Monday, November 10, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #2 (Tips 1-4 on Preparing the Mind for Seminary)

“The horror of that moment,” the King went on, “I shall never, never, forget!”

“You will though,” the Queen said, “if you don’t make a memorandum of it.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

Repeat after me: “My name is _______________ and I am not ready for seminary.”

Go ahead and say it. I’ll wait. Now, say it again and let it sink into your mind for a bit.

Got it? Okay, good.

I know it is weird to admit but you’re not ready for seminary. Of course, there are savants (learned persons) out there who enter their theological education and never blink an eye, but there aren’t many of them (thank goodness – most are regular folks like me). Sure, you might have grown up in the church and have been studying the bible all your life. Even so, you’re probably not ready because seminary is different.

How so? Good question. Seminary is for the academic study of things. The academic study of the bible, obviously. But also the academic study of theology, languages, history, philosophy, etc. too. In this way, what you are getting ready to experience is like any other graduate program in the world. The academic study of things. Critical thinking and all that.

But it’s likely that you’ve never studied the bible academically. Maybe you’ve never asked lots of critical and probing questions of scriptural and theological truths. If you haven’t (not many have) then you’ll want to prepare your mind for the intellectual and spiritual challenges (and blessings) ahead.

To start, let’s get you oriented. It’s important to realize that your seminary is a part of the academy – that ancient learned culture that goes back to Ancient Greece. We’re talking about the Old Academy, which was the original question and answer session. You know, professors like Dr. Plato and company. And now you’ve joined the latest iteration of that grand tradition. You’re here to think critically, write thoughtfully, and speak broadly on the topic at hand: biblical and theological studies. Welcome to the academy!

Here’s a little secret for you: the academy favors the prepared mind. True, you don’t have to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but you do want to come prepared and you will want to work hard.

What does it mean to come with a prepared mind? Here are some tips…

TIP #1 – Embrace the idea that your thoughts will be challenged.

Not everyone is going to agree with you. That’s a good thing. It will help you be a better thinker. Now, we all know that when our thoughts about a topic are challenged and someone disagrees with us, it is not always fun. We experience cognitive dissonance and sometimes we might even want to explode into a rage, like we’re the Hulk or some evil monster.

Get over this quick! Accept the idea that you are coming to sharpen your mind by having your thoughts challenged. Just like your muscles feel when you lift a heavy weight, it will leave your mind sore and tired. But if you will allow your thoughts to be critically assessed on a regular basis and will embrace this – your brain, which is like a muscle too – will grow and become stronger. Prepare yourself to have your thinking challenged. It is the beginning of gaining new perspectives. That’s a good thing.

TIP #2 – Professors who challenge your thinking are doing you a favor and they are your colleagues

Gaining new perspectives will frequently happen when your professors challenge your thoughts or the way you are thinking. These men and women are the primary sculptors that will be shaping the way you think. That’s what they do.

On bad days, you might not appreciate this. Sure, you’re jazzed right now and have lots and lots of love for these heroes. But just entertain the idea that someday soon you might be having a bad day – and in a moment of weakness – you’ll be tempted to think that your professor is out to get you. “She’s an enemy! She hates me!”, you think to yourself.

No, no. That’s not true. They are your colleagues and they are helping you think well. It may not feel great. It doesn’t feel great when that trainer at the gym gives your ten more reps of your most dreaded exercise, does it? But it will make you stronger. If you’re going to be a minister or an academic, you need to grow stronger intellectually in the study of God’s word. Your professors will help you.

Don’t forget though that your professors aren’t the only people that will shape your mind over the course of your degree. There are, of course, your fellow students too. They will be the folks who, over late night coffee or quick lunches, will be shaping your mind as well. Embrace them as your learning community. They are not your enemies either, but your colleagues, even when they disagree with you. In fact, they are potentially life-long friends.

TIP #3 – Embrace cognitive dissonance

‘Cognitive dissonance’ is a psychological term. It refers to the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes. Another way of thinking about cognitive dissonance is to equate it with the unexamined mind. Professors and educational institutions like seminary exist to help you sort out your inconsistent thought, beliefs, and attitudes. They help you move from an unexamined mind to an examined mind. What we colloquially refer to as ‘cognitive dissonance’ is the feeling you experience when your inconsistent thoughts or convictions on some topic are being challenged and straightened out.

You might as well go ahead and make a pact with yourself that you will embrace the cognitive dissonance that you’re going to encounter in seminary. In fact, you’re going to embrace it so well that you’ll be asking for mustard and relish with your cognitive dissonance – that’s how much you’ll love it, right?

It’s best to ask yourself – no matter what the circumstance – what you can learn from any situation. Where can your inconsistent thoughts be examined and straightened out? After all, that’s why you came to seminary, right? To be a better thinker so you can succeed in whatever ministry God has for you. This is all a part of the process.

Soon enough, you’ll begin to understand that as a minister and theologian, learning is what you do. In that way, you’ll learn to embrace cognitive dissonance as an essential part of your “learning trade.” Often cognitive dissonance precedes learning as old presuppositions and ways of thinking about things are replaced by new and better ways of thinking about things.

TIP #4 – A prepare mind puts its thoughts out on the table

Having come from an undergraduate experience in college, you might not be used to putting your thoughts and comments out there in a room full of people for scrutiny. I remember lots of large lecture halls in my undergraduate days where it was easy to hide.

Don’t do this in seminary! Part of having a prepared mind is cultivating a mouth that will speak.

Your classes will be richer when you contribute your voice and your unique perspectives. Sure, qualify your comments as much as you want to as a new student. Add things like, “this might be really dumb, but…” and then say what you’re going to say. Soon enough you’ll be speaking your mind and sharing your thoughts without need of qualifiers and all will marvel at your bravery and boldness.

Just whatever you do, put your mind out there and add to the symphony of thought. I admit, as an introvert, this isn’t always easy. But the graduate seminar is no time to be a wallflower. You’ll be denying the class conversation your own contributions and you’ll make the other students work harder than they should.

The prepared mind speaks…and trust me…will sometimes say dumb things! It’s all part of the fun…and growing process.

Next time, tips 5-6 for preparing the mind for seminary.