Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why, hello, Calvin.

Recently, I was assigned to read some selections from Calvin's Institutes for my Reformation class. The section was in Book IV, "The External Means or Aims by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein." In other words, it was discussing the Church.

Here are a few snippets I found to be especially meaningful:

 "Although the melancholy desolation which confronts us on every side may cry that no remnant of the church is left, let us know that Christ's death is fruitful, and that God miraculously keeps his church as in hiding places."

"First, [the church] stands by God's election, and cannot waver or fail any more than his eternal providence can. Secondly, it has in a way been joined to the steadfastness of Christ, who will no more allow his believers to be estranged from him than that his members be rent and torn asunder."

On the church as our "mother": "Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives."

He goes on to write that, if we try to find a flawless church on the earth, we will either conclude that there is no true church in existence, or we will overlook error on lesser matters for the sake of upholding what is central. Calvin argues that we shouldn't allow even the slightest errors to be fostered, but we also must not "forsake the church because of any petty dissensions."

Here is the heart of what I think Calvin was saying (and others more knowledgeable, please, feel free to correct me): It may appear to us, as it did to some sixteenth- and seventeenth-century believers, as if the church has been vanquished, but we know that cannot be true, because God has elected that it will not fail. One of the reasons for its perseverance is that it has been joined to Christ's own steadfastness, and we can rest in knowing that He will never allow His own to be torn away from Him.
We need the church because it is the treasure-house of the gospel and the means of grace; no matter how strong we become as Christians, we can never consider ourselves beyond the need of what God has graciously ordained for our good. And we shouldn't be so arrogant as to think we can find some "pristine" body on earth, or that, in our rightful zeal for the church's purity, we should forsake the visible church over relatively minor points of dissension.

There's plenty of room for debate over these points, I'm sure. But that's not why I felt the desire to post them. You see, I had scarcely read a word of Calvin until last week. In other words, studying the Institutes is obviously not what made me a Presbyterian.  What amazed me about reading just these passages is that, not only was it a great solace to me as a member of the Body, but it echoed my experience so far of being a part of it.

I don't think anyone sat me down with excerpts from Calvin and said, "Here is what you should believe about election, and the importance of the visible Church, and submitting yourself to it in humility." But I can think of many ways that has been modeled for me in love, by pastors and other brothers and sisters in the faith. And now that I've had the opportunity to read the theological language behind it, it's such a blessing and encouragement to be able to think, Yes. I didn't know that Calvin had argued this in so many words, but I already knew it, because I've seen it and am beginning to live it, by God's grace.

I hope that makes some sense. I'm not saying that I would agree with Calvin on every single point; I can confidently say that I wouldn't, in fact, because he's John Calvin, not God, and his writings are not the infallible Word of God. Neither am I saying that I think it's sufficient to get all one's theological lessons in an implicit, "it's just in the water" kind of way. (Indeed, I really need to get to work on learning the Catechism; and I am all about meaty theological education for ordinary church members.)

But there's something good, I think, about meeting somebody through what they wrote 500 years ago and realizing, "Hey, I recognize you." It testifies to that very unity sustained by Christ, which He promised us would never be overcome. Not due to our ability to argue correctly or live purely, but because of His perfect faithfulness.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Now that four weeks of the semester are mostly behind me, I've noticed a predictable pattern.

The best and worst thing about my schedule this fall is that my week is front-loaded with classes and, thus, with assignment due dates.

In theory, this means that I get all of my classes out of the way by Wednesday evening and have Thursday through Sunday to prepare for the following week.

In practice, it means that I spend Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday mornings frantically cramming, Sunday through Tuesday nights fretting and getting insufficient sleep, and Thursday through Sunday paying for it. I'm so tired that I spend most of those days napping, thinking about napping, or at best, staring blearily at a book or article and wondering why my mind isn't absorbing things.

It goes something like this:

Monday: A little tired; preparing for seminar in somewhat hurried fashion
Tuesday: Very tired; frantically preparing for seminar
Wednesday: Having given up hope of decent sleep and mostly running on adrenaline, get up before 6am to spend all day cramming for last class of the week (which also happens to be the one with the most demanding professor).
Wednesday night: Adrenaline gone. Exhausted. Inarticulate. CRASH.
Thursday: Still exhausted, but cheerful, and hopeful about the days of productivity ahead of me.
Friday: Still pretty hopeful! Trying to read...hmm, how come I keep getting sleepy?
Saturday: Sleep late. It's awesome. Then it's afternoon, and I'm hit with the realization that I have three classes to prep for and I've barely started. Suddenly, the weekend seems less awesome.
Sunday: Feeling overwhelmed and inadequate because so much is unfinished, I must be the least diligent student in my department, etc.

Aaaaand  it repeats!

So, yes, I see that this cycle is not sustainable. It's not good for my health on any level. I need to figure out some ways to balance it more effectively.

But the thing I've realized is that, when I'm in the thick of the pressure, I pretty much enjoy myself. I'm noticeably more content and confident as a student than I was last year. I know what I'm capable of and what my limits are; I know that whatever corners I might have to cut, it's not likely to be catastrophic. Coursework isn't the end of the world.

In many ways, weekends are the hardest for me because I'm anticipating the stress; having things hanging over my head has always been an inordinate mental burden for me. But when I'm actually doing the stuff, I start to thrive. And that's what makes me think that, after all, I love what I'm doing, and I'm in the right spot.

Something else I've realized is that, for all the sometimes agonizing stress and my failures to manage it well, I will someday look back on these days in my life and our marriage and miss them -- at least a little bit. I'm learning (trying) not to wish any part of it away too quickly.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

learning to struggle well

Earlier this week, I was lamenting the fact that I seem to be doing grad school "wrong" because, no matter how many long days I put in or even how much sleep I sacrifice, I don't seem to get things done. Unlike many of my colleagues, I don't have little kids and I don't have to work part-time for a faculty member, yet I feel like I'm constantly behind, never able to get on top of the reading and research load.

Putting aside the question of whether my peers really are accomplishing that much more than me (maybe I just have really poor "faking it" skills?), I think the real problem is my perfectionist streak rearing its ugly head again; but even more than that, I wonder if it's my old problem of expecting grad school to be like a medieval monastery.

Yes, that sounds weird. What I mean is, I tend to assume that theology is something that is really only learned if it is chewed on and mulled over, rather like monks ruminating for days on short texts of Scripture. Internalizing truth like that takes patience and discipline -- which I can have -- but it also requires the luxury of time, which a grad student rarely does. As I've reflected before, if I haven't read slowly and deeply, I usually feel I haven't learned.

The thing is, though, I am not a monk. (Or, well, a nun.) And just because I'm studying theology doesn't change the fact that I am a grad student and that grad school will never be a monastery. I need to learn to let grad school be what it is, and learn to excel at that. Maybe even find joy and beauty in it.

Crazily enough, that shift of attitude this week seems to have helped -- a little. I've been pulling crazy hours of intense work, and while it's always messier, more rushed, and less meditative than I would like, I think I'm thriving. And maybe that is less because the situation is "ideal" and more because I'm just doing what has been given me to do.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fall is here!

It probably isn't the best time for me to write this post, since I have a truly unnerving pile of reading to do (yes...Saturdays, sadly, can't be exempt). But, if I don't do it now, who knows how much longer it will get postponed? And perhaps writing will energize me...

So, you get to hear about the classes I am taking this fall!

My first seminar is, unsurprisingly, on the Early Church. Its topic is "The Mystical Body of Christ." You might recall that in Ephesians, Paul talks about Christians being the body of Christ; and this theme gets taken up by a number of Christian writers after him...including Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprian of Carthage, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria, to name just a few. So, we will be tracing that theme through the entire patristic period and discussing how various theologians conceived of the "mystical body" and how it ties into church unity.

I am excited about this class. I think it will pose some special challenges to me as a Protestant, because my doctrine of the Church is necessarily different from my professor's (a Jesuit Catholic priest), and when I talk about union with Christ, I mean something rather different from what Catholics and Orthodox mean by the doctrine of deification. But challenges like these are nothing new to me, and I'm glad they will force me to articulate what I really believe on some important theological matters.

Though I'm majoring in Early Church, my "minor field" is Modern, which basically encompasses everything from the Reformation to now. So my remaining two classes actually fall within the latter period. First, there's my Reformation seminar. It is actually being taught within the History department, so I don't know all the people as well, but the professor seems nice. I have already chosen a topic for my research paper, which is practices surrounding the celebration of the Lord's Supper in 17th century Scotland. That might sound like a really narrow subject, but you'd be surprised how much literature survives on the topic -- I don't know how I'm going to read it all in two months! I hope the project might give me an excuse to peruse the holdings of Covenant Seminary's Puritan Rare Book Room. Anyway, I'll probably post more about this in the future, since I think the material is fascinating and very relevant, especially to Presbyterians.

Finally, I'm taking a seminar called "The History and Method of Historical Theology." Essentially, we're looking at how the field of historical theology has evolved in the past couple of centuries, and different ways it's been practiced. To do that, we're reading a bunch of historical theology textbooks (dating back to the 19th century) side-by-side and comparing the ways the writers handled the topic. I'll also be doing a research project on Jonathan Edwards, surveying the ways historians have appraised his ideas and legacy over the past 200 years. So, I won't be doing an analysis of his thought per se, but analyzing the changing ways he's been received by past scholars, if that makes sense. I hope this class will help me to become more reflective about what I do as a historian of theology.

In effect, I actually have a 4th class, because my fellow second-year students and I are meeting every week or so to discuss the books we will be examined on next May. We decided to do this to help hold each other accountable in our reading; we drew up a syllabus and everything...which I fear I'm already falling behind on. I'm also meeting weekly with a small group to practice our Greek (reading one of Basil of Caesarea's sermons on Genesis), and Kevin and I are attempting to review Latin together. Does it surprise you that my weekdays feel like barely controlled chaos?

And sometimes, the weekends are not a whole lot better, so I must close this and get back to my job! Do keep me in your thoughts and prayers...namely that I will figure out how to get adequate sleep. :)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Summer in Retrospect

As you might have guessed from the scarcity of blog posts, the new academic year has begun.

Belying my mournful attitude last week, I have pretty much snapped back into work mode and haven't spent much time pining for the summer. Still, I wanted to say a few words about the summer as a whole...

So, remember my "realistically ambitious" summer plan from back in June? That whole thing pretty much makes me laugh now! But, I definitely can't call the summer a waste...

  • I did learn to read French and passed my department's language exam.
  • I revised a seminar paper for possible inclusion in a publication. (More on this later, if there is good news to report.)
  • I did keep up with studying Syriac pretty well, though in recent weeks I've had to put it on the back burner for my sanity's sake.
  • I only finished one book for my second-year reading list, but it was a long and important book, so that's still not bad, and I am on pace with my fellow second-years.
All told, it's not as impressive or as neat and tidy as my original list. But for a grad school summer, I think it's a respectable set of accomplishments. And I've learned by now that very little about grad student life is neat and tidy. :-)

Aside from school things, it was a fairly quiet summer, without many adventures. Part of that was because financially, things were pretty tight. While I don't relish the thought of being that broke again, I really hope I don't forget what it feels like to be a struggling grad student. Maybe someday, I can be in a position to help out another young academic household. I think that'd be a grand blessing!

Above all, I've learned that God always, always provides, even when circumstances are not looking that promising, or when I'd prefer that the "providence" look a bit different from what He intends. This is a truth I am slow to learn and, I expect, will have to learn in various ways again and again.

I'll do my best to update again soon to tell y'all about my new classes, and about some other stuff that's going on (good stuff!), most particularly with my husband. :-)