An Open Letter to Rod Dreher Concerning the Recent Events at Duke Divinity School

The following is an open letter to Rod Dreher, concerning his comments on the “public” letter of Paul Griffiths, Faculty of Theology at Duke Divinity School. Both Griffiths’ letter and Dreher’s comments may be found at the following addresses: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/paul-griffiths-duke-divinity-school-sjw/ and http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/update-duke-divinity-crisis/

 

Dear Mr. Dreher,

I love you, I really do. I think you’ve done some great work. Your book on Dante is passionate and delightful, and I think I might be one of the only students at Duke Divinity School (DDS) who thinks you’re onto something with the Benedict Option. Your ability to see the richness of the Christian tradition, as well as the Western Tradition more broadly, is lovely, and (in my humble opinion) much needed in a culture that seems increasingly ungrounded. And so, I say this as one “conservative” to another, and with great honesty and earnestness: Please stay out of the life of my Divinity School.

I’ll be the first to admit that DDS has its problems. In fact, I complain about them regularly (to the point that it may prove my friend Hunter’s accusation that “bitching” is one of my spiritual gifts). However, one key difference separates my critiques from yours, and as it often turns out, the subtle difference happens to make all the difference. Namely, I critique DDS as one of its own, and you do not. You, quite simply, have no jurisdiction in these matters.

This difference in perspective is, on the one hand, a deeply practical one. Put simply, it keeps me open to all sides of the issue, which no one from your position is able to see. Not your political position, mind you, but your position of not belonging to our community. (You, who believe in the political models of Aristotle and Benedict must surely recognize the importance of this; of belonging to the polis, the koinonia.) Of course, as a member of the DDS community myself, I am not automatically aware of all sides of the issue, but my membership forces me to be open to them. I have seen firsthand the issues in the Office of Black Church Studies which led to the policies now being discussed. I have seen the impact the loss of Black faculty has had on my fellow seminarians, especially those of color. And I cannot ignore their plight. I’ve seen the nuanced rationales for these policies, and I cannot deny them. Whether or not I support the decisions of DDS administration is indifferent; by virtue of being a part of the DDS community, I am able to assent or dissent to them with a personal kind of knowledge that someone from without simply cannot have.

This, of course, opens up into a wider set of implications. The present issues at DDS are far more than a debate over liberal and conservative principles of policy. They are about navigating the complex life of a community, and a particularly diverse one at that. And because this is not merely a political battle, an episode in the greater so-called culture war, your commentary really doesn’t help us in the slightest. Bringing in the opinions of the American Conservosphere only serves to further polarize an already polarized situation that doesn’t really concern them. This is an issue not simply of politics, but of two ancient Christian principles: koinonia and oikonomia–communal life and “household management.”

This does not mean that the points you raise are irrelevant. As a so-called “conservative” student (a label I don’t tend to bear, because it strikes me as unhelpful), believe me when I tell you that I’m concerned about many of these issues. I worry about Political Correctness, with its tendency to merely transform the vocabulary of malice and obscure dialogue, and I mourn the distrust of of Classic texts which have “changed my life,” to use your turn of phrase. And yet, I experience these phenomena not as generic political issues or symptoms of a culture war; I experience them as a member of a community. This means that my worries aren’t problems to be solved by appeals to principle, they are to be addressed in conversation, albeit a hard one. And this conversation opens me up to the anxieties of other students as well. I see the fact that my friends have also lost faculty who look and think like them, that they too feel like their voice is not being heard, and the ever-uncomfortable fact, historically speaking, that theirs is often the one to have been neglected. Thus, when I debate these issues, I debate not as a “conservative,” I debate as a friend and classmate.

What will change Duke for the good is learning to struggle together as a community. Honestly, I believe our faculty and administration have failed to model this well, and thus, has done an injustice to the DDS community, especially its students. Nonetheless, this type of communal struggle and conversation will never happen if our strategy is to rally the national troops, to drag in First Things and Sojourners alike to fight our battles for us. And, to their credit, I don’t think that has been the general response of our faculty and administration. They haven’t asked for your help, and they don’t really need it.

DDS needs one thing right now: Repentance. We need to repent from our pride and our polarized individualism. We need to sit down and reason together, which contrary to popular belief, isn’t always pretty. Arguments can polarize and divide, sure enough, but they can also bind us together when situated in the context of a common life and common conversation. And isn’t that what families do? We must begin to act, and live, and argue as family. Until we realize that we’re all in this together, we will never thrive as a seminary.

Ultimately, our task is simple in command but difficult in execution: to live into the fullness of our koinonia. And in order to do that, Mr. Dreher, I’m afraid you’ll need to stay out of it.

Sincerely,
Daniel LaVenture

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