Seeking Self as a Lady Academic

Waking up at 3am with the thought “I need to go to Divinity school” was quite surprising. It was a fairly humid early morning on May 20th. I stumbled out of bed to grab my laptop from my desk to see if I even had the option of enrolling for the fall. The deadline had been extended an extra 11 days. The spiritual side of my personality took this as a sign as I slowly guided my mouse down the page. I knew I wanted to stay in Nashville for the time being and I had no idea where I wanted to go with my life. Leaving the world of college athletics and entering into a period of spiritual reflection while working in a mind-body-soul shop lent me a return to my love of philosophical engagement.

I didn’t have to take the GRE and was still able to apply for scholarships. At 3:30am I started to email close mentors hoping they could afford to spare a few hours to help me commit to my ludicrous idea. I returned to bed only to stare at the ceiling contemplating what I was doing. Was I willing to go into debt to pursue something I was unsure of my desired outcomes? The uncertainty of it all loomed as I slowly returned to my dreams.

I woke up to responses from those I had reached out to. I was surprised by the emphatic words of support that graced my screen as I responded with my sincerest thanks. I truly had no idea what my motivations for going to divinity school were. I had great friends and mentors whom I admired attend, the focus on social justice seemed most fitting given where I was at the time, and the opportunity to talk about the things that kept me up at night didn’t seem to bad either. It would not be until halfway through my first semester that I truly began to know what brought me to theological studies.

That fall I enrolled at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I showed up to orientation unsure of what my fellow classmates would be like and if I would fit in. After a week of orientation, I soon found myself an outlier, or I felt like one, as my religious affiliation lacked and my personal “religious” beliefs drastically opposed those of most of my classmates. What I had most in common with a majority of my classmates was a commitment to activism and a strong desire to change the world. Even so, my lack of direction and serious commitment to religion terrified me as faculty and staff began to enlighten us on the journey that is theological education.

To study religion and theology is to study that which makes you who you are and how you choose to move in the world. To enroll in theological education is to question the convictions and beliefs that you hold to most strongly in pursuit of finding the direction you whish to most affect the world.

To study religion and theology is to study that which makes you who you are and how you choose to move in the world. To enroll in theological education is to question the convictions and beliefs that you hold to most strongly in pursuit of finding the direction you whish to most affect the world. Divinity school was a time for deconstruction and reconstruction, not a time to surround yourself with people who think like you do. To me, this seemed like the least of my worries as I had no serious religious convictions and my undergraduate education had already blessed me with an opportunity to study intersectionality and deconstruct most of my personal identity and beliefs about the world. I had no idea what was in store for me as I sat down for my first course of the semester. I was not prepared for the psychological deconstruction that was about to consume my being.

I remember sitting in my Hebrew Bible course the first week of school and asking myself what I had gotten myself into. I had zero intention of pursuing a career in church leadership or anything related to Christianity for that matter. My options for enrolling in courses to study other religions were small and the courses I had chosen all seemed too touchy-feely for my philosophically engaged mind. As I studied the history of Christianity, dove into the Hebrew Bible, and began to learn about how people experience emotions in light of their religious convictions something inside of me began to shift.

As friends and classmates struggled to come to terms with aspects of their faith tradition they were unaware of or did not know had begun much of the issues surrounding diversity we have today I returned to questions I had quit asking myself long ago: Where were you, God? Why do people turn to religion, especially when times are difficult? How do people experience the sacred? What is God? What does it mean that we have so many different religions as a species? As I pondered these questions my own ideas about the world and its’ nature began to shift. My own beliefs, sense of purpose, and desires to change the world through activism blurred together as I deconstructed who I was and what I truly believed about the world and its’ inhabitants. I became hesitant to engage with social issues around me and began to explore the sacred depths of the natural world and how people have constructed religion in light of their experiences within it.

I began to realize that idolizing my past experiences with the hope that I would use those experiences to change the world were not so important when the very reason I felt a need to address theses issues was embedded in the history of humanity, which is rich in theological and philosophical exploration. I saw connections between the natural sciences and philosophical theology as similar language was scattered across the pages of religious texts and writings from around the globe.

My second semester of graduate studies I sat in a coffee shop silently pondering the depths of my mind. I had overcome my anxiety of speaking in classes and found myself wanting to engage my fellow classmates and professors in the very questions the great theologians and philosophers of our rich human history had engaged for centuries. I poured over the works of Hegel, Nietzche, Jung, Ibn Al-Arabi, Patrul Rinpoche, and found myself always wanting more. As I engaged these texts my understanding of human consciousness evolved and I realized that the institution I found myself in was no longer the place where I would feel free to explore these questions. It was not so much the institution as it was myself. I had been at Vanderbilt for 4.5 years prior to starting my graduate studies and had endured many struggles. I had become too comfortable with myself in Nashville and needed to be pushed emotionally and spiritually out of my comfort zone to truly develop my identity as a scholar, theologian, and philosopher.

I met with my advisor, Dean Emile Townes, to tell her of my experiences. As she listened she began to smile. Her response to my plans to leave took me by surprise. “I had a feeling you may arrive at that conclusion,” she said in support of my decision. I knew I wanted to be in Colorado. I was ready to make the big move and knew that the abundantly different landscape would provide me with the perfect inspiration for my budding academic and scholarly canvas.

That fall I relocated to the Iliff School of Theology. It is here that I have found myself and here that I was given the opportunity to explore and synthesize the complexities of my academic pursuits. This institution has given me the freedom to explore my own connections between philosophy, theology, religious studies, and postmodern psychology. I have been given the opportunity to work with and be supported by professors, students, and mentors that encourage my willingness to entertain ideas despite my disagreement with them. I have felt safe in the classroom to share my personal opinions on ideas of the sacred, religious experience, and desire to not make the pursuit of philosophical theology embedded in the experience of humanity. Every lecture, presentation, paper, and opportunity to speak in the classroom has affirmed my personal decision to pursue a career in pedagogy and research in higher education.

I have truly learned the value of what it means to seek understanding of the self through my exploration of theological and philosophical ideas. The academy has offered me a form of healing that no religion has ever given me, and I have practiced quite a few in my young 25 years of age. While the academy has not always been nice to me, just like most religious spaces, I have found mentors and friends who have supported, listened, and offered constructive criticism to my own personal conceptualization of the nature of the world.

Present Sarah can honestly say that Past Sarah would have never predicted the professional route I have chosen. As I reflect on every change of major during my undergraduate studies and every hobby and interest I pursued up until my decision to pursue theological education I am still surprised at how I have gotten to this final resting point.

To teach is not to mold minds. To teach is not to force your ideas and the ideas of others on to the minds of students. To teach is to offer an opportunity to others, in mutual relationship, to synthesize the material they read and discuss so they may create their own conclusions of the world. The world of the academy is not about teaching others to think how we have always thought. The academy is about creating new ideas and raising the consciousness of humanity all while paying respect to the experiences of others in light of the entirety of the natural world.

The world of the academy is not about teaching others to think how we have always thought. The academy is about creating new ideas and raising the consciousness of humanity all while paying respect to the experiences of others in light of the entirety of the natural world.

It is my hope that I will one day be able to encourage others to transform ideas and create new systems of thinking as I have been encouraged by my mentors, fellow students, and spiritual teachers. The realm of the academy has historically prided itself on its’ core tenant of objectivity, however, it is my experience that in the fields of philosophy and theology the works of scholars are often linked to their own experiences and beliefs about the nature of whatever they call the world. The academy can be a place of self discovery. It is my intention to shed light on this discovery and what I believe it truly means to be a self in this world. Being a woman in this space is subversive in itself, but being a woman who seeks to provide a perspective and opportunity for others to find theirs that goes as deep as I plan, that is my version of feminism.

-       Sarah O’Brien

Sarah O’Brien is a Master’s of Theological Studies student at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO. She is currently applying to PhD programs and plans to teach philosophical theology. When she’s not studying she loves reading in coffee shops and playing in nature.