In this post, I discuss COVID, its ramifications on Yale’s campus, and the new normal after the end of spring break.
Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes
I just completed the ninth week of my second semester at Yale, and what a week it was. Monday was our first day “back” from spring break. I set “back” in quotes because we didn’t actually come back to campus.
The world seems to have been turned on its head because of COVID, and Yale will now conduct the remainder of the semester through Zoom. Any hope that we would return soon has been quashed.
COVID at Yale
The sudden proliferation of COVID has forced Yale to make significant adjustments to the semester. This is so unprecedented; everyone is doing their best to make it up as they go.
Classes During COVID
Classes this week went fine, despite the new COVID-inspired class format. My Hellenistic Philosophy seminar this week included group translations and a large amount of student discussion. I also had to give a presentation on 4 Maccabees. Everything went fine.
My graduate seminar in Roman Law also went off without a hitch. Still, the seminars are an adjustment. Discussions, particularly more spontaneous and interactive ones, are far more difficult through this format, particularly since everyone’s internet capabilities are different.
Indeed, we are now overly reliant on technology. My first class of the week was the Roman Law lecture. During the lecture, in what I suspect will be a recurrent problem, my internet was running particularly slow for some reason.
Consequently, I had some difficulty understanding the professor while he lectured from what appeared to be his home office. Every day will be an adventure, but I suspect it will be fine overall.
In light of all of this, I haven’t left my house since the last day of the Buckley seminar more than two weeks ago. It’s incredible how much extra time I have during the day when I don’t have to commute.
I realize now how much time I waste commuting and waiting for class to start. Now, I just jump on my computer from my home office when class starts, and I’m there. That’s it. There’s something very satisfying about that.
Dr. Jürgen Moltmann
One of the unfortunate aspects of the COVID pandemic is the loss of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear Jürgen Moltmann, the prominent Reformed theologian, speak to our class in person. He was scheduled to come to deliver a lecture to our Systematic Theology class later in the semester. (He and Dr. Volf are good friends. I think Dr. Moltmann may have been his dissertation advisor.)
Of course, now that it is out of the question. He’s ninety-four years old and cannot travel from Germany to Connecticut during COVID. Whether or not he will still give a lecture via Zoom—Dr. Volf indicated that he just started using email six months ago—is still up in the air. I guess we’ll see.
It’s a disappointment, but there’s nothing to be done. Who could have predicted any of this?
Writing Papers During COVID
I’m continuing to progress through my papers, the current disruptions notwithstanding. My second Systematic Theology paper is due in about a week and a half, and I hope to finish my research and have a rough draft done before Monday.
I want to get that one knocked out as quickly as possible so that I can return my attention to my Roman Law and Hellenistic Philosophy papers. I have not finalized my topic for the latter yet, but I plan to send my idea to Dean Sterling—the course’s instructor—later this week to nail it down.
I also have a paper for Theologies of Religious Pluralism lurking out there somewhere. However, I’m not sure how that’s going to work, as there’s word the instructor may revise the requirements of that assignment. I haven’t even really thought about that one yet, as I expect the Hellenistic Philosophy and Roman Law papers to be much more involved.
Libraries During COVID
The real trouble, however, is not that all classes are being conducted online, but rather that all the libraries are closed. I had requested between twenty and thirty books for research papers just before the libraries closed, so I never got any of them.
I’m, therefore, left trying to piece together research materials from Yale’s electronic resources. While there is an abundance of such materials available, the best books are often not available online. So, I’m concerned about my ability to produce quality research papers without access to a library.
Who would have thought I would come to Yale and not have access to a library?
Yale’s Response to COVID
As far as how Yale is handling this whole situation, I think they’re doing about as well as they can. They did provide everyone with the option of converting all of their classes to a credit/no credit—the Yale equivalent of pass/fail—grading method, and students can change to this method up to the last day of classes.
In addition, students can withdraw from any course they’d like without having a “W” appear on their transcript, and, after a student finishes seventy-five percent of the coursework in a class, he or she can speak with the instructor about simply getting a Credit grade and not worrying about completing any of the remaining work.
For my part, I think I’m going to try to finish this out as is—except maybe Theologies of Religious Pluralism, as I discuss below. Still, I am finding it difficult to get my feet under me. Everything feels so confused and uncertain. It’s like everyone is just trying to survive the rest of this semester, hoping that things will return to normal in the fall.
I particularly feel for those whose last semester at Yale ended this way. There had been some remaining hope that the University would reconvene for a typical commencement week in May, but this week we received notice from the University’s President that that will not happen.
Commencement has been delayed to some unknown future time, which is a real tragedy for those who saw what was supposed to be the joyful final culmination of their time at Yale disappear quite unceremoniously.
Whether there will be a summer term also appears uncertain, so Yale is likely shut down at least until the fall. But this is really out of anyone’s control. I think Yale has done its best under the circumstances, and I believe that the University has tried to take care of the students. I have only one complaint about the University’s response to the COVID pandemic, which I address below
I wish things were different, but they’re not. And there’s really nothing to be done but wait it out. And that’s what I am doing. This will undoubtedly be a time that I will never forget.
The only thing I have been unhappy about is how the University is handling the meal plan. Last I heard, the University intends to prorate the plan costs and send out refunds. That is, they’re going to prorate based on the amount of time that has passed, not based on how much money I have left in my account. So, rather than merely refunding me back the balance in my account, they’re going to send the same check to everyone.
Yale required me to come out of pocket $600 for a meal plan this semester. (The GI Bill doesn’t cover this.) There is no option to opt-out of it. If there was, I would.
I had a lot of money that I hadn’t yet spent in my account that I planned to spend toward the end of the year. It seems now that Yale is just going to take that from me. I feel like I should at least get a charitable deduction for tax purposes, seeing as Yale is just confiscating a significant portion of my remaining funds.
If I didn’t love Yale so much and were a litigious person, I might file a claim against the University in small claims court. But I’ll just let it go. The University has already been quite generous with me otherwise.
Theological Studies Continue
Over the course of this semester, I’ve concluded that theology just isn’t for me. I don’t have any interest in pursuing any kind of future in systematics, which is a little disappointing. I have always found theology a high point of interest behind biblical studies. In fact, I wrote my college thesis in theology rather than in biblical studies, despite my primary interest being in the latter.
Lack of Grounding
But the way it is done in academia, at least that to which I have been exposed outside of the evangelical environment, has no appeal to me. It doesn’t seem to be grounded in anything.
Within evangelicalism, theology is at least grounded in Scripture, so there is a healthy mixture of biblical and systematic theology, with Scripture serving as the prominent source of authority driving systematics.
Catholicism, too, has a grounding, not only in Scripture but also in the teachings of the magisterium, the writings of the Church Fathers and saints, and history and tradition. That is, there is a very rich ground on which to lay the foundation of theological studies. So, perhaps Catholic theology is something in which I could find some interest.
However, in the wing of academia Yale occupies—the progressive Protestant branch of theology—theological studies seem like real nonsense. I cannot find any foundation underlying these writings. There doesn’t appear to be anything there, at least not explicitly.
Instead, there is just some kind of progressive milieu overshadowing everything and from which all driving presuppositions spring but which is hard to grasp and impossible to pin down. As far as I can tell, writings are praised for their eloquence and potential insight into situations, but there is nothing against which to judge it.
And, if there are no criteria, what is there? Indeed, works are often praised by how much they deviate from traditional theological conclusions, not how well they build upon it. Theologians are praised by their ability to expound novel ideas that have never occurred to any other theologian over the past two thousand years. This makes it hard to take the field seriously.
What Is Theology?
What then is such theological studies? Empty philosophizing, grasping into the void in the hope of finding something. But what? If we don’t know that for which we are looking, how will we know if we find it?
And where is God in all of this? We cannot seek God directly, for we cannot know him as he is. We can only know him through surrogates and proxies. I, therefore, cannot wrap my mind around what theology is supposed to be beyond an exercise of eloquence with philosophy and God-talk mixed in for good measure.
I’m starting to believe that the entire field is simply nonsense. There are no objective forms of research through which to filter their work. (Biblical studies, for example, at least have archeology and historical studies upon which to lean.)
Theological studies, therefore, are largely driven by people who have experience with nothing other than sitting in padded chairs thinking. And, if you only ever think about one thing, the tendency is to think about all things in terms of that one thing.
Experience as a Check on Naiveté
Experience serves as a valuable check against bad ideas. Things can sound fantastic, profound, and insightful to most brilliant people, but even geniuses cannot think in complete correspondence with reality isolated within their own minds.
Consider, for example, how so many brilliant academics promote communism, yet how few people with experience in communist countries support implementing it here. That is why theoretical physicists have experimental physicists—and theoretical physicists have an actual grounding in some proven studies of actual reality.
With theology, not having that experience or the means by which to conduct experiments creates serious problems. Experience has a way of recognizing an idea as ridiculous, even if you can’t quite articulate why at first. It raises the initial red flag.
Academic theology simply lacks the experience to recognize such red flags.
Theologies of Religious Pluralism
As I mentioned above, one of the options for dealing with the rest of the semester—completing seventy-five percent of the course work and taking a Credit grade—is becoming a very tempting option for my Theologies of Religious Pluralism class. I would not have to write the final paper. I would only have to write the next one-thousand-word essay, and then I would be done.
Incoherent Belief System
This option is very tempting, given where I am right now with that class. I have enjoyed it and thinking about the subject matter, but it has seemed to devolve into a line of thinking that makes little sense to me. I have a hard enough time believing in my own religion’s validity, much less accept that all religions could be true.
The more I study the theories of religious pluralism, the more Occam’s Razor seems most applicable. That is, perhaps the simplest explanation for the various types of religious thought throughout history is that there is no religious truth. Each religion is just a cultural attempt to explain what people do not understand, and things evolve from there.
Something about that also seems unsatisfying, though. Would it not be simpler to state that the existence of so many different religions is evidence that some truth exists for which all these religions are searching? Perhaps so.
I’m just having a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that a large number of them could be valid, particularly when they so often contradict each other. That seems more like an effort to satisfy a progressive philosophical need, using dressed up academic language, more than anything else.
Reality as an Independent Concept
I simply can’t buy that we can impose our hope for reality upon reality itself. Our wishful thinking or strong belief that something ought to be true does not make it so. Reality exists as a cold, independent entity. We cannot control it. We cannot make what is unreal real. We can only discover truth as it is.
I don’t buy the idea that what we seek in religious truth is different than what we seek in scientific truth. In both, we seek some kind of objective reality, a truth that exists whether we believe it or not, a truth that exists independently of us, what we know, or what we can explain or understand. Our inability thus far to develop some kind of verification method for religion—a type of scientific method for theology–does not change this fact.
I’m still sorting through how I feel about a lot of this. I miss having biblical studies classes because that is what I really want to be studying. I look forward to getting back to that, and I sometimes wish that I was in the MAR program for New Testament instead of the M.Div.
Other Impacts of COVID
COVID has personally affected me beyond merely its effect on Yale.
Summer Plans During COVID
My summer plans remain a bit uncertain. I am planning to take German classes at the University of Arkansas this summer, but I don’t know if classes will happen there, either.
It blows my mind to think that things could still not be back to normal two months from now. This whole thing is so surreal, it’s hard to believe that it’s our reality now.
Connecticut’s COVID Response
Word recently came down from the Governor of Connecticut that public schools may be closed for the rest of the school year. That means a lot more here than it would in Arkansas because school gets out about a month later here than it does back home.
So, they’re effectively canceling a school year that ends in mid to late June. This means by kids will be isolated from other kids for several months.
COVID and My Family
It’s strange to see how the world is changing as everyone moves to remote connections wherever possible. My mother, who is in a high-risk category, has isolated herself from my sisters, who live in the same town as her. Here, I am taking piano lessons at the local Neighborhood Music School, and I have moved to taking my piano lessons via Zoom.
It’s crazy how quickly the whole world changed. A month ago, it would never have occurred to me that this could happen. Yet, here we are.
My Brush with COVID
We had an interesting potential COVID experience in my house. In February, my wife, who works in Manhattan, got sick with a strange illness she had never encountered before. It felt kind of like the flu but with some different symptoms. This was before we knew much about COVID at all, but the symptoms she had were similar to COVID.
I lost about a week of my spring break—which puts me quite behind—because a couple of weeks later, I, too, got sick. I found myself simply unable to do anything. It was a type of fatigue that I had never experienced, a severe exhaustion through which I simply could not power through—something at which my military experience made me quite adept.
It took me about a week to recover. Since I didn’t have respiratory issues—other than a cough—I didn’t think it was COVID, but I later learned that the virus can manifest itself in relatively minor cases through the types of symptoms I had.
Neither of us got tested—nor did we think to—but we both think it’s likely that we both got it, particularly since we later discovered that New York was such a hotbed and I got sick at roughly the end of the incubation period for COVID after being exposed to my sick wife.
Still, we don’t know for sure, but I sure do hope we got it, if for nothing else for the chance that we may have an immunity to it.
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