Presentations at the ATS Roundtable Seminar for Newly Appointed Faculty in Theological Education October 25 - 27, 2002 by Barbara Horkoff Mutch, Regent College
The notion of survival is a current entertainment phenomenon as the "Survivor" television series repeats its Lord of the Flies melodrama in the Serengeti and Australia and the South Pacific. While the continents and players change, the dynamics of power and competition do not. Whether on a tropical island or the campus of a theological seminary, the struggle for survival is a concept with which we are familiar.
But some newly appointed professors see the light at the end of the tunnel. Your teaching load contains courses you have taught before. The eccentricities of your colleagues are becoming familiar and your family is laying a place for you at the supper table once more. Now that you are starting to feel hopeful about surviving these early years of teaching in a theological seminary, it is time to consider what it might mean to thrive.
Thriving is an interesting concept. One of the meanings of the word is "to grow vigorously." It's what we look for in a newly transplanted seedling so we know that its roots have taken hold in the new environment. It's what we look for in the development of a newborn baby-for the infant to double her weight in the first six months and to triple her weight by a year. Babies that don't follow some form of this pattern are diagnosed as "failing to thrive." If the conditions are right, thriving is what is expected in the normal development of living things: infants, plants, and professors. Much of the time, thriving is simply what happens if the climate and context are right.
There is a second nuance to the meaning of "thrive," however. The word is related to the same Old Norse word from which thrift is derived, adding the dimension of "wise economy in the management of resources." It seems that thriving includes the element of personal responsibility, of stewardship, of making the kinds of choices that enable thriving to take place. We hold neither the plant nor the infant responsible for its own growth, but for the mature human, specifically the new academic at a theological seminary, there may be some choices that are better than others when one desires to thrive.
By way of a model, let us consider a single text spoken of Jesus as he lingered in a setting that was at once both religious and academic. You remember the context: Jesus attended the feast of the Passover in Jerusalem at twelve years of age. Discovering their son to be missing as the group returned at the festival's conclusion, a panicked Mary and Joseph returned to the city to search. They found Jesus hanging out with the "seminary professors," the temple teachers, astounding them all by his knowledge and insights. One small verse at the end of this encounter sums up the time between his junior years and those of Christ's mature ministry, offering a model of what it truly means to thrive: "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in divine and human favor" (Luke 2:52).
And Jesus grew in wisdom. Isn't this one of the factors that draws men and women to higher education, to theological education in particular? We are privileged to work at institutions committed to the pursuit of wisdom, or at least to the pursuit of knowledge. Certainly a great deal of knowledge is required for the newly appointed seminary professor. We are responsible for the knowledge of a particular discipline, the foundation of a liberal arts education that allows us to teach with breadth and depth, the knowledge of how to teach and of how students learn, the knowledge of technology in order to keep up with and communicate what we know, the knowledge of cross-cultural issues and gender issues and plurality issues. We must gain an incredible amount of knowledge and the initial learning curve is phenomenally steep.
But wisdom is so much more than just knowledge. Wisdom lies in knowing the best things, the right things. Wisdom is the ability to discern and to exercise judgment. The people that I know of who are wise are mostly old or at least were born with an old soul. They listen more than they talk-a caution for those of us in a profession that pays us for our words. Wise people don't seem to have to get their names recorded in the minutes of the faculty meeting just so people will know they were present. Plato observed this centuries ago: Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something. The wise pay attention to what is going on around them, but they don't get distracted from what they are about. They develop discernment, a considerable challenge when we are so regularly faced with choices between the good and the best. "Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials" (Lin Yutang). The wise know they don't have to say yes to every opportunity. To thrive in wisdom means to listen, to pay attention, to discern.
And Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature. Stature refers to a person's physical being and height. How are we doing at remembering that we are embodied people? We tend to be more than a little Gnostic in theological seminaries, feeding the life of the mind at the expense of the whole person. Thriving people lead balanced lives.
Stature also speaks to an inner quality gained by development and growth. The way I read the New Testament, the Incarnation is a pretty big deal with concrete implications for how we live. Jean-Paul Sartre says that human beings create their own faces. Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, reflects on this by reminding us that when we are born, our faces don't say very much and any beauty we possess depends entirely upon genetics. This changes with each year of our life culminating at the age of forty when each person possesses the essential lines of a face. At that age we look different from anyone else in the world, even if we have an identical twin. Before forty, genetic endowment is dominant and that is why we can be selfish and still look beautiful. From forty onward, however, we look like who we are. If we are self-concerned, impatient, and resentful, our faces will show it. If we are grace-filled, grateful, and other-centered, that is what our faces will show. Our mission as people of faith, says Rolheiser, is to form our faces the right way, to live incarnationally, to grow in stature.
And Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God. What does it mean to thrive in favor with God as one who is committed to teaching and learning in a theological seminary? One of the many things I appreciate about Jones's and Paulsell's text The Scope of Our Art, upon which we have reflected during this seminar, is the way in which so many of the contributors keep coming back to Simone Weil's formative essay on "The Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God." Increasing our power of attention in academic work is a skill that improves our capacity to pay attention to God. In this way, academic work in every discipline has the capacity to be sacramental and draws the scholar toward a life of favor with God. Weil concludes her essay with the claim that "Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worthwhile to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it."
We haven't got the connection between academic study and love of God completely figured out yet. Books go missing from theological libraries, others are returned to the shelves of the bookstore with pages removed, critical thinking slips over into critical speech, and we forget how to pray in our pursuit of grades and grants and publishing bylines. Solzhenitsyn said that the line between good and evil runs right through each person's heart; and who will cut out a piece of her own heart? Thriving requires coming to terms with the ethical dimensions of our lives.
And Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in divine and human favor. What does it mean to thrive in human favor, especially on those days when a faculty family refuses to behave like the Brady Bunch and the campus feels like an episode of "Survivor"? I have been reading the journal of John Woolman, the eighteenth-century Quaker who worked tirelessly against slavery. He was filled with distress by what he described as "a spirit of fierceness and the love of dominion" which he sensed in the churches he visited on foot. What do we do with this "spirit of fierceness" that many of us encounter too regularly within our own beings? What do we do with the competitive spirits that strive on our campuses, fanned by competition for grades, choice internship sites, and advantageous TA positions? How do we eradicate the spirit of fierceness that clamors for recognition and dominion and status?
Teaching at a theological institution has the capacity to reveal our own selfishness. Daily we are faced with the necessity of attending to the presence of Christ residing in the others with whom we work and serve. What if we worked as hard to honor the other as to advance our own career paths? What if we sought out conversation partners and friends of the spirit? Might we in this way gain a glimpse of what it means to grow in favor with others?
Charles Garfield tells of hearing loud music as he approached the toll booths on the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge one day. He looked around and saw that the music was coming from the booth directly in front of him and that in the toll booth a man was dancing.
"What are you doing?" he asked the man when he drew near.
"I'm having a party," replied the toll booth attendant.
"What about the rest of the people?" Garfield asked.
"They're not invited!" the man responded.
Garfield had many more questions, but the truck driver behind him was honking his horn, so he made a mental note to follow up another time. A few months later, Garfield found himself on the bridge once again. Soon he heard the same loud music and saw the same man dancing in his tollbooth. "What are you doing?" he asked the man.
"Oh, I remember you. I'm still dancing. I'm having the same party," the man replied.
"What about the rest of the people?" Garfield asked.
"Just a moment," the man responded. "What do these look like to you?"
He motioned to the other tollbooths spanning the bridge.
"Tollbooths?" asked Garfield.
"Nope," said the man. "They're coffins. Every morning at 8:30 live people enter, but then they die for eight hours. At 4:30, like Lazarus, they emerge from their coffins and start to live again. Me--I'm going to be a dancer some day." He pointed to the administration building. "My bosses are in there and they're paying for my training. I don't understand why anyone would think my job is boring. I have a corner office, glass on all sides. I can see the Golden Gate, San Francisco, the Berkeley hills; half the Western world vacations here. . . and I just stroll in every day and practice dancing."1
We can choose to thrive in our vocation as seminary professors. It's a matter of learning to discern, letting our faces be formed the right way, living ethically, honoring the other. It's a matter of growing in wisdom and in stature, in divine and in human favor. Come, join the dance of a vocation lived out with joy.
© Barbara Horkoff Mutch. Used by permission.
- Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul (Health Communications: Deerfield Beach, 1995), 175-177.