Yale, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Academic Culture, and Africa: Some Highlights from Thomas Oden’s “A Change of Heart”

As I told you before, gentle readers, I’ve been reading Tomas Oden’s memoirs, and in this post I want to briefly highlight some of the bits that I found most interesting.

Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

Yale

Oden tells the story of his doctoral student days at Yale, where he worked under the supervision of H. Richard Niebuhr. These were the days when “Hans Frei, George Lindebeck and James Gustafson were all young faculty members at Yale” (p. 64), and David Kelsey “ran the divinity bookstore” (p. 65). Still, Oden felt bored there compared to Perkins, where he did his masters work, and considered making a switch to Drew. He finally decided to stay at Yale, primarily because he didn’t want to squander the opportunity to work with Niebuhr. Of that experience he writes:

The individual tutorial with Niebuhr on Augustine and Calvin was timely for me, ending all doubts about my purpose at Yale. Niebuhr proved to be a searching mind, probing Socratic questions on issue after issue. I discovered more clearly the profundity and range of Niebuhr’s intellect. He was a rigorous editor, attentive to every flaw in my thinking and writing. His careful critique of the papers I submitted helped me correct many shortcomings. He coached me in the accurate presentation of evidence, dispassionate objective reasoning and clear argument. (p. 68)

Hillary Rodham Clinton

When I later tried to explain my early views to students in their twenties, I found that the easiest way to connect was to show how closely my ideological history paralleled Hillary Rodham Clinton’s in her Smith College days. ***[Ed. note: Clinton attended Wellesley, not Smith.]*** That context helped those students grasp immediately where I was coming from. Although I never met Hillary Rodham, and though she was younger than I, she was reading my essays and working out of the same sources and moving in the same circles as I had been.

Hillary and I had the same sociopolitical mentors: Saul Alinsky and Joe Matthews. My former Drew colleague, ethicists Donald G. Jones, had been her high school pastor who had drawn her into the circle of activist Methodists. The core curriculum of Matthew’s Chicago Ecumenical Institute . . . was where she learned to combine existential theology with political activism. I was a writer for her core curriculum. Our trajectories mirror the same story of many Methodist social activists. We shared the same working sources, which were Tillich’s cultural analysis, Bultmann’s demythology, early feminism and especially Saul Alinsky. Her educational trajectory was remarkably parallel to mine with Yale, Methodist Student Movement activism, experimental ecumenism and Chicago-style politics as prevailing features, which were always moving leftward politically. Although we traveled along the same path, we never connected personally, but I provided some theological rationalizations for her and others for this brand of situational ethic. (p. 86)

Academic Culture

There is a lot of stuff in the book about academic culture through the decades of Oden’s career, but one of the things that stands out to me is how he got his first teaching job. Rather than applying to dozens and even scores of institutions, adjuncting for years (as many these days do), postdoctoral fellowships, meat-market interviews at national meetings, etc., Oden received his first position at Perkins when the dean made a trip to Yale to see him and offer him the position. Oden was still writing his dissertation at this time, to boot! On top of that, he had another offer – from Smith College in MA! (All this is on page 71.) Things certainly were different . . . although, I increasingly suspect that things still work in much the same way once you penetrate the reality masquerading behind all the distracting hoops that I outlined above.

Africa

I have emphasized in my undergraduate teaching the North African character of much important early Christian theology. Augustine may have had Berber blood, for instance, and then there are other North Africans like Cyprian and Athanasius (who is sometimes referred to as the “black dwarf”). Oden connects some interesting dots:

The flow was from Africa to Europe. It was not that Europeans brought Christianity to Africa as I had been taught. This “south-to-north hypothesis” became evident to me the more I studied the flow of patristic exegesis. (p. 301)

Then a little later, with more detail:

I could see this most clearly in the history of Scripture interpretation, especially in the clear succession from Origen to Gregory Thaumaturgus, from Egypt to Cappadocia, from the Old Latin Bible of Africa to Cyprian and Augustine. Africa was in the forefront of the surging current of intellectual imagination that matured into doctrinal agreement. Africa was the continent that excelled in systematically describing the relationship between the Old and New Testament. Christians in second-century Alexandria were living in the midst of a huge Jewish population. It was in the setting of advanced Jewish scholarship that the principle of analogy of faith was first clearly articulated for Christianity. (p. 306)

Oden later makes much of the stories about St. Mark’s work in North Africa (p. 328ff), but I’m not sure what the historians would say about this.


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