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When Worlds Collide: Doing Theology within a Community

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This past week, I had the pleasure of attending the Pappas Patristic Institute’s summer program as a Teaching Fellow in training. We had the option of choosing from a number of available courses so I decided to go with “Theodore the Studite and post-Chalcedonian Christologies” (taught by Dr. Thomas Cattoi) and “The Problem of Evil in the Writings of the Fathers” (taught by Dr. David Goodin). It was a great experience of studying and examining the primary sources as a community of learners and students.

One of the difficulties of studying theology within a community is the problem of pride: We all think that we are right in our particular understanding of an author or their work. This type of attitude is not conducive to learning, much less practicing the art of humility. Doing theology within a community can become problematic because it forces us to realize that others’ interpretation may be in stark contrast against our own interpretation. There is a tendency to become incredibly defensive and sometimes, downright hostile in certain situations. Trust me. I know. I have seen it time and time again. “I am right and that’s all there is to it” becomes our primary exegetical tool. There is no room for diversity of thought nor is there room for multiple interpretations. The desire to maintain a level of orthodoxy becomes an excuse to display arrogance and condescension masked in “spiritual” form. Sometimes I wonder if it truly is the “zeal of the Lord” that consumes them or their “zeal to be in the right.” In the way they act, there surely isn’t a lot of godly attributes to be seen and heard.

Perhaps, that is one of the reasons why I really enjoyed my time as a Teaching Fellow in training. It was great to hear so many diverse opinions and interpretations as we delved deeply into the texts that were given to us. And by diverse, I don’t necessarily mean that they were so diametrically opposite from one another… there is diversity even in similarity. What others were saying was not necessarily any different from how I would interpret a certain passage. Instead, they highlighted a different facet, approached it in a different angle than what I am normally accustomed to doing. There is beauty in diversity. It doesn’t mean that the concepts of right and wrong are unnecessarily jettisoned as if they didn’t matter. It just means that we need to be open to understanding things in ways that may seem foreign to us. By doing this, it allows us to think and cogitate about what others are saying rather than reflexively shouting down their ideas.

This summer program also convicted me about the power of leadership in being able to transform others. Through the leadership of the Institute’s director, Dr. Bruce Beck, and the numerous teachers who taught the various courses, we were constantly reminded of the need to struggle with the texts and acquire an attitude of humility and a posture of learning. The teachers were reminded not to take a lecture approach. Instead, we were asked to “come and reason together” à la Isaiah 1:18. As a result, I have come away with a humble heart that is more willing to hear someone out rather than use Scriptural passages as a cudgel to drown out their voice.

Not bad for a week of learning.

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Theology Thursdays – Why I Study Theology

For those tracking how I have labelled previous posts, you have seen Monday Musings, Tunes for Tuesday, Wednesday Writings, and Friendly Fridays. Poor Thursday was left out in the cold. So I figured I’d write about the one thing that I like so much, I have decided to do a Ph.D. in this area. What is it, you ask? Yup. The queen of sciences herself… Theology!

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For those of you who may not know, I’m currently pursuing my Ph.D. studies in Christian Theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Canada. My focus is on church history. I’m still up in the air in terms of the time period I want to go with but I’m debating between Roman North Africa between 300 – 700 AD or what’s happening right now with ISIS. I really need to decide soon.

A lot of people tend to ask why I’m studying theology. What is it about theology that is so exciting that I’m willing to forego sleep and some semblance of a social life to pursue a doctorate in this area? For me, theology is this living, vibrant thing that whether we want to or not, we are constantly engaging with in some form or another. As a group of people, theology has moulded and shaped cultures, people groups and nations. In a more personal way, theology has also helped define and instruct individuals’ life styles. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is subject to further discussion… however, we can’t escape from the fact that theology is a prime motivator in the lives of many people in the world.

The word “theology” comes from the word “theos” meaning God and “logos” meaning the study of… so theology is the study of God. In one sense, we are all theologians. In some way, shape or form, we all have ideas about who God is. To be an atheist is to posit a particular way of understanding God even if it is to say that God does not exist. While this may not be in line with orthodox Christian theology, it is still a way by which an individual engages in the theological enterprise. (Side note: Christians were once called atheists. Roman culture believed in the pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses. Christians, on the other hand, believed in the One True God. As a result, Christians were labelled atheists because they didn’t believe in the Roman deities.)

I am firmly convinced that our particular theology has a direct impact on the way we live our lives. It is because of this very reason why theology excites my curiousity. I’m interested in how people interpret the Sacred Scriptures. I want to know why people think the way they think about certain theological doctrines. What is it about knowing God’s goodness that motivates people to do things like going to far-flung countries in their desire to heed God’s calling on their life? What is it about experiencing God’s love that has the ability to transform people’s life? What is it about the loss of a loved one that has the potential to incur feelings of anger and hatred towards God? All of these life events, as disparate as they may seem, are all areas in which theology is lived out.

Having studied Psychology in my undergraduate studies, I am aware of how we are affected by our psyche. Our bodies are wonderful things that are able to create neural networks that inform our thoughts and actions. Psychology offers a glimpse into the inner machinations of the human being. In the same way, theology gives us another angle by which we can examine the human experience. It allows us to look at the spiritual component that animates us and controls our words and deeds. This seemingly unsubstantial and intangible concept has, time and time again, manifested itself in tangible ways. When someone offers food and shelter to a person in need and does it in the name of God, this is theology at work; when people are killed because they have done acts that besmirched the honour of a particular religious tradition’s revered prophet, this too, is theology at work.

There is no escaping theology’s grasp. Its effects are everywhere. Instead of pretending it doesn’t exist, I’d rather accept its existence and figure out how it works. Perhaps, if we can figure out how to properly understand theology, it can still be a tool to make this world a better place.

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Fear of not being good enough: the inner life of a (recovering) perfectionist

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Hi! My name is Sid and I’m a perfectionist. There. I said it. I’m really trying hard not to be a perfectionist. But just like how some can slip from time to time, so can this recovering perfectionist!

In a couple of days, I will be starting my Ph.D. journey at McMaster Divinity College in the Theology program. Maybe it’s just me, but I already feel like I’m behind on my readings and school work… and school hasn’t even started yet! It’s really difficult for me not to look around the people who are going and not feel like I’m good enough. Some of them are presenting at conferences or on a panel for some colloquium thing… and I’m at home wondering what I’m going to cook for lunch. Sigh.

There is actually a thing called Impostor Syndrome.  It’s a condition found among many graduate students and academics. Basically, it’s this feeling that they’re a fraud and live in fear that they’re going to be found out. No matter how many awards, medals, plaques, trophies and words of affirmation they may receive, they never internalize their accomplishments. They attribute it to external factors like luck or that they just worked harder. For me, another factor that I have attributed my success to is lack of qualified candidates during the time that I won. It is pretty horrible the more I think about it because in my refusal to acknowledge my accomplishment, I have to denigrate other people’s abilities.

Throughout high school, I was a member of the Honours List. I graduated from my undergrad as a cum laude student (with honours). I even graduated from my Masters program on the Honours List and the recipient of the academic excellence award. And I still think I’m dumb! Usually, people tell you that you don’t need to listen to what others tell you. Instead, just believe in yourself. However, I find myself being the exact opposite. I have to listen to what others have told me (aka you’re smart!) rather than listening to what I tell myself (aka you’re really dumb!) Other people are way more gracious and capable of seeing things that I cannot see in myself. I think the only time that I feel smart is when I feel threatened and someone says (or makes me feel) like I’m dumb… it is only then that I act as if I know and believe that I’m smart.

When you have spent the majority of your life being constantly compared to others by your parents, it’s really hard to switch it off. It may have started off with them, but you end up internalizing that type of toxic mentality. There comes up a point though when you have to be responsible for your own actions and thoughts. I get riled up when people blame their parents, friends, or some other external agents for their own issues. Part of growing up is taking responsibility for your actions and stop blaming others. You are the one in charge of living your life and you can’t pass the buck to someone else when things don’t go well for you.

At the end of the day, I am thankful that I am no longer my own. My worth and self-esteem is found in the One Who has given Himself up for me. As I think of the love of Jesus, I am comforted that His love for me is unconditional. He’s not going to love me more or less because of my academic achievements or professional success in life. He loves me just the way I am. To Him, I’m good enough.

Thank God!

The power of the tongue

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With a new year upon us, I think it’s always important to take the time to reflect on the past year and think of how we can forge ahead in the new year to come. One of the things that I am ever so mindful of, and I really want to implement in 2013, is the power of the tongue. This is what I mean: I am a firm believer that the power of life and death is in the tongue. The words that we speak over our own lives and the words that we allow other people to speak in our own lives have tremendous impact on how we live our lives. I know that personally, I am very good at negative self-talk. Words like “you’re such a failure”, “you won’t make it” or “no one can ever love you for who you truly are because you’re worthless” are unfortunately, a major part of my vocabulary. Who needs enemies when you clearly are your own worst enemy! Studying the Sacred Scriptures has helped me realize how wrong this is. Hatred, either directed towards self or others, should never be tolerated nor condoned. In the same way that these negative self-talks have profoundly affected me and given me a warped sense of self, it is the positive affirmations from others that have helped restore my heart and my soul. I remember when my friend told me that she thought I was wise and how my actions do not go unnoticed. Or when another told me that he appreciated me for who I am. I still remember when I got an e-mail from my professor who I asked to be my Ph.D. thesis supervisor and was talking about doing future collaborative projects with me. I remember thinking “I can’t believe he wants to work with me!” I guess I’ve looked down on myself for so long that I was astonished that someone would want to work with me.

I admit that it’s hard to believe the positivity that other people say about me. However, I am working hard to receive the good words that they have spoken over my life. I am also working hard to make sure that I eliminate saying negativity over my own life. I find it way easier to encourage others than to encourage myself. That needs to change this year. I will be making a more concerted effort to celebrate my mini-victories as I work towards my end goal. I need to re-conceptualize what success means to me because it will definitely NOT look like what others view as success. I want to make sure that I am running my own race and not get so focused on running the race that others want me to run in. At the end of the day, I am accountable for the things I have done and not what others have done. I am responsible for myself and what I do with the time and talents God has given me. It does me no good to get sucked in to ideas of conformity to others’ expectations, as good as they may seem. The words we speak over our lives can be our destiny. Let’s make sure our destiny is one full of love, hope, and redemption.

Wednesday Writings

Hi everyone,

I’m thinking of adding a new component to this blog entitled “Wednesday Writings.” Basically, this is a time for me to post some of the writings I have written (and potentially the writings of other people!). So to start it off, I wanted to share a poem I wrote a long time ago. This is a part of the “Song of Sid” chronicles. Based on the title, it’s obvious that this is heavily inspired by the Song of Solomon. However, instead of writing about lovey dovey stuff, it is poetry based on different life events. As I mentioned in my “About Me” section, there are different facets to who I am and the arts play a huge part of who God has made me to be. So, to inaugurate this new blog component, here’s my poem.

 

Song of Sid I

O, to throw off this mortal coil that binds me
The shell of humanity that seemingly binds me to this world and all its lascivious desires and perversions
Wanting to throw off this mortal husk, to glory in the presence of the Almighty
Alas, it is not yet time.

Each day, a battle is waged against the heavenlies, and the battleground is I
The destructive thoughts that silently and surreptitiously stalk my higher faculties
I am weakened, weary, wishing, wistful, waiting
Quietly, I bide my time.

Thoughts of You fill my mind, my heart, my soul, my very being
The streets of gold, the crystal sea, the angels singing haunts me
But all I have right now are trials, temptations, refining me till I am as gold
All things are made beautiful in Your time.

Why, O Lord, must I stay in this earthly prison?
How long shall I wait till I am free of these vanities that engulf me?
When shall I come out pure and holy, completely surrendered to Thee?
Thou, Who setteth everything in Your books, Why did You form me in my mother’s womb?
What purpose must I serve, what purpose must I fulfill, that I may flee this shell that binds me here?
Surely Thou knowest how I long, how I yearn to be in Thy presence.
Yet, I am shackled to this existence, a stranger in a hostile land.

Revulsion and disgust fills me, to live in such a wicked and depraved generation
The longer I stay in its destructive atmosphere, the more I am infected
I must wage war constantly, unyieldingly, with utmost vigilance
I might yet be disqualified before my time.

So, I remain in this state of despair
For this is my lot
To remain alive in the land of mortal men
Angrily, I bide my time.

O, to throw off this mortal coil that binds me
With gladness of heart, would I leave it behind
But thanks be to God that He gives me strength
To accomplish His will in His time.

Sharing is caring. Please feel free to like, tweet, share, +1 this post. I would also love to hear your thoughts. So please comment away! Just remember… be nice! Just because this is the Internet does not negate needing being respectful and all that good stuff. =)

Encouragement of the Day

“For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God.” – Thomas à Kempis

Encouragement of the Day

“If I obey Jesus Christ, the Redemption of God will rush through me to other lives, because behind the deed of obedience is the Reality of Almighty God.” – Oswald Chambers