This is a note I wrote to a friend:
Below is an interesting and sad take on Buechner’s term of teaching at Harvard Divinity School.
He missed community. I also sense that he is blaming it on “pluralism,” which I think is a mistake as I believe there can be “unity in diversity; holding us together in loving mystery.”
I think he was just a lonely guy and it makes me sad for him at that time in his life. He accuses students of being “dead fish.” I think he was a fish out of water.
My experience at Western Theological Seminary (a denominational seminary and not a divinity school) was just the opposite; it was four years filled with community, love and affirmation — perhaps it had more in loco parentis for fledgling clergy just learning to spread their spiritual wings and that was just fine even for those who were 21 to 25 and older chronologically but babes in faith, some might say “lambs before the slaughter.”
Perhaps there was too much “sameness” in those years, and I chafed at it a bit, and, of course, was never shy about speaking up, much to the chagrin of faculty, I’m sure. Then later I developed a theology/spirituality of prophet, priest on my own (something to fit my personality), but the nurturing spirit prepared me to go on my own in search and affirmation of community elsewhere — campus ministry, installed ministry, hospice ministry, interim ministry, adjunct teaching in pastoral care and preaching at Western, the RCA, PC(USA), the UCC and finally a sense of being a part of all of it and, yet, none of it anymore and that’s okay. I’m content being where I am, on the way as Dorothy Day would say: “All the way to Heaven is heaven, because He said, ‘I am the Way.'”
By the way, my wife Chris who just read Buechner’s meditation, wondered if he was just talking about himself and not bringing the students in at a place they could relate, say at the place of their “issues.” Perhaps his “sharing of secrets” was too threatening for them and he could have drawn them in over something less personal but important, nevertheless, and perhaps, thus giving them the courage to share on a more personal, feeling level. I knew there was a reason I married her.
HARVARD DIVINITY School was proud, and justly so, of what it called its pluralism—feminists, humanists, theists, liberation theologians all pursuing truth together—but the price that pluralism can cost was dramatized one day in a way that I have never forgotten. I had been speaking as candidly and personally as I knew how about my own faith and how I had tried over the years to express it in language. At the same time I had been trying to get the class to respond in kind. For the most part none of them were responding at all but just sitting there taking it in without saying a word. Finally I had to tell them what I thought. I said they reminded me of a lot of dead fish lying on cracked ice in a fish store window with their round blank eyes. There I was, making a fool of myself spilling out to them the secrets of my heart, and there they were, not telling me what they believed about anything beneath the level of their various causes. It was at that point that a black African student got up and spoke. “The reason I do not say anything about what I believe,” he said in his stately African English, “is that I’m afraid it will be shot down.”
At least for a moment we all saw, I think, that the danger of pluralism is that it becomes factionalism, and that if factions grind their separate axes too vociferously, something mutual, precious, and human is in danger of being drowned out and lost. I had good times as well as bad ones that winter term. I was able to say a few things that some of my students seemed to find valuable, and some of them said things that I value still, but if there was anything like a community to draw strength and comfort from there at Harvard as years before there had been at Union, I for one was not lucky enough to discover it.
– Originally published in Telling Secrets
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