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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

To Question is To Learn

Written by: on September 10, 2020

In the opening chapter of Not Knowing: The Art of Turning Uncertainty into Opportunity, D’Souza and Renner reflect on an ancient doctor in training, Vesalius, who thought it odd that contemporary doctors were utilizing archaic knowledge as the ultimate truth. Despite the obvious upgrades in knowledge, Vesalius found it nearly impossible to contradict the authority of a renowned imperial doctor, Galen. To do so, according to Vesalius, was “almost as if I were secretly to doubt the immortality of the soul.”[1]

The experience of Vesalius in relation to Galen’s knowledge and how it was utilized by contemporary doctors brought me back to my undergraduate learning and the institution where it occurred. As one who didn’t grow up committed to Jesus or interested in the church, it was a deep irony that I applied to and was admitted into a private, conservative, evangelical institution in the Midwest. At best, I figured that I would have a relatively moral experience on a beautiful campus where I’d be able to explore the Christian tradition alongside outstanding people. What I soon discovered is that the institution was not a space for academic and spiritual exploration but, rather, a space of academic arrogance that perpetuated a narrow and rigid worldview and focused its energy on religious indoctrination.

Certainty was among the highest values at this institution. Those in positions of authority believed that they were the enlightened ones whose role it was not to teach their students how to think, but what to think. One very popular, local fundamentalist evangelical preacher dominated the theology and spirituality of the campus. While he had little to no direct interaction with the university, the lion-share of the school’s professors attended this preacher’s church and seemed to hang on his every word. Next to the Scriptures, he was the inspired source of authority. To question or contradict this particular preacher’s teaching was “to doubt the immortality of the soul.”

To no one’s surprise, I consistently questioned this preacher’s teaching. I rebelled against the idea that my education and formation would be found in unquestioningly ingesting a particular person’s take on a given topic. My brain and body are not a hard drive designed to upload the latest or most certain knowledge. Instead, I understand myself as a pilgrim who is shaped by the Spirit as I interact with literature, human beings, and experiences.

I find it remarkable that in an institution that tried its hardest to teach me what to think, I learned how to think. Turns out, my undergrad was exactly the kind of incubator that I needed in order to become a life-long learner who is ever in pursuit of a Jesus-centered, spacious theology that fleshes itself out in a cross-shaped kind of way. Just like Peter on the roof of the tanner’s home in Acts 10, I am not only open to, but eager for the ongoing formation of my theology that further refines a practice of life that is marked by generosity, interdependence, wonder, and sacrifice.

This idea of holding loosely to “certainty” also shapes the way that I seek to influence. While I am a passionate person who holds some deep convictions, I don’t understand my role as an influencer to be one of convincing or converting. Rather, I ever want to become the kind of leader that awakens imaginations to new restorative possibilities.

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[1] D’Souza & Renner, pg. 38.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

11 responses to “To Question is To Learn”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer,
    I have learned so much from you this past year. Indeed, you are a leader who “awakens imaginations to new restorative possibilities.” Thank you for showing me another way than the ones presented within conservative evangelical circles where I once moved. I, too, had all the questions about the Bible and faith, but what I didn’t questions was the source of where my answers were coming from. That permission didn’t come until I was in seminary. Before then, I saw myself a young Christian who was to soak in all the “truths” without question or doubt. The beauty of asking different questions and examining different sources is that I’ve discovered greater freedom in Christ and a richer understanding of shalom. Keep encouraging imaginative, restorative faith- the Church needs it.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      I’m humbled by your reflections, my friend. Thank you.

      It seems to be that the White American Evangelical understanding of power/authority mixed with how transformation works is that those with “authority” dispense their rightness with an certainty and expect the minions to gobble it up without question. Not only is this a terrible understanding of Christian authority, but it defies the science of how people change.

      I do wonder, from your perspective, how this is especially experienced as a woman who, according to the imperial religious system, is to quietly absorb the divine intellect of the man. How are you overcoming not only a broken understanding of transformation, but also the horribly broken misunderstanding of the hierarchy of gender?

      • mm Darcy Hansen says:

        Lots of counseling, spiritual direction, unlearning, learning, and extended time in the wilderness where the chains of bondage are being shed at what seems a very slow pace. Often it feels like a tangled ball of yarn. When I pull a thread to untangle it, the ball gets tighter. Sometimes I just cut the thread and keep working to untangle. I’m pretty sure when the ball is finally loose, it will be more shreds than one continuous string. But I’m ok with that. I trust God will still do something with all those little snips of yarn. Problem is its hard to find a place where I belong. So when I get tired, I stop searching, until I feel ready to look again. In a way, Covid has been a gift in that way- so many are disoriented because their communities of faith are dispersed. For me, I had no issues with that, because I’ve was dispersed years ago. So I actively wait and trust God to lead.

        I’m grateful for your insightful care and willingness to ask me the questions. It helps me process where I’ve been, where I’m at, and dream of what may come.

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    I’ve always felt lucky in the sense that the church I grew up in and the university I attended both encouraged questioning. I never felt that it was wrong to actively question what we were taught in our lectures. On the first day of my class on critical thinking my freshman year, the professor told us that his goal was to break down what we thought we knew and make us question what we believed. I’m grateful for him and for the openness he showed with us in giving us the space to question and process what we thought.

    It’s encouraging to see teachers and ministers allow space to question. Last week was the transition week for the children’s ministry going into youth ministry at the church I attend. Since I’m one of the youth Sunday school teachers, their previous teacher messaged me to give me some information about them. I was surprised and excited to learn that she has taught them to question everything and to not take at face value anything we say. My eyes lit up when she mentioned this and, needless to say, I’m excited to have them as part of my Sunday school class in the coming year.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      You’re lucky to have had such a professor.

      I want to play with the idea that he invited you to break down what you thought you knew and “question everything you believed.” On the surface level, I love it. At a deeper glance, it makes me wonder about how different students interacted with that particular goal. The curious student, I imagine, would enter into the process of discovery with fervor. The student trained to hold defensively to their certainty, I imagine, would enter in the process with a militant protection of that which s/he thought s/he knew. I wonder how we groom the next generations for curiosity over certainty as a way of life, love, learning, and leadership. How are doing that with the youth you are stewarding at church & school?

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,

    I appreciate your journey. I as well have always been a questioner. I passed up 3 different masters degree options in Theology to avoid a canned systematical program. I chose one that I knew I was going to have to be exposed to things that would stretch me, forcing me to read things I would never have read on my own. Interestingly enough most of what I read though expanding my thought process had very little influence on my current theology. People often ask me what I learned in a Theology and Culture masters program and my reply is I spent $35,000 to relearn what I learned as a child, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so!”
    I am so thankful that in Gods wisdom He customizes life lessons to the individual creating opportunities and challenges to prepare us for His divine plan. Our past doesn’t dictate our future but it does prepare us for our future.

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    Anyone who has ever tried to swim against the current has certainly experienced the extent of its power. Many find themselves ultimately exhausted, without having made much progress, while friends who are content to float along seem much more relaxed and further along. It’s can be frustrating and lonely at times, but having the courage to question, challenge, and forge a new path is a gateway to discovering and to the life I believe God truly intends for us.

  5. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    This points makes me want to process Friedman with you perhaps more than Renner and D’Souza. “Awaken imaginations,”… what a great calling. What do you see as the emotional and imaginative “equators” which are difficult for many to cross?

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