On Conan and Cave Dwelling

This is a piece I wrote that’s featured this week in The Semi, Fuller’s student publication. To be honest, I wasn’t necessarily mulling over the idea of cynicism in seminary, but the Semi editor asked for submissions about the topic, and after watching Conan and reading the Donald Miller blog post I reference, I churned this out:

On Conan and Cave Dwelling: Guarding Against the Puffing Up Properties of Knowledge

Most seminaries don’t offer degree programs in cynicism, yet many seminarians graduate as experts in the field. Disillusioned, disenchanted, jaded. It doesn’t have to happen, but it does. We see students become consumers of concepts and ideas, of churches and ministries and missional strategies. They’ve seen it all and have learned to slash everything to ribbons with their world-class critical thinking skills.

Most students don’t come to seminary wanting to be hardened—they come with questions. They come from all over the world, from individual cocoons spun of the various factors and circumstances of their lives: spiritual tradition, family culture, ethnicity, education; everyone arrives in their own bubble of truth, like those crazy one-man submarines that seem so cool in theory but never really caught on.

These students have been living in caves with their own people, swapping the same old stories and the same old answers and the same old truths, and they started thinking their might be more to it than what they’ve been taught. Fuller students are  explorers and mavericks, cowboys and astronauts. Ready to go out West, where no man has gone before. Climbing out of the caves of their own upbringing, they emerge into the glaring brightness of Truth—or at least, truth according to Augustine, Barth, Moltmann, Goldingay and Murphy.

At first it feels like a privilege to be on this windswept plain, one arm up to shield our eyes from the (did I mention it was cruel?) sun. The fact is, Conan O’Brien got it right last month on his final episode of The Tonight Show, when he delivered a brotherly lecture to his fans about cynicism: “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get.” The terrifying reality of their big seminary dreams surround students as they take more courses, read more books, and realize there’s so many paths to take but no matter which one is chosen, there will be others proving in articles and dissertations that it was the wrong path.

I was reading a blog post by Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller today about how the apostle Paul wrote that knowledge puffs up. Miller says that this is “the thing that ruins many a seminary student” and observes that knowledge is “incredibly powerful and dangerous.” I think he’s onto something, there. However, Miller wrote about knowledge used as a weapon, while I started thinking about it as armor. When I first arrived at Fuller, I felt like my beliefs, so precious to me and housed in my experiences, were lined up like milk bottles on a wall and unceremoniously shot down one by one: “You’re wrong! You’re wrong! You’re wrong!” When that happens, one has two options: send up a white flag of surrender and say, “Okay then, tell me what to believe.” Or one can acquire more knowledge, and clothe herself with it like armor, puffing up her previously puny beliefs and stances so they won’t get shot down again.

Those caves we came from, full of “unenlightened” people we say we pity, slowly begin to bring back fond memories—maybe we even miss their closeness and warmth, although we’re too proud to admit it. Unfortunately, our puffy knowledge-armor keeps us from being able to go back in the way we came.

Donald Miller said in that same post that if a person is emotionally healthy when seeking and acquiring knowledge, the knowledge will produce fruit.  For Miller, humility is key: “We realize that we did not invent truth, we simply stumbled upon it like food on a long journey. Knowledge will then produce the fruits of the spirit.” What if we shed the puffy armor of knowledge that isolates us from those who have yet to receive or understand? Instead we might let our newfound knowledge fill our arms with the fruits of the spirit—love, patience, kindness, and all the rest—and go back to where we came from to share what we’ve learned so we can nurture those we love, those who nurtured us when we didn’t know any better.

And if you don’t want to listen to me, or even Donald Miller’s advice, heed the wisdom of everybody’s favorite red-haired late show host, uttered in a rare moment of seriousness.  “Please don’t be cynical,” Conan said, looking imploringly into the camera. “I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality.” Let’s listen to Conan. Let’s gather those truths we’ve held close to our hearts and keep them close; and allow love to build us up as we continue to stumble on new truths, letting them sustain us like grapes warmed in the sun.


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