Reorientation Through Disorientation
By Scot McKnight
July 23, 2012
Scot McKnight is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, speaker, author and blogger. He is currently the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University.
Seminary was a time of profound disorientation that I later came to see as redemptive and, ultimately, a time of profound re-orientation. The pain of seminary was not relieved until years later.
My context will help clarify. I grew up in American fundamentalism and I attended a school that was then (but is no longer) part of that fundamentalism. (I am a proud graduate of Cornerstone University, and prouder for what it has become.) I was shocked by what I learned from professors, pastors and anyone who might chat with me about theology. While I never did surrender the essence of my Christian faith, brick after brick fell down and shook the foundation itself. When I left college, I left my fundamentalist past. I had deconstructed my heritage, but I had not yet constructed a faith that could sustain me. I had become a quester for truth, and I didn’t care where I might find it.
Seminary for me was a time of reconstruction, which meant I was reading the Bible and listening to theology, hoping to hear something that would provide a faith that could guide and sustain me, my wife, Kris, and our growing family. But that disorientation meant sometimes I sat in classrooms with magnificent teachers but thinking to myself, “No, I don’t believe that” or, “Now that’s something that gets to the heart of things.” I could no longer accept what I had learned or absorb everything a teacher said. I became a critical thinking student because reconstruction had become so important.
A close college friend of mine recognized my seminary disorientation condition and asked me to write up what I now believed—all I could do was deconstruct. I realized I knew what I didn’t believe, but not what I did believe. I spent four years in seminary knowing far more of what I did not believe than what I did believe, but I am also grateful to patient seminary professors and a wife who were with me as I pondered the Bible anew.The single-most influential factor that led to a reconstructive phase was a summer I spent examining the Sermon on the Mount—all alone, with the Bible, some concordances and a commentary or two. My goal was not to map what the Church had thought, but to listen to the text as closely as I could. I was working at UPS, and when I got home I spent the day studying the Sermon as I was asking myself, “What does Jesus want of me?” and, “What does Christianity look like?” Total immersion in the Bible and in the words in the Bible led me to “chew the cud” hour after hour, pondering the words and electric vision of Jesus. I had landed on firm ground with Jesus’ Kingdom vision, and it gave me eyes for the rest of the New Testament and Bible.
That summer’s study compelled me to deepen my faith. So when I went to the University of Nottingham for my doctoral work, I was emerging from a period of deconstruction and starting the fresh work of reconstruction. My faith was beginning to be personal and real all over again. Nothing happened all at once, and there wasn’t a specific book, sermon or moment when it all clicked. Instead, over the next decade, God renewed my faith, gave me more solid foundations on which to stand and breathed on me an anointed enthusiasm for Jesus as the way, the truth and the life.
It was at times a painful process, involving prayer and journaling, depressive conversations and uplifting discussions, and some good moments and some down days—all the while growing in our marriage, nurturing our two small children and participating in intense debates about theology and faith. Through this time, the ordinary faithfulness of a godly and loving wife, some honest friends and the influence of students and peers provided parameters within which the Christian faith became more foundational to my life.
That experience with disorientation shaped me to be a teacher who delights in the disorienting experience for students, but I aim also to provide parameters for my students so they can find their way into a faith that transcends their heritage and can sustain them as they journey in faith. So this means we say in class, “Is that what the Bible says?” and, “Is that what the Christian faith teaches?” Sometimes we learn what we grew up with is not what the Bible says and not what the Christian faith is all about, and that can lead students into profound disorientation.
But disorientation can lead to reorientation, and ultimately to a new orientation that can sustain. The goal of disorientation is not skepticism, cynicism or criticism, but the clearing away of the rubble to find the sure and common ground God reveals to us as we seek to be faithful today.
Scot McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park in Chicago, IL, and the author of several books.