Graduate Theological Union

At the Crossroads: Interpreting the Sacred at the GTU

Faculty address by Dr. Marion Grau, Associate Professor of Theology, Church Divinity School of the Pacific 

GTU Commencement, May 8, 2014 

President Potterveld, Chairman Leach, Dean Holder, Dean Kook, Presidents and Deans of the Consortial Schools. Dear colleagues, family and friends, distinguished graduates, and graduating student speaker, Dr. Courtney Bruntz: it is an honor and privilege to share this time with you and I congratulate you for your achievements.

Welcome especially to former graduates, friends and family! We are so grateful for your support and encouragement of these our graduates during their time here. Scholarship and learning is a communal effort, and it shows in your support of these accomplished graduates. 

Some years ago, previous GTU Alumna of the Year Dr. Laurie Zoloth quipped that "a scholar is a crowd of voices." Indeed, as scholars we can sense the voices of ancestors in faith resonate within us. For what we set out to study, think and write about is never a solitary affair. It was always already an intercultural, cross-temporal, sacred multi-logue. Some of the work is to identify the voices already speaking to us, voices we may mistake for our own, and begin to see how they have shaped us and our communities, our thought into action. It takes courage to create conscious room in oneself to let these voices not only resound and contest them, but bring them towards a greater degree of resonance with our world now. Some voices are ghostly and faint, others strong and loud, some good spirits, others seem virtually demonic to us. Some need to be exorcised, others lifted up and blessed. Such invocation of voices, this hosting of conversations in scholars' bodies remains a crucial sacred work.

Education is a gift that keeps on giving every time we use our thinking, reasoning and imagining power, every time we consider a news item, engage in an exchange of opinions, in negotiation processes, relationships with spouses, friends and children. Your education, Graduates, has become part of you, and you engage and employ it every second of every day. 

Scholars are passionate about knowledge because, ideally, they are passionate about life and want to understand, describe and ultimately help shape its redemptive contours. Here at the GTU our passion is for knowing better our own traditions, becoming more secure in engaging them confidently, so that we can generously yet resolutely encounter the religious traditions of others. 

In many ways, the academy, theological and religious education are at a crossroads. When at a crossroads, the next step to take can become unclear and fraught with risks, for persons and institutions. Yet: Whether or not the forces that devalue higher education recognize the value of our common work or not, should not foreclose our passion for knowledge, for the sacred, and for knowing each other.

Years ago, I asked my doctoral mentor for her advice when I was at a crossroads over my next book.  Should it be the book that I thought called out to me to be written, or try for a book that might be a popular success. She suggested that the only viable option was to go where my passion is - where I sensed systematic, constructive theology and the church needed to go rather than where others were expecting it to be. To sense where the Spirit was leading me. And trust that my passion resonates with something important rather than what may or may not be well-received in the short term. I continue to find this advice vital.

At the crossroads in the world of education with its major transitions, none of us knows the future. Especially during such times the courage - the taking heart - of many of our students who carry on under difficult circumstances and prospects with what they are passionate about is instructive to all of us. 

This passion and hard work is visible to me in students that tell me that whether or not they end up in an academic position, they do not regret for a single minute getting an M.A. or Ph.D. They know it has made them better, more grounded thinkers, changed how they approach everything in life, shapes and enhances how they are in the world. Learning "how to think critically and compassionately" - being able to see "the biases and power dynamics present in situations, and to expose the weak foundations of seemingly sound arguments" is a highly valuable skill, whether it is directly financially remunerated or not. 

Realistically and yet unflinching, they look beyond the limitations and eloquently articulate their 'interest in being part of creating what will be emerging.' Some name the 'GTU as the ideal place to do the new work that will need to be done.' The possibility of interdisciplinary and interfaith conversations at the GTU offers precious opportunities to rehearse new ways. The ecumenical and growing interreligious nature of the faculty inspires many, it is truly unique. The passion for greater knowledge of the Divine is desperately needed in our world. Commitment to this is witnessed to by the diversity, vision and breadth the work of our graduating students displays. 

Simone Weil compared schoolwork to prayer that prayer is a form of paying attention with open ears, eyes, and hearts. Learning from others in patient conversation, through many hours of listening and reading is a form of prayer, but also of love. Through it we seek what we know and recognize as God, as divine, as sacred.

Yet, to others it may seem at the end of a degree program, they have just "studied ignorance"... and they would be in good company. We know, perhaps at the end of a degree even more than at the beginning, how much we do in fact not know. The Medieval Christian theologian Nicholas of Cusa called this 'studied ignorance'. The way of un/knowing, striving to know but forever not fully knowing God. The seemingly paradoxical recognition that the more we know, the less we 'understand.' Our communities desperately need such 'studied ignorance' now as much as ever. People who know when they do not know enough to condemn, judge, or act hastily under pressure. People who explore more deeply what is going on before formulating careful and prayerful responses to the issues that ail us - religiocultural strife, economic-ecological violence, and climate change. 

In the current context, it may be that continuing to engage in theological and religious scholarship in particular is a form of deep, sustained, and relatively invisible resistance to forces intent to dull the power to critically reason, to interpret through the eyes of our faith, our ethical and social commitments, of remembering and transforming religious traditions we passionately are engaged with. If we do not remember, it has been said, we are doomed to repeat. Dangerous memory can take many forms. As scholars who remember "crowds of voices," our embodied religious commitments are a vital, crucial and giving contribution to our communities and our intricately interwoven world. It is a divine gift that keeps on giving, and it carries a sacred responsibility that is truly awesome. 

May your ongoing journey of inquiry be both humbling and encouraging. May you, like Moses, climbing up the mountain never tire though the face of God will ever be out of reach. Do not give up. Seek to know God, through you will never grasp God. Turn towards the face of God in the other on the way with you and seek to be transformed through the encounter.

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