Union Theological Seminary - How looking back reveals a sense of implacable rebellion
If I look back honestly at my days at Union Theological Seminary I almost reject the notion of influence and substitute "what I learned" from my encounters during that period. Influence I reserve for the context I infer from reading Harold Bloom. Charles Sanders Peirce influences me. Shakespeare influences me. Learning results from encounters that tell you something about yourself or the world. Like - that's not for me. Or - that works! At Union I learned a good deal about what I did not cotton to. I rejected large chunks of the piety that I perceived in the religious observances there. I rejected much of the teaching that seemed to me rote. I learned the most perhaps from conversations with Tom Driver who taught me that a conversation is what I now see as a three - a triad. It goes back and forth and emerges in a third beyond the two of us. In my whole lifetime, these conversations have been rare. With Harold Gomberg in Italy in 1956. It got me into painting. To seeing myself as an artist. Or at least halfway there. At Williams with Warner Kim. Just telling me there is a realm beyond ordinary back and forth. Insight. Reality. With my daughter Amy. Lucid. Rationality. With a friend in Cambridge during the 1990s from whom I learned that my own thesis regarding church renewal suffered from the fact that it is precisely the profusion of disparate communities that accounts for the vitality of a democracy. Influence? I would say that the most enduring influence of this time came from Don Benedict. I Iearned from many but I imbibed influence - that which determines life choices and commitments - from a few. Don Benedict was the genuine article, a person who helped found East Harlem Protestant Parish and who had unaccountably become, when I knew him, the head of a then-wealthy organization that was known at the time as the Chicago City Missionary Society. Don came to Union during my final year there and his foundational radicalism was palpable. He was in the market for students who might germinate dreams under his auspices in Chicago. The theme would be change, urban ministry, a challenge to the general lassitude of the mainline churches. Hindsight enables me to see what may be the truth. That it was to the nomadic rebel I was ever drawn. Don was in a position of power at the helm of what would during the 60s prove the epicenter of a brief effort to define the course of events in the mainline churches. Just as my experience at Williams taught me (reactively) to quit my fraternity and ally myself with the world of Jim Robinson, it was escape from the world of Union that saved me. It was Don Benedict's pugnacity that offered me a next step. Did others share my sense of isolation at Union Seminary? I do not think so. Not to my knowledge. There were doubtless others who were alienated and ill at ease. And there were more than a few who like John Collins championed the cause of social justice in a largely apathetic environment. But it was more than justice that was animating my sense of things. It was the sense of society and the churches as implacable and the need for something different. It was something like what I sensed in Don.