Wednesday, June 06, 2018


Typically, this simple letter from the U of Chicago Div School was formatted with so much subtle and complex cyber method that I was unable to simply cut and paste it into this blog post.  But the message content was surprisingly blunt.  The Div School is packed with big shots, prize-winning major thinkers of enormous influence.  They are mostly of a certain age and present a startling dilemma: they will all soon be eligible for retirement, leaving major openings.  What should be done about it?

When I attended in 1978-80, the school was just newly insisting that phenomenology was not a proper subject to study and had no “religious” aspect.  Only established faith systems were proper.  Since part of my impetus was knowledge of Blackfeet ceremony and part was Unitarian-Universal ministry, we were a mismatch.  Should I be a contributor to the Div School discussion now?

There was plenty to learn and think about, even though I was technically a student at Meadville-Lombard Theological School, which included the MA in Religious Studies at the U of C as justification for teaching “the learned ministry,” as distinguished from “the enthusiastic ministry” based on the direct experience of God and Jesus, who did not interest the UU’s.  

The great irony of a letter from David Nirenberg (who doesn’t use the honorific in this context as the Dean of the Divinity School) is that he is the founder of the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society which occupies the building formerly occupied by Meadville, now renting in the Loop.  I have my quarrels with Meadville, but I love that building, which was specifically built for and by the Unitarians, kitty-corner from the First Unitarian Church.  Nirenberg’s office is not in the old Meadville building, but he may have had some influence on the enlightened rebuild.  (Unitarians themselves are diminishing, old-fashioned, and unwilling to invest in their seminaries.  Their degrees no longer include the U of C MA.)

Nirenberg is most interested in the three monotheistic systems from the Middle East (Jewish, Christian, Islamic) but he proposes that opposing each other strengthens each of them, or something like that.  He has many lectures on YouTube.  It’s amazing that I can sit out here in Montana and research such a man by directly watching him speak.  This phenomenon — meaning that I don’t have to be on campus to have access or even contemporaneous to their delivery —  has got to have some impact on the nature of the school but I don’t like the “mail-order” option because it does not build the personal network among students that is key to success in the ministry.

Quoting Nirenberg’s letter:  “I am joining in this duty of care at a particular time in the history of the School. It is a time of unusually marked generational change in Swift Hall, with the impending retirement of a number of our renowned and beloved colleagues. And it is also an age of change in the broader world of higher education, basic research, and critical thought: not only in Divinity, but across subjects and cultures.

Our task as a community–whether on campus or beyond–is to tend to the further flourishing of our School so that it will continue to produce the ideas about and the teachers of religion that our ever-emerging world will remain so much in need of. This will require, among other things, our tending to each other, as faculty and staff, as students, as alumni.” 

Not many people at the Div School “tended to me” nor did I tend to them.  I was too dazzled and too busy trying to figure things out.  Some were just beyond me.  But I did grasp that it was important to know what your “method” was, because that’s how you got somewhere that meant something.  Too bad I was phenomenological before Lakoff and neuroresearch made the method powerful.

Since that time, which was almost forty years ago, science has taken a major turn so that it now meets religion as an equal or maybe even as a merging force.  I mean that we look so deeply into space and time, we are so conscious of the tiny molecular connections that make us exist and capable of thought at all, and we are so challenged by human systems of meaning whose only commonality is being on the same planet.  Our formerly arrogant Enlightenment is overwhelmed.  We are full of awe and wonder when meeting the most innocent and ubiquitous bits of existence, now part of the meshing that is life.  This seems quite like religion.

But if we are to look at religion as a morality, a principled source of meaning and behavior, then we have much work to do.  How and why do we address the despicable among us?  How do we manage our relationship with animals, with plants, with landscapes?  What do we do when something as simple and common as bringing home the groceries in a plastic bag causes the death of huge and valued whales at sea, far away?  Why isn’t there by now some governmental system better than democracy?

But the key question, as this letter attests, is how to deal with change.  If our lives weren’t so short and bounded, we’d just ignore change, even when it pinches us, even when it feels like evil.  IS evil in terms of destruction.  The approach just doesn’t work anymore.

I read this science quote, and it sounds like advice for congregations.  “Adaptive plasticity allows organisms to cope with environmental change, thereby increasing the population's long-term fitness.”  
I say “feels” because I’m listening with the major part of my brain, which is not conscious.  There is something parallel in world culture: a big part of it is still unconscious, unrecognized, only legible in dreams but full of meaning in both science and religion.

How does an institution change without diminishing?  It’s not a matter of hiring more women or ethnic people.  I hope it’s not about the building.  We must not deny the past.  Categories like “religion” or “science” begin to seem irrelevant.  Maybe the best option is simply telling stories.  Or we could sing them.  That worked long ago.  On reflection, has mattered all along.

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