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By Elizabeth Drescher
As Arthur Holder prepares to retire as GTU Dean, I imagine many of his former students and advisees are struggling, as I have been, to find the right words to express the scope and meaning of Arthur’s contributions to our academic and personal lives. This has been frustrating, but the truth is that it’s not really my fault. So many of the gifts Arthur shared with me came with few words themselves—rescuing me from an ill-fitting advising situation; standing up for my work behind the scenes with faculty who didn’t quite get it or didn’t think I could do it; steering me toward research, speaking, publishing, and teaching opportunities; opening the path toward my first academic position and listening patiently when it seemed necessary to leave; and supporting me directly and indirectly as I crafted a new way to do the work I felt called to do. All these things came about with the same calm, kind, pastoral demeanor that attended to my own developing understanding of myself as a scholar, educator, and writer. Sure, there were lots of words in the margins of my papers and the dissertation itself, but these were always framed by the sustained experience of Arthur as a generous and caring educator, a thoughtful mentor, and an accomplished, humble, and profoundly moral academic exemplar.
This last bit—Arthur Holder as an academic exemplar—has been no small thing for me even as I’ve followed a somewhat less conventional vocational path. As a graduate student, I often referred to Arthur, particularly with regard to his steady and substantive work on the spirituality of the early Middle Ages and especially through the writings of the Venerable Bede, as “a meat and potatoes historian.” Arthur’s sustained attention to this body of work offered a depth and richness to the developing discipline of Christian spirituality, and to religious studies in general. Arthur’s scholarship also showed me that a solid, substantive, historical grounding in traditional spiritualities earned one a right to venture further afield, to experiment, to play, even, with the dusty tomes, methods, and, importantly, culture of a discipline.
In his 2010 Presidential Address to the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality (SSCS), Arthur laid out a bold and provocative challenge. Of course, he did it with tremendous grace, with deep respect for the culture of his discipline, and with great enthusiasm for the possibilities that a reconsideration of the sources, methods, and motivations in the discipline might yield in terms of a Christian value he has long championed and modeled: Justice. Thus, he insisted, “Future scholars in a truly pluralistic field of Christian spirituality will learn to ask, ‘How can this text help us serve the cause of justice?’”
I cannot say how much I have answered that question, but I can say that Arthur’s influence on me as a scholar, an educator, and a wobbly sort of disciple myself keeps it alive in my work. It is a question that points us toward the benefits pressing beyond the “classic” boundaries of any discipline and of attending to even what appear to be the most marginal of approaches and perspectives so we can open new ways of seeing and understanding a rapidly changing world. It is a question, furthermore, that carries with it a gracious acceptance of both the solidly traditional and the often uncertain frameworks of the new. It is a venerable question from among the most venerable of scholars and educators I have known, Arthur G. Holder. I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to keep trying to put it into practice.
Elizabeth Drescher (PhD, ’08) is Adjunct Associate Professor of Religion and Pastoral Ministry at Santa Clara University and author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford, 2015).