Dan Allender shared these convicting words during Convocation on September 14, 2019, at St. Mark’s Cathedral. Read his full address as he calls upon each of us to be open, humble, and to come into a better love.
For us all this is a phenomenal beginning, and a gracious gift of God to have you with us, and I am privileged to invite you to further reflect on how you engage your education at the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. For me, it is an anniversary of sorts. It was 45 years ago I had the opportunity to be part of the beginning of my seminary career and if you know much of my life and story it was a very unusual moment to actually be in seminary.
I had not planned to do so. I had wished to go to graduate school or law school but I had forgotten to take any of the exams necessary to do so. So, I didn’t want to get a job and my best friend suggested I join him at seminary. And being a person at that point with very unclear convictions it seemed a ridiculous option. I said, “what is it you think I should do if I went to seminary for a year?” and he said, just think about God for a year. That seemed reasonable especially if the light of that if I didn’t I would end up having to get a job.
So I sat where you sat, unfortunately, though the day before I appeared to be and was something of a street person with very long hair, having been involved for many years in illicit pharmaceutical sales, and I was not of the kind of person who probably would have normally attended seminary. As I walked through the hallway, an older student accosted me, or at least that’s what it felt like, and asked why I was there and I told him “I had no damn idea in the world.” He put his finger in my face and said we do not use language like that here, again, important verb, I didn’t hit him nor did I throw him against a wall, I tossed him against a wall.
Apparently that was not acceptable at the seminary I attended and I was sent to the principal, that is the president, my very first day. It was not ostensibly a very successful beginning. But what I would say from that experience is two things my academic dean who put me on probation for six weeks told me, which I want to invite you to, and then there’s a third I wish to add.
The first thing he said to me was, would you be open? And in many ways, that is what we are doing at this ceremony. Will we as your professors, as an administration, as staff, as already present students, will we remain open to you, will you remain open to the work. I was brought to a point of having to consider really in the first month of seminary what I believed about the reality of the character of God and the substance of God. And to begin to address the category of substance, the idea of trinity and triunity, there were so many new concepts that I knew in many ways I didn’t believe and the stance that I was being asked to consider was would I remain open.
Often I will hear from students, “Why do I need to take theology? I’m here to study counseling. I want to become someone who can work with others.” And after sort of removing something of my own core irritation as I hear that question, really the answer is this: What we want for you is to become, no matter what your set of convictions are, someone who can ponder deeply and approach an understanding of the role of the Trinity, and understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to actually engage not only your own life but the lives of others.
We’re asking you to be a deeply interconnected human beings and open to various contradictory or conciliatory views that invite you to so much more than we can possibly accomplish just in one simple classroom.
I had the privilege this summer of reading Chelle Stearn’s new book Handling Dissonance, and what it brought back to memory was the goodness of how to think through an approach that almost every sentence challenged me. I knew much of her vocabulary but because of her rich and deep theological orientation, it required me to be thinking how I in many ways colonize a world by viewing sight as more important than the oral sensation and what music brings to an understanding of the Trinity. All we’re asking is don’t come to class with an already preset set of convictions that you’re not willing to hold tenuously. Still hold, but open your heart to an experience that allows your heart to go far further than what any of us can possibly accomplish.
A second thing I was told in the meeting that was determining whether or not I would remain in that seminary was this: Will you remain humble? And in many ways, you need to know much to know what it means to be humble. The more you know the more you don’t know. And the stance that we would hope for every one of us is that we learn together.
We will teach but so will you. The questions you ask, the world you’ve experienced prior to being here, everything is of value and everything is moving us teleologically from our viewpoint to a deepened Christological understanding of how to read our own lives and to engage the lives of others. So we ask of you, will you continue to pray to be open, to be humbled? But the final thing that I wish my academic dean at that time said to me was this: We are here essentially not to pass on knowledge, not primarily for you to become competent as a professional—we are here essentially to help each of us come to love better.
In Roy Barsness’s new book, as he addresses so many of the components of what it means to be a good psychoanalytic therapist. He comes to a chapter on love and says at the introduction that there was a question as to whether or not he was going to include that chapter because it’s sort of a soft category as you think about the issue of science. But he describes in one class a student who came to him and affirmed the importance of love and said, “you have loved and you have loved us well.” Consider the importance of how love will transform how we each do therapy, so in one sense what I’m inviting us to is this: We are here to educate, there is knowledge that must be transmitted, engaged, and in many ways mimicked and brought into fruition and connections to many other matters.
We are inviting you to ponder the implications of the Trinity and to do so with a mind that, as we engage the one and the many, opens us to consider far more what it means to honor and build boundaries.
What it means to create space, what it means to allow for diversity and complexity to exist in our midst so there is a presence of welcoming, not a matter of mastery. The more we master the more we come to be humbled and the more we are humbled the more we are aware of what it is we each need from one another. We are here, at our very best, to invite all of us to become greater lovers—not only one another, but of the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we do so, I say, and I say not just from the faculty but I say almost solely from myself, I don’t know how to do this well. I stumble profoundly. The very things I claim to be true I virtually contradict in the next sentence, but it is that which we have as a privilege to be together. To actively say the goal of our endeavor is to become greater lovers and such to become then people who know what it is to see this as the central task of our lives.
As I end, I’d like to read from R.M. Rilke as he speaks to a young poet in Letters to a Young Poet: “It is also good to love because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being, that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us. The ultimate task, the final test in proof for which all other work is merely preparation.”
What you will do in classes, papers, exams, interviews, conversations, it is all but preparation for what is most important and we are so honored and so grateful that we get to be with you and that you are with us.