By Christine Dykstra
His thin back was always hunched over his desk, his face leaning into his textbook, his hands moving slowly over notebook paper to form letters so small, I’d strain to read them. When this student I’ll call Luke entered my summer-school classroom that first day, he seemed studious, a high-achiever. By the end of the first class, though, an intensive high-school etymology elective, I knew something was off. By day two, I knew Luke probably wouldn’t pass the class.
He stayed with it, however. In a hard conversation with his mother later that first week, she told me that he cried over the difficulty of the assignments, assignments that were challenging for most students. Most students, however, by first week’s end, kept pace with them. Not Luke. His mother revealed what I hadn’t expected: he was taking the class not because he needed the credit but because he wanted to, because he loved words and wanted to spend his summer days studying them, though the extra academic services he’d received for years could not bridge this gap, though he knew it meant tears (both his mother’s and his own), and though he knew mastery would elude him.
I’m sorry I was only twenty-something, with compassion, yes, but with compassion more limited than it could have been. I didn’t fully see then what I do now. Luke could have dropped the class and taken the textbook home, told himself he’d spend a little time studying it on his own, and switched to video games each time the words became taxing. Instead, he stayed in the class and changed to audit status, and though he was always behind, he participated as best he could, doing the assignments, playing the class word games, and turning in his daily, always-less-than-half-finished tests long after everyone else was done.
I wonder why we, as humans, chase after the knowledge of things that are so difficult to comprehend. Why differential equations, orchestral compositions, quantum mechanics, or Kantian metaphysics? Even more, why do we seek knowledge of a God whose mind transcends our own, the author of a curriculum so massive in content, a test creator whose questions our small lettering and careful scratchings will never begin to answer?
Why do we chase after knowledge of a God so other, so without beginning or end?
Almost three years ago, I started a degree in theology. “What do you do for a living?” someone will ask me, and I’ll mumble something about leaving my career in education to pursue this degree and wait to see if the person will need clarification. Sometimes, I get polite nods. Sometimes, I get looks of smothered disapproval. Once, a sweet and well-meaning medical technician, who weaved the phrases “Praise God,” and “Praise Jesus” into more sentences than not, asked me the question. “I’m working on a master’s in theology,” I said, thinking I’d at least secure approval from her. She smiled and nodded, grew quiet for a moment, and then confessed she had no idea what theology was.
That etymology textbook I had once taught from introduced both Greek roots used in the word theology: Theo means God, and log means, among other things, study of. I explained this, and her smile returned, along with another “Praise God.”
Perhaps the greatest thing I’ve learned in my theological studies is akin to what I imagine a young child beginning to study astronomy would feel after starting with the earth’s sun and moon only to discover our planet’s location within a galaxy that may well be one of billions.
Where does the study of a galactical infinity take you? In a similar way, theology teaches you much, but at some point, you have to look up from your thousand-page systematics text and realize you are pursuing knowledge of the boundless Creator of that galactical infinity.
You can’t get through seminary without somehow running into Augustine; at least, I hope you can’t. Though I must confess about Confessions: I read it in my first semester of seminary and wondered, as I read those first few pages, if I’d been misled. Those initial pages seemed a blathering of thoughts with verses interwoven for good measure. But then I kept reading until I wasn’t underwhelmed anymore, and I got it, it seemed, got why a man’s quest for God could traverse the centuries, could seep into all the deep, soft places of a person’s being who ached for knowledge, who ached to find meaning. It spoke to my own three a.m. questions with words I could understand.
Augustine writes about his desire for God in the opening of Confessions, explaining that his desire for God came from God himself. “You made us for yourself,” he acknowledges, and later observes that God “called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness.” While Augustine couldn’t fully embrace that call for years, neither could he let it go. His search for God became long and circuitous: he writes openly, for instance, about struggling with sex, about sinning simply for the pleasure of sin itself, about pursuing academic success solely for prideful reasons, and about the many years of wrestling with philosophy and theology that left him adrift, adding questions and subtracting answers. For years God allowed Augustine to “go on turning over and over in that darkness,” distracted by the “lovely created things” of this world even as he searched for the one who created them. Augustine’s cry in describing his lost years echoes the experiences of many: “Where was I when I was seeking for you? You were there before me, but I had departed from myself. I could not even find myself, much less you.”
However, the God he was reaching for was, as he’d acknowledged, there before him, and slowly, Augustine later saw, he was “drawing closer.” His eventual conversion, after a chanting voice told him to start reading the Bible before him, eliminated his doubts. From this point on, his life was spent in service to God. That service included writing a magnitude of works about the study of God that lives on, over 1,600 years later, works that have led so many of us to a deeper understanding of the God Augustine once thought was eluding him.
Last week, I graduated from seminary, and this week, I find myself looking for two things: career options and, interestingly, other seminary degrees.
The simple truth is, I’m not ready for seminary to be over. I can continue to study God in other ways besides seminary, of course, and I will. But this God, who is at the core of who I am, who has spoken to me so beautifully amid even the driest words of theology ever to be written, continues to call to me through this kind of study. And so, the more I know, the more I hunger to know more, more of the God I’ve loved my whole life, since the moment I first knew of him.
He created me not just with a sense of him, but also with a love for him that grows the more I know him. I started seminary in part because I felt a vocational call, but as I sat in my classes, something began to be fed deep within me, something that somehow satisfies even as it creates a desire for more. I see everywhere how all things begin and end with the God who spoke the world into existence, who took on flesh to save that world, and who is, even now, making that world new. I see his beauty everywhere, in his hovering over pre-creation waters and Israel’s firstborn sons, in his exilic promise to make stone hearts flesh, in his post-resurrection bread breaking that opened blind eyes. How could I not hunger, seeing all this that I see? And so I hunger for more glimpses of him, for the panoramic view of what I now see only in part. Even as I lean in deeper, I know that it will never be deep enough, but I dive anyway, because I hunger for more.
I pray that God will continue to reveal himself, in all kinds of ways, for all the days that remain for me, even if it is only in the half-shadows my finite mind can comprehend.
Sometimes, I imagine Luke, long into adulthood now. I hope he continues to study words, with each bit of knowledge gained leading to the desire for another, and another, and another bit of the same. I hope the same will be true for myself years from now. I pray that whatever comes after the diploma, it will bring knowledge that feeds my adoration. I pray that God will spread glimpses of his presence across the galaxies of words and stories and his own creation, and that when I look up, I will see more of what I long to see: God there luminous before me.
Christine Dykstra works as a freelance writer and editor. She recently completed an M.A. in theological studies. Previously, she was a literacy specialist and an English teacher.