In this post in my series “God and Man at Yale Divinity,” I discuss my first experience with cancel culture at Yale Divinity School.
Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes
In my last couple of posts, I have touched on the political homogeny that exists here at Yale Divinity School. I did so in an attempt to provide some perspective for potential students, and I did not intend to discuss the matter again.
This week, however, I had my first experience with the cancel culture at Yale, so, unfortunately, I feel the need to discuss the issue. It was, however, just a small part of an otherwise good week.
I do not want to give the impression that Yale Divinity School is steeped in militant politics, as the broader Yale community is often stereotyped in conservative media outlets. It’s not. This is a warm, welcoming place for most people, including conservative students who conduct themselves charitably and respectfully.
(While I think few people would deny that liberals can get away with more obnoxious behavior than conservatives can here, is it really a bad thing to be held to a higher standard?)
Regardless, I will just touch on the matter briefly. With the reading period last week, I feel like I haven’t written about the day-to-day at Yale in a while, and I don’t want to dedicate too much time to one unfortunate incident.
Before I discuss the cancellation of a speaker below, I want to touch on the regular day-to-day of the week.
The semester is about half-way over, which means that it is time for midterms. Only two of my classes have them: Introduction to New Testament I and Intermediate Greek. I had both exams this week.
The Greek exam required us to translate a passage from the New Testament without a concordance. For the New Testament midterm, the professor gave us in advance the pool of questions from which she would draw.
I did not study for these exams as intently as I have studied for tests in the past, most notably in law school.
In law school, I would set aside forty hours to study for each exam. I felt like doing that here, however, would be extreme overkill. I probably spent five hours studying for my New Testament exam and seven or eight hours for the Greek test.
I ended up getting an H—the YDS A+—on my Greek exam (the professor graded them quickly), and I feel pretty good about my New Testament exam. So, I think that’s probably the right amount of study time.
Research papers seem to be more heavily emphasized than exams here. (Many classes don’t have tests at all.)
I also got back my book review in World Christianity, my first paper of the semester. I did pretty well, so I felt pretty good about that.
Overall, academically, it was a pretty good week.
I used the reading period to work on papers. I did not take much time to relax at all. Instead, I completed all the research for my History of Early Christianity paper, which was rather extensive.
I think that perhaps I overdid it a little bit, but I have the chance to write a fairly decent paper.
I’m starting to get a bit concerned about my ability to get all these papers done, though. I hope to have that draft done by the end of the weekend, but I don’t know how realistic that is.
Concerning my papers in World Christianity and New Testament, I think I have the topics picked out. I still have to run my topic by the teaching fellow for New Testament, but I hope to have something off to him this weekend as well.
Having to write papers, however, does not cause everything else to slow down, though. So, November will be a hectic month. Fortunately, I have a week off for Thanksgiving, which I plan to use to wrap things up.
The end of the semester will be a happy time, not because I am not enjoying it—I am—but because I will have my first chance to look back and contemplate the semester. I am ready to see how I did, where I stand, and what I can expect going forward.
Considering the Trinity
As far as material for reflection, I have of late been contemplating the doctrine of the Trinity. In my History of Early Christianity class, we’re reading the writings of the Church Fathers during the fourth and fifth centuries.
This means that the bulk of the readings focus on attempts to work out the doctrine of the Trinity.
As I am reading through it and discussing it with other students in my section, I am remembering how difficult a doctrine it is to understand. It would be easy to collapse the issue down entirely with an admission that it is just an attempt to work out something that, at the end of the day, doesn’t make sense.
There cannot be three persons of a Trinity, each equally and wholly God, and yet there be only one God.
But is it really that simple to dismiss the doctrine? I understand that criticism, and I also understand the disdain that is shown to those who would conclude the argument with the simple statement, “It’s beyond our comprehension.”
This seems like a cop-out—even if it is true—particularly after proponents have spent so long trying to explain it.
My Preliminary Thoughts
I am in no position to work out the issue any better than anyone else. As I was thinking about it, however, a few things did occur to me.
It appears that the Fathers start with the question, “How could Jesus be God?” and work back from there, seeking to reconcile Jesus with their understanding of the divine. That is, “How could that man be God?”
I wonder if, perhaps, from our perspective, that is the wrong way to look at it. Maybe the question should be, “If God decided to become a man, what would the implications for that be?”
I think those are different questions.
The first attempts to get at the Trinity with presuppositions about divinity. That is, the Church Fathers try to reconcile their presuppositions about God—his impassibility, for instance—with the divinity of Christ.
That is why you have writings talking about Jesus doing one thing as God—walking on water, for example—and another as a man—dying on a cross.
If we instead work from God to us, rather than from Jesus to God, the issue appears to be somewhat more manageable. (Though the mystery of the matter cannot be resolved entirely.)
That is, God decided to become a human being. The nature of God would provide that he could become fully human without ceasing to be God or ceasing to exist elsewhere. If we disregard concerns for impassibility and other such classical notions of the divine, this becomes a lot easier to handle.
Thinking About the Issue
It’s a hard issue, but it’s one that has been on my mind lately. The best way I have been able to work it out in my own head is to think of God as the ocean. If I walk into the ocean and fill a bottle with ocean water, what is in the bottle? Is it not, too, in a real sense, the ocean?
Jesus is like that bottle of water springing forth from the vastness of the ocean that is the Father. He is the ocean in a more manageable, understandable form. In addition, removing this small amount of water takes nothing away from the vastness of the ocean.
Yet, what we have in that small bottle is the ocean on a smaller scale, an ocean we can grasp and see, but whose essence remains oceanic.
This picture carries over into the Trinity itself. There are different oceans that are each distinct yet connected, separate but one.
The Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean are distinct, but which are you in in the areas in which they meet? And what of the waters? To what ocean do they belong? The water that may be in the Atlantic one day may be in the Pacific the next.
So, it is with the individual persons of the Trinity, distinct yet somehow joined together as one.
Of course, these analogies are not perfect. They never are. But it’s the best way I’ve been able to formulate to think about the nature of the triune God.
As I’ve written about before, Yale Divinity School and Yale, in general, are not hospitable places for conservative ideas. I haven’t experienced any overt hatred, but the homogenous nature of the student body and faculty is apparent.
Yale is a progressive place, and I knew that going in. I know that I probably would have been more comfortable at Duke, where there seemed to be more conservative representation among the student body, but I came to Yale on purpose. I wanted to be challenged.
Yet, I was disappointed with the way this played out this week. I have heard about the cancel culture at places like Yale: the shouting down of speakers, the withdrawal of invitations, and other demonstrations of an unwillingness to engage in dialogue with ideological opponents.
This week, however, I witnessed this cancel culture for the first time at YDS. It was disappointing.
A Cancelled Lecture
On Monday, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, was scheduled to give a lecture at Yale Divinity School.
Just a few days after I received an email announcing the visit, however, I (along with the rest of the student body) received a curt email from the dean indicating that the bishop had decided not to follow through on the lecture.
It is my understanding that student activist groups were opposing his presence on campus and were planning to protest the speech.
(These were just rumors, mind you, as I did not see anything directly. The sudden cancellation and curt email from the dean, however, does fit this narrative. I also heard some indication that there was celebration over his deciding not to speak.)
The bishop is an important figure in a very large—and very conservative—church. As such, he had taken some traditionalist stances on gender identity that upset some people on campus. The fact that he would have these views, however, seems entirely predictable for any leader in the Orthodox Church, the world’s second-largest Christian denomination.
Homogenous Speakers at Yale
I am interested in Eastern Orthodoxy, and I would have liked to have heard him speak. Yale Divinity School has a significant number of speakers come to campus, and all of them so far have, as far as I can tell, been of a progressive bent.
Metropolitan Alfeyev was the first speaker representing more traditional Christian views on social issues, and his talk was canceled. I think it’s a real shame that voices from those representing traditional Christian beliefs go unheard at an ostensibly Christian divinity school.
Even where I have disagreed with people, it has never occurred to me to attempt to silence them. Despite how frequently the term is bandied about on the left, that is real fascism. Yet, to many, it seems, that is the default response.
My View on Cancel Culture
I love it here, and the people thus far have seemed kind. But there is definitely an atmosphere of ideological conformity that is pushed. This, in turn, pushes me to abandon engagement with the community beyond academics.
How can I describe being a conservative at Yale?
People here speak of conservatives as if they were talking about Sasquatch. They’ve heard enough about conservatives to believe that they may be real, may be out there, lurking somewhere in the shadows, perhaps with sinister intent.
Yet, they have had so little exposure to conservatives, they can think of them only through blurry photographs and caricatures, speaking of them as if they are unsure whether they really even exist at all.
Some—not all—of the people here are small-minded in many ways. Their views are monolithic, and they don’t care to open themselves up to other points of view.
Many have no desire for dialogue. Interacting with those of differing viewpoints is undesirable. Preferred instead is the security of the echo chamber.
To silence a voice is the greatest evil, unless, of course, the voice silenced is one with which you disagree.
Results of the Cancel Culture
I cannot help but consider the implications of cancel culture.
Cancel Culture and the Road to Trump
A Russian Orthodox Metropolitan, representing a church that suffered horrible oppression and repression within recent memory, is silenced, his speech suppressed, on the campus of a major American university because he offends the delicate sensibilities of young people whose idea of injustice is the experience of hurt feelings and emotional discomfort.
Narcissism cannot tolerate the slightest disruption.
Yet, what is the response when points of view are silenced? Whole peoples will not be silenced forever, particularly not in a country like ours, where the democratic tradition runs deep.
And in this country, where conservative voices are often subject to ridicule and denied respect, those voices eventually break down and decide that they’ve had enough. They refuse to tolerate a cancel culture directed at them.
Rather than continue to attempt to engage with their opposition, they give a big “f-you” to the elites who would be their betters.
And that’s how you get Trump.
Counterproductivity of Cancel Culture
Furthermore, as long as we have the first amendment, cancel culture is inherently counterproductive. If you deny opposing viewpoints the opportunity to speak in an environment where they will be challenged, you encourage people to go hear them speak where they will not.
You, therefore, only strengthen their message because no one will hear your counterargument.
If they are really spewing hate, like so many here contend, then wouldn’t you rather they spew their hate where you can oppose it—with logic, not infantile temper tantrums—rather than in contexts where they can convince the gullible who may hear them speak without opposition?
Furthermore, by silencing an opponent, you are signaling to others that you cannot oppose them on the merits, so perhaps there is something there. Your behavior makes your opponent more attractive.
The reality is that when you silence your opponent, you are really silencing yourself. Cancel culture achieves the very thing it is trying to prevent.
Cancel Culture In Sum
I still love it here, and I still love the people. If I could do it all over again, I would still choose Yale.
Nonetheless, I have decided to treat my time here solely as an academic endeavor. I must search for spiritual formation elsewhere, and I must start seeking out venues where I can find a diverse expression of viewpoints.
I believe those places are available, however, and I would not want anything I have written here to discourage any conservative-leaning or traditionalist students from attending Yale. It is an extraordinary place to study, its flaws notwithstanding.
Indeed, what place has no flaws? I am grateful every day to be here.
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