General Voices: Why I Stand with The General Theological Seminary
The Rev. Dr. Robert J. Owens
Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament
The following submission from Prof. Robert Owens reflects his report to the Trustees of The General Theological Seminary on May 19, 2015.
As a faculty member who has continued teaching throughout this past year, I have been asked to share some personal observations as we now prepare for a new academic year in 2015-16 (my fifteenth at GTS). Like many others, I have grieved at the destructive enmity that was unleashed among us, not least for the hurt it inflicted on our students. But we have gotten through it. The Mennonite peace program has been modestly helpful, but the half-life of such pain and bewilderment is not short. We readily helped those few students transfer who thought it prudent to continue their studies elsewhere, but most are staying. Disruptions to our classes fell most heavily on upper-class and graduate students; M.A. and M.Div. junior-year classes were least affected. Little zones of icy sullenness, so evident last February especially in Chapel services, were lessening as the term ended.
Even amid such turmoil, as a teacher of Sacred Scripture I have been able to continue to be thankful for this institution. General Seminary has long sustained a sturdy commitment to the interpretation of the Bible for the Church, and such encouragement to study the great texts of the Old and New Testaments should never be taken for granted.
I salute the twenty smart, serious, talented students who turned out first thing in the morning this year to probe with me the glories and challenges of the Hebrew Scriptures. They read and pondered and asked questions and took on board challenging new ideas. Another delight was to work through the majestic passages of Isaiah 40-55 with a smaller group of very capable advanced students, all mid-life people who brought to the text, not only their rich life experience, but a truly amazing love for reading this prophet. We were heartened to experience many of these texts in the Holy Week liturgies after studying them so closely in the classroom.
And, like every year, some students faithfully soldiered on to learn Greek or Hebrew, confident that it would enhance their intimacy with the sacred text. In Fiddler on the Roof, the milkman Tevya sings his dream of being rich enough that “I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day. That would be the sweetest thing of all.” Such spiritual “wealth” continues at General Seminary, and once again this coming year the holy books will be opened.
Another positive to mention has to do with some popular course offerings from our adjunct faculty. The Rev. Dr. William Rusch, distinguished Lutheran scholar and ecumenist, revived our former commitment to Lutheran studies with classes in Reformation theology and the Lutheran confessions for both our E.L.C.A and some Episcopal students. A new friend of the Seminary, Dr. Ilana Feld from Hofstra University, taught our Systematic Theology core class to rave reviews. Very popular classes by the Rev. Canon Chuck Robertson, the Rev. Joe Campo, Dr. Anne Silver, and others were reminders of how richly resourced the GTS curriculum is by having outstanding specialists in the New York City metro area who desire to work with our students. It is also worth noting that our on-line teaching of vocational deacon candidates continued throughout the year with classes for persons in the diocese of Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Several new full-time faculty appointments for fall are about to be announced, and we are hopeful that Prof. Bruce Mullin’s medical progress will permit him again to teach, at least part-time.
This has been a hard year, but many of our students report that they have learned a lot and feel blessed and nourished, despite the problems. We have a lot of work to do. I am hopeful—cautiously hopeful, but hopeful. We continue to offer the Lord the loaves and fishes of our honest, prayerful efforts, and trust that in His hands that will be sufficient.