A note to the reader: At the UCLA Graduate Christian Fellowship meeting on June 24, 2004, in Los Angeles, California, I was asked to share my reflections on my graduate career and what I've learned as a postdoc over the last three and a half years. The talk was extemporaneous, but afterwards I thought it might be useful to write down some of what I shared as it included a history of some of God's activity in the group during the late 1990's.
Over the years, the group would change in both style and size. I remember one "large-group" meeting which consisted of just me and Baldwin Way, but Baldy was game enough to sing with me as I led the worship set I had prepared, so a good time was had by all. By 2000, the group had grown to around 20-25 at large-group. The stories I tell here testify to God's work in all these stages, whether we were 6 or 2 or 25.
My first GCF Bible study can be described as experiencing an explosion. The topic that evening was the book of Job. Not a chapter or verse, but "the book" of Job. Tanya, who is a biologist, led the discussion. We first read and discussed a few of the introductory chapters in Job. Then we read parts of a commentary of Job, which gave a fairly traditional, conservative interpretation of the text. All this was pretty familiar to me.
Then we read a selection from an interpretation of Job by Rene Girard, who was a professor of French Literature at Stanford University. In a landmark 1970's work entitled Violence and the Sacred, Girard created a theory of the role of violence in society which boldly integrated fields as diverse as anthropology, theology, religious studies, and literature (particularly the novel). In this theory, he surmises that every society has developed a "scapegoating" mechanism which circumvents the society's natural inclination to destroy itself in a fit of violence. The selection we read was an application of this theory to the book of Job. I thought to myself, "What is going on here? I thought the traditional interpretation wasn't all that bad."
After that discussion, we examined some woodcuts of scenes from Job that were made in the Middle Ages by Albrecht Durer. Further discussion ensued, with ideas being thrown around and bantered about that I had not only never heard of but would never have even imagined existed. This swirling cloud of ideas grew and grew, but as the evening went on it began to settle and coalesce, until finally, at the end of the evening, the final place we ended up looked remarkably like the traditional, conservative interpretation.
What did I learn from that evening? First, I was humbled. I went home that night and looked at my bookshelf and thought to myself "I don't know diddly over squat." What I had thought constituted deep thinking about the faith was in actuality as thick as the silvery surface of a scratch-and-win lottery ticket.
Second, I learned not to be afraid of questions with regards to faith. Considering disparate ideas, even crazy ones, does not necessarily mean that you're heading towards heresy.
Lastly, and most importantly, I took an important first step in discovering that when I'm trying to learn about who God is, and understand what He is trying to tell me, that waiting to make a judgment about what I'm hearing can be incredibly rewarding. It is rewarding because the time spent waiting, thinking, reading, pondering, praying, wrestling, and being uncomfortable can result in unforseen insights and unanticipated depth. It is rewarding because I may find answers to questions I never even knew to ask. It is rewarding because in trying to understand things of God, my own first answers are often wrong.
All this can be true is because our God is big. Really big. Mind bogglingly big. G. K. Chesterton describes orthodoxy as the truly wild and crazy adventure because it is the only thing that is truly sane. Insanity is blind and narrow, because it closes in on and eventually consumes itself; it is a closed circle. Orthodoxy, because it is sane, is expansive, filling all the space the universe allots it and bursting even out of those confines. If we are to take even baby steps in exploring the expansiveness of God, patience is vital.
In GCF I also learned that God is active and answers prayer. Someone once said that we expect too much from God in one month and too little in one year. We are too easily impressed by the immediately miraculous and too easily blind to the slowly miraculous. My experiences in GCF illustrated this principle to me in spades.
An example of this is how the men's accountability prayer group got started. The summer of my second or third year in graduate school, me and Brian Gurbaxani made a pact to meet daily each morning for prayer, Monday through Thursday, in a small office in Boelter Hall. We did this because both of us realized that with no more classes to take, neither of us would make it to school in the morning if we didn't have a previous commitment. So we sent out an email to the fellowship mailing list announcing the prayer meeting, inviting everyone to join. The only one who responded was Bryan Fong, and so the three of us started meeting to pray for the fellowship. We eventually ended up praying as much for each other, if not more, as for the fellowship, and since we were all men, the men's prayer group was born.
Regarding the fellowship, we prayed for two things. First, that there would be more humanities people in GCF. At that time, the fellowship was dominated by engineers and scientists. Second, we prayed for more women, since most of the members were men. Both of these prayers were eventually answered, some 6-12 months later.1 Cindy Culver, a new history graduate student, was one of the first of this intrepid crew, coming in Fall 1998 (ask her about her thoughts during her first GCF meeting!). Throughout Winter 1999 and over the next 1-2 years, God continued to bring us more women (as well as men) and people from a more diverse mix of fields. In this group of people there were also a large number of leaders and people with a heart for ministry and community. It was an exciting time. The growth in numbers was encouraging, but the biggest blessing God gave, in my mind, was the joy in community. The experience of people being vulnerable with each other, struggling together, partnering to love others and one other, is one that I feel privileged to have had. And so God answered our prayer in ways we hadn't dared dream.
If I could do it all over again, however, there are at least two things I would want to do differently. First, I would memorize more. In our society memorization is disparaged as "merely" rote learning. My own experience is that my lack of memorization has hampered me in my scholarship. Memorization, liberally but non-legalistically used, provides a scaffolding around which synthesis and new ideas can be built up. This is true not only in the humanities, but the sciences as well. Just because you can look something up doesn't mean you ought to.
Second, I would read more. Henry Kissinger once remarked that before you enter public service, learn as much as you possibly can, for once you enter public service, you'll be hard-pressed to find the time to learn anything new. Essentially, you'll be living off the store of whatever knowledge you possessed when you began your public service career. So it is also in academia, and life in general. As the years go by, I realize more and more how little time I have to learn new things. Graduate school was indeed an ideal time to do so, and if I could I would try to learn even more.
This work is hard. This work is slow. In many ways, the task of integrating faith and learning must work against half a millennia of culture that resists such an integration. But it needs to be done. Some of the work will be in scholarship, some in teaching. Some will be done in Sunday school classes, others in lunchtime conversations. It will take creativity, and may be unrecognized by both the church and the academy. In whatever form it takes, however, it needs to be done. So my encouragement is pray, and do something!
On a more personal note, recently I've been wrestling with what does it mean to be a success. Back during college, when I made a conscious and deliberate choice to follow Christ no matter what the cost, I thought that I had given up my desire to be a success on the world's terms. During the last few months, however, a series of personal difficulties revealed to me that this hubristic assessment has been quite premature. I found lurking in my heart a thriving and powerful desire to be successful in the world's eyes. The old man doesn't die so easily! And I've been taught an important lesson not to ever, ever, ever underestimate my commitment to success on the world's terms.
A few more random thoughts:
1My memory here about the timeline is a little fuzzy. The prayers may have been answered around 18-24 months later.
Published online: July 1, 2004.
Last revised: December 14, 2004.