Dear Colleagues of the YDS Class of 1961:
The invitation to members of the YDS Class of 1961 to post on this web site some reflections about early 60s aspirations in relation to the present situation—however we might define ‘the present situation’—is a welcome and forbidding task. Not the least of the forbidding is that this site is unprepared for a book and my classmates are wisely uneager to read such and I am incapable of writing such. So, some notes on traversing from then to now.
Like many of my classmates, I arrived at YDS under the impression that I was ascending into the ranks of the well-educated elite who were ready to consume whatever quasi-liberal YDS had to offer. I had graduated from the University of Oklahoma with over sixty hours of philosophy and considered myself well read in western philosophy and embracing a Christianity heavily formed by Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. It was crystal clear to me that my vocation was somehow teaching in higher education.
I had married my high school sweetheart, Sarah, in the preceding spring and we moved into Bellamy Hall of the new married-student housing. I loved every minute of my life at YDS: the classes, the faculty, but also the unending conversations with other students, who seemed so ‘smart’ and committed. Chapel, common room coffee and conversations, basketball and volleyball in the gym, tennis on the new courts—what excesses of joy and learning! By the time I graduated from the B.D. program, Sarah and I had two children, completely unplanned, but then also bearers of previously unimagined and unfathomed blessings.
But a theological tornado struck me during my first year, and I must try briefly to state it clearly, considering that its aftermath will reverberate throughout my personal and professional life. Because of my background in philosophy as an undergraduate, I was allowed by my adviser to take the yearlong course in systematic theology, being taught by Julian Hartt in the first semester and Robert Calhoun in the second. In that first semester Hartt required the class to read Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Vol. II/1: The Doctrine of God (1957). Put in its simplest terms, Barth drew a prolonged and carefully examined contrast between two methods by way of which the church’s theologians have defended or attempted to justify the church’s knowledge of God—or in the way I would come to put it: ways in which the grammar of God might be constructed and elaborated. The first attempt has long been credible in traditions that assumed there was a basic rational or natural grammar available to anyone. Or, the language of much Christian theologizing in the 19th and early 20th century, the first task is locate God-talk on a spectrum of human epistemic and moral possibilities, and then symbolically construct what might be peculiar to the church. But Barth turned that grammar on its head, declaring that at the heart of the church’s language has been the belief that God reveals Godself in Jesus Christ. Rather than trying to locate this possibility along the spectrum of inherent human possibilities, Barth proposes this self-revealing of God is what must be taken as given, from which we can then explore what sort of grammar is implicit in the claim that God is known as the One who reveals Godself in Jesus Christ. The first part of this volume then proceeds before our eyes to unfold how that sort of self-revelation is rooted in the divine life itself.
Most of you know how that would further unfold, and I suspect many my classmates have spent a lifetime simply dismissing Barth, but then struggling to find some presumably rational defense against the self-conscious atheistic philosophers of our time. Or simply giving up the hope that there is any case of whatever sort to be made in defense or explanation of prime Christian beliefs and practices. Well, reading Barth in that first semester turned my life around and gave me an agenda I sometimes wished I could cancel, but more often feel blessed to have been so turned around or turned upside down!
In the fall of 1961 I entered the doctoral program at Yale in philosophical theology. By the time I had started in this program, Tillich had definitely faded from interest, Barth had become a challenging conversation-partner, Kierkegaard and Hegel had re-merged, linguistic philosophy of all sorts, including Wittgenstein, moved front and center, with Paul Holmer kibitzing from the sidelines. I moved among Hartt, Holmer, Frei, Lindbeck, Gustafson, and Christian, and caught some last days of H. Richard Niebuhr and Robert Calhoun, and downtown in philosophy with Smith, Weiss, Brumbaugh, and Sellars. It was a treat!
My dissertation topic became issues surrounding the interpretation of Barth’s understanding of divine revelation, now viewed through the lens and tools of ‘analytic philosophy.’ I left Yale in 1965, dissertation unfinished, to take a position in philosophical theology at Perkins School of Theology at SMU in Dallas. [Kennedy had been shot in Dallas in 1963.] I considered the faculty at Perkins to be one of the best in the nation and was delighted to be invited to join them.
Interlude: when I entered OU in 1954, all male students were required to take two years of military training. To avoid being drafted, in 1956 I also entered the advanced Army ROTC, knowing that the cost of not being drafted was a commitment to serve two years in the Army as a commissioned officer. I graduated with high honors in 1958, had my pick of branches, and in good Niebuhrian style chose the Infantry. I knew by then that I would be deferred to go on to graduate school at Yale. Still, two years was out there in the future as a time of military service. On June 6, 1963, I was ordained in my tradition, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and duly reported such to the Army in my annual request for another year of deferment to continue my studies at Yale. To my surprise, they immediately wrote back inquiring whether I would like to transfer to the Chaplaincy, and I replied, in good tough liberal style, that I preferred staying in the Infantry. And they quickly replied inquiring, without explanation, whether I would like to apply for an honorable discharge with no further military obligations. In utter surprise and astonishment at this offer, I said yes. It had never previously dawned on me that being ordained would complicate my military commitment, and to this day their offer of an honorable discharge only makes sense to me in terms of the Army’s apparent unwillingness to have an ordained minister serving as a field officer in the Infantry.
Thus, the military obligation disappeared and my life could go on without serving the two years. Vietnam had not heated up by then as it would later. It is a common belief in our family that I would not have survived what eventually became known as the Vietnam War; the lives of Infantry lieutenants in the field of combat were short. There it is in its utter bafflement. Many years later I would consider myself in league with Christian pacifists, but in 1963 I was not a pacifist and was still under the impression that our intervention in Vietnam was defensible in that rough and tumble way of Reinhold Niebuhr’s strong reservations about communism and its various aggressions.
Arriving to teach at Perkins in the summer of 1965, we settled in Richardson, a northern suburb largely populated with Texas Instruments engineers and a brand of racist and fundamentalist churches exercising political control over the town. Even though President Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, resistant racism seemed everywhere in greater Dallas. Johnson would defeat Goldwater in 1965 under the impression that he alone would not mire the nation a long war in Vietnam. Yet, by 1968 there were 542,000 American troops in Vietnam. The war itself was getting caught up that huge cultural earthquake that would shake me and, I am sure, all of us who were 1961 YDS graduates, wherever we were. Martin Luther King would be assassinated on April 4, 1968, and on June 5th, Robert Kennedy, then a Democratic Party candidate for president, was assassinated. In November, Nixon—much despised by the left—defeats Hubert Humphrey—unsupported by the left—for president. After inflicting frightful causalities on the Vietnamese but unable to achieve military victory, in 1973 Nixon orders a complete U.S. evacuation of Vietnam. A defeat leaving over 58,000 U.S. military dead and over 300,000 wounded, and an estimated 42,000 draft evaders living outside America, as well as over 1 million Vietnamese combatants and over 4 million non-combatants dead. A defeat predictably indigestible to stalwart ‘America-first’ citizens that will haunt and fracture U.S. politics right up the present day.
As all of us also know, the sociopolitical fabric of American life was being comprehensively fragmented by protests of war, of the continuing entanglement of racism in all aspects of social life, protests for women’s rights, gay rights, abortion rights—the list is long, but it is a list of the principalities and powers that were shaping all of us then and for years to come. And it would devastate much mainline church life: some theologians counseled that ‘God is Dead’, others pronounced the end of the sermon, the patriotic right retreated to a new form of right-wing political fundamentalism and the liberal left became skeptical whether it makes any intellectual and moral sense to be Christian in any traditional form. ‘Secular Christianity’ seemed attractive at first to many with its announcement of the demise of any defensible intellectual truth claims about God or Jesus. Is it any surprise that mainline graduate students in biblical studies would henceforth claim to be no more than historians of early Christianity?
Of course, I lectured continually in seminary and in churches about all these issues, yet I limped spiritually. But there were signals of grace all around me: 1) the faculty of Perkins were an amazingly robust and learned group daily embracing the stringent demands of intellectual conversation interacting with faithfulness; 2) our family began worshipping in a Disciples congregation in Richardson, Community Christian Church, that was blessed with an exceptionally energetic, fair-minded, earnest inquirers eager to worship God and to engage the larger social world in various political activities; 3) the discovery of friends in other traditions—Jewish, Roman Catholic, mainline folk, and struggling doubters—to form ad hoc social-action groups, such as CALL [Christian Action Laymen’s League] and LEARN [League for Education Advancement Richardson Now]; 4) a family of women—a devout wife unwaveringly committed to me and to our three young daughters, who are talky, indefatigable, clever, and blessed with attentive ears whenever adults gathered to talk politics, church, and the collapse of the old structure of social order.
But I experienced a vocational/intellectual/moral crisis—surely in all these ways a spiritual crisis—during the late 60s at Perkins. I had become offended by some developments in church and the world. The careless ways in which many in theology were caving into revisionary ways of construing God-talk and the meaning of the church concerned me. While I too had my doubts about some theological beliefs, I became convinced that some of the proposals being advanced were not merely reformative of Christian theology, but were in fact the demise of anything bearing an identifiable relation to Christian traditions. A basic question of honesty was emerging for me: either stay in church and get serious theologically or leave church and give up any pretense that one is a Christian. For me the only theological substance worth saving was a Radical Orthodoxy with a substantive Christology and a Trinitarian heart, closer to Barth rather than the later Milbankian sort. Only a church with those theological linchpins could possibly have sufficient integrity and conviction to survive the overwhelming sociopolitical upheavals surging in America and be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
My personal problem was that I was privately tortured as to whether I believed that sort of Radical Orthodoxy. And in the midst of that personal turmoil, my dissertation on Barth and the Concept of Revelation, languished in notes and imagined but unwritten pages. Perhaps I should just give up this project, forget the dissertation and the doctorate, resign from Perkins and find a teaching position in philosophy, or maybe go to law school. The depth of this struggle was not obvious to most colleagues and students, but at a pivotal point in the summer of 1969, Joe Quillian, the Perkins Dean, and Fred Carney, Professor of Christian Ethics, graciously intervened with wise counsel and devised a leave simply to finish the dissertation in utter seclusion during the upcoming fall semester. While it was never the dissertation I thought I would write, in three months time it was done and in January submitted to Yale.
In ways not easily summarized and encapsulated, I healed spiritually and became clearer about my vocation as a church theologian. While I have never retreated from strong opinions about the shape and politics of America, my own vocation was to help the church learn how to be the church in midst of that rankling and social conflict that did then and has ever since dominated American political life.
It was, then, this train of thought that in 1975 led me to accept an invitation to become Dean of the Graduate Seminary at Phillips University in Enid, OK, the university being founded before statehood by the Disciples of Christ for the education of ministers and teachers for the church. This is not the place in which to celebrate and explore the wonders of that seminary and its distinguished faculty, and then my acceptance of the invitation in 1979 to become President of the University. Essential to my undertaking these administrative tasks was a firm conviction that the university and the seminary had a purpose and character rooted in the church—not a church of a quasi-fundamentalist past, but a church with muscular convictions about the Gospel, the magnitude of God’s grace, and the challenge of being Christ’s church in relation to the world as we find it. It was at Phillips that I was able to clarify ecclesial convictions, percolating since Perkins, in this working definition of the church:
The church is that liberative and redemptive
community of persons
called into being
by the Gospel of Jesus Christ
through the Holy Spirit
to witness in word and deed
to the living triune God
for the benefit of the world
to the glory of God.
The following statement of the Gospel emerged as well:
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News
that the God of Israel, the Creator of all creatures,
has in freedom and love become incarnate
in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth
to enact and reveal God’s gracious reconciliation
of humanity to Godself, and
through the Holy Spirit calls and empowers human beings
to participate in God’s liberative and redemptive work by
acknowledging God’s gracious forgiveness in Jesus,
repenting of human sin,
receiving the gift of freedom, and
embracing authentic community by
loving the neighbor and the enemy,
caring for the whole creation, and
hoping for the final triumph of God’s grace
as the triune Ultimate Companion of all creatures.
Deteriorating health—an incessant, harsh, and deep cough—led to my resignation from Phillips in 1988, assuming that I would need some time to diagnose and heal what only four years later would finally be diagnosed as sarcoidosis of the lungs. That resignation also opened up an invitation to join the faculty at Christian Theological Seminary to teach theology and ethics and to be dean for four years. It was a gift that CTS offered an opportunity to return to systematic theological reflection, including teaching a yearlong course in systematic theology. It is the notes for this course that prepared the way for publishing in 2002, after my retirement in 2000, a two-volume work entitled, A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine [Rowman & Littlefield, 2002], which is still in print.
It was during those years at CTS that I entered into vigorous reading of the works of John Howard Yoder, then teaching at Notre Dame, and renewing conversation with Stanley Hauerwas, an old friend from YDS days and just a few years behind our 61 class. Yoder and Hauerwas helped me clarify the complex relationships between the church and the world that can properly empower the church to retain an identity that is neither conferred nor authenticated by the powers of the world.
In 2000 I retired from CTS and Sarah and I moved to back to Oklahoma to take up residence in a cabin on Ft. Gibson Lake that had been in the family since 1970 and had been the prime vacation spot for my family for all these years.
But the retirement here has been spiritually sobering. And I now get to a troubling point in these reflections: since my YDS days I have been teaching and administrating in church-related educational institutions and have received immeasurable joy in doing so. I was under the impression that such work would be strengthening to the integrity and truthfulness of the church’s witness in a world that was becoming incessantly acrimonious in discourse and violent in action. The church I was envisaging and teaching would eschew all efforts at a demonstrable epistemic superiority or presume that its grammar of divine revelation must be credible to all in some neutral epistemology. Hence, the church would become athletically confessional in word and deed for the sake of the world before God. Pastors, male and female, with acute intellectual and spiritual skill would steer deftly among that sort of Protestant fundamentalism and that sort of Roman infallibilism that seems to divide the world between the children of God and the Children of the Devil and inclined to go to war against the demonic enemies, and that sort of vaguely secular spirituality, morally tolerant, easy-going, and comfortable in a multi-cultural, free-enterprise world. A radically orthodox confessional church might staunch that unhappy deterioration in which the churches are no more than mirror images of a politically conflictual American culture. But that church that I had hoped to help mold and in which to worship and be addressed Sunday after Sunday by a disarming and upbuilding Gospel—that hoped for ecclesial world is rapidly fading. Alas, there are some fugitive congregations here and there across denominations and traditions, and yet the supply of the hoped-for-pastors blessed with such acute intellectual and spiritual skills dwindles as I write.
Yet I vacillate between understanding my sadness as a theological and existential disappointment or merely the disgruntlement of an aging former professor finding himself neglected and lonely in an ecclesial and secular world that has gone on a holiday. Might it seem odd that for all the years since YDS days I have been an unrepentant proclaimer of Universal Salvation—God’s grace is the ultimate verdict on us all!
Dear YDS classmates, I know many of you have traversed routes quite different from mine and bear wounds and disappointments as well as joys as we have emerged into our 70s. My reflections herein have been aimed at the question raised by our planning committee: how have you and I changed from our time at YDS fifty years ago to our present conditions of spiritual habitation.
For those who might be interested, I have maintained a web site since 2002 that was reorganized in 2010: www.grammaroffaith.com A bunch of sermons, prayers, essays, and a blog since 2010 are located there. Under the ‘blogs’ you might find one reflecting on H. Richard Niebuhr interesting, and another written on September 24, 2001 called “A Letter to the Churches After 9/11.” Under ‘writings’ there is a new posting of correspondence between me and Stephen Long, Professor at Marquette, that rambles over issues related to ‘Yale theology,’ classical theism, process theism, Barth, Wittgenstein, orthodoxy, and much more.
It should also be noted that Sarah, my high school sweetheart, and I have been married over 53 wonderful years and have brought three daughters into the world who are leading very interesting lives: Serene and Kindy were born during Yale days and Verity in Richardson. Serene Jones is now president of Union Theological Seminary in NYC and a distinguished theologian and author; Kindy Jones is Assistant Attorney General for the State of Oklahoma; Verity Jones, a former Disciples pastor and editor of DisciplesWorld, is now doing research under a grant from Lilly Endowment on uses of digital media in churches and religious institutions. Alas, Serene and Verity also received several Yale degrees. Sarah is retired as a licensed psychotherapist, but retains some activity as a trained spiritual director.
I look forward to our 50th Class Reunion in October and some engaging conversations as we remember where we have been and how we have travelled to get to these challenging times in which we now live.
Joe – firstname.lastname@example.org