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Convocation and Reunions 2006: Along the way, talk of war and peace

By Gustav Spohn '73 M.A.R.
Director of Communications and Publications

It's not always easy to predict what might happen at any given Yale Divinity School Convocation and Reunions, beyond the seemingly myriad events that are carefully planned by alumni leaders and YDS staff many months in advance. There are the scheduled lectures, the sermons, the dinners with old friends, the beautiful music. But then there are the spontaneous elements that evolve when people of like mind get together, things that can imbue the trip back to Sterling Divinity Quadrangle with special meaning.

Don Beisswenger '56At this year's Oct. 9-12 Convocation and Reunions, spontaneity took the form of a petition drive aimed at challenging the federal government's controversial position on prisoner interrogations. Heading up the effort were two alumni who graduated 50 years ago with the Class of 1956: Donald Beisswenger of Nashville, TN, who spent six months in federal prison in 2004 for an act of civil disobedience protesting the government's involvement in training Latin American military leaders, and Edward Hummel of Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.

The two gathered up the signatures of more than a dozen alumni and several current YDS students who signed on to endorse the "Torture is a Moral Issue" statement of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Each of the signers covenanted to send a copy of the statement and list of signatories to his or her representatives in Congress and to President Bush denouncing legislation that many critics believe opens the door for U.S. interrogators to torture their subjects.

Beisswenger said it was his morning time of prayer that led him to post a notice calling fellow alumni together to talk about issues of war and peace.

"It seems like a very critical time in the life of our nation, where the possibility of further erosion of democracy could occur and that we need to assert our voice, have our voice, whenever we can, and so I thought this was an occasion," said Beisswenger.

"We gathered, and we shared our names and shared our concerns, and it was a wonderful sharing, and in the midst we kept saying, do we want to say anything, do we want to do anything?

Not only did the group decide to send the torture statement to the president and members of congress; they also resolved to work with students to ensure that discussions of war and peace are part of every Convocation and Reunions gathering in the future.

Beisswenger is not counting on a reply from the president, but neither is he ruling it out. "I'm always open to the spirit," he said. "I mean, you can never tell. This event (the petition drive) did not seem like it would happen, but it did happen."

While not on the official agenda of this year's celebration, the petition and its critique echoed portions of the formal presentations, where talk of war and peace made its way into the program at several junctures.

Nancy Taylor '81 M.Div., senior minister of Old South (UCC) Church in Boston, delivered a sermon entitled Sanctuary in newly renovated Marquand Chapel, concluding with a call to "do justice, love kindness" and to "be about the holy and hallowed Christian work of making sanctuary" (read Nancy Taylor's sermon as a PDF). This at a time, she declaimed, of holy wars and genocide, "a time of scandalous behavior by national and religious leaders... leaders who issue fatwa's, encyclicals, edicts, sermons, and speeches that play tug-of-war with God."

Another of the featured preachers, Setriakor Nyomi ‘'81 S.T.M and general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, told fellow alumni, "Many of us received very good education in halls of this kind, but often find it difficult to focus on our prophetic tasks in making a difference in the world (read Setriakor Nyomi's sermon as a PDF). Far too often in the midst of the current storms, we fail to stand firm on the foundation of the rock, and find ourselves trusting in military might and other forces to ensure our security...

"A church or community which is self-searching and willing to admit to its complicity in its reliance on military might and economic power and not God's standards can receive God's restoration."

War, and asymmetrical violence and terrorism consume the lives of countless thousands each year.And in a sermon entitled "The Challenge of Paradox," John Chane '72 M.Div. and bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, declared, "War, and asymmetrical violence and terrorism consume the lives of countless thousands each year. And too often, religion reveals itself to be the fault line that empowers such violence and death. It is now time for leadership at the highest levels within the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church to say, ENOUGH and get on with doing the Gospel of Jesus Christ" (read John Chane's sermon as a PDF).

Official registration for Convocation and Reunions totaled just under 250, including alumni and guests, along with a small number of faculty and current students. A total of 167 dinners were served during the course of the four-day celebration, along with 178 lunches. Honors for the longest distance from home went to Nyomi, who lives in Geneva, Switz.

On the evening of the first day of Convocation and Reunions, attendees were treated to a concert in Woolsey Hall by celebrated jazz icon Dave Brubeck and his quartet. With the Yale Camerata, the quartet performed Brubeck's Pange Lingua Variations, part of a canon of sacred works composed by Brubeck.

Over the course of the four days, alumni and visitors heard two major three-part lecture series and two single lectures.

A journey of exploration and surprise with real-life stories questionsThomas G. Long, the Bandy Professor of Teaching at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, delivered the Lyman Beecher Lectures on the subject Preaching from Memory to Hope, which explored how Christian preaching operates in past, present, and future tenses, examining the power of narrative to evoke and activate memory, along with the dangers of doing so.

Long argued that the dominant narrative form of preaching so popular in the latter half of the 20 th century – a preaching style that enlists "suspenseful, inductive, narratives of discovery" where the congregation is taken on "a journey of exploration and surprise with real-life stories and questions" – has lost much of its momentum and effectiveness, sustaining heavy criticism from left, center and right.

Narrative rhetorical instruments of human truth-telling, he cautioned, must always "be pressed into the service of proclaiming the gospel, and must become obedient to that gospel." Preachers need not abandon storytelling entirely, Long said, but need to be "theologically smarter and more discerning in its practice."

He commended a new preaching paradigm that builds on the resurgence of eschatological thinking in contemporary systematic theology, where the eschatological voice "avoids the naïveté of 19 th century literalism while insisting that the full disclosure of God is not fully contained in the present tense." This kind of preaching, Long noted, "allows the eschatological affirmations that ‘Christ is risen!' and ‘Jesus is Lord!' to exercise tension upon the present tense, generating both judgment and promise, creating the possibility of ethical action in the world sustained by hope."

Long is the author of a number of books on preaching and biblical interpretation, including he widely used textbook The Witness of Preaching.

The Kent Shaffer Lectures were given by John P. Meier, who holds the William K. Warren Foundation Chair of Theology at Notre Dame, on the subject On the Danger of Making Jesus a Christian: The Test Case of Law and Morality.

Meier took listeners through a lengthy, detailed hermeneutical analysis of biblical texts to elucidate the historical Jesus' attitude toward Jewish divorce, the historical sabbath and Jewish purity laws.

At the end of three days of lecturing, he concluded, "As our treatments of divorce, Sabbath and purity rules indicate, it is, I think, a basic mistake to try to find one coherent line of thought or systematic approach to the law on the part of Jesus. Christian theologians in particular are often driven by a desire to find some principle from which Jesus' teaching on the law can be derived or on which these teachings are based.

"Love is perennially the favorite candidate.... but here is one of the most common forms of not only Christianizing Jesus but also of turning his Halachic teachings into a system of moral theology or Christian ethics....

The original sin of Christianizing or systematizing the historical Jesus."In sum then, Jesus' studied indifference to ritual impurity and indeed all of Jesus' specific teachings on Halachic questions stem not from some grand theory about or system of law but rather from his self-understanding as the charismatic prophet of the end time. Hopefully, our appreciation and appropriation of this basic insight will purify us of the original sin of Christianizing or systematizing the historical Jesus."

In the Aidan J. Kavanagh Lecture, sponsored by the Institute of Sacred Music, Maxwell E. Johnson made a plea for continuation of experimental ecumenical liturgies that grew out of the Second Vatican Council—and that are now threatened, he said, by the Roman Catholic bishops' approval of new lectionary language that adopts a more literal approach to translation of Latin liturgical texts into the vernacular. He warned that survival of the ecumenical liturgical conversation, while not finished, "is not automatically assured any longer without serious attention and sustained reflection and conversation by those of us who remain committed to the liturgical implications of the pursuit of full, visible Christian unity." Johnson, professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, titled his lecture: "The Loss of a Common Language: The End of Ecumenical-Liturgical Convergence?"

Regina Schwartz, professor of religion and literature at Northwestern University, delivered Berkeley Divinity School 's Francis X. Cheney Lecture on the subject Toward a Sacramental Poetics. She argued that, despite the Reformation attacks on the doctrine of transubstantiation, the writings of English reformation poets such as John Milton, John Donne, and George Herbert reveal that they "hungered for the Eucharist...even for transubstantiation."

In fact, Schwartz argued, these poets "did not inaugurate modernity by turning away from the medieval mystery of transubstantiation, but by making it symbolic and then by making language its chief vehicle into other cultural formations, [thereby created] a sacramental poetics."

These poetics, she said, can be seen as "far more than a description of literary arts but a way of living in the world and a way of regarding one another." Schwartz concluded by suggesting that "the potential of reconciliation harbored by communion could still inspire and will still inspire ever new cultural forms in a world of community."

Another highlight of convocation was the From Generation to Generation discussion, held informally over pizza and soda, organized by the Class of 1981 reunion planning committee and facilitated by Rick Spalding '81 M.Div. Conversation centered on the question, "What events of your outer and inner life have shaped your sense of ministry as it has evolved from your time as a student at YDS until now?" Alumni shared thoughts about turning points both at YDS and beyond, discussing everything from prayer to nuclear warfare, with interfaith and interdenominational ministries arising as common themes.

Yale Divinity School honored four distinguished alumni at an awards banquet, and Berkeley Divinity School conferred three honorary degrees during an Evensong service in Marquand Chapel.

Honored by YDS were:

  • U.S. Representative David E. Price '64 B.D., '66 M.A., '69 Ph.D., Chapel Hill, NC, William Sloane Coffin '56 Award for Peace and Justice
  • Hallam C. Shorrock, Jr., '52 M.Div., Claremont, CA, Lux et Veritas award for applying the compassion of Christ to the diverse needs of the human condition
  • Thomas S. Neilsen '76 M.Div., New Glarus, WI, Distinction in Congregational Ministry
  • Preston N. Williams '54 S.T.M., Belmont, MA, Distinction in Theological Education

BDS awarded honorary degrees to:

  • Rt. Rev. James Elliot Curry, suffragan bishop of Connecticut, doctor of divinity degree
  • The Honorable Amory Houghton, Jr., former CEO of Corning Glass and former congressman from New York state, doctor of humane letters
  • Denise Maillet Main, M.D., a physician in the San Francisco Bay Area, doctor of humane letters
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