Why seminary? Or, why are you non-traditional?

“Why are you in seminary?”

As a “non-traditional applicant,” I was asked this question on every medical school interview four years ago.

I’ve come to learn that seminary training engenders stereotypes and mythopoeia. My mentors knew this, and advised me to have examples ready related to the importance of being trained in fields that both study the human condition and provide the skill set necessary to critically assess paradigms.

Some interviewers appreciated the importance of understanding humans at the emergent level of culture and religion, though many did not. Many were perplexed by ‘such an unusual detour’ in a non-scientific field. I left a lot of interviews frustrated. As a current fourth-year medical student, I want to explain to those interviewers with more depth the value of this non-traditional route to medicine.

I went to seminary with the desire to eventually attend medical school to become a physician who accompanies underserved populations. As a seminary student at Boston University School of Theology (or, “STH”), I was introduced formally to liberation theology—a branch of Christianity that focuses on social change by making a preferential option for the poor. The methodologies of liberation theology taught me the importance of understanding social injustices with historical depth and geographical breadth. By studying social justice-focused theology, I learned a secular language by which to identify and speak out cogently against social injustice.

Seminary also taught me how to reflexively deconstruct paradigms with academic rigor.

Renowned scholars from philosophical theology and historical theology to ethics and medical anthropology challenged our deeply-held and naïve worldviews daily. At times, it seemed as if we were critiquing every paragraph of books and journal articles. Nothing was immune to deconstruction and critical analysis; no paradigm was so sacrosanct it could not be sacrificed on the altar of skepticism.

In this regard, the rules of the game are a bit different in seminary: the validity of one’s inquiries or ideas were not measured against the hierarchies of eminence. In contradistinction to what I often see tacitly accepted in medicine on the wards or on social media, we did not accept or reject an idea or paradigm or suggestion based on faulty appeals to an individual’s laurels, ranging from number of acronyms after a last name to number of publications on PubMed. Ideas, inquiries, and suggestions were evaluated by logical, theoretical, philosophical, and historical consistency.

Seminary equally emphasized the importance of always assessing what’s at stake for an individual and the community at large with any interaction, with any research, and with any paradigm.

Graduates leave STH influenced by a specific hermeneutic, or the methodology of interpreting human actions and texts. We are taught almost daily throughout our graduate studies to appreciate that one’s perspective is inexorably influenced by one’s privileged and unique social position. For example, my social position is that of a white, cis, heterosexual male in medical school who comes from a well-educated, albeit poor family. My interpretation of religious, philosophical, and historical texts, as well as my interpretation of politics, economics, and ethical principles is influenced by this unique social position. My social position is different and no more important than the social position of my female and LGBTQ classmates who introduced me to cogent, thought-provoking, and meaningful perspectives to which I was not and am not privy.

But how does this pertain to clinical medicine?

After almost four years of medical school and countless patient interactions, I have seen the benefits and the harms of understanding and not understanding, respectively, that the interpretation of patient narratives is similarly influenced by our limited social perspectives. The importance of understanding—or the humility to recognize—the pluralism of our patient populations, as well as our privileged and powerful position in the social hierarchy as health care providers is daily relevant. And finally, reflexively and constantly evaluating, through either elicitation of narrative or vicarious introspection, what’s at stake for the patient insures patients always have a say in their care.

With every year that passes, my narrative of “why I went to seminary” slightly changes. I often wonder if this changing narrative is nothing more than an exercise in historical revisionism, or if my seemingly disparate interests are finally aligning in ways I unable to previously imagine.

As non-traditional applicants begin to put their medical school applications together as the cycle begins again this June, Apple, Inc. founder Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University may help guide you: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards… believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path …”6

To my interviewers from over four years ago: when I answered the question of ‘why seminary’ on medical school interviews, I believed there was a connection between caring for both the non-medical and medical needs of patients. I appreciate more profoundly the plurality of cultures and experiences that differ from my own with each patient interaction. My patient interactions after almost four years of medical school corroborate this belief. Seminary also taught me advanced critical thinking, which vaccinated me against subconsciously adopting tacitly-imbued appeals to hierarchies of eminence. And although medical school has done a wonderful job introducing some of the aforementioned principles, a couple dozen lectures is not equivalent to the skill set gained during graduate-level training in the humanities.

To non-traditional applicants who often need to justify the differential value of a diverse background compared to those coming fresh out college with a biology degree, believe that the dots will connect down the road and let that give you the confidence to follow your heart. I hope you find a medical school, as I was fortunate to find at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, that will allow you to creatively explore connecting these diverse, important dots that will allow you to bring a unique skill set to your patients.

Joshua Niforatos is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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