Before beginning my seminary journey at Candler, I spent three years as a high school teacher. This was my first experience in ministry. Striving to be an effective teacher for 100+ teenagers who had their own experiences of life’s joys and pains was exhausting, but it taught me a lot about asking good questions. My students were relentlessly curious, and they held me accountable to answering their questions, regardless of how good or bad they were. In return, I pushed them to start asking more meaningful questions of themselves, their communities, and the greater world that we all participated in.
One of the ways I did this was to start class each day with an essential question. Sometimes it was related to the literature we were studying or what we had seen on the evening news. By the time class was over, we either answered the question or decided to take more time to think and return to it the next day. My students didn’t take much at face value, instead opting for more information when they needed it and being okay with not forming opinions too quickly. We constantly worked on being ‘good’ conversation partners, and we were willing to try and fail and keep trying until we got it right.
So, it wasn’t a surprise when Tiffany asked me, “Ms. Golden, how can I believe in God and the Age of Reason?”
Tiffany was a high-performing student who excelled in most of her academic work. She was also Catholic and faithfully attended mass every Sunday. Tiffany was aware of my involvement in church, but what she didn’t know was that I, too, was asking difficult questions about my faith.
At the time, I attended a church that was focused on building community for a fast-growing membership. There were essential beliefs all related to the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but questions about anything else were often deemed too political. Anything that people could disagree on was off-limits, and if the conversation wasn’t exclusively about the saving of lost souls, then it wasn’t important enough to be discussed in a larger setting. I also didn’t have access to a pastor who was available to answer my pressing questions. So, I would find myself turning to Google. It didn’t take long to realize that the sort of questions I was asking were better answered in community and probably in a seminary classroom.
In the early work of discerning if going to seminary was right for me, I met with a spiritual director. Margaret, a lay minister from a different denomination, met with me monthly as I started to sort out my own theological beliefs. Often times, she’d repeat my questions back to me in an effort to help me start hearing myself.
She challenged me to think about the text, how it was being presented, where it was located in the Bible, and then asked me to respond to it. Did I agree or disagree? Why or why not? On top of learning how to think theologically, she affirmed my identity as a theologian. This wasn’t because I was special by any means. Nor did I have all or any of the answers. What made me a theologian was the simple fact that I was willing to be curious about my faith.
While I had to leave my own classroom behind to become a student again, I brought with me the spirit of curiosity that I gleaned from my students and that I had come to own through my work with Margaret. At Candler, my curiosity blossomed. In my classes, we were encouraged to ask bolder questions and to not shy away from the answers or the lack thereof. In Christian Ethics, I asked the question of should Christian churches receive federal funding to provide comprehensive sexual health courses for teenagers? In Systematic Theology, we debated if scripture was the ultimate authority with the works of Karl Barth, James Cone, and Kelly Brown Douglas. And in Introduction to the Old Testament, we struggled to make sense of the woman slaughtered in Judges 19.
But, you don’t have to go to seminary in order to ask big questions about faith. In a world full of struggle and strife because of unexamined theological beliefs, I believe that everyone should have access to theological education. By daring to explore what we believe and why, we are faithful. It’s why James O. Duke and Howard Stone write in How to Think Theologically that “To be Christian at all is to be a theologian. There are no exceptions.” After all, Jesus asked a lot of questions, and his questions often led his followers to new insights and revelation.
It feels full circle to now do this work as the Program Coordinator for The Candler Foundry. In this role, I have the opportunity to dream up and create opportunities for anyone and everyone interested in exploring theology, deepening their faith, and forming their public witness. I’m excited to support the budding theologians who worship in our local congregations, from clergy members who may already have degrees in theology to the congregants who simply want to learn more. I’m also interested in connecting with individuals who don’t identify as religious but still are curious about how theology underlines our daily lives.
Whether through our Courses in the Community program, our Candler in Conversation webinars, or other initiatives, there’s room for everyone’s questions. And when we have the courage to ask those questions out loud, everyone has the opportunity to learn and to share with someone else.