Home from the Journey, between Past and Future

Margaret A. Farley

This essay is newly adapted from a keynote given at the Yale Divinity School Women’s Reunion in 2010. 

For those of you who are alumnae, so much has happened since you lived and worked and formed community here. Your personal and ministerial lives have changed you and the world around you. You were all called equally in the Spirit of God when you came here to prepare for diverse ministries – in the churches, in your families, in other professions. 

But you went forth to sometimes vastly unequal situations, where your credentials were accepted or dismissed, exalted or trivialized – depending sometimes only on your gender or your race or your theological perspectives, or on whether or not you were ordained, or whether your call beyond YDS was recognized as sufficiently traditional, or whether you were able to find communities of faith and committed love. Your professional and ministerial and personal lives have stretched out, with beginnings and endings still to be enacted; but the “between” of these beginnings and endings will, in a sense, matter most of all. And the “between” will be different for each of you. 

Progress Delayed 

Your “between” partakes of both past and present, even as it is the bridge to a not-yet future. My own experience with women at YDS began in 1971, a long time ago, yet a relatively short past. Immediately prior to this, in 1970, a YDS alumnal Committee on the Ministry of Women issued a report describing the history and current situation of women as women at YDS. It contained statements such as: 

“Little has been done to diminish the jaundiced attitudes toward women seminarians and their vocational aspirations which remain among their male peers. Less has been done to foster an atmosphere of support among women and in the community. … Nothing has been done … to prepare women to cope with the discrimination they continue to encounter in the churches and their ministries – difficulties in placement, lower salary scales for the same work, lower status. … At a time in which our society is being confronted by a second wave of protest against the continued economic, social, and vocational discrimination against women, … the seminaries have tended not to be in the vanguard of the church, but have trailed miserably behind the concerned leadership in [some] denominations and the National Council of Churches.” 

A Surge After ’70 

The report proposed, among other things, that a position be established for a vocational-religious counselor for students; that women be appointed to the full-time faculty; that active steps be taken to address gender discrimination in the school; that more women be recruited to the B.D. (later M.Div.) program and encouraged to seek ordination; and that courses be offered at YDS dealing with the age, role, and relation of women and men in the church, family, and society. This report obviously gave a grim picture of the experience of women at YDS, although these women also had richly positive experiences, times when their hearts were burning as they studied the ways of faith and the possibilities for action. The 1970 report became part of the radical change that began to take place in 1971 – the beginning of a surge that continues today. Its concerns were energized by the social and cultural situation of the 60s. The women who flocked to YDS and other seminaries after that were filled with a power for change. 

Revisiting the Classics

The present is markedly different – in the world, the churches, theological education, and YDS. There are not the same problems (or at least not in the same degree) that were identified in the 1970 report. For example, as Letty Russell and I taught our course in Feminist Theology and Ethics through many years, it became apparent to us that questions had changed over time, and many feminist theological and ethical classics had been lost – the work of women like Mary Daly, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Rosemary Ruether, Beverly Harrison, and others. New students by and large did not know these writings, and hence their understanding of women’s critique, retrieval, and reconstruction of major doctrines was truncated. The last time Letty and I taught our course, in 2007, we decided to include classics as well as major new writings by women. This was an eye-opener for many of the students, both women and men, and a source of new energy for probing the depth of what they believed. 

No one lives in a historical vacuum. In each of your generations, the past has moved to the present, remaining within each life even as it is transformed. And every one of you who has passed through this divinity school has changed it, however imperceptibly: Here you became a part of someone else’s life, and you changed the institution as well. 

There are some dramatic examples of this, such as the massive effort to “Save the Quad” in the 1990s – the countless meetings, the communications with alumni/ae, the partial victory of remaining on the hill and the fuller victory of saving all of the buildings. Women and men, students and faculty, were part of this effort, although it must be said that women were its backbone and its force of communal grace. What followed was also dramatic – the remarkable renovation of the school, its movement into the 21st century in terms of classroom design and forms of worship, both preservation and transformation – achieved not without struggle, but now incarnating the commitments and hopes of a divinity school whose tradition is a living tradition. And women have been a sterling part of what makes the tradition live. 

Other dramatic examples include the simply explosive increase in the number of women students – stabilizing at about half the student body – and the not so simple but nonetheless remarkable growth in numbers of women faculty, administrators, and staff. There are also the profound conversations held within the walls of YDS, changing forever the lives of individuals and even the school; the diversity achieved slowly and still developing within the student body and the faculty; the openings to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Some things some of you will regret, but there can be no doubt that this school is vibrant – in its struggles, its achievements, its ongoing life. 

Mending Creation

The fabric of the “between,” shaping the present and future, has notable threads running through it in the school’s continuing commitment to prepare persons for the churches as well as society. Think of the path forged by administrators like Joan Forsberg, whose wisdom and comfort saved the vocations of countless students, and whose quiet presence and courageous action made so much progress possible; and faculty like Letty Russell, whose challenges to injustice showed so many students new ways to mend creation, and whose creative pedagogy and theology startled and nurtured new insights and convictions in the hearts and minds of so many.

Today, we are all challenged by a social and cultural situation marked by escalating technological progress yet also disaster, wars, and rumors of wars. The stark contrast of poverty and wealth haunts our country and the whole world. Mean-spiritedness self-righteousness mark the political landscape. Still, remarkable humanitarian efforts are mounting, movements to care for Earth are growing, and countless individuals and organizations stand in solidarity with the marginalized.

Yet optimism is not our general mood. We recognize that today’s signs of the times still call us to struggles against so much hatred and fighting, still against racism and sexism; and they call us to struggle for economic and political liberation, respect for genuine pluralism, and renewed efforts to bring about justice, in our generation, for our neighbors near and far.

What can be said now about the heart of your own vocation – in whatever form it has taken? The patterns and places of your lives have been diverse. Some have found a home in ministries or families, others have lived homeless in a sense, even if you are ordained. First called to one path, then to another, many of you have learned the meaning of “we have here no lasting home,” as the Letter to the Hebrews declares. No matter what, you have been on journeys since your first call to come to YDS – the journeys themselves may be where you make your home. 

Love Stronger Than Death

Whether you have found your place, or you are still searching for it, you may have come to know the kind of love that asks you in a myriad of ways to lay down your life for others, thus coming paradoxically to find yourself. If so, you have probably also learned that every great love is tried by fire, but not destroyed. With other women who questioned a view of Christianity that glorified suffering, you may have learned that the point of the cross is not finally suffering and death, but that a relationship can hold. (I speak in Christian terms here, and of Christian symbols, but I trust that some analogies may be found in symbols of other traditions in which some of you may stand.) In the cross of Jesus Christ the divine/human relationship is forever restored, and it holds. 

And our relationships with one another can hold. Never letting go of our sense of dignity, truth, justice, and call, we can glimpse the possibilities of a love stronger than death, a love that can withstand complexity, limitation, distance, even failure. To sustain such loves, the “between” of our lives gets woven with insight into experiences of the already/not-yet, experiences not of disillusionment or mere resignation but of an upsurge of hope. This is at the heart of our movement into the future, and at the heart of our call. 

The Heart of God

But to return to our title, what can it really mean? Surely we who have traveled forth, and now come together again, are only fleetingly here at home. We may still be without a home of a certain kind; or we may have many homes, yet “here no lasting home.” Our ministries, in whatever form they take, perhaps always include the ministry of easing the burden of persons driven from home, living endlessly in a strange land, or never being welcomed to a table. Perhaps we have heard the call to put our roots down not simply in a place, but in the hearts of those we love; and we have thereby learned to welcome one another into our own hearts. 

As we reflect on our individual as well as our shared pasts, we shall no doubt recognize things lost and things gained. But we shall also remember and perhaps re-live those encounters, those events, of which we can still say: “Were not our hearts burning within us?” And we may see anew our call to make our home in one another’s hearts and ultimately in the Heart of God. If so, we can go forth, never leaving; and return, never having been away.

The first woman hired to the full-time YDS faculty, Margaret Farley ’70 M.Phil., ’73 Ph.D., Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics, has been a mentor and advisor to generations of students at YDS, where she taught from 1971-2007. Her books include Changing the Questions: Explorations in Christian Ethics, edited by Jamie Manson ’02 M.Div.(Orbis, 2015) and Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, 2006). She is a member of the Sisters of Mercy and a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.