When Al and his wife, Janice, approached my wife and me a year and a half ago about the idea of living in the same house with them, my ears pricked up immediately. But the reason had nothing to do with cultivating scholar-activism—I just wanted cheap rent. I never once thought about how committing to life together with other Christians could so profoundly impact my seminary education. Living in a diverse house—in terms of gender, ethnicity and stage of life—has proven to be almost like a seminary lab course.
As many of you know, seminary is a profound phase of life. New ideas are being incessantly bounced around, and old ideas are continually questioned. It is an exciting and stimulating environment to be immersed in. I would not change it for the world. But I’ve found that in seminary it is easy to lift theologizing out of a concrete context and become lost in a world of abstract ideas and thesis statements that you yourself can form any way you want to. It becomes a place where as long as you can describe an idea in semi-comprehensible English words, it has seemingly unquestioned merit.
My experience in Praxis House has been to ground my theological exploration. Two theologian-types in one house can get carried away, but the beautiful thing about Praxis House is that we have “regular folk,” people who are really theologians in their own right (they don’t hide behind the fancy language of the academy or the thin veil of “proper theological method”). These “theologians” keep us grounded in the reality of changing diapers, walking the dog, doing the dishes, singing, praying, watching TV, and just celebrating the constantly changing phases of life.
For example, I can talk in the classroom about biblical and theological support for nonviolent direct action and then go home to interact with a seasoned gun-law activist and gun-shop protestor. I can debate the question of original sin and the age of accountability with my unmarried, childless seminary professor and then go home to discuss the idea with a middle-aged mother of four as she cooks supper for me…and my 2-year-old. The ethical issues surrounding sex, contraception, sexually transmitted infections take on a whole new level of urgency and pragmatism in a house with a nurse practitioner working in a clinic in one of Philadelphia’s most troubled neighborhoods and a high school senior at one of Pennsylvania’s largest high schools.
Something I appreciate about Praxis House is that all of these interactions occur organically. We don’t hold special theological discussion times or let’s-see-if-the-seminarian- can-apply-the-mystery-of-the-Trinity-to-this-real-life-situation quizzes. It is simply the result of doing life-together.
The most profound effect Praxis House has had on my seminary education has been the chance to live with one of my professors. A single course provides very little opportunity to really get to know your professors. But messy-haired, pre-coffee (think drunken stupor) encounters immediately peel away false pretense or rigid formality. Such a close relationship allows deep theological conversation to take place without the need to use all the right language or all the right “paradigmatic lenses.” Living with Al gives me the chance to go deeper into subjects that were only briefly touched upon in class. Whenever I feel confused or am unsure how to reconcile idea A with idea B, Al becomes a wise sounding board; not to tell me what to think or to prove to me his opinion is the best but to responsibly navigate the complexities of these issues.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I moved my family into Praxis House a little over a year ago. There is no denying that it has difficulties; community never claims to be without challenges. More than once I’ve daydreamed about what it would be like to have my own apartment with just my own family. But it never seems to last long as I remind myself of why I love Praxis House and the value it brings to my life and my education.
I consider it a great privilege to be a part of this small experiment and hope that what we have attempted to pioneer at Palmer will be able to be reproduced and improved upon in other places across the globe.