Monday, August 8, 2011

The Third and Final (?) Yale Post

In May, 2006, shortly after finishing my first year of seminary, I wrote the following in a journal:

Yale is very much a “you’ve got to figure it out on your own” kind of place. That’s not a bad thing. It does make the whole package rather frustrating at times [...] You’ll get all sorts of ideas and agendas thrown at you, and it’s your job to sort through them, figure out what to keep and how to put it to work. While it’s certainly a good exercise and I’ll probably be a better person for it, it does seem a rather dodgy and haphazard way to supply the church with leaders [...] At YDS we all look at Scripture and the great tradition of the Church so differently that we mean widely different things when we talk about them, and that’s enriching to a point but quite often frustratingly evasive…to me anyway. [...] I know that I ridiculously envisioned myself sitting in a turret with cookies and tea and stacks of patristic volumes, because that’s the only way I could even begin to scratch the surface of what I want to learn…but it’s a far cry from the reality of divinity school, no matter where you go.

That seems as good a summary as any of my experience at Yale -- at least the frustrating parts. One of the differences between an ecumenical divinity school and a smaller, denominational seminary is that, by its nature, the former has no (explicit) statement of belief, and thus no common understanding of what ministry in God's church is for. That means there is little shared sense of how, or for what end, students are to "formed," or shaped, for service. And, for an evangelical, confessional, or otherwise conservative Christian, the glaring problem is that there is no shared understanding of the gospel.

I wasn't wholly unaware of these things when I started at Yale, but at that stage, I could brush them off more easily than I could later. Two major examples of what I'm talking about were biblical studies and chapel.

I had been exposed to "liberal" biblical studies before I arrived at Yale, so it came as no surprise to me that this was the predominant approach in my required Bible courses. Still, the big difference from previous Bible classes was, for me, the lifelessness of the approach. Often, we went about the study of the biblical text as if we thought it was something we could master, rather than something that was authoritative over us. There is a difference, I would like to think, between making use of modern research tools and acting as if we are cleverer and more advanced than the apostle Paul. Whether I imagined it or not, I sensed the latter attitude at times, and that's what really got to me. Besides being wrong-headed, I think it makes the study of Scripture a heck of a lot more boring than it has any right to be.

To argue with my professors or classmates that they didn't uphold the authority of Scripture, however, would have been a non-starter. When any such conversation came up, they would likely affirm that they believed in biblical authority. It's just that our understandings of that "authority" were so far apart that any starting-point for real dialogue was extraordinarily difficult to find (on other issues, too). And forget bringing in terms such as "inerrancy." That would simply be beyond the pale.

Another alienating thing at Yale was worship. Chapel was held every day, and I had hoped that it would encourage all of us to weave our spiritual and academic lives more closely together. However, it proved to be a difficult place for anyone who held to traditional views. Chapel was, first of all, meant to provide a "safe space" for anyone who would walk through the doors (to that end, for example, the table at Friday's Communion services was open to all, whether Christian or not). Though traditional language for God and the Trinity weren't completely eliminated from worship, it was used very sparingly in the effort to make the hymns and prayers "inclusive."

For another thing, the form of the services tended to be experimental. Part of the learning experience of chapel, as many saw it, was that you didn't know what to expect from day to day, that everyone was stretched out of their accustomed niches. This can be a great thing, as when you learn to sing worship songs from other cultures, for instance. But things can get stretched so far that the theology underlying worship starts to look something other than distinctly Christian. It is difficult to worship when you are scrutinizing the text of the service to figure out if, say, an "inclusive" Trinitarian formula is recognizably orthodox, or if the hymn you're about to sing is making some dubious claims about the person of Christ, or if it's okay for you to participate in the Eucharist as it's being celebrated here.

It's not that it was flagrantly heretical all of the time, or even most of the time, so I don't want you to get that impression. But, even if I agreed with the approaches taken, I don't think that Christian worship is primarily about affirming us, or about learning new stuff. Those things risk fixing our eyes on ourselves instead of where they rightly belong, on Jesus. And, in my case, the problematic elements of chapel fed a defensiveness in me that wasn't healthy. Though I attended chapel semi-regularly for a while, in the interest of being a part of the community, I gradually stopped, leaning instead on my church and the Evangelical Fellowship.

These two examples illustrate the degree to which I found myself a theological minority at Yale, more so than I had even expected. I tried not to let myself develop a bunker mentality in response to this. But it did make me more cynical about the possibility of real dialogue between traditional and progressive Christians. It is very difficult to find common ground when your founding presuppositions are so far apart.

In short, YDS contributed to my theological vocation by forcing me to figure out where I stood in my theology and my evangelical identity. I remain grateful for that, as well as for the many positive academic experiences I had there. Ultimately, as I've said, it's a great place to learn history and to establish a foundation for a PhD. As a place to prepare for vocational ministry in the church, however, I could not confidently recommend it.


  1. I am not surprised about Yale's "inclusiveness." Duquesne, a Catholic University, was similar at times (although only at prayer services, not at chapel.) Their theology department (I was a theology minor) was mixed. Some taught from a Catholic viewpoint whereas others taught in a more "open" way for lack of better terms. I, like you, found a stronger community in my local church.

    Where did Kevin fit into the Yale community? Did he feel similar to you in regards to their "inclusiveness?"

  2. Kevin was definitely one of the more conservative students around, more so than me at first. Eventually that became one of the things we bonded over. I think he was less naive about what he'd be getting himself into at Yale, and probably had a slightly better experience than I did because he was better able to avoid some professors/situations. Anyway, nowadays we think similarly about most things!