Finding Jesus (Again) at Seminary

Finding Jesus (Again) at Seminary October 31, 2011

My post on “Sex at Seminary” has prompted some angry responses.  I’m hardly the ideal person to express these things.  It will be hard for people not to read the post through the lens of identity politics.  I am an evangelical, and a conservative, making some critical comments about a Mainline Protestant seminary where the prevailing culture is further to the Left.  I would caution, however, against dismissing a critique because of the identity of the critic.  I really did not mean for those words to wound or offend.

More surprising to me is the amount of very positive feedback I’ve received, from evangelicals and non-evangelicals, liberals and conservatives and others in between.  It seems that many have had similar experiences, at a variety of seminaries.  It’s been a blessing to hear their stories.

Amongst those who took offense to the article were several who believed I was griping because I’d had a bad experience at Princeton Theological Seminary.  They must have thought my comments in praise of PTS were merely pro forma.  Yet that’s not so.  Why would I feel sour grapes?  PTS gave me a very generous fellowship, freedom to take the classes and internships I wanted, several awards along the way, and the pedigree to go to the doctoral program of my choice.  I made there some of the best friendships I’ve enjoyed in this life, and enjoyed some excellent mentors.  All those things really do redound to the praise of PTS.

Let me tell a little story — for this series on The Future of Seminary Education — that illuminates some of the critique I’ve already shared, but also some of why I nonetheless enjoyed my seminary years.

I’ve mentioned that there came a time, one month before a spinal fusion surgery, and about halfway through my M.Div., when I was confronted with the fear of death.  Recently married, I was lying in bed beside my wife after she had fallen asleep.  I thought of how much pleasure it brought me, simply to lay beside her.  I envisioned lying beside her as the seasons, the years and the decades passed by, as our bodies changed and we grew older together.  Then, I thought, we would pass away, and eventually we’d be buried beside each other as well.

That’s when I sat bolt upright with waves of scalding heat rolling across my skin and a heart that felt like it would pound its way through my chest.  It literally felt as though the sky was falling down toward my head.  I was suffering a panic attack.  I had thought of a wall of earth separating me in my coffin from my wife in her coffin — and the thought of the separation death would impose filled me with terror.  I had not been afraid of death for years.  Yet now I was married.  Now I had something to lose, something from which — or someone from whom — I did not want to be separated.

By then, my spiritual life had already been in decline.  I had strayed from God in my first couple seminary years.  I had largely abandoned my vision of intimacy and faithfulness with God.  But when life was easy, the cost of my infidelity to God had not been apparent.  Yet now I needed God, and it felt as though he were miles away, not because he was unfaithful but because I had been unfaithful.  I had neglected the fundamentals of my faith, the spiritual disciplines, the basic everyday faithfulness, the impassioned pursuit of God and not merely the study about him.  I never had sex or did drugs in those years, but when it came to drinking I was very much a part of an unhealthy, un-Christian culture.  Even as I ministered in my internships, as a youth pastor and a prison chaplain, I partook in the drinking culture at seminary, and in foul language and unclean talk.  Those internships were the most spiritually edifying parts of my seminary experience, but they were not enough.

Suddenly that decline became a steep and dizzying downward spiral.  The month before my surgery was filled with doubt and fear and more panic attacks.  Was God trying to tell me that I was going to die?  That I needed to prepare my heart?  Then came the surgery, and a horrific recovery experience that was badly mismanaged by my medical team.  I spent the first two days after the surgery with no pain medication, and then got so much medicine that it proved toxic and plunged me into severe dysphoria.  It was the most profound experience of hopelessness and godlessness that I had ever known.  It felt as though my faith was broken into a million pieces and I had to put it back together again — or else leave it behind.

I sought encouragement from the professors.  They were kindly available, and offered answers that were nuanced and theologically respectable — but missed the mark.  I sorely missed the extraordinary James Loder, one of the professors I had grown close to, but who had died by then from a brain aneurysm.

But the benefit of my PTS years was not only in the faculty I came to know, but also in the students.  At about this time, one of my best friends, J., had gone to a month-long Ignatian retreat.  When he returned, we got together.  As he described his retreat, I kept hearing a particular word — a word that surprised me, a word that I had not heard or spoken so openly and frequently for years.

Do you want to know what the word was?  Jesus.

I had stopped saying the word “Jesus.”  95% of the time, I only spoke of “God.”  Or if I had to speak of him, I referred to God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, the Logos…names that sounded intellectual and sophisticated.  If I had to speak of the Son incarnate, then I spoke of Christ, or the God-man.  Never Jesus Christ, and certainly never just Jesus.  Loving Jesus, following Jesus, seeking Jesus — these were the province of fundamentalists, Bible thumpers, Jesus Freaks, crude Christians who wore WWJD bracelets and listened to Michael W. Smith and read Max Lucado instead of Jurgen Moltmann.  We had even begun to subtly mock Jesus by talking of “Jeebus” or mocking the way certain preachers shouted “Jesus!” in their sermons, or by laughing at Jesus action figures and the other strange cultural artifacts emanating from Jesusland.

But now, here was this friend of mine, whom I admired, and he couldn’t stop talking about walking with Jesus and talking with Jesus.  He spoke of Jesus telling him something, or showing him something, or holding him.  It was striking only because I had not heard language like that since I had come to seminary.

As I sat there and heard my friend talking about Jesus-this and Jesus-that, I realized that Jesus was speaking to me through him.  Wasn’t there a time when I, too, walked and talked with Jesus?  Wasn’t there a time when I lived in fellowship with Jesus?  And wasn’t that, after all, the very point of Jesus?  That he is “God with us,” God made present and available and redemptive among us?  Because of Jesus, God is a Person-for-us, God is personally available, and we can indeed have a personal relationship with him?  Isn’t that the point of the incarnation?  Isn’t that, in some sense, the point of our faith — that God came to us in Jesus, and bids us come and die with Jesus, and calls us to be Jesus in the world and to love Jesus in the least of these?

For two years I had scoffed at things like this.  It seemed simplistic and sentimental.  But really, it’s the simple, heart-changing truth, a truth that confounds the wise and lifts up those the world calls fools.  I had left behind the language of Jesus, the spirituality of Jesus, and I had certainly left behind the imitation of Jesus.

That was the beginning of my long climb out of the pit.  I began once again to talk with Jesus throughout the day, to find him sitting in the chair beside me, or walking with me down the side of the street, or speaking to me in the words of a stranger or in the music played at a youth group meeting or in the sunlight that filtered through the trees or just in the stillness of my heart.  I had to trust my imagination, put aside my corrosive skepticism, and just experience Jesus (and God in Jesus) again.  And I would never have known J., never would have heard his story, if it were not for PTS and the extraordinary group of men and women it brings together.

Mine was not a continuous, uninterrupted ascent back to spiritual health.  Nor was it quick.  There were fits and starts for years.  But that moment was the beginning of the rebuilding.

A Christian never outgrows Jesus.  Jesus is and remains the heart of the Christian faith.  So I began to speak of “Jesus” again even in circles where it caused embarrassment, deliberately using language that made me humble myself, because coming to God through Jesus requires sometimes that we look like fools to the world.  Besides, it served to remind me that God is not away up there, somewhere above the spheres, manipulating the world through a million long levers.  God is here, among us, beside me, with me, before me, behind me, all around me and within me, talking to me, showing me the way and the truth and the life, in the person of Jesus.

Not the Son of God.  Not the Logos.  Not the Second Person of the Trinity.  Just Jesus.

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  • TJ

    Please keep these posts coming. Those of us evangelicals currently in the Mainline seminaries need these kind of reminders. This and the last post have been spot on.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks, TJ! My goal is to post on the Future of Seminaries every day over the coming week. Thanks for reading!


    • Sarah L.

      Right, TJ?! And Time…Seriously. Thanks so much. This is a breath of fresh air to those of us who have that “X factor” still living inside us, that deep desire to truly love and be loved by Jesus. Spot on…

      • Sarah L.

        And by “Time” I meant “Tim”. Yeah…

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        Thanks, Sarah!


    • Megan

      Agreed! Thanks for these posts =]

  • Larry

    Deeply moving and life giving …

  • biju

    Dear friend
    hope that you are fine in body and spirit, I was reading your writings, its good and simple… the real Jesus was hijacked by church and the systematic theologians, and he reduced into a cultic figure. it is our duty to liberate Jesus, and see him in a new perspective…

  • Tom

    Tim, thank you for your honesty in Sex at Seminary and Finding Jesus at Seminary. I am currently mid way through my first semester at a mainline seminary. I am a Pentecostal Evangelical trying to adjust to a vastly different culture and institutional expectations. Since I am a commuter, it may be to my advantage that I do not live on campus, although I have already heard of students becoming drunk and others who have cheated on their exams. Although, you did not offer advice in your posts, you experiences have given me food for thought and alerted me to the dangers that can shipwreck my faith. Many blessings to you.


  • Tiff

    Its not intuitive, but it makes sense. Where else would the enemy want to attack than in the people who want to become ministers of God? Tim, have you talked to any Catholic priests or seminarians? I imagine they also have struggles in seminary; but I wonder what the similarities/differences are between them and their Protestant counterparts.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      We will have some reflections on Catholic seminaries coming into the series very soon, in fact. Thanks, Tiff!


  • Karen

    beautiful post, Tim… thank you.

  • Gabe Ruth

    I’m a Catholic with alot a great deal of respect for evangelicals, and this post is exactly why. There is a tendency for Catholics who take there faith seriously to take an attitude similar to the one you describe in many seminarians. I’ve known that self-consciousness you describe when saying Jesus’ name myself. Wonderful story, as was the previous one. Thank you.

  • Chris

    Hi Tim.

    Some people at my seminary used to nickname exegesis “Exit Jesus,” as they believed that this process did not bring them closer to God nor did it help them glorify God, worship Him better, and/or rejoice in the Triune Godhead any better. It seemed to them as hours of toil in Word Studies, collecting and reviewing articles, making sense of all the tidbits of detail about the passage, understanding literary criticism, and so on … yet they were left wondering in many regards “how does this apply?!”

    Many at the seminary at which I attended were full-time students who enjoyed “living at the Holy Hill” and wondered about the bigger questions of how their theological education was supposed to translate to ethics and practical Christian walk — as well as application to those in the pews.

    Just an anecdotal story. A friend of mine gained a job working for the registration office for the seminary, early in my time in my M.Div. program. I mentioned to her that “this must be the ideal job for you; what a privilege to work with and for such godly people — must be really great! I’m sure everyone’s personal righteousness must make your job really easy!” To my surprise, my friend rolled her eyes and said, “You wouldn’t believe how many people lie, cheat, or steal, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” I was shocked!

    In my own walk, I did not experience this, but I was known as a “commuter student” (part-time student who worked to pay for his own education), so every class I took, I was able to draw my own conclusions about how this applied. I rather blundered (or perhaps better, “providentially by God’s sovereignty”) into my balance of being salt and light in taking classes while working full-time and serving in the church; a balance that is very important. I think sometimes it is necessary to draw away for a time of preparation/edification (as with the Puritans), but should those who are Christians withdraw for too long, they fail to be salt of the earth and light of the world. Then the seminary becomes a reflection of the world; we fail to maintain our saltiness and our relationship with God to be light to the world. We lose our identity.

    There is one more thing I would mention, something that a friend, who has Episcopalian leanings, taught me. He has been and continues to be a good friend, since our time at seminary. Catholic spiritual mentors, he mentioned, are less interested in how you make decisions and how the Bible influences one’s thinking (those are of course important, especially in Evangelical circles — the concept of “developing a Christian mindset”). He told me that some of the Catholic spiritual mentors were more interested in one’s prayer life, since that is much more reflective of one’s relationship with God. What is the tone or dynamic? How do you refer to God? Is it intimate or distant? These lessons have stuck with me, as I thought about my own prayer life. Do I start with an intimate term, such as “My dearest …”? Do I only worship the Triune Godhead or only The Divine Duality (God the Father and Jesus)? If my theology says the former, shouldn’t I either speak to God or “Dearest Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”?

    In terms of “spiritual walk” and being at nadirs: Sure, there are times where we experience what St. John of the Cross calls the “Dark Night of the Soul,” or spiritual deserts according to the desert fathers. C. S. Lewis also picks up this theme in the Screwtape Letters, when he notes that people are sometimes more likely to seek out God when they feel He is far from them. There are times where we are “doing all the right things” and yet feel as if God is distant. This is where faith comes into play: we still obey despite our feelings, because we know what is right.

  • Colorado Disciple

    Thanks for these. Reminds me of my (opposite?) experience at Yale Divinity School, where I came in as a committed liberal, but was miraculously transformed into a “Jesus person” through my relationships with certain students when I saw that my “intellectualism” sorely missed the mark. A light bulb moment was when, in a class on Sexual Ethics, the few (Korean) students who dared to question the prevailing hegemony were shouted down by the others for not being politically correct. Undoubtedly, a culture of skepticism and unbelief has corrupted the liberal church and it’s seminaries, though as a congregational pastor in a liberal mainline denomination I still maintain hope that it’s not too late for these traditions. For instance, though I am roundly despised by other mainline clergy and from liberal activists in our church for proclaiming the name and the promises of Jesus, for the first time in generations our church is growing, both spiritually and numerically in the power of His name. Believe it or not, I’ve found that most of the people in the pews still love Jesus, though sadly many of them have been either been cowed by Marxist ministers into the “social gospel” or into a generic universalism, or else they’ve long ago voted with their feet and left the mainline for evangelical churches.

  • Hi Tim,
    I’m reading your posts for the first time today. I live in the UK and have spent the last 10 years since uni in the secular work environment. I can’t help thinking that there is something seriously wrong when a guy like yourself stands up for holiness, godliness and purity in your community and is sidelined and slammed because you come from a particular Christian persuasion (we don’t have that luxury over here!). Its also a shame that some of your seminaries over there have lost connection with the Head and drifted off, forgetting that being trained in the godly life is as, if not more, important than being trained in theological thinking. This is one of the reasons I’ve never been to seminary (despite a clear call to the ministry of the word) – the danger of being disconnected from the real world, where you live and breath every day amongst broken and lost people. Its not judgemental to hold onto the standards of living laid out in the new testament. Having grace with each other when we fall does not prohibt having high standards for our lives. We must strive to be like Jesus who combined mercy and grace with a passion for godliness – in ourselves and others.
    God bless you in your testimony.

  • Rev Dave Hackett

    This is a thoughtful post. I too know the vast difference it is between talk of Jesus and talk of Christ. I returned yesterday from two weeks of deep interaction in the Middle East and Africa with Christians passionate about sharing Jesus in those continents. The talk is all Jesus, all the time. It seems that personal commitment to global evangelization is directly correlated to one’s focus on Jesus. I for one want ‘Jesus’ to increase, and ‘Christ’ to decrease.

    • Carole


      Wow. That’s scary. Was he just a man, ya think?

  • I was at PTS over twenty years ago and I do remember feeling like for many in some aspects it was an extension of “college days.” Yet I think the fundamental problem then was that the center of our “life together” was the library not the chapel. I once heard the sharpest doctoral candidate remake, “you could have nude liturgical dancing at Miller Chapel and it would still be half empty.”

    While it took me years to erase that image from my mind, the point is well taken. For much of the Reformed tradition in general and the PCUSA in particular, the pursuit of theology is not the pursuit of “loving God with the mind” as it was in classical Christianity. But I think the problem does not begin with the seminary: our seminaries are but reflections of the congregations and denominations from whence seminarians come.

  • Dennis Evans

    I attended seminary in the mid/late seventies, at Dubuque. I am sure you have had responses that indicated that these issues have been around for some time.
    One of our students wrote a letter to the “Outlook” calling us “the citadel of spiritual zilch”. I wrote a response that the magazine published.
    It was complicated. You could find the spirituality (we didn’t call it that then) that you wanted if you wanted to find it. We had a segment that studied the bible and prayed together, and we had a small segment that visited the strip joints in East Dubuque, and segments in between. It was a good time for me, and I grew in the maturity of my faith, but found that seminary did not automatically provide an opportunity for this and there was no required “spiritual direction”.
    Those who go to seminary to find themselves or to grow in their faith are headed for trouble, as I see it. You need the fundamentals before you go: a life of prayer and study, some experience in forming Christian friendship, a hunger and thirst to grow as a Christians, some stable framework of the Christian faith as contained in the creeds, and a living walk with Jesus.

  • This is such wonderful writing and testimony. Thank you for sharing this. I appreciate your humility and willingness to own up to your own mistakes and not just blame the seminary (something I could well learn from!). And I appreciate the life-giving truth spoken into that dry desert of the intellectual ivory tower. Jesus still matters. Knowing Him and being known by Him.

  • Brent Johnson

    I’m wondering if this is why Jesus called unschooled men to be his closest? They would not easily fall into the trap of thinking learning trumps that relationship. Yet, if you think I or God do not regard learning as important, he also called Paul and taught how he would suffer for the name of Jesus.
    Good stuff you’re addressing.

  • Michael Jordan

    Fabulous and important thoughts. I’ve had almost the exact same thoughts so often, and am grateful you have a platform to share them widely and the talent to share them with such clarity.

  • Steve

    Thank you very much for this and your earlier post. I spent my first year at Princeton Seminary, and eventually transferred to Fuller Seminary for financial reasons. Fuller is not perfect, but the difference in culture is marked. I had experiences that resonate with your description of life at PTS–but then again I’m just another biased Evangelical! Thanks for your humility and honesty.

  • “A Christian never outgrows Jesus.”
    Yes. I am struggling over the decision on what seminaries to apply to. Whether to stay or go, what would be wise/responsible/good stewardship, what opportunities would open up as a result of my choice – and of course where is God leading me. But all of these boil down to a single fact, that there will be believers truly pursuing Jesus at any one of those seminaries. And Jesus won’t be any closer to one than he will be to another. Worry and dwelling on Jesus just don’t mix.

  • Tim,

    I can’t begin to say how much I am encouraged by what you had to say in this post. It was a sobering and much needed word from God for me. I have had a hard time the last few years as an undergraduate student in maintaining fidelity to the powerful simplicity of the Gospel, and that Jesus is the substance of our faith… it’s Him who makes the difference.

    I’m in the process of consideration seminaries and PTS is on the list (though I am very concerned about the theological liberalism that I have heard permeates the campus). My fear is that I would receive a Gospel that has a form of holiness but denies it’s power. Or worse yet, that I would come out without faith as Bart Ehrman did when he graduated from PTS. I trust that God is going to work things out for His purpose and my ultimate good.

    Thank you for your stories. Keep them coming.
    The Lord bless you and lift you up, strengthen you and give you power to see just how great His love and grace are towards those who believe in Jesus!

  • Alex

    I’ve recently begun to listen to sermons online from a young pastor of another church, and have been struck how “Jesus-centered” they are compared with what I am used to hearing. While a Christian never outgrows Jesus, it seems that the longer we are Christians the more our Christianity tends to be less about Jesus and more about other things.

    Thank you for your post and the reminder to return to Jesus.