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Maintaining Good Roads

The Relationship Between Duke Divinity School and Methodism
The connection between poverty and theology will provide the vitality needed to maintain this historic road

Theologian David Kelsey describes all theological schools as located at the intersection of several major highways. First, you have roads like Azusa Street or Via Vaticana or Aldersgate and the ecclesial traditions that these each represent. Second, you have the roads from Athens and the classical tradition of education as character formation, or paideia. Third, you have the autobahn from Berlin and the modern university with its focus on research and its goal of scientific knowledge, or wissenschaft. A theological school is the hamlet growing around the crisscrossing of these roads; its ethos is defined by its roadmap, the state of maintenance of these roads, and the plans for future construction. A road map of Duke Divinity School would show many streets. There is Chapel Drive, AAR/SBL Court, The Duke Endowment Turnpike, Cameron Boulevard, and the United Methodist Parkway. It’s worth exploring our location at this crossroads. From where we are located, are all of these roads still valuable?

Troubled Crossroads
The United Methodist Church in the United States is in decline. The statistical tale is one of woe upon woe. The last year of net membership growth was 1965. To make things worse, given the median age of United Methodists, some are warning of an impending death tsunami within this generation that will decimate the denomination. Duke Divinity School, in contrast, is at the top of its game. It is regarded as an excellent theological school, one of the best in the United States, if not the world. In the last decade, the school has grown in most measures: faculty, staff, students, programs, and facilities. Given the contrasting position of the UMC and Duke Divinity School, it seems fair to ask, Is the United Methodist Parkway worth maintaining?  

From the Divinity School side, grumbles can be heard of how the mainline should be pushed to the sideline and that the future of Duke Divinity lies along another road. Moreover, it is not clear that the road connecting Duke to Methodism moves much intellectual freight. What is Wesley next to Barth? What has Durham to do with Aldersgate? A tradition that grew out of the evangelical revivals of the mid-18th century and grew old during the cultural upheavals of the late 20th century may not have much to offer the 21st. 

From the United Methodist side, finger-pointing can be seen from those who blame seminaries for the decline of the church. At the last General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2012, various petitions sought to sever relations with seminaries that appear to do a better job graduating staff for NGOs than forming pastors for the church. Given the number of Duke alumni serving churches, the Divinity School was not the target of these petitions, and yet they point to deteriorating road conditions that affect all of us.

The relationship between university divinity schools and the church has always been conflicted. The institution that we call the “university” arose in the cities of medieval Europe where teachers of theology, law, and medicine organized themselves into guilds. These academic guilds would receive students from all over Europe and confer degrees universally recognized throughout Christendom. Though it was licensed by the church, the university theological school (unlike cathedral schools or monasteries) was not simply an extension of the church. From the beginning, church hierarchs struggled with maintaining these tricky relations, at times setting up roadblocks around the university and at times allowing unimpeded freedom. When I hear about Methodist legislation proposing that bishops sit on search committees of divinity schools, or that the seminary curriculum needs to add a certain course, or that the power of the purse should be used to sway schools this way or that, this is not news. We have been here before, and perhaps this is not a bad place to be. You only hear honking on busy roads.

A Vital Highway
The truth is that the United Methodist Church and its predecessors have provided a vital artery circulating faculty, students, and resources to Duke Divinity School. Though we do not have the Cross and Flame displayed at the entrances and exits, the United Methodist Highway winds its way through the ethos of Duke Divinity School in profound ways. What is Methodist about Duke Divinity School? As I see it, three things: the centrality of Scripture, an ecumenical vision, and a holistic understanding of the theological vocation. These three commitments are not uniquely Methodist; they are found in other ecclesial traditions and their theological institutions. But they are also not simply generic commitments. They are the boundary stones that mark the road connecting Duke Divinity to Methodism.

The Centrality of Scripture
John Wesley described himself as a homo unius libri, “a man of one book.” By this he did not mean that he read only the Bible, but rather that his thinking, beliefs, and values always began and ended with the Bible. Duke Divinity’s promotion of “scriptural imagination” and “traditioned innovation” are characteristically Methodist ways of approaching the theological task. Historically, Methodism has been resistant (though not immune) to fundamentalism, rationalism, and traditionalism, and this resistance has been passed on to Duke Divinity. Honoring Scripture and tradition demands critical inquiry, not demolition.

It also demands witness. At Duke, the pulpit is not far from the lectern, and I am amazed at the facility with which our students and faculty move from one to the other. A lecture on the Gospel of Luke might conclude with a series of homiletical suggestions for proclamation. A colleague might lecture on the sources of Frederick Douglass’ thought one hour and preach on the passion of Christ the next. In this way, Duke continues the tradition of the medieval university that Wesley inherited from Oxford, in which reading Scripture, disputing theology, and preaching were integral to the theological teaching vocation.

Ecumenical Vision

The seal of the Divinity School engraved outside the Kilgo entrance points to the ecumenical movement from which Duke Divinity benefits and to which it contributes. The fact that the school includes faculty and students from many denominations testifies to the catholic spirit that represents the Wesleyan heritage at its best. Methodists have never claimed to be the church. Indeed, for a long time it did not even claim to be a church but rather understood itself as a reform movement in service of the church, playing a role in the Church of England analogous to that played by the Jesuits within the Roman Catholic Church.Methodism was an early promoter of the ecumenical movement, and Duke Divinity has a legacy of some of the finest ecumenical theologians. Robert Cushman, who was dean of the Divinity School and professor of theology, was an official observer at the Second Vatican Council. Geoffrey Wainwright, now Robert Cushman Professor Emeritus of Christian Theology, chaired the Methodist-Catholic Dialogue for decades and played a significant role in drafting the document that marks the high point of multilateral ecumenical dialogues: Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM).

Duke Divinity’s commitment to serve the church catholic grows from theological roots sunk deep in a Methodist identity, but it is a commitment in constant need of attention. On the one hand, in a time of mainline institutional decline it is tempting to see other ecclesial traditions as competitors for a dwindling market share. On the other hand, it is easy to mistake the diversity of denominations represented at the Divinity School for eclecticism or pluralism and thereby lose sight of the goal of ecumenism: “that they may all be one” (John 17:21).

Holistic Understanding of the Theological Vocation
In a landmark essay titled “Theology and Sanctity,” Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar makes a remarkable observation. Since the Middle Ages and the rise of the university theology school, very few saints have been theologians and very few theologians have been saints. For all intents and purposes, theology and spirituality have been divorced. When John Wesley paused to consider the state of the Methodist societies, he asked,  “Why is it that the people under our care are no better?” The answer that he gave is telling: “Other reasons may concur; but the chief is, because we are not more knowing and more holy.” It is easy to forget that, from the beginning, Methodists wrestled with the question of how to form leaders for the movement, and the chief deficiencies they identified in their preachers were a lack of knowledge and of holiness.  

Duke Divinity School is not a church. Yes, many professing Christians are in this institution. We use words that would not be heard in other schools in this university, such as covenant, obedience, worship, and truth. But the Divinity School is not a church. For one thing, it does not baptize. Nevertheless, the fact that spiritual formation is part of the curriculum of the Divinity School says something important about the kind of academic excellence pursued in this place. The intellectual virtues and the moral virtues are meant to grow together. I think it is not too off the mark to say that the hope for our graduates is that they will be, in the words of von Balthasar, “kneeling theologians.” We want to train holistic intellectuals whose practice of science (wissenschaft) is purified and perfected by the gift of the spirit of wisdom.

Duke University’s motto, Eruditio et Religio, was adopted at a time when the roads connecting Berlin to Aldersgate and Athens were heavily travelled. Times have changed, and Charles Wesley’s plea to “unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety” names a need and a deep-felt desire that the Methodist movement bequeathed to Duke University and the Divinity School.

The Road Less Travelled
I began these reflections by locating Duke on the map of theological education with the assistance of David Kelsey’s cartographical categories. I have described the markers defining the road that connects Duke Divinity to the Methodist Church with the hope of making a case for the importance of maintaining and improving these roads. Fred Herzog, professor of theology at Duke, pointed out that there was a big omission on the map sketched by Kelsey. Kelsey had asked what is “theological” about theological education, but Herzog proposed that in order to answer the question, the map that traced clear routes to Berlin and Athens had to be expanded to include cities like Lima, Perú. There was one thing lacking from the North American theological school and from Duke Divinity—poverty.

Poverty and truth often have a profound connection. In Plato’s account of Socrates’ trial before the people of Athens, Socrates declares his conviction that he is a gift of God, a gadfly sent to arouse the city of Athens from its philosophical slumber. As one might expect, the Athenians asked him for proof. What evidence did he have to substantiate such a bold, even boastful, claim? To which Socrates replied, “I have a sufficient witness that I speak the truth, namely, my poverty.” Socrates did not profit by his teaching. On the contrary, his love for the truth had led him to neglect his familial and civic responsibilities. Socrates had rich friends who wanted to use their wealth and influence in his defense. But to their consternation, Socrates waived all such offers, because he recognized that such powerful allies actually weakened his case. Socrates understood something that the Wesleys underscored. Voluntarily embracing poverty and understanding the truth are related. Studying at Christ Church in Oxford, befriending the poor, and visiting the imprisoned belong together.

The connection between poverty and theology is one that has become clearer to me as I have travelled to Central America to work with the Methodist Course of Study in El Salvador. While in that country, I have had the opportunity to visit the small house that serves as a martyr’s shrine to Archbishop Óscar Romero. One of the items displayed there is his episcopal miter with the motto Sentir con la Iglesia. This phrase, which has its origins in the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, is hard to translate. It can mean “to think with the church” or “to feel with the church” or “to perceive with the church.” The experience of teaching theology in the land of confessors and martyrs has led me to ask, What has Durham to do with San Salvador? In a time of civil war, Romero thought that the seminary was the hope of the church in El Salvador. What would it mean to make the Ignatian phrase Sentir con la Iglesia the goal of the Pauline exhortation, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” which we have engraved in the walls of Duke Divinity?

The implications of Romero’s motto for theological education were spelled out by one of his priests, the Jesuit scholar Ignacio Ellacuría. First, Sentir con la Iglesia calls for thinking with the poor. In the words of Ellacuría, “The university should become incarnate among the poor, it should become science for those who have no science, the clear voice of those who have no voice.” Building a road that connects Duke to El Salvador or even to East Durham requires a reassessment of our research agendas. Perhaps the most important questions for disputation are not coming from Berlin, Athens, or even from Aldersgate. Perhaps the most important questions are coming from Central Prison in Raleigh or Roca Eterna (Eternal Rock Evangelical Methodist Church) in Ahuachapán.

Second, Sentir con la Iglesia calls for suffering with the poor. Ellacuría continues, “If our university had suffered nothing during these years of passion and death for the Salvadoran people, it would mean it had not fulfilled its mission as a university, never mind displaying its Christian inspiration.” What would it mean to say that Duke Divinity School remained unaffected by the struggles facing the United Methodist Church? What witness would be offered by a theology school that is flourishing while its hometown languishes under economic inequities? If chief among Duke University’s goals is the pursuit and application of “knowledge in service to society,” and if at the heart of the mission of Duke Divinity School is “service and witness to the Triune God in the midst of the church, the academy, and the world,” then an expectation of suffering should be concomitant with a commitment to service.

If Romero is right about the seminary being the hope of the church, then perhaps Duke Divinity can be a sign of hope for the United Methodist Church precisely by reminding it of its origins in a university-bred movement that combined poverty with truth. No doubt someone will dismiss this possibility as a dead end. The way looks too utopian—but this is to be expected for an institution trying to stay in touch with the teachings of a poor, itinerant rabbi “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). Perhaps the dirt roads of El Salvador are the shortcuts connecting Durham with Jerusalem, where all roads lead to the cross—from whence comes the true hope of the world.