Navigating My Doctoral Journey: What’s Theological Education For Anyway?

By: Easten Law
May 13, 2019

At a recent academic conference I attended, a keynote speaker presented research on the faith journeys of young adults in their twenties and thirties. According to the speaker’s findings, a substantial number of participants reported leaving the Christian faith after struggling with the exclusionary implications of their church’s theologies. For many, the departure from the communities that formed them so deeply at one point in their lives was a complete break from Christianity itself. Listening to the stories these young adults shared touched a raw place in my heart.

I recognized these same journeys in many of my own friends who had left the faith. I too experienced many of the same struggles in my own walk.

But how did I manage to not only retain my faith but even deepen it? I was gifted with communities that allowed me to ask difficult questions about God and society in open and humble settings without dogmatism or tribalism. I was graciously introduced to the full diversity of the Christian faith across denominational, geographic, cultural, and even religious boundaries - giving witness to the seemingly endless ways these hard questions can be answered.

Most importantly, I had opportunities to put into practice what I was learning, grounding my inquiry and reflection in real lives and communities of diverse backgrounds.

I am most excited to join FTE’s doctoral community because it will provide rich opportunities and networks to advance my passion for a new season of theological education that is critical, inclusive, and engaged. For me, FTE is not just a source of funding, a means to completing my dissertation, or a pathway to a job. It is about addressing something I see as fundamentally flawed in the church’s current conceptions of what constitutes theological knowledge, practice, and education.

It’s a chance for me to get mentored and come alongside like-minded disciples seeking spirit led change.

In my studies and experiences, I have come to the conclusion that theological knowledge does not come from scripture or tradition alone, but from the everyday lives of the faithful and their unique experiences of God’s gracious presence. Yet in many seminaries and divinity schools, the lines between theology and everyday life are thinly sketched. The heaviest theological lifting is reserved for biblical, historical, and systematic studies. What future theological educators need, therefore, are methods for discerning lived theologies that thicken the lines between everyday life and our knowledge of God. My dissertation research proposes such a method and applies it in a study of Christian young adults in contemporary China.

For many of the world’s Christians, including in China, faith is bestowed upon them by others without concrete pathways for critical inquiry, openness to others, or shared practices that go beyond the social or cultural norms of their community. But people change as they move through different seasons of life, including their understandings and experiences of God. When a church tradition hides and excludes others, either by denomination, race, class, gender, or any other category – they unwittingly demand Christian life be frozen in but a few theological tones and shades. This often leaves believers with the perception that they cannot be Christian if they leave behind this or that supposedly key doctrine. But what if we educated young people to measure faith by a different standard? What if theology wasn’t grounded in beliefs, confessions, or massive systematic texts; but in the real, fluid, changing, unpredictable lives of everyday Christians around the world? What kind of God lives and acts among these masses?

What would the next generation of church leaders look like if their theological sensibilities were shaped to attend to their praises and tears?

FTE’s stated mission is to, “To cultivate diverse young adults to be faithful, wise and courageous leaders for the church and academy.” It is the pursuit of this mission that most excites me as I begin my time as an FTE doctoral fellow. As the Christian faith continues to spread among diverse cultures and communities around the world, new ways of Christian living will emerge – each with its own distinctive theological character. Amidst this new diversity of Christian young adults will be new ways to be faithful, unexpected avenues to wisdom, and everyday acts of courage that are waiting to be uncovered and shared for the good of the entire Church.

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