Three Tips for Thriving in Your Faith While You Study Theology
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges you face in theology is overcoming the feeling of disconnect between your faith and your study. You’ve heard that theology should lead to worship; you know intuitively that studying “the very words of life” should draw you deeper into affection for the saviour – your saviour – Jesus Christ.
And it does … but not always.
When you’re memorizing the endless different declensions of nouns in New Testament Greek, it’s hard to see the relevance. Or worse, when you’re sitting through lectures on the historical reliability of the Gospels, the (three?) Isaiahs or the philosophy of religion, it feels like the very foundations of your faith are being systematically dismantled.
Fear not, every theologian goes through this kind of experience. Many develop a thriving biblical faith that is enriched – not diminished – by their ongoing study of theology, and so can you. Here are a few suggestions to help you on the way:
1. Rebel against the separation of faith and the academy.
Within the academy this dichotomy is expressed in the vague feeling (or tangible comment from your lecturer) that your faith has no role to play in discovering theological truth, it may even get in the way. This is often built on naturalistic presuppositions including a priori denials of miracles, Scriptural inspiration, or the very existence of God. Unearthing these assumptions, especially the ones you may have begun to uncritically accept, can help. Ask, “what assumptions am I making when I try to keep my faith out of this piece of work?” Pay attention to the way that evangelical scholars allow their faith and work to be shaped by each other and learn from them.
This tendency also finds expression in the Christian world, typically with the line that academic theology is “dry” and “dead.” Don’t buy it! The very content of your faith – however well or poorly thought out – is theology (preaching to the choir, I know). Academic theology can and should be a deeply devotional activity, even if your lecturers don’t approach it as such. I’m not advocating replacing the usual spiritual/devotional activities with your study of theology. Practices like prayer, devotional reading, worship, and communal Christian life (church, CU, etc.) form an absolutely indispensable foundation. However, it is a privilege to add theological study to this foundation. In doing so, the lines between devotion and study can be beautifully blurred.
You may have heard the advice to keep separate bibles for study and devotion, to read the bible more ‘spiritually’ in devotions and generally keep the thought habits of study separate from the devotional domain. Don’t. Use whichever translations (whether the same or different) are most helpful in each context, but don’t actively avoid mixing the academic and devotional. ‘Practicing’ some of the approaches to the bible learned in class in your ‘quiet time’ is part of the process of fully integrating your faith and study.
2. Resist the urge to sideline theology when challenges come.
It is easy to get defensive and retreat into more immediately gratifying ‘Christian/spiritual’ activities. I’m thinking of volunteering so much of your ‘free time’ to church or CU that you barely have enough time to do the bare minimum for your course. You may find comfort in a kind of ‘pre-critical faith,’ in drowning out the difficult questions with busyness. But when you are a student of any kind, you are called as a Christian to engage wholeheartedly in your study. As Paul writes, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). How much more, as a theology student, when you give yourself the time to reflect, read more widely and work out the kinks, will you be able to engage in theology with your whole person and be moved to worship and delight in God by what you study.
It may help to put some issues on the backburner as ‘awaiting further light’. Instead of getting defensive, retreating or compartmentalizing, allow some questions to remain unanswered for a time. This is not burying your head in the sand, but recognising that many issues in theology take time to personally resolve. The shaping of your thoughts and the building of your faith is the pilgrimage of a lifetime, not the three years of your degree. Allow yourself that time, be okay with open threads, and learn the humility to say, “I don’t know.”
Giving yourself both the time and mental space in theology leaves you much freer to dig deeper when things are interesting. You can give much more time to the areas that cause you to delight more in God. When you let yourself put some questions on the backburner, you’ll find yourself chasing down others with utter intellectual delight. Allow yourself the pleasure of those theological rabbit trails (one of them could become your dissertation – or even your life’s work), and more than that, allow yourself to be moved to worship by the pursuit.
3. Study in Christian community
The importance of Christian community for theological study is one of the foundations (conscious or not) of ancient monasticism and the traditional Bible College. Both understand that when theology is shaped by community life, and community life is shaped by theology, they are richer for it. Your local church is incredibly important, but there is something uniquely valuable about a specifically theological community when you are a theology student. The good news is that, even outside of the monastery or Bible College (i.e. in the secular university TRS faculty), this vital community is possible.
At its simplest it looks like befriending Christians on your course, having coffee with them, praying together and talking through challenges you face. In doing this, set knowing Christ as your goal (while it is cathartic, griping about ‘liberal’ lecturers does you little real good). It is amazing how simply sharing your challenges with others on the same journey, or a little further ahead, can bring both comfort and stability.
More broadly this is found in Theology Network. Joining a local TN group can provide a great place to air doubts, address those tricky issues and point each other back Jesus when you’re struggling to see him in your studies. If you don’t have a local group in your university, why not start one? The Network is also a wider community that you can plug into with students across different universities as well as graduates who have gone through it all before. Whatever you do, find brothers and sisters to share in both your joys and your doubts as you study theology together.