Retrospect at 40, part three
  • Friday, August 2, 2013

Cæli enarrant

New Haven, New Haven, the city that forms the Thomists and the Barthians and stones those who would return to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as an editor might gather a stable of pilgrim intellectuals, shot through with scriptural imagination and ecclesial loyalty, and behold, you allowed me to proceed! See, your house has been placed on the back of a semi and carefully driven cross country to South Bend, with portions of the awkward addition on the back that never quite fit carefully detached and airlifted to Durham, North Carolina, and otherwise scattered among the 12 tribes — Dallas, Toronto, Milwaukee, Charlottesville for a time, and several other lesser known (Atlanta, etc.) locales.

I speak perforce, and playfully, in scriptural figures, to honor our teachers and tell a tale of joyful formation in the ways and means of tradition, as well as to hint at something of the vicissitudes of ecumenical Catholicism among the great universities of these United States in the latter days of the mainline’s deathly disrepair. The intellectually fertile centers of theological traditionalism had, by the 1990s, started to shift away from the precincts of historic divinity schools to seminaries and, increasingly in our day, Roman Catholic universities, with Duke perhaps serving as an exception that proves the rule. Yet Yale Divinity School remained in flux, with not a little old-fashioned material lying about: Brevard Childs taught Old Testament Interpretation three days a week, across two semesters; Anna Williams and Cyril O’Regan picked up and imitated the historical sequence courses of Rowan Greer and Hans Frei, ordered around primary texts; and Marilyn Adams, David Kelsey, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Gene Outka, Bryan Spinks, and others offered “classic” riffs, with Augustine, Aquinas, and others as regular staples.

Several of us students turned up other treasures as well, Hilkiah-like: We have found George Lindbeck, and again Greer, both of whom remained in the neighborhood and kindly made themselves available for reading courses on ecclesiology and Origen, respectively. And working in the basement of the library one day I did, in a 2 Kings 22 moment, find Lindbeck’s unsorted papers, piled in the dusty boxes into which they had been placed on retirement five years prior. With the librarian’s permission and Mr. Lindbeck consenting (after a year and a half of persuading), I took them on as a project over my last summer in New Haven, reading 50 years of correspondence, lectures, papers, and journals, through which I pieced together a sense of the soul of the man born of missionary parents in China, formed by Robert Lowry Calhoun and H. Richard Niebuhr at Yale in the 1940s and joining the faculty in the ’50s, swept at age 39 to the Second Vatican Council as an official observer on behalf of the Lutheran World Federation, and emerging thereafter as the premier “Protestant” interpreter of Roman Catholicism. When I welcomed Cardinal Kasper to campus for a major ecumenical conference in 2000, I expressed enthusiasm at his being able to join us, to which he retorted, “I am excited to hear George Lindbeck!”

I fell in quickly with an amicable cadre of Roman Catholics and sundry Protestants of a traditionalist bent, and in my second year moved into an intentional Christian community of especially evangelical Episcopalians plus my Roman Catholic buddy Shawn. We lived in a house on Mansfield Street, alongside a handful of other communally-minded Yale-related households, with which we regularly enjoyed potlucks, cookouts, Bible study, and much convivial conversation and fellowship. I built wonderful friendships over three years, and felt enormously blessed to carry on for doctoral work at Notre Dame with three dear friends in particular (and several more on their heels) — encompassing, by the end, a decade of common prayer, study, and sharing of every aspect of our lives.

We immersed ourselves in local parishes. I occasionally joined my Roman Catholic brother Caleb at St. Mary’s on Hillhouse Avenue, and spent more time with Shawn and others in and around St. Paul’s, West Haven, the pastor of which became a good friend. The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in July 1999 made a big impression, being my first service of Benediction, preceded by a half-hour procession behind a great statue of Mary through the surrounding neighborhood, praying the rosary and singing hymns amid a throng of the faithful. But I rarely missed Mass at one or another Episcopal parish on Sundays, and in my second year I made St. Andrew’s my home, where I sang in the gospel choir and out of which I was confirmed by the Rt. Rev. Andrew Smith in a happy celebration at Christ & The Epiphany, East Haven, on March 18, 2000.

We loved New Haven, and participated with grateful wonder in the intellectual and cultural riches ready to hand. Endless lectures across the university provided welcome occasions for interdisciplinary exchange. Each year we bought season tickets to the Yale Repertory Theatre, and spent many a night in art-house bliss at the old York Square Cinema. We explored a range of modestly priced international cuisine, settling on Thai and Indian, and pizza in Wooster Square, as favorites. And I recall a particularly enjoyable stint of “ecumenical bowling,” according to which at least the Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Episcopalians would square off at a local alley of an evening, amid some revelry (one might exclaim “justification” or “infallibility,” e.g., on releasing the ball). Needless to say, perhaps, the RCs invariably mopped up. We suspected we were sunk at the outset when they arrived with their own balls and shoes.

Mostly we enjoyed the company and questioning of one another, within a broad sea of students and faculty, spanning the denominational, theological, and ideological gamut. While differing schools of thought at YDS generally subsisted in distinct parts of the curriculum — the Augustine seminar as distinguished from the Feminist Theologies seminar, for instance — we learned to debate broadly and generously, sans caricature; at least this was true on the Catholic side of things. And in social settings Christian love prevailed across party lines, as we students enjoyed evenings of light-hearted theological disputation, aided by beer-in-moderation and Earth, Wind & Fire, to be followed by Van Halen, the Gap Band, and Michael Jackson (which CDs I may or may not have brought with me, stealthily commandeering the sound system). The image of a Roman Catholic feminist locked in fierce exchange with a traditionalist Lutheran, reluctantly realizing they would not resolve their dispute in the next three minutes without scorning the unmerited gift of “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” and so acquiescing to the interim solution of a common dance floor groove, may be taken as paradigmatic. If there is something to be said for university divinity schools, it must include this sort of theologically infused pan-denominational socio-cultural formation. And at YDS that culture was broadly Christian and trinitarian, though not as unstintingly as some of us wished.

Berkeley — the attached Episcopal seminary — increasingly became an ecclesial entryway for me, thanks mostly to the dogged pursuit of then-Dean R. William Franklin, who presided with aplomb and a gift of hospitality. Indeed, he welcomed the traditionalist soil in which I had been planted, and watered it alongside Anna Williams, another Berkeley faculty member, who formed us in the ways of patristic and medieval theology East and West, ecumenism (reviving Lindbeck’s classic “comparative dogmatics” seminar), Anglican divinity, and a disciplined rule of life on top of it (Office and Mass, confession, rosary, and memorized collects). Would-be diverse schools do well to provide protection and succor for all comers in their midst, and YDS at this time, with a big help from Berkeley, still pulled it off, though not without some blood spilled.

Looking back again now, I can only offer a huzzah to my friends laboring valiantly at Berkeley and beyond: in illa quae ultra sunt, in the Lord’s good time and mercy. The journey has, by most accounts, become more difficult — uphill, the road strewn with rocks — if not humanly impossible, due in part to our own churches’ having uncritically imbibed, and otherwise ineffectually resisted, the various tonics and acids of post-everything tribalism. In its worst versions, we deconstruct our history in order to forget and rewrite it, installing an untethered “creativity” in its place, loaded with the lexicon of our latest longings and battles. Here a properly postmodern “perspectivalism” — charting the social location of knowledge, for instance, which task can be useful — too easily dissolves into a revenge of the particular, the better to compete with and otherwise ward off the much-touted but little-loved “other.” Unhinged, we tear down, sell off, and “rebuild” willy nilly, assisted in our destruction by a degree of malign neglect from university powers that be. As George Marsden warned his colleagues, in an early offering as a Notre Dame faculty member, Roman Catholics should be wary of the mistakes of the great Protestant universities, and try not to repeat them.

Christopher Wells


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