What Ought We to Do? Who Ought We to Be?: The Ethics of Theological Education

James A. Donahue

GTU President Donahue delivered his inaugural address to the GTU community and friends on February 15, 2001.

I am thrilled, honored, and humbled to be standing here. Whatever privileges I've had in my working life—and there have been many—they all have been superceded by being with you today at my alma mater, the Graduate Theological Union.

I don't believe that many things in life happen by chance. After all, I am Irish Catholic. But neither do I think that the predestination is too specific. This, in spite of being steeped in Calvinism in my years at Princeton Seminary. What I do believe is that our being here together at GTU is the convergence of ideas, people and currents that have brought us rightly to this moment in time—because together here we can imagine and pursue the fullest possibilities for this wonderful institution, the Graduate Theological Union.

But discovering and realizing those possibilities—that is very much our own creative work. I can promise you my own deep commitment to GTU's most illustrious future and my full heart and energy every day to bring it about.

Top of Page ^

This is how GTU began, after all. With a vision, back in 1962, that converged with the currents of social change at the time. If you're old enough to remember, and clearly I qualify for that distinction, you know that was a time when institutions, religious traditions and cultural enclaves were beginning to look at each other in new ways. The founders of the GTU began doing what at the time seemed like a radical thing: talking to one another about things that were important.

These founders believed that the future of religious renewal and education in this world depended on the willingness of faith traditions to come together in the midst of differences. Their vision was that together the denominational seminaries could be more and do more than any particular seminary could on its own. That meant acting on what was really their mutual mission: to come to a knowledge and understanding of God's will for the people of this world.

Today we gather to celebrate that dream and vision so well carried out. And to commit ourselves to taking up our part in moving it into this new time.

When I look back on the founding of the GTU I am struck by two particular acts of courage. One, the courage it took on the part of the founders as they forged this new experiment and actually signed those GTU agreements. Each school and president was agreeing to "give something up" in the confidence that better things would come. What a bold idea—to give something up!

Top of Page ^

And two, think of the enormous act of courage it took for each of the seminaries—for any educational institution—to give over its own library to create one library shared by all. Again, the belief was there that a successful future was a collaborative future. Today the GTU library sparkles as a testament to the power of collaboration—and for transcending differences.

There are surely other theological consortia in other major American cities today. There are other superb graduate programs in theology and religious studies. The distinctiveness of the GTU lies, however, in the way its many excellent schools have bonded together in structural ways to create a common vision, to integrate students, faculty, degree programs, curriculum, library resources, and facilities.

The GTU is the consortial schools that make it up. The GTU degree programs and the library provide a unifying center for the GTU's identity. But to speak of the GTU is to speak of CDSP. It is to speak of The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, and SFTS. We are truly one institution and at the same time nine seminaries and eleven affiliate centers and research units.

Our distinctiveness is marked as well by the way that we combine two types of theological education. One is the professional education that prepares men and women for ministry provided in the curricula of the member seminaries. The other is the academic program that forms the core of the Ph.D. and M.A. programs. At the GTU our uniqueness lies in the way we integrate the academic and the professional in our educational programs, such that the practical informs the theoretical, and where theory gives rise to practice. The GTU is a place where religion and faith are both studied and practiced, and integrated.

Top of Page ^

There are some who claim that these are contradictory goals —that thinking critically and believing deeply are somehow opposite endeavors. I believe this is false. To do theology and religious studies in the context of faith commitments does not suggest that critical scholarship give way to the mysteries and imprecisions of faith. It means only that the way we think and study is one that incorporates rich and distinctive ways of construing a problem. Our vision at the GTU is fiercely academic and yet based profoundly on the issues and ideas that arise from the faith traditions in our consortial union. No one else does theology quite the way we do here.

The GTU today is a thriving example of what can happen when dialogue takes place, when an atmosphere of shared exploring is opened and given freedom. Those of you who attended the panel earlier today witnessed the GTU in action.

This didn't happen just by the power of good intentions. It never does. It happened because the people who shaped the consortium, developed it and worked it along the way saw the GTU in terms of its particular vocation. Or, in the language that we ethicists like to frame our conversations, they saw the GTU in terms of its moral identity, its character.

Top of Page ^

That's what I'd like to look at with you briefly here as we envision GTU's future together.

It's helpful sometimes to think about the moral life of institutions as similar to that of individuals. I am grateful to my mentors Karen Lebacqz, Philip Selznick, and Charles McCoy here at GTU and Cal, who first taught me to understand the importance of institutions to the moral life. Of course, the analogy between institutions and individuals isn't exact. Organizations aren't individuals. But both search for moral direction in similar ways.

Both look to past experiences of self and others. To traditions and the texts of traditions. To insight gained over time. To the practices of the living community of which one is a part. To leaders who have shaped an organizational direction. To the basic mission to which the institution is committed. To the context of the times in which the institution exists. Each of these separately and collectively together offers a sense of moral direction. A moral compass, you could say.

Top of Page ^

What are those points on the moral compass for GTU? There are three:

First point on the moral compass to which we look is our past collective experience.

The vision of the founders is what got GTU started. It is the experiences in pursuit of that dream of those individuals that set an ambition level that remains with us. Two of these gentlemen, John Dillenberger and Claude Welch, are here today. In talking with them you realize the power of the ecumenical spirit that was throbbing in the hearts and minds of the founders in those formative years for GTU. There were sometimes profound differences in theology and ecclesiology, and in politics—there were also some colorful political forays along the way—but there was always a commitment to providing a theological education exactly suited to the times in which we live and always a belief in the possibilities of dialogue.

Moreover, there was the conviction that this dialogue is not only with other religious traditions, but also with other academic disciplines, with other organized ways of construing knowledge and its problems. To bring that about at the highest level, GTU sought to link its theological curriculum to the finest university for graduate education in the country, our neighbor and partner, the University of California at Berkeley.

Top of Page ^

There has also always been at the GTU a belief that context makes a critical difference to theology, in our case, the context of the remarkable location in which we find ourselves, the Bay Area of California. What piece of geography is richer than this in advancing social movements and stirring religious currents that anticipate the rest of the nation and the world? The GTU founders wanted to ensure that the theological work we do here is grounded in the realities of the actual issues and problems of the day and our graduates would be leaders who speak with wisdom about the traditions, the texts, and the times.

Second point on the GTU moral compass: we look for guidance to the practices that the institution has developed and currently lives. The GTU has always been "forward looking" (some would say "cutting edge" /"out there") on theological, social and cultural issues. It began with ecumenical issues in the 1960's—raising sometimes uncomfortably the challenging issues of difference.

Top of Page ^

The GTU in the 1960's and 70's then began to address issues of race, class and gender—knowing they bore directly on the theological integrity of the theological work being done by the students and scholars here. It founded the first Center for Women and Religion in this country that continues to thrive today. It founded the Center for Ethics and Social Policy to address the linkages between theology, ethics and public policy. It was one of the first centers of its kind. At the GTU was founded the Center for Urban Black Seminarians to address the needs and issues of African American students and ministry. The Center for Jewish Studies came to be a result of the realization that an ecumenical dialogue can only be enriched by including all faith traditions in conversation. The Center for Arts, Religion and Education has helped us flourish as a center for theology and the arts. The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences is perhaps the most renowned research center in the world today addressing issues of the relationship between religion and science. This year PSR opened the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry for work on addressing the theological issues attendant to the sexual orientation.

The practices of the GTU have always been progressive and yes, daring. They manifest a tradition of openness to the currents of change, to the listening of the needs and concerns of others, of respect for the others with whom we share this world, and of incorporating the ideas and concerns of others into the framework for the theological work we do here.

Top of Page ^

Third point on the moral compass that gives us insight is our formal yet flexible structures and a discerning reading of the signs of the times. The genius of the GTU from the start has been the idea that collaborations need to be formalized. But institutional structures do not always allow for human life or good ideas to flourish. Structures can turn into strictures. The practice of the GTU has been to structure definitively its relationships where necessary—with the University of California Library, for instance. With certain UC Departments to offer joint degree programs. With affiliate centers like the Institute for Buddhist Studies, and the Center for Orthodox Studies.

But the GTU has also had a keen eye for when not to formalize a relationship. For responding to situations in ways that are appropriate and necessary to what is called for at the time. For knowing when goals can be achieved informally.

GTU leadership has always been able to see what isn't yet. But with an eye that keeps its focus on the here-and-now. This calls for sensitive judgments of how ready people and institutions are to act—a bias for action when an envelope of opportunity exists around an issue.

Top of Page ^

What we have when we consult this GTU moral compass is a sense of the character and identity that make us who we are! In this character is written the direction of our future.

We must move in ways that are both consistent with our moral identity and yet transform us constantly in light of present and future possibilities. What then are the commitments for the future we can read from our moral compass?

Five, I suggest. One is our commitment to ecumenical and interreligious collaboration.

We were founded in the commitment of ecumenism in 1962, and that meant mostly Christians in conversation. Today to be ecumenical is to be broadly interreligious and interfaith. To be committed to a theological education whose dialogue partners are not only Christian but also Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu, among others.

To help realize this conviction we are committed to enhancing the Center for Jewish Studies at the GTU with the appointment this year of two faculty scholars in Jewish Studies. By developing the scholarly resources and profile of the Center, we can also help it serve as a resource for the entire religious community of the Bay Area, in particular the Jewish community. And our joint program with UC Berkeley in Jewish Studies, as well as the GTU context for interreligous dialogue, gives the Center a unique and compelling focus.

Top of Page ^

We will likewise expand our commitment to ecumenical and religious collaboration in Asian and Pacific Rim Theology and Religions, so that our graduates are fully equipped to address the theological issues that reflect the enormous importance of Asia in the world scene. I am pleased by the recent progress of the faculty—working group that is looking to coordinate our existing consortial efforts in this area in more focused and collaborative ways.

It will be important, as well, for the GTU to reflect the role of Islam in world religions, and we are committed to developing our resources in Islam in the consortium. One of our goals here will be to make the Muslim Christian- Jewish dialogue as strong in the GTU as in any theological institution in the world.

A second commitment that guides our way is to inclusiveness and the appreciation of all peoples. At the GTU we not only respect and appreciate religious differences but also the gifts of all races, genders, classes, ethnicities, and sexual orientations as well. We're committed to continuing our leadership in diversity through the people who are part of this community, through the methodologies of our academic disciplines, through the openness of the theological issues that we choose to study.

Top of Page ^

A third commitment which lights our path as we go is the underlying commitment to academic excellence in interdisciplinary study. We are indebted to the work of our present and former academic deans, Margaret Miles and Judith Berling for their work in strengthening our interdisciplinary efforts in the past decade. This interdisciplinary focus will continue to be a hallmark of the GTU's programs. Working across and between disciplines has frequently been a major challenge for the work of theology. I believe the GTU is, and will continue to be, the place among theological programs where interdisciplinary studies will allow our students and scholars the ability to shape programs adequate to study the complexity of the issues they seek to understand. We have the template of structural interactivity for it and a track record of excellence.

A fourth commitment that guides our way is our determination to be not only Graduate and Theological, but also united—truly united, truly consortial.

Our future challenge will be to structure our common life in ways that take advantage of the synergies among us. We live in economic times when the ability of any of our member schools to provide a full array of services to only their students will be severely challenged. Our successful futures will require even more collaboration than we have seen in the past in order to create economic efficiencies and economies of scale. We will need to think more consortially about the delivery of our services and education. We already operate a common library. We are looking at our mutual technology needs and the efficiencies that we can derive there. Extend that to consortial thinking about other matters—financial services, admissions, financial aid, development, and facilities. This will be sobering and hard work for all of us. I pledge to you both my challenge and support on these matters.

Top of Page ^

And fifth, we're guided by our commitment to be active participants in society, to our neighbors both near and far.

The GTU is not a theological cul de sac. It has always been a place of intersections. To traffic in intersections is to put oneself in the middle of at times converging, at times conflicting, movements of ideas, issues and people. We thrive there. It is in these intersections that the GTU has found its mission and I believe in which it will find its future. We have shown to the world in our brief history that it is possible to find common ground, to reconcile past actions and build agreements that nurture a more peaceful and plentiful future.

Because that's who we are, as GTU moves into the future I believe it will be appropriate for us to consider establishing the GTU as a center for promoting reconciliation, conflict resolution, dialogue, and forgiveness. We should envision mechanisms and forms by which we can create at the GTU ongoing ways of providing the theological and educational resources for dialogue among religious traditions, and a place that provides a context for resolving conflicts among peoples, cultures, and groups.

Top of Page ^

To look around this world is to see religions and cultures in conflict. The world can learn from what the GTU is. And it is my commitment to use our gifted history of bridging difference to enhance the quality of relationships among peoples. This is practice. This is service.

We come to this point in our history as a Graduate Theological Union with a certain character and moral compass. And that compass guides us as we address that ongoing question, what ought we to do? Who ought we to be?

We ought to use our commitments, skills, and strengths—to ecumenical and interreligious collaboration, to inclusiveness, to excellence across disciplines, to unity in our efforts, to active participation in our times—to advance that one big commitment—the new, new thing—and that is our commitment to find ways to use our strengths and gifts in the service of God and others.

Top of Page ^

This is a remarkable time to be engaged in the study and practice of religion. Individuals are flocking to find their religious roots. The ranks of many religious denominations are swelling, while others are shrinking. There is a hunger for spirituality and deeper meaning in today's complex techno-economy. Religious conflicts today are deep-seated, often erupting in violence. Religious denominations are being challenged by a changing culture to address issues they never knew before. Religion is experiencing a rebirth of legitimacy in the academy. We're even seeing a new embrace of faith-based programs in government circles for delivering social services. And leaders in public life and the private sector call out for attention as they face ethical issues that affect their nation.

In the midst of this dynamic and exciting world stands the Graduate Theological Union—and it is the most creative enterprise in theological education that this nation has ever seen.

We are rigorous thinkers and we are passionate doers. Our charge is to take up the work from here. Our success at that lies in our ability to see for our time what those visionaries saw nearly 40 years ago and hold on to the courage that brought life to this grand Graduate Theological Union.

May we do it well, may we do it together, and may we do it joyfully.

Thank you for being here.

Top of Page ^