Theology is one of the dark arts. It used to be called the queen of the sciences, but unlike other sciences, say astrophysics, where the student is learning about the light of our universe, the theological student is learning about the light—and darkness—of the soul.
In the beginning, a theological student takes an introductory course on Bible study or systematic theology. He learns about metaphor and the semantic range of language, about grammatical analysis and historical context. He learns that David defeating Goliath isn’t a story about overcoming adversity, but rather about God fulfilling his promise to the people of Israel made hundreds of years earlier.
He learns about a story, and the glory of this story rises like a thousand suns over a distant wave. The story is uncovered by digging through commentaries and etymologies and methods of interpretation. He smiles as he turns over the leaves of The Intertextuality of menó in Johannine Literature: A Critical Introduction.
Over time, the beauty and energy of this spiritual, soul-altering science will begin to die a death of a thousand cuts. It’s a slow bleed, and the light over the waves recedes inch by inch as he wanders into the seas of cynicism.
The study of hamartiology overtakes studying his actual hamartia—the sin buried in his own heart. The professors, he says, have grown dull and pedantic. He grows out a beard because he can’t grow out joy. He goes out for beers, despite the seminary’s strict policy against them, because he doesn’t want to go out for prayer meetings. He has become the seminary’s cynic.
Last week, Pastor Chuck Swindoll gave a message about the sinister sin of cynicism.
He told the story of meeting a janitor in a church somewhere. He said to the janitor, “You have a beautiful facility here. Busy on Sunday morning?” The janitor looked up and said, “Yeah, we process about 2,500 units every Sunday.” Something serious had happened in the heart of the janitor, where “people” became “units.”
It happens like this. Slowly, slowly, the shadow of the seas creeps along the water without you noticing until it’s at your boat.
I remember once sitting in the dorm library having to write a paper on Leviticus, but I was surrounded by shelves and shelves of commentaries on Leviticus. How in the world was I supposed to add to that conversation? I ended up writing a fictional story about Leviticus, complete with stupid, mocking captions, because I didn’t realize it wasn’t about changing the conversation—it was about changing me.
I wrote many biting papers in seminary, mocking the insular, academic conversations theologians were having with one another while seeming so very disconnected from broader culture. We call it “cultural engagement,” after all, as if it’s some kind of war.
Many kind graders wrote their notes at the end of my cynical papers. One very wise grader—I still remember the curves of his pencil strokes—wrote at the end of one particularly nasty paper, “I can handle all you throw at me, but you have got to figure out what you are doing here.”
I didn’t end up figuring out what I was doing there, and after a year and a half I left the school. I had a meltdown, failed Greek and a course on the gospels, and withdrew from friends more wonderful and disciplined and patient than I. Maybe I would go get an MFA in creative writing instead, I thought. Two years later, however, I finished the degree online. It was a quiet and lonely two years of soul searching, trying to find that joy I once had toward theology and the spiritual light of the soul.
One side of the sea is cynicism. It is dark and full of swells and arrogance. It’s a place where people think they’re better than others, that they see things others don’t see. What those on the dark side see is everyone else’s mistakes and shortcomings. They see how very far the rest of the world has got to come up to the shore.
The other side of the sea is joy. It is full of light and good food and dutiful work. It’s a place where people think they’re lowlier than others, that they have so much more to see. What those on the bright side see is their own mistakes and shortcomings. They see how very far they have to go across the water.
Pastor Swindoll spoke mainly to those on the dark side of the sea, to those looking down at others on their moral high-horse. There are some people, however, who are stuck somewhere in the middle. They have tasted the bitterness of cynicism, but they can’t remember how to find their way back to the crests of joy.
He talked about the joy he had recently while planning a trip to Disneyworld, thinking about the rides and the laughter and the wonder of the place. Yet when he got there he saw the joyless daze in the eyes of those who worked at the park. Every day they did the same thing, over and over again, and the tingle they once had has become calloused and numb. “Where is your tingle?” he said.
I can’t remember what it’s like to read the Bible as if it weren’t a textbook. I can’t remember the delight I felt in class when the professor walked us through the book of Jonah. I can remember, however, one older student telling me that my excitement will fade. “You’ll grow out of it,” he said. What an ass, I thought. Yet here I am. I can’t remember the tingle.
Living a spiritual life—whatever that means—isn’t easy. Studying it formally, academically, is less so. You can write out Greek paradigms and charts for the whole Bible, but the book and the faith that’s supposed to change us stands quite apart from our own lives. There’s a broad swell of darkness before the light.
This isn’t an unusual story, of course. Anyone who has tried to live a spiritual life knows this. There are libraries full of books about it, some very famous, like John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress or Saint John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul,” and some less famous, like Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling, from which Swindoll read a moving passage.
He told one more story in the chapel message about a mentor of his when he was in the Marines, stationed on an island in the South Pacific. This missionary mentor was once going through a difficult time in his life, the details of which are unknown. One night, when this missionary went off to his office—a bamboo hut—in the middle of a monsoon, Swindoll went to go see him. He could just barely see through the spaces in the bamboo walls.
He never knew I had been there. I saw a man on his knees. Two candles were burning on the side and his Bible had been opened, and he was with his God. And he was singing.
“Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee: prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.”
I learned more about prayer that night on the island in the monsoon, listening to my mentor, than I learned about prayer in four years of seminary. I will never forget watching a man struggling through a low point in his life on his knees.
I wish I had more answers for you than I do. I wish I had a map to get back to the joyful side of those black waves. I can only look toward it for now, like Tennyson’s Ulysses looking at that port across the dark, broad seas:
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
’T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Cover image by Lukas Robertson.