A speech delivered at the GTU Commencement May 13, 2004
by Uriah Yong-Hwan Kim
Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible, Canisius College
President Donahue, Dean Holder, Associate Dean Maloney, Chairperson Weiser, GTU Staff and Faculty, fellow graduates, and our friends and family:
When I first visited the Graduate Theological Union back in spring of 1998, I was most impressed by its location. The GTU library stood on top of a hill, known by locals as “Holy Hill,” overlooking the beautiful San Francisco Bay. I relished the thought of spending my days under the clear, blue sky and in a very comfortable climate. Now after spending close to six years on Holy Hill, I realize that the breathtaking location and the comfortable climate belie what really goes on on Holy Hill. On any given day, you can see hundreds of students and professors toiling away in the library and classrooms—reading, writing, debating, and searching—sometimes forgetting to inhale the fresh air or to soak in the sunshine or to enjoy the view of the Bay. There is a serious business going on on Holy Hill.
What are we doing here that is so important? In spite of what Qohelet, a preacher of old, said—“There is nothing new under the sun”—we are toiling away in the hope of finding something new that will contribute to the knowledge of God, religious practices, sacred scriptures, and other religious and theological issues. We are in the business of producing knowledge.
What are we doing here that is so important? Ignoring the advice of Qohelet, who said—“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh”—we are busy with dissertations, thesis papers, articles, and books that will become part of the discourse on religion and theology. We are in the business of producing knowledge that, we hope, will make a difference in the way we understand the Divine, the nature, the world, and our relationship to them and to one another.
We produce and teach knowledge on Holy Hill not as individuals in a vacuum, but, as Foucault reminds us, as individuals connected in networks of power relations. We all contribute to the GTU’s network of power relations, and we all benefit from our connection to it. I know that I have benefited from the GTU faculty’s reputation and connections in our field. I found out during my job search how highly respected and well connected the GTU faculty is. And I will owe as much to the GTU and its faculty as to my own genius when my dissertation gets accepted as part of the discourse on religion and theology.
I wish the GTU, its faculty and graduates much success. I pray for my teachers to be even more successful in their careers than they already are. Not only because I like them personally, but also because the rise in their stocks as scholars will benefit me as well. I know they will wish me the best, not only because they like me, but also because when I do well, they will be honored as well. I wish you, my fellow graduates, much success. We will all benefit from each others’ successes.
But there is something else we produce on Holy Hill that is just as important as knowledge. We produce jeong on Holy Hill. Jeong is a Korean word that describes “stickiness” in people relations. Think of a bowl of rice. It starts out as hard individual grains, but when you add water and heat and wait a few minutes, then you get grains of rice that stick to one another. That is how jeong is formed as well. Individuals become connected through shared experiences and frequent contacts.
Jeong is not a grand idea like love that requires special actions, but rather it is a product of everyday things that we do that form and maintain relationships—eating, drinking, talking, working together … spending time together.
We go about producing jeong on Holy Hill every day, wherever and whenever we come together. In the GTU library, for example, I have formed jeong with many members of the library staff and other library patrons, simply by making eye contact or giving them a smile whenever I have gone to the library. Although among the library patrons, there were some people who were nuisances to me—like internet hoggers, socks-takeoffers, and noisemakers—but when you see them often enough, there is this “stickiness,” jeong that is formed between you and those people. You actually miss them when you don’t see them. And that is a secret of jeong: it can be formed inadvertently.
However, jeong can also be produced deliberately. For example, I have formed jeong with Terry Tanner and Gloria Motley over the years; this happened because whenever I visited the third floor of the GTU building, I made an effort to spend some time conversing with them.
Then there are my three amigos—Chris, Joe, and Moses—for whom I have much jeong. Four of us never had a class together, but we made efforts to spend time together. We got together for birthdays and we had several “men’s night out”—it sounds a bit risqué, but it was pretty lame. Anyway, the point is: We made efforts to produce jeong deliberately.
And that, too, is how we form jeong with God—through frequent contacts and shared experiences: through worship, prayers, fighting for justice, caring for the sick, and feeding the poor. And while worship, prayer, and justice are all important in their own right, the jeong we form with God as we work for these things is no less important. In the same way, while the knowledge we produce on Holy Hill is what the GTU is known for, the jeong that is formed here is no less important. The connections between the people here not only enable scholarship, they are what we need as people.
When I leave the GTU, I will miss the people on Holy Hill terribly. I will miss the jeong I have formed with the people at the GTU. At Canisius College in cold, snowy Buffalo I will do my best to produce as much jeong as I have received on Holy Hill. For I know that I need to produce jeong … to be human… perhaps that’s what God needs also and wishes us to produce as well.
Finally, I say with confidence that on Holy Hill we produce both knowledge and jeong. As I’m preparing to leave the GTU, I’m confident that the best thing about the GTU is not its breathtaking location or its comfortable climate or even its venerable reputation, but the people with a lot of jeong.
So, remember, we may be evaluated by the knowledge we produce in the academia, but we will be connected and remembered by jeong we produce with people we encounter. To neglect either one is to fail to fulfill our responsibility as scholars and people.
So, remember, it is true that the production of knowledge will help us get jobs or continue with our studies, but it is jeong, it is the production of jeong with God and with one another, that will keep us connected.