On the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of a seminary student: A letter to my students

Phaedra Taylor, Encaustic on Wood Panel, 4 x 4 (2016)

Dear friends,

Allow me to say out loud what some of you may be feeling at this point in the course, on a theology of beauty. Some of you may be feeling liberated from faulty ideas about beauty. Others of you may be feeling affirmed in your ideas about beauty. Still others of you may be feeling confused about your ideas of beauty. And some of you may be feeling depressed about beauty as a concept and hopeless about the possibility of ever using the word again without hearing a thousand qualifiers going "clang-clang, beep-beep, wait-stop!" in your head in the most clamorous manner.

If you've been in seminary long enough, you will know that for many people it involves the experience of deconstruction. Things you long thought or believed or did are questioned, or put under a different light, or deepened and expanded, or refuted and qualified, or they lose their taste altogether and you're left hungry for something better, richer, truer, but you can't quite figure out what that is just yet.

The experience of deconstruction can be profoundly disorienting and destabilizing. Plenty of students graduate from seminary without any opportunity to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, or at least to put new pieces of the puzzle together in a way that offers a vision of abundant life under a new horizon. That's a truly god-awful experience to be left in and profoundly exhausting besides.

I'm aware that for much of the course we have been slowly dissecting the idea of beauty. And like the proverbial frog on the laboratory tray, we see what makes it a frog but we do not see its "frogness" any more. We see just parts. We may see all the arguments and ideas and disagreements and perspectives and contexts for beauty, but we do not see its "beautyness" any more. We see just deconstructed parts.

But perhaps our encounter with beauty is akin to the disciples' encounter with Jesus. To see the truly good news of the Good News, the disciples needed to hear the bad news first: "repent," "deny," "take up your cross," "service is greatness," "the true Messiah dies," and so on. Having heard the bad news, they were given a chance to truly reckon with the consequences, and the glory, of embracing the gospel, and to discover that it was gooder than they could ever have imagined. It wasn't just the promise of new life; it was the promise of resurrected, hyper-abundant life, or as Eugene Peterson translates John 10:10, "more and better life than they ever dreamed of."

My hope is that by the end of this course, and particularly with the Week 10 readings, you will be given a chance to put the pieces back together again--whichever pieces you believe belong and however you feel they ought to go together. My hope, and indeed my sincerest prayer, is that you will have an opportunity for reconstruction, to see beauty in a new light and to be able to embrace it fully, trusting that it still has good work to do in this world that God has made and that sin has disfigured.

One of my Old Testament professors once described the experience of theological education as the movement from naïveté to criticality to second-naïveté. We come to our studies with the faith of our childhood or with the faith of our first encounter of Christ. This is the first stage: naïveté. It is a sincere, whole-hearted faith. We then encounter a world of ideas and conflicting perspectives that cause us to question everything or at least plenty of things that have mattered deeply to us.  We suspect. We criticize. We analyze. We speculate. We argue. We step away from our hearts and we stand in our heads. We feel suspicious of the naive and we fear becoming children again, vulnerable to manipulation or childishness.

But while my professor encouraged us to engage this critical stage of our studies with faith, and with vigor too, trusting that God blesses the faithful work of analyzing texts and arguing for good ideas, among other things, he also warned us of the danger of remaining in this stage too long, a stage that turns into a disposition that becomes intoxicating to us after a while, a disposition that in time turns into a habit of being that becomes toxic to the heart. 

And so he told us of the day on which he rediscovered Jesus again, as if for the first time, with the simplicity of a child's heart, everything feeling fresh and sharp again as the disciples may have originally felt, vulnerable to God, vulnerable also to being easily harmed by others. He said this with the radiant smile of a child on Christmas morning.

Hearing him say these things made me feel weepy and terrified both.

It remains my prayer for you, then, not just in our course but in your experience of seminary, that you would arrive at the place of a second-naïveté. And I pray also that it would not take ten long years to get there, as it did for me, because of my fear of being made fun of or found wanting, and because of my lust for intellectual power.

And that's why, in part, I have given you an opportunity in your weekly posts to tell us what you find beautiful in your home, in your church, in your city, in nature and in the world that you could imagine for yourself if you had all the money in the world. I want you to feel free to keep using the language of beauty and to say, "This is beautiful," without obsessive worry or interminable qualification, as a child might say it. I want that muscle to remain strong and not to atrophy in the light of all your critical engagements of the course material.

I want perhaps what may seem impossible: for deconstruction and reconstruction to happen simultaneously. It may be impossible, yes, for any number of reasons, but it's still what I pray. 

And I want for you to know that these things are possible within a community of kindred friends, who feel acutely the harm that false ideas about beauty have done in our world and how great damage has been done to people in the name of beauty, and yet who believe that a trinitarian idea of beauty and a faithful practice of beauty might, in fact, somehow, someway, bring healing to world, or as one of Dostoevsky's characters says in his novel The Idiot, that it might somehow, someway save the world, precisely because it appears in the name of the One whose radiant beauty makes all things new.

These things are possible, I believe, because the Holy Spirit wants them for you, more than I ever could, and intercedes on your behalf so that you might know Jesus again, whose broken, crucified yet also resurrected beauty gives us a glimpse of the heart of God the Father.

Just a few thoughts here on a Thursday afternoon in Houston, Texas.

Every blessing,



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