One of my dear friends, a Yale Divinity School graduate and a Baptist pastor, likes to say he has a YDS diploma and a church camp archery certificate on his office wall and then asks to you to guess which one is more valuable in real life ministry. Well, it’s not that fancy one written in Latin, he’ll say.
I am NOT that jaded, yet. But I’ve only been here a year, and Mother Yale is doing her darndest to get me there.
So dear new students, welcome to Yale Divinity School, the greatest seminary on earth. Greatest, but not flawless. Allow me to warn you so that your two-, three-, or indefinitely-prolonged-year degree program may go peacefully for you.
The Academic Life
Deans & Professors
When you come to a world-class institution like Yale you may expect world-class scholars, engaging lecturers, and stimulating classes. And you will get them, but not always. In my first year I had a few amazing professors, a few meh professors, and only one abysmally incompetent one, Professor-Whose-Name-I-Daren’t-Say-but-Who-Every-MDiv-Knows-Who-I-Mean.
If you by any chance encounter a young, charismatic professor who leads engaging discussions, has real-life experience doing cutting-edge ministry, and has a genuine interest in the success of her or his students, savour every second of it. Yale will drive away this professor away and try to replace her or him with someone who publishes innane commentaries in obscure journals, who has no teaching ability, who has no practical experience, and who is rude. At the end of the year you will get an e-mail about how all the best professors you had are leaving and how the worst have been promoted.
But there are some phenomenal people who have managed to stay at Yale. A few things you need to know about a few of them are:
- Dean of Students Dale Petersen and Old Testament Professor John Collins already know your face and every detail of your life story. But I haven’t met them, you say. Doesn’t matter. They already know and have memorized an FBI-background-check level of information about you. Also, no matter where you did your undergraduate degree, John Collins has had your favourite professors over for dinner to talk and they talked about you. There is nothing you can do about this. You need to trust that the Dean and Professor will use this information for good and not evil. Dean of Students Dale Petersen, you should know, is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. This seeming ontological contradiction is one of those divine mysteries you must work out slowly through life. Also, he is already your best friend.
- Old Testament Professor Joel Baden will never give you a hug or tell you he loves you. You’re just not going to get that kind of affirmation from him. Professor Baden is the most honest man you will ever meet. You will occasionally find this both theologically and personally hurtful. If he insults you and it’s not funny, it’s because it’s true. If he insults you and it’s funny, he may like you, but this is still not guaranteed. Nonetheless, a funny insult is as close to a hug as you are going to get.
- Hebrew Professor Eric Reymond would personally lead you all across Middle Earth to throw the ring back in Mordor before he would allow a pesky blizzard to reschedule a quiz. If there is a snow storm, do not shovel out your car, study your Hebrew.
- New Testament Professor Adela Collins is the best person in the world to have lunch with. Luckily for you, she will have lunch with you often.
- If you ever break down and cry, no matter where he the world he is, Bill Goettler willl intuitively and immediately e-mail you ask if you would like to swing by his office for a chat. Accept this offer.
Class discussions can be the most stimulating part of a course. Your classmates are brilliant and you will often feel stupid in their intellectually mighty presence. To help you cope, let me tell you a secret: they’re often faking it. They use big words they don’t understand knowing they can get away with it because nobody else, including the professor, knows that word, and nobody can admit it, so everyone nods like it was a great comment. On the other hand, and this is rough, sometimes they are just simply smarter than you. If that happens, use a big word that you don’t understand…
A few guidelines, though, to help class discussions go smoothly:
- Accept that “postmodernism” will come up, in every discussion, in every course, every time. There is nothing you can do to stop this.
- Certain people will never, ever agree with you. Ever. Stop trying. Remember this Biblical wisdom: “Avoid stupid controversies.” – Titus 3:19 NRSV
- Keep perspective. The world, it turns out, cares very little what consensus a bunch of Yale graduate students reached one Wednesday afternoon.
- When tearing apart an argument from a reading as “idiotic,” double check that neither your current professor nor your professor’s spouse was in fact the author of that reading.
- If you didn’t do the reading, skim for a good quote and speak up early, so that when more obscure parts are being discussed, the professor has no desire to hear from you again.
- There is a segment of the Yale Divinity School population who believe spirituality is measured in how easily offended they can be about the reading or your opinion of it. Do not let them suck you into that insanity. Not everyone who disagrees with you is oppressing you.
They don’t matter. Don’t worry about them. Don’t talk about them. Do not ever brag about them.
Yale gives you the option to take nearly every class pass-fail. If your motive in coming to Yale is to learn and to serve God and your neighbours, I highly recommend you get off the academic treadmill and take Yale up on this offer. You don’t need grades anymore. You already have been admitted to an Ivy League graduate school. I’m on track to graduate with a GPA of “Not Calculable,” and it feels great.
Yale has mediocre libraries with terrible hours. If you are a full-time student living on campus, it is workable. If you have a job, a family, or a commute, you will never be able to get the books you need. Luckily, if you’re desperate for a really obscure book and you can wait, Yale will order it for you from Harvard Divinity School. (Have you no pride, Yale Divinity library!)
Your Denomination and Your Seminary
If you want to be an ordained minister, it helps if your denomination and your seminary could work together smoothly about what your requirements are. However, expect that sometimes you’ll feel like a kid listening to your parents fight about you in front of you while you’re just crying, “All I want to do is serve Jesus.” Just keep reminding yourself of that goal, and you’ll be okay.
Yale Divinity School is an open, tolerant ecumenical setting where you are free to share your ideas.
No, it isn’t, and that generally makes me sad.
First let’s discuss “open and tolerant.”
There is a pre-approved set of opinions you are welcome to have and discuss. Any variation from these “ultra-liberal orthodoxies” may result in public accusations of ignorance, stupidity, bigotry, hatefulness, Evangelicalism, or Fundamentalism, these last two being particularly vicious accusations at Yale. Yes, Jean-Daniel, but I’m not conservative. Well, that helps very little. Please note that you can vote Democrat, believe in marriage equality, support women’s ordination, and eat only organic, vegetarian food and STILL be considered controversially conservative.
Unfortunately, the list of pre-approved opinions is not published. You can only discover what it is permitted through witnessing someone cross this line or worse doing it yourself. But some general tips:
- Do not ever imply that any historic oppression has in any way, shape, or form improved or lessened. Everyone who ever, and their demographically similar contemporary counterparts, has suffered injustice still is and everyone who ever has oppressed, and their demographically similar contemporaries, are still oppressing. This is still true even if the oppressed party is significantly richer than the oppressor. (That is because classism, the most prevalent form of social injustice at Yale, is officially denied, and thus the only form of oppression that does not exist at Yale.)
- Some historically-oppressed groups have not suffered oppression, among those Mormons, the Irish, and French Canadians. Whether or not Catholic have ever been oppressed in America is still undecided.
- Do not show sympathy for conservatives by suggesting that maybe they are motivated by their understanding of what it means to love God. They are hateful and evil, and so are you if you don’t hate them. Do not under any circumstance point out the irony of this.
Secondly, let’s look at the idea of Yale being “ecumenical.” Naïvely, one might think that means a diversity of Christian beliefs and practices are treated with equal respect.
- To clarify, at Yale, “ecumenical” means liberal and mainline, ideally if at all possible Episcopalian.
- If you belong to a traditionally conservative tradition, you can earn toleration by being an outspoken opponent of your own tradition. (If you belong to a traditionally conservative tradition and you agree with it, speaking will only hurt you.)
- Despite the obvious trends in American Christianity away from denominationalism, and despite Yale’s self-conscious obsession with being so modern, Yale Divinity School loves denominations. Being nondenominational is worse than belonging the wrong kind of denomination.
- Episcopalians will occasionally forget that Yale admits non-Episcopalians. This is an innocent, but frequent, mistake that comes with being part of a very well-funded majority. If you are being criticised for not following an Episcopalian rule, not knowing a Book of Common Prayer liturgy, or denying apostolic succession, gently remind your friend that you are not Episcopalian. They will look at you with some initial confusion, but then invite you over for dinner. If you consistently accept this dinner invitation, eventually you will be asked why you are not Episcopalian yet, but this awkward question is a small price to pay for dinner.
Am I saying that being a conservative is hell on earth at Yale? No, but what is defined as conservative is so far left of what you may have seen anywhere else that a lot of us who came to Yale because it was a safe space to be liberal after growing up in often controlling, conservative denominations have had the very odd experience of suddenly being attacked from the left for the first time in our lives. You can handle it, but it is jarring and surprising.
One thing I have discovered is that no matter what your view is, there are other students who agree. There really is a culture where liberal viewpoints dominate, but I think the student body is more diverse (and often far more traditionalist) than the faculty, and the solution is for people to be more bold, not more politically correct with their ideas, tongue-in-cheek-advise above notwithstanding. Mutual tolerance based on everyone politely watering down their opinions is FAKE; real tolerance is listening to ideas we hate and loving the person who holds the idea anyway.
Marquand is Yale’s daily “ecumenical” chapel service. Services represent a wide variety of upper-class, liberal, mainline American worship styles. Okay, sometimes it’s broader than that, but Evangelical style praise music is incredibly underrepresented, often because of its offensive language derived by quoting the Psalms verbatim.
Part of being ecumenical that Marquand does exceptionally well is incorporating enough variety that no matter what your background, it will occassionally get weird and make you squirm. This is good for you.
The part of being ecumenical Marquand does very poorly is forcing a liberal viewpoint onto everyone lest any liberal be offended. This is done especially in the realm of “inclusive language,” which manifests itself in rewording prayers, hymns, and even the words of Jesus. Offending traditionalists is okay.
My honest experience with going to Marquand for five days a week is that:
- Three days will be okay, a refreshing, if not especially memorable, break in the day.
- One day will be the most uncomfortable, ridiculous, and heretical waste of time. Perhaps it will be a prayer to the flowers, perhaps it will be a liturgical conga dance, perhaps it will be another political rant in sermon form…
- One day it will be profoundly touching, warming my heart, challenging my life, and renewing me for a closer walk with God.
Here’s the trick: you cannot guess which day will be which. Just go every day. I certainly have learned as much from the worst services as I have from the best.
Another tip, Marquand is the best place to discover great music not in your traditional’s hymnal. I save programs and put stars next to the songs I’ve loved so I can go back to them years from now in planning liturgies.
The refectory is where we eat. You have been forced buy a meal plan, so you might as well pull up a chair and have lunch with us.
The food is awful. I’m vegetarian and I am thoroughly exhausted at the prospect of two more years of eating the same three mediocre meals that are offered to vegetarians.
But sitting around with classmates has been my favourite part of divinity school. These connections, built day after day at the tables, are priceless to me. Despite all that frustrates me about Yale Divinity School, the idea of being at a table in the refectory makes me want to go to school every day. Being in touch with such great future pastors, priests, and scholars for the rest of my life will likely be the absolutely most valuable part of my Yale education.