Divinity School plays central role at AYA Assembly

By Gustav Spohn*
Director of Communications and Publications

AttridgeReligion—and, by extension, Yale Divinity School—was front and center at this year’s Association of Yale Alumni Assembly, which had as its theme Transformational Dialogue:  Spiritual and Religious Engagement at Yale and in the World.

Featured speakers at the Nov. 19-20 Assembly, which drew over 500 alumni of Yale College and the graduate and professional schools, included Dean Harold Attridge and Miroslav Volf, director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology.  In addition, several smaller “breakout” sessions were moderated by Yale Divinity faculty and alums, and the final reception was held at YDS in the Common Room.

Ellen McGinnis ’82 B.A., chair of the AYA Board of Governors and Chair of Assembly LXIX, opened the Assembly with brief remarks about her own experience and faith journey before introducing Attridge to a packed audience at the University Theatre.

She recounted her arrival at Yale with a brand new Bible and explained, “I had brought it with me with the thought this was the time to... sort out my own views and my personal issues with faiths, spirituality and morality... I was beginning to think for myself about issues central to my experience as a human being.”

As an undergraduate, McGinnis reported, she had attended St. Thomas More on campus and St. Mary’s Church in New Haven.  “What astonishes me now is that I was then more comfortable in the traditional anonymity of St. Mary’s.”  Three decades later, McGinnis said, she craves room for doubt and the flexibility of non-traditional worship. 

Assembly“I hope what attracted each of you to this Assembly is some kind of personal connection, and the curiosity to explore the faith and traditions of other Yalies including the faith in the secular, political or experiential that may not be named as faith,” she concluded.  “I hope your experience today will broaden your own experience, knowledge and understanding in the great tradition of a Yale education.”

Attridge framed his talk around the Divinity School’s decision to create a faculty position in the area of “spirituality and ministerial leadership.”

 While the idea was initially greeted with a degree of suspicion—fueled by concerns that “New Age” thinking could be eroding the school’s Christian heritage— Attridge noted that skeptics were eventually won over.  Joining the faculty in January 2010 to begin a five-year term as professor of the practice of spirituality and ministerial leadership is Janet K. Ruffing, a Sister of Mercy from California currently teaching at Fordham University.

According to Attridge, the decision to create the new position rested in large measure on acknowledgment of a distinction in two types of theological learning that were described in a 1993 book by David Kelsey, the Luther A. Weigle Professor Emeritus of Theology: Wissenschaft, German for “scientific learning,” which uses approaches similar to those used in other parts of the university for the critical study of religion; and Paideia, a Greek word best translated as “formation,” which Attridge said gets students to “think in certain ways, to pursue certain virtues, to order not only minds, but hearts and hands as well, to the demands of a calling.”

“We sought someone engaged in not simply the study of one or more traditions of achieving that holistic relationality, that formation of mind, heart, and hand,” noted Attridge.  “We sought to connect that to the practice of religious leadership, which we take to be our fundamental mission.”

Attridge noted that longstanding initiatives—such as the Annand Program in Spiritual Formation, under the leadership of YDS’s Episcopal Church affiliate, Berkeley Divinity School— already provide substantial resources for spiritual formation but are not exhaustive:  “This dimension of theological education has been an increasingly important part of the life of Yale Divinity School in recent decades, but it does not exhaust what we take to be spirituality and does not limit what we hope our new colleague will do with us and for our students.”

Attridge cited three areas that promise to make appreciation of spirituality an even more important part of theological education, potentially leading to what he termed a “transformational spirituality” in the 21st century generally and at YDS in particular: an increasingly global perspective; increased sensitivity to the environment; and sensitivity to the “requirements of justice” on issues, for example, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and equal rights for gays and lesbians.

Pointing to the “prophetic” voices of Martin Luther King Jr. and William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49 B.A., ’56 B.D., Attridge concluded, “These are the models of the kind of spirituality that we hope to cultivate in the religious leaders we produce for the future, men and women of deep conviction who have thought long and hard about what those convictions entail, who have developed the traits of character, the heart, that will sustain the effort it takes to work those convictions out in practice.”

Later in the day, Volf delivered a keynote address at the Yale Art Gallery, speaking about the impact of faith in a globalized world.

SlieVolf, who co-teaches Yale’s wildly popular “Faith and Globalization” course with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, made the case that globalization processes are “radically transforming the world in which we live” and “increasingly asserting themselves in the public realm.”

“Disregarding faiths I think we will do so at our own peril,” warned Volf.  “Peril of understanding what truly motivates people in the world and peril of not knowing how to act accordingly in a globalized world in which faiths matter to people.”

He went so far as to assert, “We cannot have peace in the world without having peace between religious people.”

Citing the book Education's Endby Sterling Professor of Law Anthony Kronman, Volf lamented what he said was the tendency of American colleges and universities to ignore questions related to the meaning of life, questions that he views as paramount in a globalized world where religious views are such motivating forces, for both good and ill.

 “What it means to flourish as a human being, what it means to do well as a human being, that question kind of drops off the radar screen,” said Volf.  “I think a lot is lost when that happens.”

Two of YDS's leading scholars on African American faith traditions spoke to an audience of some 50 Assembly participants on the first day of the Assembly in the Divinity School Common Room. In beginning the freewheeling discussion entitled "Religion and Race in a Society that is Far From Post-Racial," Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology Emilie M. Townes spoke in broad terms on President Barack Obama's election and his transition from being a candidate to governing.

Townes’s colleague, Assistant Professor of the History of American Christianity Clarence E. Hardy III, emphasized that one of the prime tasks of Obama the candidate was to make himself less exotic and more appealing to voters. Obama's church played a key goal in accomplishing this, Hardy told the audience [despite national headlines that portrayed the church’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, as radical].  "When you live in a political culture that is as dysfunctional as this one, people don't actually look to politics to change their material condition," said Hardy, who joined the YDS faculty this year from Dartmouth College. "Given that this is the case, you might as well put in someone who is like you. … For Barack, his church, Trinity UCC was very important to show that ‘Hey, I'm like you. I'm connected to you through this church.’”

VolfSeveral delegates posed questions to Townes and Hardy about political issues within the African American religious establishment, specifically the role churches are playing in helping or hindering the promotion of LGBT civil rights. As Townes noted, Black churches in the last 40 years have moved from a "don't-ask-don't-tell" position to "more overt homophobic responses." Echoing Townes, Hardy posited that the change has occurred in part because of African American churches' "deep conversations with conservative White evangelicals."

While Townes and Hardy were giving their talk, two other AYA sessions were ongoing at YDS: a talk on sacred music, worship, and the arts in context, given by Martin Jean, director of the Institute of Sacred Music, in Marquand Chapel, where he also gave a demonstration of the new Taylor and Boody baroque organ; and a discussion of the role faith leaders have played in fostering social change and justice, led by Tyler Wigg Stevenson ’04 M.Div.

Meanwhile, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, who have joint faculty appointments at both YDS and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, gave a talk at FES on the emerging alliance of religion and ecology.

*Frank Brown, assistant director, publications, also contributed to this story.