Good afternoon. Each Sunday, VDS Voices will reflect on different events hosted by the Divinity School. We will share excerpts from lectures, descriptions and the history of many of our reoccurring events.
Orientation for incoming students at Vanderbilt Divinity School is always a significant event in our common life. This year we began orientation activities on Tuesday, August 13 with a special dinner in our Reading Room. Incoming students sat at tables with their faculty advisers, and visited and ate together. After dinner, students were treated to a brief address by our new dean, Emilie Townes, as a way of framing their entry into the experience of theological education at VDS. Below is the text of her address to her first class of incoming students as Dean:
Does your house have lions?
Emilie M. Townes
One of my favorite poets is Sonia Sanchez.
Sanchez’s epic poem, “Does Your House Have Lions?” takes its title from a conversation between Joel Dorn, a jazz and R&B music producer, and the jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. As Dorn tells the story, he was talking with Kirk on the phone and mentioned to him that he had just bought a house.
“Does your house have lions?” Kirk asked.
“What?” he replied.
“Lions, you know, like in front of a museum or the post office. You know, concrete lions. My house has lions. Get a house with lions.”
How do we get a house with lions? Not necessarily concrete ones, though that would be okay, too.
How do you respond with a deep walking and active faith by pausing for a time here at VDS to get some education that helps you live a faith that is molded by justice and peace? Rather than winning and losing?
I’ve been asked to talk with you for a bit about theological education as one way to look for that house—in the midst of myriad injustices and a world that is a spinning top of wars—and give you a sense of why I think that what we do in theological education has a profound effect on the worlds we live in—if we choose to make our work and our studies rigorous academically and relevant experientially.
It is for me to respond to the call by the black mystic and theologian, Howard Thurman who joined others in encouraging us to blend head and heart.
First, it is important to realize that what you do here at VDS is the real world—to be sure, it’s only a small slice of it—but you will be interacting with flesh and blood folks while you are here. So one of the many temptations you must avoid is believing that what we do here—with our well placed and much needed emphasis on academic and intellectual rigor—means that we check our hearts at the door. For I learned well from the older black men and women who raised me in the church and outside of it that intellect with no heart is about as useful as a heart with no intellect, and missing both sides of that equation means you probably don’t have much common sense to boot. In other words, you’re not very useful.
Second, theological education means being in the faithful tension of uncovering and working through how we can build faith-filled responses to meet the needs of those who may be the least of these—or folks just like many of us—blessed with resources and abilities and a divine mandate to use them, and with a spirituality that will not let go of that relentless justice that can only come from a rock-steady God.
Open your minds, spirits, heart souls, and do not be afraid to learn and grow. If you leave here the same way you sit her now, not only have we failed you—you have failed yourself.
Third, take this time to do your first works over. In James Baldwin’s last collection of essays spanning nearly 40 years of his non-fiction work, The Price of the Ticket, he writes about what he learned in church:
…we are counseled, from time to time, to do our first works over…To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.
Tell the truths of your life, and this is not the same thing as clutching so tight to those things you have learned that you cannot hear God’s call to you to breathe new air. Think new thoughts. Be lost and confused. But know that you are not alone, and you will find your way back home again.
But the journey of theological education means we do have to leave our homes and set out on new pathways. We want you to bring what you have, but we also want you to put that into a conversation of learning and growing with others. Part of what we are about here is exploring what it means to be responsible, and to be willing to take responsibility for creating a more just, a more loving, a more faith-instilling witness each and every day—and realizing that measuring ourselves by God’s rod of righteousness, rather than human yardsticks of malcontent, is radical witness to God’s ongoing revelation—not only in history, but in the immediacy of our breathing.
We must have dreams that are more powerful than nightmares, possibilities more radical than realities, and a hope that does more than cling to a wish, or wish on a star, or sit by the side of the road, picking and sucking its teeth after dining on a meal of disaster and violence.
To put it more bluntly, we do not train you how to be the poster children of the status quo in this place.
Does your house have lions?
We want you to stretch into the ministry you are here to grow, here to discover, here to change and perhaps move in another direction. Discover anew what a love of God and all of creation can and must mean when it is grounded in grace. Walk around in it. Sit down and play with the holy sand God has given you.
This is the place of Barth and Tillich, Cone and King, Hauerwas and Wogaman, McFague and Fulkerson, Cannon and Williams, Augustine, Aristotle, Wesley, Calvin, and so many more.
Find yourself—either because of what you are reading and studying or in the questions you have that go beyond what we teach, but put this in conversation with each other and broaden that conversation to your classmates, and your professors, and the staff—here, in this place, this theological education building—life by life.
And we are a community of communities: the young and the old, the lesbian and the gay, the propertied and the propertyless, the heterosexual and the celibate, the dark and the light, the bisexual and the transgender, the female and the male, the conservative and the radical, the thoughtful and the clueless—all these and more.
Does your house have lions? And are those lions roaring, or are they mute?