Denys Turner: An academic’s journey in faith

Editor’s note: One of the things Assistant Dean of Students for Pastoral Concerns Julie Kelsey does is organize monthly conversations—the Faith and Scholarship Series—where faculty are invited to talk about their faith journeys over lunch with students and about how their faith and scholarship work together.  Students bring their lunches, faculty speak for twenty to thirty minutes, and then conversation takes place the rest of the hour.  In late March, Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology Denys Turner joined students in the Jonathan Edwards Dining Room.  Following is the text of his prepared remarks.  Turner joined YDS in 2005 after serving as the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University.

By Denys Turner
 Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology

If it weren’t that Julie is so hard to say no to, I am sure that I would never have dreamed of talking to any public audience about my experience of faith in the university context. It’s not that I haven’t thought about it. It’s just that there is for me a psychological barrier to climb over on the way to talking to you about it in this public way, and also a rhetorical one. I am not sure that I have the right language for it, especially as this is not supposed to be the academic lecture which would come to me so naturally. Giving you something more like a personal account of my “faith journey” within the academy isn’t what I do; it seems strange, not my thing, and so I don’t know how to do it well, or even if it can be done well at all. So, feeling rather insecure about it all, I have written out what I have to say, rather than, as I imagine Julie would have expected, talking informally and off the cuff. I hope you won’t mind.

TurnerBut there is another reason for caution, this one of a more theological kind. Jesus said once to his friends that they were not to call themselves “rabbis,” “teachers,” for they – we – have but one teacher, and he is our Father in heaven. That same heaven forbids that I should even attempt to tell you anything today about my faith journey as if thereby to offer something you could learn from. In fact, as I shall explain, I think of myself as falling under Jesus’ prohibition even when I am meant to be teaching theology, here in the Divinity School or downtown in the Religious Studies Department. Whether here or there I prefer to say that I don’t teach anything. I just try to remind people of things they already know. But more of that later.

In the meantime, I suppose I had better tell you a thing or two about how this middle class Englishman, who grew up in the middle of the last century in the midlands of England and went to a sort of middle-ranking boarding school at the age of eight run by the Jesuit fathers – in short, how this very distinctly middlingsort of person could find himself towards the end of his academic career talking to you in the Divinity School of one of the great universities of the world about his Catholic faith. The short story of how I came to be here doing this is that Julie, as I say, asked me to talk today. And I was here in Yale to be asked because Dean Attridge asked me to come from Cambridge University to teach medieval theology in this Divinity School. And so I did, together with Marie, my wife, about five and a half years ago. I really do not know what possessed either Julie or Dean Attridge to do this, but they did. And "Why not," Marie and I said to one another. So here we are.

The longer story begins with an adolescent Catholic in an English Catholic boarding school who in the mid 1950s had been deeply moved by the story of English Catholicism that those Jesuits taught him. You need to understand that in England Catholics then numbered less than ten percent of the population, and today we are even fewer, alas, a small and diminishing minority. But in those days we also felt ourselves to be a minority, felt still somewhat beleaguered. We were not of course persecuted any more, just scorned, as “not very English,” not very “loyal.” Oh, but how wrong we thought they were, those smug establishment Anglicans! Of course just before Vatican II taught us better ecumenical manners we rejoiced without scruple in a form of catholic triumphalism, in pride in our historic record of martyrdom: no “victims” we. We had won through against all the odds. We had won at least the moral victory, the victory of faith; the true faith of our fathers had survived because of those faithful, courageous, few. But we managed to combine that triumphalism with all the narrowness and historical myopia of the ghetto. Absurd as that provinciality of mind now seems, we thought we were the true Church of the English, we believed that Anglicans were usurpers from whom in due course we would repossess those fine old medieval cathedrals and parish churches that we had built, whose architecture I had come so much to love. After all, they were still “ours” by right.

It was within but three years of my leaving school in 1959 that the Vatican council began to sweep away all the props, intellectual and theological, supporting such ecclesial small-mindedness, and years later when I served as a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for England I learned finally to pull away for myself its last supports. But it is harder, I have to confess, to bury the emotions themselves than their justifications, and I still retain a certain emotional bonding with a world of common pre-Reformation English piety that we have lost irretrievably. I still love to read Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowingand not just as academics do, but for themselves, and for the resonances they contain of the world we have lost. The stripping of the altars still hurts when I visit those “bare, ruined, choirs,” as Wordsworth called the plundered debris of Tintern Abbey, just across the Severn Bridge from Bristol, in whose university department of Theology and Religious Studies I taught for 19 years. Though there were some wonderful occasions that helped a certain kind of healing when, with groups of students, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and Catholic, we would climb to the top of the hill overlooking the roofless nave of Tintern, and recite Wordsworth’s poem together, just so as to mourn and in some way heal the common loss that our violent divisions had visited upon us all.

I finished my school exams several years earlier than usual, and I spent a sort of spare year at school pottering about intellectually, if you can call reading Plato’s Republicand the Phaedo a sort of "pottering." Pottering or not, the encounter with Plato was the first big watershed in my life. I fell immediately in love with Republic and with philosophy, and I use the words “fell in love” advisedly, for it was a straightforward case of seduction.

For in my last two years or so at school I had resolved upon entering the contemplative life as a Carthusian monk. But it was the attractions of Plato which won out over St Bruno’s, at least in the practical sense that Plato set me along a trajectory that led to an academic career first in philosophy in Dublin and in Oxford, where I completed my doctorate (under the supervision, as it happened, of our own John Hare’s father) and then increasingly in medieval theology at Bristol, Birmingham and Cambridge universities, and now here at Yale. In the end I never even tried the Carthusian vocation beyond spending two spells of retreat in Parkminster, the Carthusian priory in Sussex. But the original desire left its mark, for I have never lost, even now, a deep love of the contemplative ideal. In fact I haven’t ceased teaching about it since, whether in the philosophical form that I found in Plato, and then in Aristotle, or in the theological, as I find it now in a Gregory the Great, a Bernard of Clairvaux or a Teresa of Avila.

But the contemplative life has meant more to me than merely that I teach about it. I think I could say that underlying the fairly typical career trajectory of an academic there has been for me a personal agenda – and I think one may fairly say an agenda of faith– of attempting to link the two, the contemplative and the teaching, of trying to find where it is that they intersect, the personal space where, in some way, to teach and to pray feed off one another. Thomas Aquinas put it with typical simplicity. He asks which of the two is the higher form of life, the contemplative or the active, and he replies that the best of all is the “mixed” life that combines both. For better than simply to shine, he says, is to cast light for others, and so the best way of all is contemplata aliis tradere, to pass on to others in teaching what one has learned contemplatively, in prayer. When I first read Thomas saying that – it was perhaps forty years ago – I decided instantly to make this charter for a teacher into my own private motto. It seemed to make sense of how I could put together one coherent life out of those two ideals, of teaching and contemplation, which mattered to me as vocations did in that very strict Catholic way we used to have of understanding the word: as irresistible callings, to be abandoned at mortal peril. Perhaps, after all, they didn’t have to conflict. Perhaps Thomas’s way would mean that I could eat my cake and have it.

Mottos set standards. Alas, they guarantee nothing as to meeting them. And I suppose you might think that because I teach medieval theology; because so much of the content of what I teach itself contains some of the finest thinking about faith the Christian world has ever achieved; because so much of it is so intimately and unselfconsciously integrated with a prayer-life; because I have spent hours each day, pretty well every day of the year for little short of fifty years now reading and teaching the great spiritual writers, from Augustine to John of the Cross (I stop there in about 1590); that because my mind is filled with theological talk, talk about faith, then for me, at least, it ought to be easy: easier at any rate, than for, say, an engineer or a botanist, to get the academic life and the life of faith together, the contemplative with the teaching. After all, would I not be “professing” either way?

Was it easy, then? No. I can’t say it has been for me, though there was a time when I thought it was, I thought that I had got a sort of act together, misled as I was by the complacent optimism of youth into supposing that a lot of theological noise in my head about prayer was the same thing as praying. Strange are the ways of the Almighty, for that complacency was severely jolted by what seemed at the time to be pure accident. I think we were in Dublin at the time, so it must have been more than thirty years ago, when my wife and I went to see a moderately interesting film called “The Ruling Class” in which Peter O’Toole played a schizophrenic aristocrat who believed he was Jesus Christ. Thus convinced, after a good lunch with his friends he would at 3.00 in the afternoon on a Friday hang himself on a cross in his sitting room for a couple of hours. One Friday a friend asked him as he hung there how he was so sure that he was Jesus Christ. “It’s simple really,” he replied. “It’s just that when I pray I find I am talking to myself’.

And that was watershed number two. Because of that rather feeble joke it began to dawn on me that theological chatter in the head was not prayer at all. It was nothing much more than just talking to myself. It was more like a sort of tinnitus inflicted on the soul by an all-too wordy mind, a sort of mental white noise, shouting down the silence of contemplation. It sounds like prayer: at any rate, you think that until you remember that true prayer makes no sound. Later, I came across Newman’s Dream of Gerontius, in which (in a part of the poem not set by Elgar in his oratorio) the Angel rebukes Gerontius in terms which also rebuked me: ‘It is thy very energy of thought which keeps thee from thy God.”

Well, I am sure that no one but a certain kind of academic theologian would be so misled, the error is so obvious. But I was. And why was it not obvious to me until a not very good movie woke me up to it? The worst of it was to realize that what made me most prone to being misled in this way had been precisely my habits as an academic, as a teacher, so that the teaching and the prayer were working against one another, not in consort. We academics make quite enough noise talking everyone else down, you’ll say—not that, when it comes to making a holy racket, we academics are unchallenged by some of you in Marquand. But theological chatter, in classroom or chapel, is as nothing to the chatter that goes on inside those lumpy, shiny, overdeveloped pates perched on the shoulders of your professors. How important that chatter can seem to us, how constitutive it can seem of our identities. Yet how easily it can deceive us.

No entomologist I, but I sometimes think of us academics as being like a peculiarly unfortunate species of centipede. I suppose that centipedes can manage the business of co-coordinating one hundred legs into a pattern of walking on condition that they can’t think about how to do it. But imagine a centipede equipped with a brain and having to work it out leg by leg – result: thought-induced paralysis. But it’s no use telling an academic to shut the brain down for a while and let some silence in, because we are all the more provoked to think by being told not to, and a centipede with an academic’s brain would be paralyzed, because by the very excess of his thought he’d see too many complications to be able to act. That’s how it can be sometimes, when the mind is blinded by an excess of its own light and can see nothing because it sees through everything. Therein lurks a vulnerability to that chronic academic complaint, depression – the “unhappy consciousness” of which Hegel spoke, having in mind the scorching glare of an excessive self-awareness which burns up the roots of selfhood. How slow we academics can be to learn that a healthy sense of self can flourish only in the firm soil of spontaneous, unreflected, feeling, in that “fine delight,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins called it, “that fathers thought.” But of depression I will say no more, for that is not a story to be told in polite society.

For a while, then, the prayer and the academic came apart in my life, largely, I guess, because, with typical academic absurdity, I tried to think my way through the apparent conflict between thought and life: an absurd strategy, because I was but attempting to solve the problem by means of the very thing that caused it. Reading did not help, because wise in the ways of such things as was so much of what I was reading professionally, recycling a Teresa of Avila through that hyperactive but professionally oh so detached brain, effectively blunted the sharp, practical, urgency of her teaching. Trained to seek out the unobvious, academics can be slowest of all to see the obvious, particularly when it bears on themselves. They – no, that’s an unfair generalization, I’ll speak only for myself – I had lost my bearings because I was looking in the wrong direction for them: for paradoxically it is an intolerably overburdened subjectivity, a form of self-obsession, which is most destructive of a true sense of self.

But once again serendipity kicked in. A colleague in the Art History Department in Bristol University showed me a collection of the sayings of one Mullah Nasrudin, supposedly a Sufi mystic of the thirteenth century – though a Ph.D. student here in Yale tells me that the collection was made in the sixteenth century, that very possibly the Mullah Nasrudin did not actually exist, and that his “sayings” were perhaps edited around a mythical figure of that name. Anyway, this Mullah, existent or otherwise, had a reputation for being exceedingly wise, and was one day asked by a student how he had come to acquire so much wisdom. “It’s simple really,” he said – I paraphrase his answer – “when I get up in the morning I start talking, and I talk all day without ceasing. But as I talk I look into people’s eyes. And when I see a glint I write down what I have just said.”

I laughed when I read that, as one who similarly ‘talks all day without ceasing’. And then I forgot about it. But not for long, because the Mullah kept on coming back to me, first, as the thought that the glint in the eyes, or alternatively, the eyes glazed over when you are being exceptionally boring, are what all your teaching is about, that is its meaning. At any rate, that is what keeps you teaching, the hope of the occasional glints amidst the general glaze. But then, later, I began to wonder about the meaning of that glint, when every now and then you get it. For I began to realize that when you see the glint in the eyes of the students in front of you in class, it has come to them as a moment of recognition, it is as if those eyes were saying to you: “yes, of course that is so, that is true, and we know it is true, indeed in a certain sort of way we now see that we always knew that to be true, and what you have done is but to remind us.” But those eyes also say to you, the teacher, “thanks for the reminder. Now we don’t need you any more, we know it for ourselves.” For the truth has become a common possession, it is no longer just yours, it is now theirs, indeed it is “ours,” because together we have come home to it, to the place where we all truly belong, it is like coming home after a long journey away, to a place which is strangely familiar, to a beauty “ever ancient, ever new,” as Augustine puts it: and so is a genuine re-cognition, a being ­re-minded.

It was then that I began to understand what Jesus meant when he said that we are not to call ourselves “teachers.” It is that we are not authorities: we do not originate truths, and whatever we might have to contribute of our own will at best provoke a glaze. As for glints, leave those to our one and only teacher, our Father in heaven. So nowadays I just say to myself before a class, “Just keep talking, and maybe, every now and then, you’ll hit on a word or two that serves to remind them of who really does the teaching. But the glint when you get it, that was not your doing, for we teachers are but ‘useless servants,’ and what we do it was no more than our duty to do anyway.”

And then things began to come together again. Plato, my first love came back to me, he had a word for that “yes, of course that is so” that is the aim of all teaching, anamnesis, a "reminding," an "unforgetting." And the Greek fathers had a word for that “reminding,” theoria, whichthrough the Medieval Latin comes out in English as “contemplation.” And, as I understand it, the Hebrew word which says all those things together is Amen, the word we use together in common acknowledgement of what our heavenly Father has taught us, and it is the word containing all the meaning of prayer. That amen is ourChristian, or Jewish, or Muslim glint in the eye, and it became for me at once the meaning of teaching and of prayer, and the conjunction seems to give some practical sense to Thomas’ contemplata aliis tradere: on which motto a PhD student in Birmingham University taught me a Shakespearean gloss. It’s from Measure for Measure: “Heaven doth with us as we with torches do/Not light them for themselves.”        
So where am I now? In a place that is at least simpler, a little less fraught with conflict. Yes, I pray, but I have given up posh prayer, I just go to Mass, say Hail Marys for people and things that seem to matter, and otherwise I try to remember to look into students’ eyes. And then, as you know, I just start shouting at you in a funny accent, and feel immensely cheered up if I get the odd glint now and again. And I think that between them those three will do well enough both for teaching and for contemplation. At any rate, that’s as far as I have got with them. What a hue and cry in pursuit of the obvious you here will think this to have been! What a roundabout route it will seem to you as a way of getting home! But what a joy it is that, for me, it took coming to Yale and its Divinity School in order to find my way there—bless the pesky lot of you!

Posted: 05/02/2011