In this post in my series “God and Man at Yale Divinity,” I discuss my fourth week in the M.Div. program and reflect upon the authority of community in religious life.
Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes
This week was my fourth week at Yale Divinity School. By this point, the beginning of the semester feels like a distant memory. As I progress in my studies, I am starting to consider my understanding of religious authority. I am particularly beginning to think about my understanding of Scripture and the authority of community.
Short Bursts of Work
I have discussed the workload at Yale in previous posts. I am busier with academics now than I ever was in law school.
Indeed, I have less free time now than I did when I was in the military. I used to watch an hour or so of television every day after work. Now, I can’t remember the last time I sat down and watched a television show alone for my enjoyment. I simply don’t have the time.
Over the weekend, I watched the Arkansas game, but that just really means that I turned it on while I did classwork. I kept the television on mute. I just had it on so I could look up from my books from time to time to see how badly Arkansas was losing.
The work, however, comes in bursts. Class is in session only about eight months out of the year. My Christmas break is about a month, and summer recess is about three.
There are also reading weeks scattered throughout the semester. While I intend to use those weeks to get work done, I won’t have to go in for class.
With this schedule, it’s easy to avoid burnout. There is always a break right around the corner.
The Yale Writing Center
As I discussed in my previous post, I am currently writing a book review for my World Christianity class. (I am writing on Lamin Sanneh’s Disciples of All Nations.) I want to get this done as early as possible so that I have time to submit the paper for review.
Yale has a Writing Center where you can work with someone more experienced to improve your writing. Most of the writing advisors are Ph.D. candidates at Yale.
I intend to finish my paper early enough that I can make an appointment with the Writing Center to go over it with someone. Writing is the foundation of what I’m doing here, and I want to be the best that I can be at it.
The work I can produce will determine my suitability for Ph.D. work. A book review is a good start, as I understand book reviews are excellent ways to gain publication credits early in a career.
Berkeley and the Authority of Community
As I have mentioned before, the Berkeley curriculum can be quite time-consuming. It will be particularly time-consuming for me for the next three weeks. My worship team will be responsible for running the worship services the week after next.
Everyone in Berkeley is assigned to a worship team. We rotate with other teams in running worship services for a week. This includes all the morning and evening prayer services. The most significant task, however, is preparing the Wednesday night Eucharist service.
This experience at Berkeley has helped me to appreciate the authority of community. Christianity is a communal faith. A proper understanding of the authority of community is, therefore, essential in living out the gospel. This week, I had the chance to begin to appreciate this better.
This Monday, I had my first worship team meeting to plan our worship week. I’ve been attending Anglican services for a few years now. I always assumed preparing for a service involved just looking up the date in the prayer book. Apparently, there’s a lot more to it than that.
There are more liturgical options from which to choose than I realized, and there is also an aesthetic aspect to the worship service that I never considered. (Arrangements of chairs and lighting, for example.) Here, there is an effort to match the aesthetics to the theme of the Wednesday evening gospel reading.
Even though I don’t intend to enter ordained ministry, understanding and learning to appreciate the process for preparing a worship service is vital because it helps me to delve deeper into the community.
Learning my part in the community as I participate in it helps me better incorporate the authority of community in my understanding of the faith.
The Authority of Community
This week has me considering once again the authority of community in the Christian life. In my Protestant upbringing, the authority of community was deemphasized to emphasize the authority of Scripture. I can’t help feeling now, however, that we went too far.
The Authority of Community and Scripture
For so long, faith was, to me, grounded only in Scripture. I even identified deepening and extending my knowledge of Scripture as the sole path toward holy living. To know Scripture was to know God.
I discovered over the years, however, that that is not the case. Right living does not naturally flow from right knowledge, and my reliance on that alone led me to laxity and sin in ways I did not expect.
Such knowledge of Scripture is a tool, an invaluable help. I, therefore, love acquiring it, both as an intellectual exercise and for the wisdom that it provides. But correctly applying Scripture requires prayer and submission to the tradition handed down to me.
Neglecting this allowed the chaotic forces of life and the sin in my heart to overwhelm the truth of Scripture. Scripture ungrounded in community and tradition is of minimal value for consistent holy living.
The teachings of Scripture can easily be distorted once the Bible becomes the only pillar in Christian living. It is a powerful support beam when working in tandem with other items of faithful support but quickly crumbles under the weight of life when acting alone.
In short, there is no authority of Scripture without the authority of community. The two work in tandem and cannot be properly separated from one another. Scripture was formed in community and must be applied in community.
Berkley and Authority of Community
Berkley really is a wonderful community here at Yale. I come from a conservative background, and I still consider myself an evangelical.
While my high view of Scripture may not exactly comport with the high view of Scripture of my youth, the culture of the evangelical movement remains in my DNA. Consequently, suspicion toward the Episcopal Church comes naturally to me, even amid my attraction toward it.
The Episcopalians at Berkeley, however, are wonderful, faithful people attempting to serve God just as I am. Perhaps the vibe here is significantly more progressive than that with which I am comfortable. I nonetheless love being part of this community.
Authority of Community in a Cloud of Witnesses
This week, I read The Life of Antony by St. Athanasius for my History of Early Christianity class. Reading this biography of the first well-known desert father provided a lot of encouragement and inspiration for me in my own spiritual life.
It also prompted me to reflect on my place in the broader Christian community. (This is perhaps ironic since it is written about a hermit.)
Even though the book is a bit hokey—there are several accounts about Antony’s fighting with demons and conversing with Satan—and it may take asceticism as an ideal a bit too far, it is inspiring to read about someone who devoted all of himself to the faith.
Hope in the Authority of Community
It is, however, at the same time discouraging. When I consider all of my failures, how I persistently come up short, even when I try my best to do what is right, I cannot help but despair. Reading how others were able to do it so well leaves me with an even greater feeling of hopelessness about my efforts.
It is a strange thing that Christians pursue, an ideal that cannot be reached, a goal that cannot be achieved. Knowledge, discipline, and spiritual exercises do not provide the tools necessary to get to this place. So, we hope for death as the final cleanser, the last ingredient to bring us to that place, to that divine fellowship for which we long.
But a good death is the culmination of, not the means to, godliness. For every saint that dies well, receiving it with gladness at the end of a life well-lived, there is a great mass of others, the rest of us.
What are we to do with our shortcomings? How are we to face death, other than hope that it will tarry a bit longer so that we may have more time to work toward something we shall never achieve?
Hope springs eternal in the face of futility. Yet, in looking toward the examples of the saints, we continue to hope and to strive nonetheless.
From Ouachita to Yale
Yale is a wonderful place to study. The academic offerings are extraordinary, as you would expect at such a storied Ivy League institution. To be part of a place like this is an incredible honor, and I am so grateful to be here.
It does contrast significantly with my experience at Ouachita Baptist University. I don’t merely mean it differs in terms of resources, prestige, or anything like that. The environment is different. The culture is its own.
Ouachitonian Presuppositions and Authority of Community
I came to Ouachita from a very conservative background with a near fundamentalist bent. The professors at Ouachita nurtured my faith while simultaneously providing me with the tools to think about faith critically and pursue legitimate scholarship.
Yet, all of this happened in an environment where certain evangelical presuppositions were assumed.
Authority of Community, Skepticism, and Yale
Yale, however, comes at things very differently. Yale does not approach Scripture with much in the way of institutional presuppositions. You can study Scripture as a believer, as literature, from the viewpoint of other faiths, or from the viewpoint of no faith at all.
There are, for example, several Jews in my New Testament class. These varying perspectives are invaluable. They provide me with the tools by which I can better see Scripture from all kinds of angles.
This manner in approaching Scripture also helps me to separate the study of Scripture from my faith, to analyze it as an academic exercise. I think that this is, in fact, valuable for my faith. It helps me to understand and appreciate Scripture for what it is to the best of my ability, while also keeping me from making it into an idol.
At the same time, it allows me to see the different ways in which Scripture can be utilized. It helps me apply it to my daily life, in the daily living out of my faith, while safeguarding its use for inappropriate or selfish means.
Authority of Community at Ouachita and Yale
Without Ouachita, however, I believe I would struggle more with what I’m learning here in relation to my personal faith.
Ouachita left me so grounded that I can accept viewpoints and often compelling scholarly arguments that may run contrary to the presuppositions I harbored at Ouachita without their undermining my faith in the Triune God. In fact, they enhance it.
It also helps that I am coming to Scripture from a significantly different place and with a different level of maturity and experience than I would have been had I come to Yale right out of college, as I had initially planned. I came to theological studies at an older age, and I am glad that I did.
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