Thursday, September 11, 2014

On Teaching at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley

by John Shelby Spong

They came mostly from the West Coast, although one was a Methodist minister from Chesterfield, Virginia. They represented the vast array of the traditions in American Christianity. Two were Roman Catholic, some were Episcopalians, several were Presbyterians and American Baptists, but the majority was from the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church. There were three representatives of Judaism and they added a unique dimension that I greatly appreciated. Most of them were ordained, but about a dozen were in seminary, preparing for ordination. All of them were lively, engaged, receptive and eager. What is it I am describing? This is a brief outline of those I met during a week of teaching at the summer school of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. It was an exciting week and clearly one of the highlights of a remarkable and stretching summer for me.

The Pacific School of Religion is one of the nine theological schools that formed a consortium around the University of California in Berkeley between the years 1958 and 1968. The others were the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (Episcopal), the San Francisco Theological Seminary (Presbyterian), the Starr King School for Ministry (Unitarian-Universalist), the American Baptist Seminary of the West, the Pacific Lutheran Seminary, the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology (Roman Catholic), the Jesuit School of Theology (Roman Catholic) and the Franciscan School of Theology (Roman Catholic). Since the formation of the consortium, two “centers” have also moved into the area, one the Center for Judaic Studies and the other the Center for Black Studies.

Without losing their individual identities, these schools have formed a close knit coalition. Under the terms of their agreement, they eventually pooled all of their books and resources to create a single magnificent theological library, known today as the Flora Lamson Hewlett Library. It rivals the best theological libraries in the Western World. Then they instituted open class registration to allow any student in any of the member schools to enroll in any class offered by any member of their corporate faculty. The best New Testament scholar, the best ethicist, the best church historian or the best theologian may not be on the same denominational faculty. Relationships among the potential ordinands are formed across denominational lines. The member schools then created the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), where PhDs are offered in all of the major areas of theological learning. Today GTU graduates hold key faculty appointments in denominational schools across the country. They also formed a summer school to which alumni could come for a “refresher graduate course of study.”

On a number of occasions over the past twenty years, I have had the pleasure of serving on the faculty of this summer school, which is now under the auspices of the Pacific School of Religion, universally referred to as PSR. It is my major opportunity to be in dialogue with the various Christian expressions in the western part of the United States. This summer school still operates on the academic standards of its first parent, the Graduate Theological Union. It also continues to include all traditions and it maintains its commitment to walk on the edges of faith.

PSR was originally affiliated with the denomination that we today call the United Church of Christ, but it now has also formed ties with the United Methodist Church and the Christian Church, sometimes known as the Disciples of Christ. The United Church of Christ traces at least one of its many roots back to the work of the reformer named Huldrych Zwingli, who was probably the most radical of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. True to this heritage this church has been deeply engaged in the cultural struggles against racism, in support of women’s equality in both church and state, and in the fight for justice and the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons. Many churches that began as “Community Churches” have wound up affiliating with the United Church of Christ. People who feel trapped in pockets of rabid fundamentalism can normally find a home in the United Church of Christ. The UCC has been a tower of strength for me throughout my career, upholding and affirming me and my ministry in ways that the Episcopal Church and indeed my own seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, sometimes found it difficult to do. I have always felt a debt of gratitude to them. PSR reflects the values of the United Church of Christ and I appreciate its affirmation.

The week that I teach in the summer session of PSR is always the hardest week of my year. In the five days I was there in July, I delivered 11 lectures, while presiding over 22 hours of class time. Twenty of the hours were from 9:00 a. m to 1:00 p.m. each of the five days from Monday through Friday. The other two hours came in a Tuesday evening “public lecture” of an hour’s duration to which the entire Berkeley community was invited, and which was followed by a full hour of questions and discussion. When the time required for the preparation of this much content is added to the class time spent in delivering it there were very few moment left for anything other than the necessary sleeping and eating.

Those who were taking my course for credit were also required to produce in that one week a paper of 5-10 typed pages. So reading and grading these papers also required time. Before I left on Saturday, I had returned the papers to their authors and handed in their grades.

My subject for this week was the gospel of John and it was based on my newest book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of Jewish Mystic. The assignment given to the students for their papers was to take a single episode or a single character out of the Fourth Gospel and, working with my book plus one other drawn from the ranks of the greatest Johannine scholars, to develop that episode or that character in a full way. By the world’s greatest Johannine scholars, I meant people like Rudolph Bultmann, C. H. Dodd, Edwyn Hoskyns, E. F. Scott, Raymond Brown, John Ashton, C. K. Barrett, Urban von Wahlde and B. F. Westcott, who are, in my opinion, the authors of the classics in this field. I also added to that list two women biblical scholars, Sandra Schneiders, a Roman Catholic, and Elaine Pagels, an Episcopalian, both of whom have moved me greatly, plus two non-Western biblical scholars, Ravi Ravindra and Jey J. Kanagaraj, both natives of India and both of them reflect an “Eastern spirituality.”

Since I had become convinced by my own Johannine study that none of the episodes described in John’s “Book of Signs,” (i.e. chapters 2-11), ever happened in history and that almost all of the major characters in John’s gospel are literary figures not historical figures, I was interested to see how each student would approach the assigned task in developing his or her paper. The results exceeded my greatest expectations. In the classes themselves, however, there was some shock expressed at some of the Johannine ideas that I proposed. I share some of those with my readers so that you might get a sense of the way the classes went:

1. The Prologue of John’s gospel (John 1:1-18) is not about either pre-existence or Incarnation. It was rather based on a passage in Proverbs 8.

2. The Epilogue (John 21) is a later addition to this gospel and needs to be looked at separately.

3. John’s entire gospel (John 1-20) is not the work of a single person, but of at least three separate authors and none of the three was John, the son of Zebedee!

4. The “Second Coming” in the Fourth Gospel is not a future event to be anticipated, but one that has already actually occurred. John relates it in chapter 20, when Jesus breathed on his disciples in the locked room on Easter evening and “they received the Holy Spirit.” Thus the “second coming” occurred just “a little while” later as John’s Jesus promises constantly.

5. Nicodemus, the star of chapter 3 of John’s gospel, was not a person of history, but a symbol of those Jews who came close to Jesus, but only under cover of darkness, and who were never able to become disciples.

6. John refers to two members of the twelve, Nathaniel and the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” neither of whom is mentioned in any other part of the Christian tradition. These two figures also serve as bookends for John’s gospel. Nathaniel stars in chapter 1 and “the Beloved Disciple” stars in the last week of Jesus’ life (13-20). I regard both of them as literary symbols, not as people of history. Nathaniel is a symbol for Paul, an idea I got from E. F. Scott, a Canadian scholar whose John book was published in 1907. The “Beloved Disciple” is a symbol of the ideal believer, who is willing to follow Jesus all the way to the cross and through it to the resurrection, an idea I received first from Rudolf Bultmann, long time Professor at Germany’s University of Marburg, whom I regard as the greatest New Testament scholar of our time…

7. Other literary characters in the Fourth Gospel, and therefore not people of history, include the Samaritan woman by the well (John 4), the man crippled for 38 years (John5), the man born blind (John 9) and Lazarus who was raised from the dead (John 11).

8. John has given to other characters, who clearly were people of history, entirely new personalities. On this list are the mother of Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Thomas, Andrew and Phillip.

To convince my students that all of these speculations were in fact true was not my purpose. I wanted to inspire them rather to raise different questions, to let their minds escape the boundaries of yesterday’s biblical assumptions. Did it work? The only way to know is to listen to the sermons from the pulpits from which my students will preach in the next year. They may well become controversial, but I am convinced that Christianity will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy. So I am not bothered by that possibility. I only know that they were great students.


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