Perceiving the Sacred Around Us

A Letter from Acting President Riess Potterveld

Although I am new to the Office of the President at the Graduate Theological Union, I have worked on behalf of the seminaries of the GTU consortium for thirteen years in a variety of roles as fund-raiser, academic dean, and president. Students and faculty have stated that a primal value for studying and teaching at the GTU has been the access to multiple institutions embodying such rich and diverse religious traditions. Individual institutions are valuable, but the whole, creatively interacting, is uniquely valuable. As president, I feel a deep commitment to the health and sustainability of each part as well as the whole union.

This place is wonderfully saturated with opportunities to learn about and to engage religions and cultures of the world through myriad intersections. At the intersection of art, faith, and spirituality is a fascinating current exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Titled Beyond Belief: 100 years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, all the works in this show are from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. On the final day of the exhibit, Sunday, October 27, I will moderate an interreligious panel discussion on art and spirituality at the museum. Joining me will be Devin Zuber, Pacific School of Religion; and Deena Aranoff, Center for Jewish Studies; This panel is sponsored by the GTU affiliated Center for Arts, Religion, and Education.

Art often juxtaposes a sense of universality with very particular and uniquely personal meanings. I remember standing in a Chicago gallery near a bronze sculpture of a mother and daughter created by my wife, Tara. In the sculpture, the mother figure is aged, withered, joints swollen with arthritis. The daughter is obviously more robust and comforting to the mother upon whom she lays one hand in tenderness. A viewer in the gallery observing the sculpture and silently weeping, turned to me, seemingly to explain her emotion: “I have cancer and I see both figures as myself – my mortality, my strength – wedded together.” The art form released her own deep and unique “reading” – her meaning.

The Beyond Belief exhibition will offer, I am certain, countless opportunities to ruminate on exactly how the sacred moves through our world and touches us, claims us, and causes us mysteriously to recalibrate the way we pursue our lives.

Part of what the GTU inspires through its seminaries, centers, programs, and affiliates is new thought, new constructions of meaning, new ways of perceiving the relevance and impact of our faith traditions on the cultures and societies in which our lives are embedded. Yet, I perceive that the surrounding world does not fully appreciate the power of the GTU self-description: “Where religion meets the world.” This mission hints at a generative power to create new and different and better worlds. To me this feels like a calling worthy of our investment.