, on the other hand, were the lessons learned about honesty and vulnerability, and the great conversations with classmates generated by the challenging material.

At this point I am almost half-way done with my seminary career. And while it has by no means been easy [especially the living in Jersey part], life is a gift, and today it feels that way. The words of Sheldon Vanauken come to mind: “If its half as good as the half we’ve known, heres hail to the rest of the road”