People who talk overmuch about beginning a new phase of life often appear quite foolish. After all, we rarely know until much later the meaning of our past and the promise of our future. Our ignorance and confusion alone ought to suggest that at times of transition (like the beginning of a new academic year), it may prove the better part of wisdom to imitate Mary, the mother of Jesus, on the occasion of the annunciation, and simply remain silent. You will remember that when the Angel of the Lord came to tell her about what, with a touch of irony, we may call the beginning of a new “term,” she didn’t run right out and tell everyone about the visit. She simply “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
I have always found Mary’s example moving, but on an occasion like this, it presents me with no small problem. I can hardly, at the beginning of our term, stand before you silently pondering things in my heart. I am expected to say something: but what is there to say that will prove wise rather than foolish, faithful rather than disobedient?
It would certainly be both unwise and disobedient for me to say much about the fact that, by coming to be Dean of Berkeley, I am beginning a very new phase in my own life. In that respect, it is enough to say that coming here has made me as happy as any human on this earth can expect to be, and that I have been treated with a graciousness that is as rare as it is welcome. It would also be foolish for me to attempt a portrayal of the particular transitions that this new term may bring to each of your lives. I can only hope that they bring to you the same delight this beginning has brought to me.
It would be unwise, and probably self-serving, to say much more than this about the particular beginnings each of us may be making. The question, therefore, must shift from what each of us may be tempted to say on this occasion about ourselves to what the significance of the occasion may be for all of us together. The question we can most fruitfully ponder and say something about is why we are here, as a body , making this particular beginning.
It may be an unexpected point to make, but the name of the institution of which we are all a part suggests an answer. The answer suggested is not only surprising but also a little disturbing. I don’t know if you noticed, but the name of our institution suggests that we are here to study divinity.
In this day and age, an undertaking of this sort, to most, seems strange, perhaps even dubious. You will have noted, for example, that the study of God (rather than religion) is not an occupation high on the list of priorities set forth in the development plans of most of our colleges and universities. Furthermore, to an increasing number of our contemporaries, what we are doing is at best “a bit out of it,” and at worst culpably ignorant. We may, according to current wisdom, safely study the human phenomenon we call “religion.” That endeavor, after all, does not lie outside the parameters of scientific and humanistic study; however, the study of “divinity” is quite another matter. The actual study of God is a suspect undertaking.
Be that as it may, the study of divinity is what this institution purports to be about; and by saying, in its most recent statement of purpose, that it exists to promote the knowledge and love of God, that its purpose is indeed the study of divinity, the Yale Divinity School has not only acted in a way faithful to its name and history, it has, at the same time, acted in a way that is contrary both to the spirit of the age, to prevailing academic orthodoxy, and, I am sorry to say, to present theological fashion.
In honoring its name, in making this statement of purpose, the Yale Divinity School will most certainly evoke protest from both internal and external sources. For the time being, however, “The Div School,” by the very fact that its name perdures and its original purpose remains, has presented us with a serious matter both to ponder and talk about. If we indeed take it as our common purpose to study God, and so grow in the knowledge and love of God, what might that mean for us as we begin this new term?
It suggests that a passion for God is what we ought to share before all else. It suggests that God is, or ought to be, our first order of business, the primary focus of our energy, love, and work. Statements like these may appear banal or merely pious, but if we view them against the backdrop of our own theological history, they are far from either banality or vacuous piety.
What I mean is simple. Christ taught that the law of God (and so also the law of our life) is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The love of God, he said, is the first commandment. The second, which is like the first, but not the first, is to love our neighbor, not as God but as ourselves.
We all know that this is the teaching of Christ. Nevertheless, I believe that, from the time of the Enlightenment to the present, one can read the history of the study of divinity as one in which the second commandment, which is like the first but not the first, has increasingly been made into the first and then the only commandment. The study of divinity has become, in short, less and less the study of God and more and more the study of us.
The reasons for this history are not all nefarious. Teilhard de Chardin once said that all Christians are stretched out upon a cross that pulls them in the direction of both heaven and earth. Teilhard, as had many of the Saints before him, realized that the love of God and the love of neighbor are commandments that may direct our energies in very different directions. Trying to follow them both stretches us and in a way crucifies us. How indeed are we to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and at the same time love our neighbor as ourselves? The answer has never been obvious to the Saints, and, what is more, they often got it wrong.
In the Patristic period, both Origen in the East and Augustine in the West tried to resolve the tension in a way that now appears unsatisfactory and in certain ways rather destructive. Each tended to place such emphasis upon the first commandment that the second, while not eliminated, was largely eclipsed. The supposed errors of the ancients are now common coin. Nevertheless, it seems plain as well that many theologians in the modern period, partly in reaction to their predecessors, have executed a reverse maneuver that has several problems of its own. In order to right the balance and place proper emphasis upon the importance of life here on earth, they have focused attention on the second rather than the first commandment. Their intentions may have been quite the contrary, but in calling for this change in emphasis they have in fact put the second commandment in place of the first and, in so doing, turned the first into little more than an engine for human betterment. One might paraphrase the version of the summary of the law as actually understood by many representatives of modern Western theology as “Thou shalt love thy neighbor with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, namely, thou shalt love God as thyself.”
This paraphrase is, I know, a parody that is both unfair and unnuanced, but it serves well enough to make the point that to espouse as one’s purpose the promotion of the knowledge and love of God is, in our time, an act that runs against both theological fashion and the spirit of the age. The espousal of this purpose rather than the dominant purpose of liberal religion and enlightened society implies that, at the beginning of our term, we are being asked to consider a great reversal in our de facto motivation and purpose.
I am not suggesting that a renewed interest in God requires a renewed eclipse of our neighbor. I am not advocating a return to the status quo ante when Christian belief and life were carried on as if our neighbor were significant only as a means to learn the love of God. I am, however, saying that we will get little right about either God or our neighbor until we have shifted the primary focus of our attention once more to the first and great commandment. Only then will we rightly understand the second which is like unto it.
What, in a more concrete sense, might a shared intention to study divinity imply for the way in which we, at the beginning of this new term, seek to give order to our lives? Just what is the nature of the work required of us if we are to treat the first commandment as indeed the first and not as a merely pious addendum to the second?
It is not the most immediate answer that comes to mind, but what God asks us to put first, rather than last, in the study of divinity, is worship. God is God precisely because, unlike us, God is worthy of worship. He commands us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength because such a response is appropriate to who God is. It is the very nature of God both to elicit and demand worship, and it is a mark of his kindness that all people have been created with this purpose in mind. If you will, worship is the act that most corresponds both to the grace God shows toward us and to the nature with which we have been endowed. Consequently, we can know neither God nor ourselves apart from it, and when we place it low on the list of things we have to do, as usually happens soon after the beginning of the semester, we both dishonor God and do harm to ourselves.
But the importance of worship for our common purpose can be made clear in a more homely way. Consider, if you will, the destructive division we often experience, in the study of divinity, between our heads and our hearts. There are two pitfalls that lie in wait for people like ourselves who seek to grow in the knowledge and love of God. We may seek to know God without loving God. In this case, head dominates heart, and God becomes little more than a subject of research.
There is an opposite error that is equally destructive. In this case, heart dominates head. We may seek to love God without seeking to know God. When this happens, we may come to love God but, in the words of St. Augustine, we will most certainly end by loving him as “other than he is.” If we seek to love God without seeking to know God, we will find that we have given our love to a god of our own making.
Need the study of divinity split head and heart? Need it end in the pursuit of a powerless thought or the adoration of an idol? We have been promised that if we worship God daily in the midst of his people, and if our worship remains faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, God will be made known to us in both Spirit and Truth. God has assured us that in and through the faithful worship of the Church, both our minds and our hearts will be opened, and that we will learn both to know God in truth and love God as God in fact is. It is, in short, in the midst of the worship of God’s people that we find the welcome assurance that our purpose in the study of divinity will not be frustrated.
Because of this assurance, we can more easily undertake the other tasks entailed by the study of divinity. One of these is mastery of the tradition through which the teaching of the Apostles has come down to us. It is basic to Christian belief that we cannot know God save as God makes himself known. God insists upon naming himself and will not allow us to attach to him names of our own devising.
But what does God’s name mean and what does it imply for our life together here on earth? The great theological questions are, who is God and what does he require? These questions define the subject matter of the study of divinity, and Christians have believed through the ages that these questions can be adequately answered only as each generation appropriates the teaching passed on by the original witnesses of God’s self-revelation in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The study of divinity requires us, therefore, not only to master the Holy Scriptures of the Christian people, but also the history of their interpretation through the ages.
A comment like the one I have just made may seem unnecessary, but I am afraid it is not. American Christians may fairly be characterized as a body suffering from collective amnesia. On the whole, they know less and less about the way in which the tradition handed on by the Apostles has been interpreted and appropriated through the ages, and as their knowledge of that tradition decreases so also does the adequacy of what they have to say about who God is and what God requires. “Mainline Protestantism” is in retreat, I believe, because what it has to say about God is so inadequate; and what it has to say is so inadequate, in part, because it has lost its memory.
I am not suggesting that Christian tradition manifests a steady stream of development, or that it has remained in a steady state from the beginning, or that we can find it somewhere presented without distortion. I am saying only that I hope you will undertake in your study of divinity a reconstruction of the memory of our people. Do not follow the line of least resistance and jump over the past to get at the present. If you do, you may find a certain excitement in your studies, but you will not grow very much in the knowledge and love of God. You will more than likely spend your time looking into a mirror that reflects your own face.
One last word about the work implied by our common purpose. If I began by saying that we cannot study God apart from the worship of God, I must end by saying also that we cannot divorce either worship or study from an attempt to learn a way of life.
Both the liturgical and theological traditions of the Church present to us certain things that must be said about God as revealed in Christ Jesus. God is both truth and love. He manifests himself in both judgment and mercy. In coming to us he shows forgiveness, patience, and kindness even as he chastens us. In calling us to himself, God pays particular attention to those who are weakest and in most need of help.
That is what God is like. We believe it because we have seen the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus. But can we really know God’s truth and love, God’s judgment and mercy, God’s forgiveness, patience, and kindness unless, in faith and hope, we seek to imitate what we have seen? Can we know the life of God apart from a struggle to share in it, and can we share in it if we do not seek to imitate it?
The study of divinity is not possible apart from what the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians dares to call the imitation of God. My observation is that most people who teach and study at divinity schools miss this point. That the way in which life together is conducted is as essential to the knowledge and love of God as is much reading: this is a truth lost to most of us most of the time. Nonetheless, apart from the way of life that imitates the life of God, our words about him are more like gossip than truth. We may use them, but we will most certainly misuse them because we have no real knowledge of what they mean.
I do not know what each of you may really want here, but if you want to grow in the knowledge and love of God, if you indeed wish to study divinity, try right now to begin living the life. Try, for example, to refrain from certain things like gossip, anger, greed, and envy; and try to learn some others like patience, kindness, love of one’s enemies, and care for those among us who are not much liked. God is like that and by very inadequate imitation we might learn what the words we study really mean. If we seek to imitate the life as we worship and study, we might actually end up having spent two or three years here in the study of divinity.
Philip Turner is Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. His previous contributions to First Things include “Authority in the Church: Excavations Among the Ruins” (December 1990).