November 11, 2019
This blog features stories about the Wheaton College Graduate School. In this story, Alyssa Foll M.A. '13 shares how her studies in Systematic Theology shaped her in her role as a hospital chaplain.
Theology for the Head, Heart, and Body
A common misconception about theology is that it is impractical and abstract, a subject for the mind, not for the heart—let alone a subject to be applied to the body. Alyssa Foll M.A. ‘13 completely breaks that mold. For the past six years, she has applied her M.A. in Systematic Theology to the practical, physical, mental, and emotional needs of those she serves as a hospital chaplain for AMITA Health.
Alyssa came to Wheaton thinking it would be her first step toward a Ph.D. and an academic career, but she felt a bit unsure.
“Even before coming to the Wheaton College Graduate School, I already felt a tension. I knew I loved applying theology and the gospel as I worked with people in ministry, but sometimes I felt frustrated by the distinction sometimes made between ministry and theology. I knew that academia thinks very deeply about the big theological questions. But then, I found if I just hung out in academia too long, I sometimes felt frustrated with what seemed to be a lack of focus on practical application and wanted to go back into ministry. I felt a back and forth tension. I guess you could say that I wanted to connect the head and the heart.”
While many of her classmates quickly specialized, Alyssa found herself exploring the doctrinal space between the head, the heart, and the body, returning again and again to different issues and aspects of embodiment and theological anthropology.
“The thing is, we are embodied beings, but many people’s experience of their bodies can be very negative. I want people to know that we can experience God’s grace in our bodies.”
She wrote about the AIDS crisis in southern Africa and what it meant theologically to be a human living with AIDS. She completed an independent study on eating disorders, women, and theological anthropology. She worked cross-departmentally with professors Dr. Christina Bieber Lake on literature and theology, and Dr. Matthew Milliner on the history of Marian breastfeeding imagery.
During her first summer, Alyssa followed the advice of her chaplain friend and took a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). In her first CPE unit, Alyssa worked alongside women who experienced mastectomies and hysterectomies, women who had cancer, women who were facing extreme pain, danger, and change in their bodies. She would sit with women and listen as they struggled to bring together their current health reality and their understanding of God, good, and evil.
“It was like doing theology at the bedside with patients.”
Alyssa returned to her second year at Wheaton with the voices and stories of her patients informing and prompting her papers. When graduation came around, Alyssa received an offer to be a full-time staff chaplain at AMITA health group. She decided to take the job and now, six years later, she considers herself a chaplain-theologian..
“For me, I have come to realize that I don’t think God is calling me to do theology in the context of the academy; I think God has called me and is calling me to do theology in the context of medicine and healthcare. That said, I am interested in doctoral work, because I think that level of education will prepare me to do theology in a medical setting. I’ve come to just really love the blend of using my training in systematics in a healthcare environment.”
For Alyssa, studying theology taught her to pay attention and be present, usually to texts by deep, but distant, thinkers and theologians like Calvin, Augustine, and Luther. She believes that her M.A. in Systematic Theology prepared her uniquely to be present and attentive to others, too.
“Now my 'sacred texts' are the people that I visit on a daily basis. They are my Calvins, Augustines, and Luthers. They are my theologians. Systematics taught me to be present, to let myself enter a holy mystery, and to listen well.”
- Dana Krol
Learn more about the M.A. in Theology at the Wheaton College Graduate School.
With simplified admissions requirements and a lower tuition rate, the time has never been better to apply to the Wheaton College M.A. programs in Biblical and Theological Studies.