Gene Outka: 50 years later, the scholarly pursuit continues

By Ray Waddle
Editor-in-Chief, Reflections

Gene Outka didn’t know it at the time, but his life’s work was set in motion one evening more than 50 years ago as a first-year Yale Divinity School student.

OutkaOne night in Taylor House, talking with a fellow student, he ventured the hope of some day setting aside a whole year to study the monumental theologian and churchman of early Christianity, St. Augustine.

His early encounter with Augustine turned out to be more than a student’s fond wish, and far more than a year in duration. Outka, Dwight Professor of Philosophy & Christian Ethics at YDS and in Yale’s Department of Religious Studies, retires at the end of June, leaving a legacy across four decades as a teacher, mentor and ethicist.

Following his appointment to the Yale faculty in 1975, Outka helped create a golden age of ethics at YDS alongside faculty members Margaret Farley, Thomas Ogletree and others. Outka produced a classic text in the field, Agape: An Ethical Analysis. He wrote on questions of bioethics and the justice of equal access to health care. He was also instrumental in rallying alumni support to preserve YDS’s historic home, Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, its identity, and its future, by writing and circulating a “save the Quad” letter that was also signed by faculty members Margaret Farley and David Kelsey.

Outka now plans to culminate a career of thinking about the mandate and ramifications of Christian love by completing a magnum opus, a book accepted by Oxford University Press called God and the Moral Life: Conversations in the Augustinian Tradition.

“It’s a book I’ve been working on, more or less, all my life,” he says.
“Nine chapters are in Oxford’s hands in their awesomely irrevocable form. Two chapters remain on my desk. I intend to complete these as the first order of business as I begin retirement. Then I will turn to another manuscript that focuses on love and a particular contested area. I entitle it The Ethics of Love and the Problem of Abortion.

Outka recalls the moment during the 1959 school year when his scholarly trajectory took shape: “In our first year at YDS, a friend, Gary Weatherford, and I discovered and read together a book that wears remarkably well to this day: John Burnaby’s Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine. In a conversation one evening in our rooms in Taylor House, he and I agreed that it would be a wonderful thing to spend a year devoted to this subject alone. A year then seemed like an enormous quantity of time (little did I know). Gary, as it happened, had further thoughts, and he and his friend, Gary Hart [the future Colorado senator], graduated from YDS and went immediately to Yale Law School.  But for me, the idea took.”

Outka went on to enter the Ph.D. program at Yale, working with James Gustafson and focusing his work on the Christian love ethic. Before he could finish his Ph.D., Princeton offered him a teaching position—not the ideal conditions for writing a dissertation.

“Writing under these full-time teaching conditions was like squeezing tooth paste out of the end of the tube; one finishes each chapter wincing,” he recalls. “I am happy to think that the dissertation only gathers dust to this day in Sterling Library.”

He taught at Princeton the next 10 years, nurturing his ideas, learning from a friend and mentor there, fellow faculty member Paul Ramsey. Outka’s ideas matured further when he and his family spent an academic year at Oxford in 1968-69, working with ethicist Basil Mitchell.

Outka has long been drawn to the ways in which Augustine keeps the theme of love central to his hermeneutical approach to the Bible. Augustine can also be credited for the predominance of the double love commandment in Western Christian ethics – Jesus’ command to love God with all one’s might, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Outka explores how the two commandments are mutually irreducible and also mutually binding, forming a powerful dynamism that has decisively shaped the history of faith and culture.

His planned book on abortion, he acknowledges, will confront one of the most unyielding debates of our time.

“It’s one of the most tenacious problems there is. Two incontestably moral goods are at stake. The best thing we can do is have compassion for both the woman and the fetus. I’m probably a little more conservative now than I was when I started thinking about this; I speak from the right side of the tortured middle. I’ll take on a number of arguments and see which ones work and which ones don’t.”

At the annual YDS faculty dinner on April 26, Outka was honored as a genial, compassionate teacher who exemplifies the YDS mission statement’s “commitment to foster the knowledge and love of God.”

“As all who know him can attest, Gene is extraordinarily approachable—he is patient, kind, and sensitive,” Fred Simmons, YDS assistant professor of ethics, told the banquet gathering.

“Indeed, this inclusive generosity is a principal hallmark of his pedagogy,” said Simmons.  “Gene is uniformly willing to think carefully with people, even when their ideas are rudimentary, and as a consequence Gene has welcomed generations of students into scholarship with respect and regard.”

Margaret Farley also spoke, praising Outka for theological creativity around many ethical questions—his notion of “following Jesus at a distance,” his coinage of the term “equal regard,” his intellectual integrity.

“He always approaches the questions under consideration with the utmost integrity,” she said. “ ‘What does it mean to say that God loves us? What does it mean to say that we love one another? How does that love bear upon the way we live our lives, individually and together?’  For Gene, integrity as a teacher and scholar of ethics means refusing the lure of glib and superficial answers.”

She addressed his scholarly work: “It is the work of a theologian and philosopher, a Christian ethicist, a genuinely theological ethicist. There is, in my view, no question of the brilliant originality and significance of this work—whether on theocentric agape, the dignity of the human self, human vulnerability, political pessimism, universal but also tradition-related morality, what it means to live ‘between the times,’ the relation between different forms of love, such as agape and philia, or agape and ‘special relations.’ ”

She also saluted him for a legendary commitment to YDS.

“Never was this more publicly evident than in our struggles—now some years back—to ‘save the Quad,’ or to save the school in its present location and configuration,” she said.

“It was Gene who was primary organizer of the communication to alumni/ae, in a letter from faculty, suggesting that alums write to Yale’s president and provost expressing their response to the planned down-sizing and relocation of the school. As the then provost said to me, after the struggle to save the Quad ended successfully, ‘What could we do? We had thousands of letters piling up on our desks!’ ”

Looking at retirement, Outka will embrace the time to continue a conversation with a long tradition that began for him in 1959—the biblical witness, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Kierkegaard, Barth, H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr and others.

“I'm hoping and praying it's a decisive opportunity, and that I have the health and the wit to seize it,” he says. “I’ll look forward to seeing you in the library.”

Posted: 05/02/2011