Graduate Theological Union

Embracing the Strange(r): How the GTU Prepares Us for Today's World

Remarks by graduate Courtney Bruntz, Ph.D., Cultural and Historical Studies of Religion

GTU Commencement, May 8, 2014 

Strange...

Gotta say: I'm feeling a little bit strange right now. It’s great to finally be done, but yet it’s strange.

Strange...That which is strange is unusual, curious, odd, peculiar, funny, or something that just makes us go 'huh.'

I first realized I was strange when in my sophomore year of college I had the opportunity to study abroad in China and Japan - two locations at the time I really didn't know much about, nor did I speak either language, and I readily jumped at the opportunity to go. This part of the story isn't really that strange - the want to travel - what was strange however was when I stepped off the plane onto Chinese soil and began, amidst all that was foreign...began to feel as if I were home. Strange...

This feeling of strangeness was supported throughout my Masters and PhD programs - both of which occurred here at the GTU - with faculty who encouraged me to embrace this sense of strangeness, and in fact to go further - to delve into becoming a specialist on Chinese religions. Such encouragement led me to pursue dissertation work in which I now spend as much time as I can at a sacred Buddhist mountain in China, chatting with locals, monks, nuns, pilgrims - basically anyone who is willing to talk to me.  

I write about the revival of Buddhism in China today that occurs at Mount Putuo - a sacred Buddhist mountain - and in so doing have been invited by monks to sit down to tea while viewing and discussing calligraphy work, have interviewed random groups of Chinese tourists - one including a group of middle aged men who told me they were on a “guys' weekend” to the Buddhist mountain, and I have befriended local shopkeepers, with my favorite being the woman who maintains my steady supply of coke light while I'm there. All encounters kind of strange as one from the Midwest, but yet occurring with such frequency that they have actually become normal.

My strangeness was further confirmed these past few years when my husband and I moved away from the Bay Area while I completed my dissertation. When we moved back to our home state of Nebraska, I was prepared to live a pretty quiet, boring life until graduating and going on the job market. Michael and I are both from the area, we still have childhood friends there, both sets of our parents live in Nebraska, so I thought life back there would be familiar, nothing out of the ordinary.....not "strange."

To my surprise, it has been anything but. After beginning to teach at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and now will also teach at Nebraska Wesleyan, word has gotten out that there is an Asianist in town, and my life is anything but boring. Little did I know that when moving back to Nebraska, I would be sought after because I have embraced the strange - because I've spent time studying topics and traveling to places that others find peculiar but yet interesting.

In addition to teaching World Religions and Religions of Asia, I have been asked to be on interfaith panels, to mentor students regarding study abroad, to plan for guest lectures regarding topics of Asia, and even, and this is most unusual, asked to be a judge for a newspaper article seeking out the best Chinese food in Omaha. The quiet life I imagined back in Nebraska - one where I caught up on sleep and spent my days writing - has not happened. What I failed to realize before returning home is that life in the Midwest has changed. People are hungry to embrace that which is strange. They are curious, inquisitive, but oftentimes simply scared in how to do that. I've learned that because of my training at the GTU, I can help my community embrace the strange. I can encourage people to take opportunities to seek out that which is difficult to understand. And most importantly, I can help individuals navigate ways to be hospitable to those from cultures and backgrounds different from their own so that in the relationships they create, strangers become neighbors.

As graduates, we are a strange bunch. We've sacrificed time, money, sleep...to set out on journeys of inquiry, delving into topics that we find challenging, exciting, and often so baffling that we thought: I should write a dissertation about that. It is this drive to embrace the strange that makes me so proud to be among you all today. At one point or another, you have taken up the task of explaining complex topics and ideas regarding religion, and it is because of this work, that I am so encouraged by you. In your own contexts, you will help your communities learn about those around them, you will help people navigate through a pluralistic world, and most importantly, you will teach those around you to turn their strangers into neighbors.  

On behalf of my fellow graduates, I want to thank the GTU for giving us the tools we need to shape our communities, for the encouragement to set out on difficult academic inquiries, and for the endless support that we have received along the way. Thank you to the administration for supporting these efforts, and thank you so much to our professors for both your mentorship and friendship throughout our journeys. You make the GTU a truly special place.

To our friends and family: thank you for loving us - loving us despite however cranky we may have been when hadn't slept in many days, couldn't really come up with a decent argument, and really just wanted to call it quits. Your love helped us survive.

Finally: Congratulations to my fellow graduates! I am immensely proud to be among you and am so excited to hear about all the ways you continue embracing that which is strange and continue shaping the world around you!

Congratulations! and thank you so much!

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