I recently completed the Certificate of Theology and Ministry program from Princeton Theological Seminary. Several people of asked me why I chose Princeton and I’d like to share a few of those reasons here (under this category in my blog). First, however, I would like to share a little about me, derived from the introductory assignment to our cohort, which was to create a micro-biography of ourselves. Before my reasons will make any sense, you should understand a little about who I am.
I am a skeptic. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, died for my failure and sin, was resurrected and seen by his closest friends who went to their deaths proclaiming Him raised from the dead. But I’m a skeptic, nonetheless. If one is to truly claim to be skeptical, then it must apply to all areas of life, not just theology, so that means taking a second look at everything: religion, politics, software engineering, culture, and so forth.
Allow me to introduce myself, by way of explanation. My name is John. When people ask where I am from, I typically say, “I was born in Hawaii, lived all over the U.S., having moved about every year (18 times) before finally graduated High School in New York. My plan was to head back to Hawaii; but, after a tour in the Air Force I landed in Huntsville, Alabama and have lived there ever since.” The contrast of living in one place for so long is striking compared to my childhood, where I lived in PA, TX, MS, CA, OH, NY, NC, and of course HI. This made for a lonely kid that adapts quick but has trouble making any real long term friendships. My dad worked at nuclear power plants, so our dinner conversations were mostly about particle physics instead of football; we could talk about lofty things, but not really about the daily life stuff. I hear that happens a lot between sons and fathers.
For one brief season in the mid 80’s, while living near Pittsburg, PA, we went to a small church for about a year or so. I was in the 4th grade, so I only learned a little about a flood with a wooden boat with animals (except the unicorn, which drowned) and some felt-board stories about a lion’s den, but little else of value; I generally liked the picnics, that trip to the roller skating ring, and stuff like that, but had no idea what church was. Then dad disliked something about the preacherman and we were out. No reason to dwell on the specifics here, needless to say I hear that happens a lot between fathers and preachers. More on that story someday over coffee if you are interested.
Either way, I just never took church seriously as a kid. My grandparents were of the WWII generation and lived in a different world. By the time I reached High School, while I was really codifying the formula of what I believed, my “worldview” as I would come to know it later, something occurred that caused me to radically shift my thinking. We were visiting them in Texas and my grandmother (a rather coarse and often opinionated elderly woman) made an off-handed comment about the Bible justifying slavery, or at least racial oppression. Instant hatred for everything Christian permeated my soul. I had friends of several different racial backgrounds and (at that time, living in NY) I hated racism and anything associated to it. That meant I hated the church, pure and simple. Everything I saw from that point forward validated my worldview. Those backwater snakeoil salesmen preachers, just a bunch of vipers themselves. (Foreshadowing: I am now a preacher and still very much hate racism in all of its hues).
I declared myself an atheist early in High School. I was a bit of a mixed up kid – more than a little philosophical for my age, enamored with Shakespeare and Plato but hanging out in the smoking area playing guitar with all the headbangers. I was in all AP courses with a plan for the going into the Air Force (so I stayed clean from drugs and other problems, generally a “good” kid); I was no saint, however, hanging out with a “bad crowd” and with a chip on my shoulder the size of Mt. Rushmore; ask anyone who knew me from High School and they may say I am being too kind to my former self. One thing I certainly could be sure of, however, was that I was an atheist and a skeptic. That made it tough to read Socrates because he was certainly not; but what did he know, being so old.
Morality was about civil order and the common survival, yada yada. Long about the time of my graduation I hit a dilemma in this journey. I will spare you much of the detail here, that’s what the blog is for, but it had to do with the incongruity of the lessons in my AP courses (specifically Physics, Bio, and Computer Science). I could not reconcile the complexity of DNA with my attempts at writing structured programming (error handling in DNA is far more complex than error handling modern software). I eventually became a Software Architect, so this is very much more real to me now, even though at the time I had no clue about logical devices (such as the Ontological Argument for the existence of a Creator) or even the existence of intelligent design debates. However, what I could not do was abandon my conviction of anti-christendom; I personally knew too many Christians who were either fake or had no idea why they believed what they did. So I began exploring theological threads of the beliefs of other cultures, enthralled by Socrates, among others, to consider some kind of force that architected the universe by design and left some common memory among mankind. The evidence of design was too strong to ignore, at least as a plausible alternative consideration. I just knew I was not interested in Christianity.
I began exploring Buddhism and other constructs, but my real objective in that was to discover some kind of intelligence that could account for the complexity of design. I basically assumed that mankind had some kind of collective memory of something greater. This was actually fairly common in media, though few bother to consider the implications. Think about it, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica all have that kind of theological alternative thread running through them. The skeptic response to this kind of thought is to label it a cargo cult – but that does not answer the question of the origin of (or appearance of) design, only the characteristic of the uniformed worshipers.
I was in the middle of that internal debate, being skeptical about my atheistic worldview. Then something happened after I graduated High School that changed my life forever, the result of which caused me to give my life to Christ. Yet I am running over on the words for this intro so I will move on and write about my conversion experience some other time… it all started, as all good stories should, when I followed this girl…
I began studying the Bible and was inexplicably attracted to this dude named Jesus. I joined the Air Force, married my beautiful bride (that girl I followed to church), we have two beautiful daughters; upon getting out of the AF, we settled in Huntsville Alabama (“Rocket City”). I began my professional career as a Software Developer, moving up as a Project Manager and finally in my current role as an Architect. I have worked on Healthcare software, Real-Time Artifical Intelligence Environmental Monitoring systems, 3D modeling, and my current role for Army Aviation working on the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) for next-generation avionics.
I have been studying the scriptures and exploring the truth now for about 20 years. I have been a worship leader and guitar player for some of that time, and led an open skeptical dialog group called “Theology Pub” for a while. My wife and I started an interactive art non-profit to raise awareness for issues of the shared human condition and social justice (LOVEHuntsville), which she heads up. In 2012, I accepted an invitation to a Church Planter’s assessment center and was approved as a lead pastor and church planter. I spent a year in an internship at our sending church. We planted the Berean Church of Huntsville.
Prior to attending Princeton, I did not have any formal theological training. I had studied plenty, mostly for personal reasons and then for the same reasons many Christians do – to lead a small group or discipleship activity. I had participated in a number of training initiatives, just none that were formal in the sense of being from a Seminary. So why Princeton? Because I wanted to specifically be exposed to the kind of different thinking, alternative theology, and academic rigor that you don’t normally get in a group of like-minded people. I wanted to be stretched, challenged to defend or reject the kinds of things I had come to believe because I had be taught by others in particular theological streams; I want to be defined neither as conservative nor liberal, but by what I actually have studied and what I claim to be true from my own inspection.
I plan to use this category in my blog to write about things related to formal theology, specifically an expansion on some of the writing and lessons from my time with the folks at Princeton. I am still a skeptic that does not believe what I am told until I research it a bit myself. Expect from me that I will come with a different perspective now and then. Everyone has a prevailing assumption that affects what they believe, we have accepted certain things that may not be true in spite of the best intentions of the teachers who shared them with us. Scholarly opinions change and, where opinions differ, the truth is often masked behind those assumptions; but the truth is still there waiting for us to explore. The Truth, it just so happens, is a person and He will set us free.