by Heather Roote Faller
M.Div. junior Derrick Chambers, who played professional football for the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars, says that he and a few teammates met once a week to talk about theology and faith, but it was during rehabilitation from a back injury in 2004 when he found himself reading Calvin’s Institutes and Augustine’s Confessions that he realized, “I enjoy this stuff!”With encouragement from Charles S. MacKenzie Jr. (M.Div., 1949; Ph.D., 1955), whom he met while living in Orlando, Chambers earned a diploma at Oxford University in medieval theology, with a thesis titled “The Universal Predication in Duns Scotus,” and then applied to Princeton Theological Seminary.
It seems like a big leap from the NFL to seminary, from being asked for his autograph as a tenth-grader to living in Brown Hall, and Chambers certainly experienced his share of fame and glory during his years as a professional athlete. “But I knew it wasn’t eternal,” he says. He describes the world of sports entertainment as a place where everything is taken care of, where life is “cultivated around the job, they don’t want you to think about anything but football: not what you’ll eat, where you’ll live...you don’t question it,” he says. How de he keep perspective? “I questioned it all.”
Growing up in “a rather severe fundamentalist church” where no one would answer his questions led him to study humanities at the University of Florida. Chambers refers often to Socrates, whose dialogical method was based on questions, and who was humble enough to say that he knew nothing. “Not that you can never affirm that you know something,” says Chambers, but this attitude of respect before an academic discipline, or before another person, is in his mind the secret to true dialogue. “People want to understand what it means to live in a faith community...what it really means to call yourself a Christian, but sometimes they are afraid to dialogue, especially with people from different backgrounds, because they are afraid of their beliefs being challenged.” Chambers has no such fear, and credits that to his experience with sports. “You’re not afraid of failure, because it’s inevitable,” he says. “The big picture is what’s important.”
For Chambers, the big picture is about “continually seeking a deeper sense of understanding,” echoing Saint Anselm’s formula “faith seeking understanding.” It means asking, “What’s the future of the church as we know it? What will the institution look like in different places around the world, and how can I be better at dialoguing with any person, of any background?” says Chambers. That’s why he chose Princeton Seminary: “In this town, there’s all kinds of perspectives,” he said. “This is an environment that cultivates dialogue.”