If I ever thought the reactions to me studying literature were bad, I was sorely mistaken. There is nothing quite like announcing to high-achieving, secular people who assume the only respectable paths for intellectual people are medical school, law school, or business school, that, in fact, you did not think your English degree let you examine the nature of human experience enough, so you’re going to divinity school! Even those sympathetic to my English degree – who thought it might lead eventually to law school or a career in publishing – were skeptical.
“I’m sorry, maybe I misheard. You’re doing what? You’re going to divinity school. Do you want to be…a priest??” Over the last two years, this interaction has continued ad nauseam. I am an INFJ, so I should really just avoid cocktail parties. Nevertheless, the assumption that I would go to divinity school for a particular outcome was tricky, because again, I found myself studying a complex discipline without a concrete idea of how to apply its principles in the “real” world.
I knew why I had chosen divinity school, moreover, why I had chosen Yale, but the “whys” were not tangible. As far as I knew, I did not want to be a chaplain or a minister or a religion teacher. The first whisper came in the form of a Sun Magazine article, which I read while spending a summer in Northern California working for a non-profit. I was steeped in natural beauty that summer. I lived in a farmhouse built in the 19th century and spent the evenings pruning rose bushes, cooking, and listening to owls and coyotes.
One evening, I came across an interview with a war reporter who had gone to Harvard Divinity School. The interviewee reflected with such wisdom upon the complications of “just war” and the nature of human suffering in the modern world. While for years, I had thought I would most likely end up in education or social work graduate programs, as I love both counseling and teaching, suddenly religion seemed like an encouraging possibility. “If I could learn how to think like that,” I thought, “then perhaps I could do some good in the world.”
Over the next several years, the idea of divinity school floated in and out of my consciousness. I looked at program websites and spoke with recent graduates, but made no concrete plans. Then, in the midst of preparing applications to other graduate programs, I scheduled a visit to Yale Divinity School. Two days before this visit, the 2016 election occurred. “It is an important time to be in divinity school,” the Dean of Admissions said to me, “Here, we encounter the other, and we learn to do so with love.” I believed her. Within the few short hours I spent in New Haven, I shared conversations with strangers about feminism and faith, racial justice, and the decolonized city. I applied the following January.
The process of studying religion was more existentially arduous than I had imagined. Arriving on campus for my first semester, I assumed I was more or less prepared for the work that stood before me: I was prepared academically, but not spiritually. Confronting the human condition from a religious perspective was weightier and more complex than studying the human condition from a literary perspective. Literature places an emphasis on individual truth, stories that dive into the particular depths of experience. From the particular, literature students extrapolate broader truths about humankind. Theology and ethics, in contrast, examine the most essential aspects of human life in painful and searching detail to uncover universal truth.
At first, moving swiftly through differing epistemologies crumbled my sense of self, my understanding of my faith, and my beliefs about what makes world-healing change possible. During this time, the rigor of the work sustained me, and because I pushed on, the disintegration eventually led to reintegration. Through spiritual practices that support theological inquiry, like prayer, meditation, and contemplation, I built a new sort of faith, the edges of which I am still tracing.
Since I have finished divinity school, I have begun the process of applying to jobs all over again, grasping for language that makes sense of my own unfurling. The waiting is the hardest part, that leaves room for silence and discernment. In the waiting, I have wondered if my humanities degrees will bear the fruit that I hope they will. There are stressful moments, when I think exasperatedly, “I just should have gone to freaking law school!” As I write of all I have learned, there appears a gulf between how I have grown and what the world says it wants. My belief in the place of spiritual wisdom in social change remains; it has been reinforced. My heart continues to bleed for the pain of others. My strength is in my softness, still.
There is much more to say about contemplation, action, healing, compassion, love, and wisdom – the matter of a humane life. I am tremendously grateful for my humanities degrees, which I have pursued against the currents of culture. I have made these beautiful and unwieldy subjects the soil in which I immerse my hands to remember what life is. Praise be.
“All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.” – Julian of Norwich