Whatever you do, for God’s sake don’t ask a question in class, that really makes Holmer mad,” said the older, wiser graduate student. This was my only preparation for entering Paul Holmer’s legendary class on Søren Kierkegaard at Yale Divinity School.
Sometime in the middle of my second year at New York’s Union Seminary, I made an appointment to consult with J. Louis Martyn about my prospects for graduate work in New Testament. I gathered together my undergraduate transcript, a list of courses I had taken at Union, copies of my seminary papers in biblical studies, and all the courage I could muster.
When I arrived at Yale more than 30 years ago to do graduate work in theology, I soon heard other students urging that I take a course with David Kelsey. Even as an undergraduate I had already learned an important lesson: to get the best education, don’t pay much attention to the topics of the courses; find out who the good teachers are and take whatever they happen to be teaching.
I believe I had a rare experience in my doctoral program in theology. I was given a seminar on the art of teaching. Often the challenge of mastering a discipline is so great that no attention is paid to this main activity of the theological professor’s vocation.
As part of a course on preaching that I took in my middler year at divinity school, I preached, and then submitted as a written text, what I thought was a good sermon. My professor thought my delivery was fine, and that the sermon showed potential. But his written comment stung: “Your stories and images are all of sin and its effects. Search for ways to convey signs of grace.”
My tradition of origin said, “Find a teacher.” My first teachers, of course, were my parents, especially my father, who taught me to paint a room, saw a board, read poetry during thunderstorms, climb tall logs in the playground and catch fish.
I loved reading in this issue about great teachers, teachers who have a way of changing lives. I found it impossible not to think about the teachers who changed me. My best college teacher was Sid Wise, professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College. He was short, funny, brilliant and engaging.
For a generation of students at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, Langdon Gilkey reflected with wisdom and grace on contemporary events in light of Christian faith, and he reflected on Christian faith in light of contemporary events. His death in November left the theological world the poorer.