Letter from the Dean

By Gregory E. Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School

A good friend who is a colleague at Yale said to me after losing a member of her immediate family: “I wish that I could have your faith.” Her statement points to the inextricable bond between trust in God and the human experience. I believe that trust in God enables humans to live more meaningful and satisfying lives than lives without that trust.

Not everyone agrees. And there are some good reasons why they do not. The most difficult challenge for me has always been the problem of innocent suffering. I have read multiple theodicies—ancient and modern—that attempt to explain this conundrum, but they have never satisfied me, especially not when confronted with suffering firsthand.

Just before I moved to Berkeley to do my doctorate, some dear friends in Sacramento, CA,  had a daughter. Lindsay was born two weeks before my younger daughter Amber. I was in the hospital with her parents when she was born and was the first person to hold her after her parents. When Lindsay was two months old, her mother found a lump under her arm. I was at their home for dinner the next night and remember the concern on their faces. For two years, little Lindsay went through cancer treatment at Stanford Medical Center. Her parents often stopped in Berkeley to visit on their way to Stanford, and I occasionally went to Stanford. When Lindsay died, I had no explanation. I still remember the scene in the waiting room at the hospital: her grandfather, who was a pious Christian, was livid with God. I understood his anger. I could only sit and express my love through my presence. Most reading this can relate through similar experiences. We ask, Where is God?

On the other hand, there are reasons to believe in God. Let me offer one that might seem unusual. A second-century Christian apologist named Aristides wrote an apology that surprised me when I first read it. He began by asking who had the proper understanding of God. He dismissed the barbarians who elevated dead warriors and the elements of nature into deities, the Greeks who incorporated salacious myths, as well as the Egyptians who worshipped animals, and the Jews who—in his judgment—worshipped not only God but also angels (a problematic assumption). He then came to Christians. I expected to read a Middle Platonic understanding of God as the transcendent Being or First Principle. Instead, Aristides made the argument that Christians demonstrate their understanding of God by the lives they lead. He said that they were kind, truthful, and loved one another. This is not a rational argument about the conception of God as much as it is an experiential argument, i.e., the experience of God shapes human lives in a way that ennobles humans to behave morally.

Several years ago, I was at an alumni event for the Graduate Theological Union held in Chicago. We had enjoyed a rather robust discussion about the role of religion in contemporary society. The president of the GTU turned to me and asked me to offer a final word. I related the account of Aristides and made the following point. I cannot prove that God exists, but I trust that God does. Similarly, I cannot prove the veracity of my Christian faith, yet I have committed my life to the service of Christ. Why? I believe that Christianity offers more hope to ennoble humanity than any system that I know. I am keenly aware that Christians are capable of having warped conceptions of God and that Christianity has been hijacked by too many for their own political aims. Yet the story of the cross and the summons to serve in that selfless spirit is the most challenging summons I know. The story of the empty tomb offers more hope for us than anything I know. It is what my friend needed but lacked. 

The understanding of God has changed radically over centuries, from the monolatry of the Decalogue (“You will have no other gods before me”) through the monotheism of the exilic prophet whom we call Deutero-Isaiah and the via negativa (you can say what God is not but not what God is) in Philo of Alexandria in the Roman world to the utterly radical claim of early Christians that God became a human being. It has continued to change and will continue to change. As it does, I hope that we will not sever the importance of our perception of the divine and the way that we live. I found it intriguing that most of the essays in this edition of Reflections make the connection. May the God whom we encounter in the future find ways to elevate our behavior to live more peacefully and meaningfully with one another.

Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School.