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In the thirty-eighth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Gregory E. Sterling, the Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament and the Henry L. Slack Dean at Yale University Divinity School. Sterling begins by talking about the role Yale Divinity School and the scholars who have served on its faculty played in American religious life. Sterling, in particular, talks about the ways the institution’s role has changed over the course of its 200-year history and, as is the case for leaders of many divinity schools and seminaries, his awareness that the Church and the culture are changing once again. The challenge that Sterling notes, however, is the course of the present changes remains uncertain. Ream and Sterling then talk about Sterling’s calling to the ministry and to serve as a New Testament scholar. They discuss Sterling’s most recent book, Shaping the Past to Define the Present, as well as the editorial leadership Sterling offers for a commentary series concerning Philo. Ream and Sterling discuss the inspiration and vision for Yale Divinity School’s Living Village Project and then close by discussing how Sterling discerns when to exercise his role as a public intellectual committed to the well-being of the Church, the university, and the relationship the Church and the university share.

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Gregory E. Sterling, the Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament and the Henry L. Slack Dean at Yale University Divinity School. Thank you for joining us.

Greg Sterling: It’s my pleasure to be with you. Thanks for the invitation. 

Todd Ream: Yale Divinity School recently turned 200. Roland Bainton, H. Richard Niebuhr, Hans Frei, Brevard Childs, George Lindbeck, and Catherine Tanner are just a handful of faculty whose work had a considerable impact on the guild, but also on the Church and society. As Dean of Yale Divinity School, how do you understand the role that the school has played in American religious history?

Greg Sterling: So let me answer that by just giving you in broad categories how I understand the development of theological education, and I may use that in further questions. So when Yale was founded in 1701, it’s older than the United States, it was founded and supported by the local colony. And it was all the way until 1818 when the state of Connecticut developed its own constitution that it was supported by, then, the state of Connecticut.

But with the separation of Church and state, that led to the removal of support both for Yale and for ministers so it changed the way that churches were supported too. At that time, you have the development of what we call professional schools or professional education. So at Yale, that was the founding of the medical school in 1810 and the divinity and law schools in 1822.

So this, I recall this, the second phase in North America, and that has run until recent years. And for the longest time, we were identified with mainline Protestant denominations and supported mainline denominations and the training of their ministers and their leaders. That has changed, and it changed, let’s say, for example, in the 60s, after Vatican II, when we had the introduction of Roman Catholics to the Divinity School. But the first two, Margaret Farley was one of the first to come and Henri Nouwen was the other that came at the same time. 

My predecessor, Harry Attridge, was Roman Catholic. He was the first Roman Catholic to be Dean of Yale Divinity School so that was a major shift. And in recent years we started a program for lay Catholic ministry at the Divinity School. I think another major change historically has been with the decline of mainline Protestant denominations. We have become far more ecumenical, and that has included the incorporation of churches and people from underrepresented groups. We’ve made a noble, notable effort to incorporate African-Americans and put an emphasis on the Black church just as one example of that. 

So those are a couple of major changes and I would say today we live in what I call Nepantla, which is a Mesoamerican word that means between or sometimes literally translated in betweenness, which is a terrible English phrase, but it just means we know where we were and we know we’re changing but we don’t really know where we’re headed exactly.

So I think that’s where we’re at. And the role of the Divinity School has fairly consistently been to provide leaders throughout all of this, all of its history, we have an expression, we inspire the minds that inspire the world. And one claim, and I can document this only in the past, not in the present, one routine claim is that we’ve trained more presidents and deans of schools and seminaries and more heads of denominations than any other divinity school in the country. If we’re not number one, we’re certainly very close. That’s been one of our major contributions. 

Todd Ream: Thank you very much. You yourself are an ordained Restorationist or Churches of Christ minister, and I would assume that’s reflective of the ecumenical reach that the school’s had in recent years too.

Greg Sterling: It is, yeah. Abraham Malherbe, who is a professor here, in fact, was here and had retired before I left, was probably the first member of a Church of Christ to have a position, a tenured position, at the Divinity School. There was a huge connection to Disciples of Christ. That’s the Stone Campbell Movement, so they’re related.

But at one time there was a Disciples House, just down the hill from the divinity school. In fact, the first time I went to the Berkeley Center, this is the Episcopal school. I was helping them clean up afterwards and I took a chair and folded it up. It was a folding chair and said, Property: Disciples of Christ.

So I asked my colleague, do I have to worry about you Episcopalians? Uh, so they, they had simply purchased the same house and we’re using that for their program, but that represents a legacy. So there’s been a good legacy, but I think you’re right. It does represent a broadening away from simply the mainline. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. Started to talk about this a little bit, but would you describe the community of students and faculty who gather at Yale Divinity School today? It’s more diverse perhaps than it’s ever been, but are there sort of core convictions, commitments, et cetera, that might define them? 

Greg Sterling: Sure. We are more diverse than we’ve ever been. And let me put it this way. This was kind of shocking to me. We have more women tenure track faculty than men. So that just happened a few years ago. We also have tripled the number of faculty from underrepresented groups, doubled the number of staff, and doubled the number of students from underrepresented groups.

It doesn’t look like or feel like even the same place it was 15 years ago. It has shifted considerably. There are some core commitments. We are Christian by our ethos, by our history, and that’s my commitment. I don’t apologize for that in any way. We have people from other faiths and we even have Jewish faculty, for example, and a Muslim faculty member. So we have people who come from other religious traditions as well. 

The kind of core commitments consist of a commitment to nurture the love and the awareness or the knowledge of God. That’s in our mission statement. Uh, we are very much committed to issues of social justice in our world, that is again, something that has run through the decades. I mean, this goes way back in our history. 

But those are a couple of things that are of fundamental importance. One thing that’s happened in recent years, and this is a national phenomenon, is that the number of Master of Divinity students, or students preparing for churches, has decreased as opposed to the number of students preparing for other fields.

So, if you look at figures for the Association of Theological Schools, just to give an example, you’ll see the increase in MA programs and the decrease in Master of Divinity students. So we’ve, we’ve experienced that same shift. We still have more Master of Divinity students in, we call it MAR, Master of Arts and Religion students, but that’s because it’s a three year program versus a two year program. So, we strike this balance between preparing people for ministry and preparing people to do many other things, including serving the academy.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You mentioned that the divinity school is one of the professional schools of Yale University, of which there are 13, if I counted correctly, along with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. What role does the divinity school then play amongst the other professional schools? 

Greg Sterling: We have a number of different functions, so every dean of the professional schools’ a member of the university cabinet. So we have university wide relations or/and responsibilities. And then the deans meet regularly with the provost as well. We discussed matters that pertain to all of us and cut across the entire university.

We, more specifically, have six joint degrees with these other schools. We have a joint degree with medicine, with the School of Public Health, with nursing and in those with law, with environment and with management. So we have students who are active in all of those programs. The single greatest connection is with the school of the environment, they have the most joint degrees, and they’re just down the hill from us. And there’s a nice symbiotic relationship there. So we want to continue to encourage that. 

And I would say 20 in any semester, approximately 20 percent of our students take classes in other schools at Yale. One of the advantages of being a student at Yale Divinity School, if you’re a divinity school student, is you can take any class at Yale that you want, provided you meet the prereqs. So I encourage people to do that and they do take those classes. So it gives them a broader education than they might otherwise have.

Todd Ream: What contribution, if any, does the divinity school then make to Yale College, the undergraduate educational home for the university? 

Greg Sterling: So we try to do a number of things. Uh, we have faculty who teach courses in Yale College. And in fact Miroslav Volf and a team led by Matt Crossman teach a course called “Life Worth Living.” And Ryan McAnnally-Linz has also been directly involved in this. And the three of them wrote a book, which was on the New York Times bestsellers list for two weeks, which is no small feat, so that’s a course that’s offered in their multiple sections that are offered in Yale College. 

We also have a good number of faculty who teach courses in Yale College for undergraduates. Some of them teach a required course for first year students. Others teach in departments. So faculty have what are called secondary appointments. Some have joint appointments, but secondary is more common in fields ranging from American studies, English history and certainly religious studies. Philosophy, I should also mention, and courses are taught for Yale College students. 

And we also can participate in some leading ways in Yale College. So last week, I attended a ceremony in which Professor Michal Beth Dinkler, who’s a New Testament scholar here at the divinity school, was appointed the head of Timothy Dwight College. So she and her family will live there for five years and she will help to run the college, so there are some real direct ties to Yale College. President Salovey, when he was inaugurated as president, spoke of one Yale and all of us try to live that.

Todd Ream: Thank you. I want to ask, if I may now, about some biographical details. You earned an undergraduate degree from Houston Baptist, now Houston Christian, master’s degrees from Pepperdine and UC Davis, and then a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Would you please share with us your calling to the ministry and in particular, calling to the ministry in the Churches of Christ or Restoration Movement. 

Greg Sterling: Sure. So my father was a minister for 46 years and I think growing up in the home in which I grew up had a profound impact on my life and the way that I think. My home wasn’t typical in some ways and I’ll tell just two stories to keep this brief, but that might illustrate this. 

So, one Saturday, we lived in Selma, California, which is in the San Joaquin Valley, my father said son, “Would you like to come with me? I need to go see. There’s a woman who’s broken down on the highway and we need to go see if we can help her.” So I said “sure.” So we drove down there. It was very hot as I remember it. And a woman had broken down, her car broke down, and she had four small children and she didn’t know where to turn, so we were there. 

Now, this is before the days of cell phones or anything like that. So my father invited them to come home with us, but he stopped at a pay phone and called my mom to give her a heads up. If I can, this is a bit embarrassing to tell this on me, but they had been in a hot car and had been sweating pretty profusely. Um, the body stench was so great that I had my head out the window as much as I thought I dare get my head out the window without my father reaching over and grabbing me. 

But we got home and my mother was standing on the porch. I can still see this scene in my mind. She had a towel over one hand and a glass of iced tea in the other. And she said to this woman, “Why don’t you come in? I have a bath drawn for the children. You take this tea, just sit down and relax. I’ll bathe the children. And then you can shower while I finish preparing dinner and we’ll have dinner.” 

Well, they lived with us for almost a month. And our home was a place where people routinely, this was not unusual, lived and that shaped the way that I thought about life. We would sit at the dinner table and I would challenge my parents, name an event in the Bible, and I’ll tell you where it’s at. Or my brother, when we were older, would sit, we’d read a Greek text to each other, and one would read the Greek text, and the other would have to tell him where it was from.

So, knowing the Biblical text and having a concern for people— I am not the person my parents are, I mean, I’ll openly confess that they were pretty remarkable, but that shaped my life. It was part of who I was from the outset. And at the same time, I will confess that as many as sermons as I heard, and I heard a large number of sermons I was not entirely happy with the intellectual level of discourse, if I can put it that way. 

Now, I wouldn’t have said it like that back then, but people knew a lot of Scripture, but they didn’t really give historical context and things, and those things never sat all that well with me. And then I wanted to learn Greek and Hebrew. So that started me in a very different directions, took my life in a different, along a different course, but I have never left or abandoned my call to ministry. And I think of my own role as dean of divinity school as a form of ministry.

Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you, so I assume it’s that impression your parents made upon you but then also that yearning for something more that then found its way into to you in terms of being a New Testament scholar and contributing to the Church in that way and in your own way. 

Greg Sterling: It is. And when I told my parents that I was going to go to Berkeley, they had let’s say an interesting reaction because for them, Berkeley was that, all they could remember were the scenes from the sixties and Sproul Plaza, but they came to love Berkeley as a place to visit. 

And it was the most interesting place, I think. It was a great place to get an education for me, and I’m very grateful to the people, especially the faculty whom I met there, who shaped a lot of the way that I think as a scholar and so that was, it was a wonderful experience for me.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You’re the author and editor of nine books and one theme that runs through your work, if I may, is the ability of the past to inform the present. In what ways is such a perspective important to the Church and the Church’s mission in contemporary culture? 

Greg Sterling: That’s a great question. Thank you for asking. My last book was called Shaping the Past to Define the Present. So that’s where I’ve worked. 

I’ll give you a specific example. I have been deeply concerned about the entanglement that we in our society have had with racism, especially as it relates to slavery. And I was absolutely thrilled when President Salovey commissioned David Blight, and David is a first rate historian, to launch an effort to examine the relationship of Yale and not only Yale, but New Haven and New England, entanglement with slavery, in particular, and racism more broadly. And that is now come out as a major monograph published by the University Press.

And I think we can’t understand where we’re at unless we understand where we’ve come from. That is, it’s really hard for someone like me, and I will say, I mean, I grew up in a home that wasn’t, say, a typical home if you think of a Yale University home. In the past, that was a fairly privileged and wealthy home. My parents were not at all wealthy. My father, as I said, was a minister. And we were middle-class Americans.

And so sometimes it’s easy to say, well, that doesn’t have anything to do with me. Well, it does have something to do with all of us. And it’s a bit shocking to have to come to grips with how much of our past has been bound up and the way that past has given us privileges that we don’t even realize.

And I’ll just give one example. Some people don’t like this when I tell the story, but it makes the point. It made it to me. So we have some wonderful young African-American male students and female students, but I’m just going to speak about the males. And when I’ve been close enough that I can ask this question, I’ve asked him, were you ever stopped by the police without cause? I have never had a student answer no to that. 

Todd Ream: Oh, wow. 

Greg Sterling: Not one time.

Now I would answer no to that. I was never stopped just to be checked out by police growing up. And I’ve thought about that. And I thought about, I mean, it changes the way that you view police. And we’ve heard a lot about that in the last decade, in particular. That has helped me understand. And I think for those of us who are privileged, it’s hard to understand where we are in society today unless we really take an honest look at the past and realize just how much that has shaped us. 

One last little tidbit. This floored me. When the Civil War broke out, the mayor of New York proposed that New York City secede from the union. I didn’t know that. That’s not in David’s book. That’s, that was in a different book written by some Hartford reporters. But anyway, that gives you some idea if you’re a Northerner and I grew up in California and now live in the Northeast. 

You might think, well, this is not my problem. It is my problem. It’s all of our problem. And we have to come to grips with it. So that’s one example of how I think the past informs the present and then helps us to be sensitive to how we need to address it.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You also serve as the editor of several series of books and monographs with one published by Brill focused on Philo of Alexandria speaking of the past. Why Philo?

Greg Sterling: Well, the, for several reasons. So, the first is, and I’m going to compare Philo to the Dead Sea Scrolls, because everybody’s heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I have published several articles on the scrolls, but I’ve never been one, I’ve never wanted to spend my life studying the scrolls. 

And the reason is that the scrolls are very sectarian. They represent a group of people who wanted to remove themselves from society and viewed society as being evil and, well, we might say going to hell in a handbasket. You know, that, just to put it bluntly. But the war of the sons of light versus the sons of darkness, to use their language, makes it pretty obvious how they thought.

Well, I have never wanted to have a sectarian outlook. So my own religious tradition began as an ecumenical movement. Now, if you know anything about Churches of Christ, you know that some people in Churches of Christ have forgotten about that ecumenical spirit. And I get that. I know those people too, but that’s not where I’m coming from.

I remember those roots and I tried to champion that all of my life or my adult life. I mean, I spent 23 years at the University of Notre Dame so I think that’s a fairly significant statement by itself. And I was very warmly embraced by the university, have nothing but good things to say about Notre Dame.

So I have this perspective. What Philo helps me understand is how did ancient Jews and then Christians learn how to relate to the larger world without surrendering their own identity? That is, how did they remain Jews or how did Christians remain Christians and still relate to the larger world?

And that’s a balance and a challenge that I think all of us wrestle with. I ask this question in a very direct way. How can I help Yale Divinity School to remain Christian and be open to a very large secular university and to a world which is pluriform in its religious identities? 

And how do I do that with openness and yet still be true to myself? How do we do that as an institution? So Philo at the broadest level helped me to ask that question. And I like philosophy. I mean, he read his Scriptures through the lens of Hellenistic philosophy. So there’s a natural attraction to me on that score.

Todd Ream: Thank you. I want to transition now to ask you about what a typical day might look like as dean of the divinity school. What responsibilities call for your attention over the course of a day. And, is there even a typical day perhaps?

Greg Sterling: Well, I don’t know if there’s a typical day, but I can tell you. So my days generally run from, I try to get to my office about seven in the morning and I go home at seven at night and have dinner. If I have events then that extends it. So this week, four out of five nights, I have evening events. So it’ll be considerably later than seven before I’ll get home.

I work long hours and I sometimes say, I live my days in 30 minute increments. That is, I just have appointments that last most days. Sometimes it can be hour units of time, but I mean, I’m responsible for a fairly large physical plant and we’re expanding it. We have 45 full-time faculty, that many part time faculty, about 50 some staff and 300 students, and then a lot of alums.

Well, plus I have university-wide responsibilities. Your days fill pretty fast. I sometimes think of the story of some American CEOs who sawed off the front legs, had the front legs of the chairs for guests in their offices made shorter so people would lean forward. So the question is, how do you move through the day without getting behind and do so in ways that are polite to the people? And I don’t do that, but I have my own ways of handling that. 

So the one thing I would say and every dean or president or CEO that might, who might hear this broadcast can relate to what I’m about ready to say. You have to really work hard to find the time to focus on what is important versus what is urgent. And I remember asking Steve Sample, who is the president of USC, and helped lead USC back to a position of greatness after it had really declined, how much time he gave to strategic thinking. 

And he was very honest. He said, well, I should give it 25 percent or more of my time, but in all honesty, I fight to even give it 10%. And I remembered that and, and so I think it’s how do you avoid the tyranny of the urgent to think about what’s really important.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You mentioned the expansion of the physical plant and one of the efforts that you’re presently leading is the Living Village Project, which is one of the largest green building efforts in academia and will provide housing for students at well below the market rental rates in the New Haven area.

Please offer some details concerning how the vision for that project emerged and then an overview of some of its key components. 

Greg Sterling: All right, well, thanks very much for the question. When I came, I knew that we needed to do something about housing. So we are residential and we have a philosophy that is if you want a Yale degree, you have to come live here and you have to earn it here. 

And we put everything online that we can and make it available to the world for free. And we just launched a certificate program or are in the process of launching one. And that’s fine. That will be online. We’ll probably expand that, but we want to be residential. Where I’m sitting right now, my office used to be student residences. These were eliminated in 2000, 2002, when the quad, as we call it, was renovated. And all that was left was what are called married student housing or as one wag with a little bit of sense of ancient near eastern history called it the fertile crescent. Oh, a lot of kids born in those apartments. So we have those and that’s it. And they were built in 1957 with a 40 year life expectancy. 

We’re using the old aphorism from the Depression. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without. I knew that we needed to address housing. We never wanted to simply build apartments. When I first came, all I knew about was LEED certification. That’s, that’s what I thought of as the gold standard.

And the head of the advisory council sent me an article by Jason McLennan, who founded The Living Building Challenge. And I read this article and immediately said, this is it. This is what we need to do. I’m committed. 

Now, why did I say that? And why are we trying to follow that? So the idea behind the living village simply is, the model is a flower. And a flower exists in one place, it has to take everything it needs in one place, and when it dies, it gives something back to the place, to the soil from which it sprang. So a living building is not just further towards net zero. It has to exceed net zero and actually be regenerative. 

So some of the specifics are that it has to generate 105 percent of its energy, has to capture and handle all of its own water, and has to handle all of its own waste. It cannot be built out of any substance known to pose a threat to any form of life with a human or otherwise. A lot of the material has to be local. 

I mean, there’s a long, long list of what’s required to build one of these buildings. They don’t use innovative technology in it, but rather innovate on the use of existing technology by the combination of that technology. And so our vision was to reintroduce community in a way that we didn’t have. 

We’re building it on the former parking lot, which is immediately adjacent to the school, to the quad. We wanted to make a very serious eco-theological statement because we believe that we are morally responsible to God for the way that we treat our world and our planet. 

And third, we wanted to offer subsidized housing to our students because the cost of living in New Haven is very expensive. And if your model is residential education, you’re committing to the most expensive form of education that we have, and we’re fortunate that we can do that, but we want to help students. We don’t want them to incur debt while they’re here. 

And the last thing is we wanted to make a statement of inclusivity. So the first time I met with the design architects, I said, we have a beautiful quad. It’s modeled on the University of Virginia, so it’s Mr. Jefferson’s campus. But that’s a model that looks to the past and to a past that didn’t welcome everyone. 

The living village must complement L. E., the quad but it must look to the future, it must make a statement of inclusivity. So the design architectural firm we hired was the same firm that built the Memorial for Enslaved Persons at the University of Virginia. 

And just one simple illustration of this, Yale is famous for its quads inside colleges etc. And they have very elaborate gates. We have a new quad, but there are no gates. It’s open. And we’re making a statement by keeping that open. So that’s just one way that I can signal that I could explain to others, but that may be enough.

Todd Ream: Fascinating project. If I may ask, at what point in time will it be complete and estimate student occupation, not occupation, occupancy, there we go. Uh, there may be student occupation too, depending on the news of the day, but yeah, but yeah, student occupancy in the facility. 

Greg Sterling: August of 25. 

Todd Ream: Okay. That’s exciting.

Greg Sterling: It is, yeah, no, it’s, it’s emerging from the ground as we speak. 

Todd Ream: Yeah. 

Greg Sterling: So I’m, I’m very pleased. It’s taken us a long time to get to this point, but I’m very pleased. 

Todd Ream: Yeah. That’s very exciting. Thank you. 

As a result of Yale’s Divinity School’s history, what responsibility, if any, does the dean have to serve as a public intellectual, to address the issues of the day from a theological perspective? 

Greg Sterling: I do think the dean has a responsibility to be a voice for what is morally right and what is ethically right. I don’t think that falls on the dean alone. You mentioned Kathy Tanner. Kathy has an important book on the economy from several years ago. William Barber is on our faculty. He certainly has an important voice. Willie Jennings is on our faculty. He has a very important voice. Miroslav Voll. So I could go on. 

So it’s not just the dean, but I do think the dean has an important role. And it’s, it’s a bit tricky. I have routinely made statements when there’ve been mass shootings, but for example, how often do you cry wolf before people just completely ignore you? Probably the most famous statement that I made was after January 6th. When I wrote an editorial that was picked up by CNN, and I’ve had things in the New York Times. 

So I’ve tried to be a voice, but I think you have to choose when you speak and when you don’t speak. And I think there are times in which it’s very hard to speak. So in all candor, I haven’t made a statement about the Israel-Gaza conflict. It isn’t that I don’t feel strongly about it. I do. And I feel strongly about the violence committed by both sides. Would not not defend. I would rather, on the contrary, condemn the violence committed by both sides.

But every statement made right now just becomes a cause celebra, which is itself a conflict within the community. And so I have chosen very deliberately not to make a public statement. It’s hard. That’s been hard. And I have students on both sides who are upset with me. So I have to live with that.

Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. That’s very good advice and yeah, an important insight to, to note. 

As our time gets short unfortunately for today, I do want to make sure we talk about the relationship that the divinity school shares, not only with the university, but also with the Church and how that’s worked out.

Before, as you think about the faculty who’ve served at Yale Divinity School, what definition, if any, of the Christian academic vocation might they hold in common? Are there certain virtues that have proven most definitive or certain vices, perhaps even which they needed to be most vigilant in terms of confronting?

Greg Sterling: The faculty are the heart and soul of a school or a university, and that is certainly true at Yale and at Yale Divinity School. And in past surveys of students, what you must remember, the faculty stand out in the responses that students give. People also talk about the community here. That’s important and great, but the faculty really stand out.

So I think one of the things I’m going to state this in a broad way and fairly directly is that they have achieved a degree of excellence academically that has to be respected. So I’ve spoken at a good number of memorial services for faculty emeriti now and one of the things that I’ve realized is, while I didn’t come to Yale, I had a Yale education because I read all of their books as a student.

Kenneth Scott Latourette, Abe Malherby, Wayne Meeks, Lee Keck you could go down the line for all these people, Roland Bainton, certainly, I could go on, but they shaped my own intellectual formation. And so they had an impact, not just here at the school, but well beyond. And I think that’s something that, that runs through and is true even of the present, at least I certainly hope it is. 

And a second quality is, they’re people of real faith. They’re people who care about theology, who care, when I say theology I don’t mean simply academic theology, but I mean lived faith. The expressions of faith in people’s lives matter to them. If you’ve read Miroslav Volf or Willie Jennings, you know that this is true in spades. 

And I think even though our faculty would have a range of perspectives and would not all see things alike, which is healthy. They do care deeply about how what they write has an impact on the larger world. And that’s always, I think, been the case. So those are a couple of hallmarks. 

And I think the thing, and this may not have been so true in the past, but it’s truer in the present, that’s always a challenge, is that when you’re in a large secular university, the push is going to be away from faith or theology. It will be towards secularism. That’s what has to be resisted at the broadest level. 

It’s not that, and again, I don’t have the view that you isolate yourself. This is where I go back to Philo. You engage but you engage in knowing how to keep your own identity and engage in a way with that larger world. I found at Yale, people really appreciate the kind of moral values that we can bring to a discussion. 

There are a lot of Yale faculty who said something to me about William Barber’s joining us and the emphasis that he brings on combating racism and poverty, for example. Just, he’s broader than that, and I don’t want to leave him to that, but I could go down the line and speak. But that’s a real passion. 

And I think we also want to do that in a global way, not just within the United States. So we lost Lamin Sanneh, who was a great scholar and a wonderful Christian and just a great human being. But we have a very talented African now, who’s helping us build bridges to Africa. We have somebody working on South America who’s very talented and committed to helping with that. And about 25 percent of our faculty are international. A lot of them come from Europe. It was kind of expected, but they do have this broader perspective; we want to cultivate that.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. 

You mentioned that pull of when you’re in a larger secular university context, that pull towards the structures and values and definitions of legitimacy that may define the university, but then there’s also the Church. How do you, as the dean, understand the relationship that the divinity school shares with the university as a school of the university, but also with the Church as a school of the Church?

Greg Sterling: When I prefer to speak of Christianity or Christianities, I want to say a couple of things about this. I mean, this, this is of great concern to me personally. So you, I’m sure read Pew’s studies just like I do. So in 1990, 90% of Americans identified as Christian and in 2022, 63%.

That’s a huge decline in a very short period of time. And I find that alarming, to say the least, in Mainlines have suffered, perhaps more than almost any other group. So that has a direct impact on us. But what we’ve done in response is we’ve become much broader. That’s deliberate on our part.

So when I think of the Church, I’ll tell this one story. I’ll keep this anonymous, but somebody who’s been an important advisor to me, who is a major figure in Mainlines in the United States, and I’ll just leave the identity at that, said to me when I first became dean, said, don’t tie the future of the school to the Mainlines. I’ve never forgotten that. 

We will not abandon Mainline Protestants. We’re committed to maintaining that tradition, but we will not be limited by them either. So we try to serve the entire range from Mainlines to Roman Catholics to evangelicals, everyone. And if we don’t, we’re not ecumenical, but also Eastern traditions as well that we need to take seriously. 

So I am deeply concerned. I will say this, we’re in the process of, I appointed a task force to rethink our Master of Divinity curriculum, because I realized churches are changing and we need to change our curriculum. So we’re working seriously on that. 

Another thing we’ve done though, in my mind, I’ve broadened ministry to being service not just to churches but to not for profits, to many other areas, so we have a whole not for profit program that we run. And I think one of the things that probably we and most schools will think about in a serious way is how do you, how do you really develop chaplains? And how do you support chaplains? 

So it’s been shocking to me that major corporations in the United States have begun hiring chaplains. And, and the reason is simple. I mean, they have people that don’t belong to communities of faith. And when they had crises in their life, they would always have a network that supported them. And now they don’t have those networks. So who’s going to support them? 

When somebody loses their parents or, or worse yet, loses a child or a sibling or goes through a divorce or loses their spouse, loses the job, whatever it is, they need support. 

This is Nepantla. This is knowing where we were. We’re not really sure exactly where we’re going. We have some broad ideas and we’re working to get there in a way that honors the past but is very open to the future.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Yeah, important insight for us to close our conversation on today. Thank you. 

Our guest has been Gregory E. Sterling, the Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament and the Henry L. Slack Dean at Yale University Divinity School. Thank you for sharing your insights and your wisdom with us. 

Greg Sterling: Thank you very much, Todd. I appreciate the opportunity and wish you the best in your programs.

Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).

One Comment

  • “Nepantla” certainly resonates w our work in “The Anxious Middle.” The extended historical summary of Yale divinity is wonderful! From 1701 forward. Fascinating. The ATS trends towards MA instead of MD is ripe for continued discussion. Though on the JEC board w Greg at YDS, and our wonderful colleagues, learned a lot about the overall connection to other departments (like environmental learning). The biographical journey is enlightening, and helps me to know my colleague more deeply (including the kindness of your parents to the stranded travelers). The poo Greek quizzes at the table reveals much about his amazing knowledge of biblical maxims and languages. On his current duties, from R Bainton to Skip (Harry) Stout and Volf, he certainly is heads a wonderful institutional lineage.
    This is such a rich series. Dr S. Is but another in such a gifted lineup. Full disclosure, as associate publisher, I’m biased. Nonetheless, very appreciative of this trove.