It’s hard for me to fully articulate exactly what I got out of having gone to seminary. It was an inherently contradictory experience. It was run by my denomination which had its own unique Protestant identity, but you studied the full breadth of the church both theologically and historically. I most immediately went there looking for historical roots and resources to my own spirituality, the first of which I had discovered through the writings of Thomas Merton in 1976, but I was often paired with students and taught by teachers who were encrusted by rationalist notions and aspirations of clericalism and personal professional goals. Upon entry into the program I was personally informed that because of my science background I would struggle to keep up with my classmates who mostly came from liberal arts degrees, many in history amd philosophy and theology, but while my learning curve was huge I graduated second in my class. I had a practical bent to reading the Gospel, what difference did Jesus’ words mean to actually making your way in the world(?), whereas other seminarians seemed unable to make this application, spitting back information in bits and pieces. I was a stupid Aggie without social graces, destine for exile on the far side of the world; that’s how some saw me.
But there was a lot of good that came from that time as well. Both an ethics professor and a systematics professor took special interest in me. Colleagues, they worked together to steer me into historical resources that elicited the spirituality of contemplation, and the environment, and social justice that has been both a hallmark of Old Testament Judaism and the church historically. They gave me a framework for understanding the entire history of the church, leading me back through Thomas Aquinas to studying Patrology and forward to engaging with then-current writers like Wendell Barry and Vine Deloria and Hans Kung. I toured the city in which I studied looking at models of socially engaged practical Christianity. I enrolled in cross-registered seminary courses in topics like liberation theology. And then in my last year I struck gold when I was allowed to register at the University of Chicago in a doctoral course taught by James M. Gustafson (the then-leading expert on Protestant and Roman Catholic ethics in America) on the social encyclicals of the Catholic Church from Leo XIII – starting with Rerum Novarum – to the present. So here I was, this practical farmer-guy, gearing up to go overseas to the poorest region in SE Asia, and I was expected to step up to the demands of a doctoral seminar in another tradition. Decades later I would read the words of Peter Maurin who claimed that these documents were none other than the concentration of the gospel into the very power (dynamite) of God at work in the world. I think that I became both a Catholic and a Catholic Worker at that time, although I did not know it. And so I came out of seminary with a deeper appreciation for and understanding of both contemplative spirituality and the social engagement that the church is called to in the gospel. And with these in hand we said farewell to our families and set off for the far side of the world.