Graduate Theological Union

The GTU at 40: Will Maturity Make Us Wise?

Arthur G. Holder
The 2002 GTU Convocation Address

The Reverend Arthur G. Holder became Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Graduate Theological Union on July 1, 2002. From 1995 until 2002, he was Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Christian Spirituality at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, where he had previously served as Director of Field Education. He is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of California.

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Dean Holder received his A.B. magna cum laude from Duke University and his M.Div. from the General Theological Seminary in New York City. He later returned to Duke as a Medieval and Renaissance Fellow, receiving his Ph.D. in Historical Theology in 1987.

Dean Holder is the translator of Bede: On the Tabernacle (Liverpool University Press, 1994), co-translator of Bede: A Biblical Miscellany (Liverpool University Press, 1998), and author of numerous articles on biblical interpretation, pastoral ministry, and education in early and medieval Christianity. He is currently working on two projects: The Venerable Bede: On the Song of Songs and Other Spiritual Writings for the Classics of Western Spirituality series published by Paulist Press, and an edited volume entitled The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality.

Dean Holder serves on the Governing Board of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality and the Editorial Board of the Society's journal Spiritus. He lives in Albany, California with his wife Sarah and their son Charles.

He delivered this address at the GTU Convocation and Installation Ceremony on September 20, 2002.

The first time I ever heard of the Graduate Theological Union was in January, 1971. I was a college student on winter break, visiting a friend who lived in a brownstone apartment house in Brooklyn. One of his roommates was applying to graduate school for the following fall, and his first and only choice of schools was the GTU. "Where?" I said.

"Oh, it's a new school," he said, "and it's really completely different from anything else. It's an ecumenical doctoral program with faculty from nine different seminaries, and it's right across the street from the University of California, Berkeley, so you can take classes there too. But the best thing about the GTU is that there aren't many requirements at all, so you pretty much get to make up your own program. I'm interested in doing something that combines theology with literature, so that kind of flexibility is great for me." "Sounds cool," I said. (It was 1971!) "Maybe I'll get a chance to visit there some day." 

My "visit" has lasted for sixteen years, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity now given me to serve the Graduate Theological Union as your dean. Both the GTU and I are older now. In fact, I turned 50 earlier this month, which makes me the same age as our member school, the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. Founded in 1962, the GTU is only forty this year-just a kid to PLTS and me. But age forty is a significant milestone.

Of course we can't assume that an institution's life cycle is comparable to that of an individual, but it is intriguing to speculate. The "midlife crisis" concept is out of favor now, I think. Instead, we have come to think of turning forty as one of a series of life "passages." Developmental psychologists talk about forty as a time of transition; in our society with its prolonged adolescence and youth, forty is often the time of moving into self-conscious adulthood.

The early forties are characterized by both energy and a newfound realism: "I can't do everything, but there are some things I can do quite well." From the perspective of forty, the future is no longer infinite, but it is still out there. The options have narrowed, but there are still choices to be made, and it becomes important to make every choice count. This is the time to focus, to consolidate strengths and cut losses, to determine priorities, to set challenging but realistic goals and work for them.

All of this seems to fit the GTU at forty pretty well, doesn't it? To quote one of my several incredibly distinguished predecessors, Margaret Miles: now may be the time for us to stop bragging so much about how unique we are, and begin to hope that people will recognize us for how excellent we are coming to be. With realism and the quest for excellence comes more talk of structure, and standards, and assessment, and external reviews. The GTU has been growing up for some time now, and things have changed since my friend's roommate fell in love with the place.

Oh yes, we are still ecumenical, and increasingly interfaith. We are still across the street from UCB, now with some well-established joint programs and more in the works. But no one today would ever mistake the GTU for a requirement-free zone. We have some required courses now, and many other trappings of maturity: a Core Doctoral Faculty, a written constitutional document called the "Common Agreement," a splendid Commencement ceremony in addition to those of the member schools. We speak of paying as we go, and not over-committing ourselves, and living within our means. True to our developmental stage, we want to be productive and respected, even while we continue to nourish the youthful ideals that brought us to this place.

But what do our religious traditions have to say about reaching the age of forty? In Judaism and Christianity, the number forty is often associated with affliction, or trial, or temptation: the Flood lasted forty days and forty nights; the children of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years; Moses, Elijah, and Jesus each fasted in the wilderness for forty days. And what comes after forty? A rainbow; the promised land; miraculous food served by angels; ascension into heaven. It's not all realism and focusing-there is ecstasy and blessing after forty, too. Teresa of Avila was just on the verge of turning forty when she had the mystical experiences she described as the beginning of her "new life."1

In Hindu tradition, there are well-defined ideal stages of life, each lasting approximately twenty years. At twenty, one moves from the student stage to the householder stage, which is the time for family, children, work, and fulfilling one's duty to society. At forty comes the hermitage stage, which is a time for withdrawal and contemplation in preparation for the final stage of renunciation as a wandering teacher. So at forty, the quest for wisdom begins in earnest.

Similarly, Islamic tradition says that Muhammad was forty when he first received the revelations recorded in the Qur'an. The Buddha got an early start, with Enlightenment at age thirty-five, but at forty he was still in the early stages of his teaching activity. In medieval Judaism, the study of Kabbalah was often limited to those over the age of forty, and a wise woman in Jewish tradition reminds us that forty-year-olds ought not to be over-concerned with worry about what others will think:

It has been said that Rabbi Akiva learned nothing until he was forty years old. After he married the daughter of the wealthy Kalba Savu'a, she urged him to go to Jerusalem to study Torah. "I'm forty years old," he said to her. "What can I accomplish? They'll laugh at me because I know nothing." "Let me show you something," his wife said. "Bring me an ass whose back is injured." When Akiva brought the ass, she covered its sore back with dust and earth and herbs so that it looked ridiculous. The first day they took the ass to market, people laughed at it. They laughed the second day too. But on the third day nobody laughed any more. "Go and study Torah," said Akiva's wife. "Today people will laugh, tomorrow they will not laugh, and the day after that they'll say, 'That's his way.'"2

Perhaps it is not enough to be focused and realistic and prudent-age appropriate for us as those good qualities may be. The GTU has reached the age of maturity, but will maturity make us wise? Heed the words of the eighteenth century English poet Edward Young, who said:

Be wise with speed;
A fool at forty is a fool indeed.3

This is a convocation address, not a sermon, but I spent enough time as a country preacher to know that I ought to cite a biblical text at this point. So consider the scripture reading we heard a little while ago (Ben Sira 6:18-31). No one can even agree on the name of this book, which is known variously as the Book of Ben Sira, the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, and Ecclesiasticus, among others. It appears in the Septuagint and was quoted in the Talmud, but it was excluded from the Jewish canon of scripture. Jerome did not consider it canonical, but Augustine did. Luther's bible moved it to a separate section called "the apocrypha." Many Protestants have never heard of it, Eastern Orthodox revere it, Roman Catholics call it "deuterocanonical," and we Anglicans read it "for example of life and instruction of manners," but not to establish any doctrine. In short, this is a text almost as complicated and contested as the GTU itself!

Like much of the book, the passage we heard from chapter 6 is presented as sage advice from an elder teacher to a younger student. Such advice is notoriously ineffective, which is probably why it must be repeated so often. As Michel Foucault has taught us, discipline "is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a 'physics' or an 'anatomy' of power, a technology."4 Moreover, there is no escaping the dynamics of power. What we want to ask is: how is this disciplinary power being used, for whose benefit, and to what end?

Here Ben Sira admonishes the student: "from your youth choose discipline, and when you have gray hair you will still find wisdom." The images pile up quickly now. Seeking wisdom is like the hard work of plowing a field, followed by a picnic at harvest time. But wisdom is also like a heavy stone that one is tempted to lay aside, not realizing its true worth. Then suddenly the tables are turned, and wisdom is a huntress catching our feet in her fetters and putting a collar around our necks. Yet still we must seek her, until at last we find the rest she gives when her yoke becomes a golden ornament and we wear her like a robe and crown.

This dizzying metaphorical mix combines images of seeking with those of being sought, and images of painstaking struggle with those of generous delight. Wisdom entices us, to be sure, but at any moment she is likely to appear in the guise of her ever-so-much-less-enticing twin known as Discipline. That is the dilemma of the GTU at forty. How do we negotiate the discipline of maturity in such a way that it reveals the beauty of true wisdom? How is this discipline being used, for whose benefit, and to what end? Will maturity ever make us wise?

The secret, surely, is to keep our eyes on what lies ahead. Discipline for its own sake is nothing but a harsh and heavy stone. We can balance our budgets, revise our programs, meet our requirements, get our degrees, and then what? Every day when we come to the GTU—whether we are coming to teach or to learn or to work—we ought to meditate on the purpose of it all. It's not the balance sheet or the résumé or the diploma that ought to occupy the center of our thoughts. But neither am I suggesting that we ponder nothing but abstract ideals of ecumenism and academic excellence. Ben Sira's kind of wisdom is terribly practical—the wisdom of knowing what it means to live well before God and in community with our neighbors.

A central facet of the GTU's mission is "preparing women and men for vocations of ministry and scholarship." So let's remember every day what those women and men will mean for the people in this world who need it most. Because of what we do here, hundreds of hospital patients will be comforted before and after surgery. Mourning families will be able to make it through times of loss and despair. Week by week, thousands of parishioners will be inspired to work for justice in their places of business and in their neighborhoods. 

Homeless people will find shelter, and hungry people will be fed. Young minds will be filled with wonder as they learn about philosophy and history and science and art. Music and poetry will touch the hearts of senior citizens and make them smile. Books will be written and speeches given to persuade our leaders to seek the ways of peace. Policies will be changed for the better, and churches, schools, and social service agencies all over the world will be more faithful to their calling—all because of what we do here every day.

This is not just a pious hope. We have seen it happen over and over again for forty years. Think on these things; pray over these things; be grateful for these things, if you want the GTU's maturity to make us wise.

1 Teresa of Avila, Life, chapter 23.
2 Excerpted from Francine Klagsbrun, Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1980), 275-6.
3 Edward Young, Love of Fame, satire 2, line 282.
4 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, excerpted in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 206.

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