Institutes & Initiatives

Institutes & Initiatives


The 177th Convocation of Union Theological Seminary

September 11, 2013
Mary C. Boys

Many of us spend a considerable part of our lives with our heads in the cloud. Our feet may be on the ground, yet we dwell in cyberspace. Our heads bent over our mobile devices, as if in prayer, we are connected to that great oikoumene, the World Wide Web. Through the intermediary of servers, aka, “the cloud,” our thoughts are preserved—our work is “saved.”

Through the cloud of Google Drive or Dropbox or Skydrive, we can save and access our files anywhere. Big-data-driven machine intelligence and predictive analytics will enrich our lives—at least according to an ad that arrived in my inbox yesterday. Now that all of our classrooms are “smart,” we hope that those who dwell in them may be similarly described.

The role of technology in theological education deserves a prominent place in our discussions about the future of Union. In what ways does it improve teaching and enhance learning? How might we extend the horizon of a Union education? To what extent should as offer online courses? Should we enter into serious negotiation about offering MOOCS—those massive open online courses? Might the cloud enable us to make theology more accessible to people with fewer financial resources?

While such questions deserve our consideration, they may obscure other clouds that have long been on the horizon of theological study. I am thinking of three in particular: the cloud of the divine presence, the cloud of unknowing and the cloud of witnesses. Dwelling in these clouds is crucial to theological education.

The Cloud of Divine Presence

We have just heard the dramatic account of the theophany on Sinai: God reveals amidst a heavy cloud and thick darkness; thunder, lightning and the blast of the shofar add mystery to the encounter (Exodus 19:1-9, 16-19). God is both revealed and concealed. Imagery of God’s elusive presence permeates the Scriptures; this evening I want only to suggest some texts that deserve far closer elucidation. In various texts in Exodus, among other books, Moses and God are in proximity, but the divine presence is shrouded. God’s presence, says Samuel Terrien, is “elusive, intangible, unpredictable, untamed, inaccessible to empirical verification, outwardly invisible but inwardly irresistible.”1  Sometimes small details indicate the intricate way in which texts relate to each other. In Exodus 24 Moses enters the cloud that had covered Sinai for six days—a detail that Matthew and Mark assimilate when they narrate the transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9:2-8; Matt 17:1-13). In the transfiguration we hear revelation in an “overshadowing” cloud, just as Mary in Luke’s account of the Visitation experiences the overshadowing of the Most High (Luke 1:35). Many in our assembly this evening see in Jesus the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), but Jesus, too, is elusive, as the two clueless disciples walking with him to Emmaus would testify. When they finally recognize him in the breaking of the bread, Jesus vanishes from their sight (Luke 24:31).

Perhaps I am predisposed to these evocative passages because of my own geographical history. In my home territory, the Pacific Northwest, we have a saying that outsiders find peculiar. On a bright and sunny day, you might overhear us say, “The mountain is out today,” as if somehow Mount Rainier had magically arisen from the depths of the earth. When it is “out,” it is a stunning sight, snow-covered, looming above the landscape at over 14,000 feet. Peoples of the First Nations knew it as Tahoma, “mountain of the gods.” Yet on many a day—Seattle being known for the occasional rainy day—the clouds conceal it. In the midst of winter gloom, it is difficult to believe the mountain is really there. Days may pass without so much of a glimpse of its peaks. In a fog it takes faith to believe in a mountain.

Mount Rainier entranced the poet Denise Levertov, for whom it was “luminous” (“Looking Through”) and “ethereal” (“Mirage”). Two of her poems in particular capture its elusiveness:


Today the mountain
is cloud,
Pale cone of shadow
veiled by a paler scrim--

Majestic presence become
one cloud among others,
humble vapor,
barely discernible,

like the archangel walking
with Tobias on dusty roads.2

If you don’t know who Tobias is, that’s why we have courses in the Bible; if you want to understand poetry, read the Bible. Wait, a number of you object: he’s not in my Bible! True, the Book of Tobit, that is, the father of Tobias, did not make the canon of the Hebrew Bible and thus of Protestants; it is classified as an apocryphal book, included only in the canon of the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church—but in an ecumenical age, it is available to us all. Typically, angels don’t have many speaking parts in biblical narrative—generally their one line is “Fear not.” But Raphael accompanies Tobias on a long journey, arranges his marriage and heals his father’s blindness. Only a poet could image an ethereal mountain as an archangel.

In another poem, “Witness,” Levertov writes:

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.3

Distracted by all the big data stored in the cloud, or the latest post on Facebook, we may miss the witnessing presence of the others in our midst. Hospitality to the “other” in all the marvelous and difficult diversity of this community is vital to theological education at Union. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it,” says the writer of Hebrews (13:1).

Our own “veils of inattention, apathy and fatigue” too often shroud awareness of the divine presence in our midst. We can become lost in the fog of our own narcissism or preoccupied by all the disruptions and dislocations theological education entails.

Let us remember that the cloud of divine presence drew us here in the first place. Nor is this a passing cloud; it stays with us, not unlike the pillar of cloud that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness. Whatever the variables that drew us to this place, somewhere in the depth of our own being lies a desire for the Beyond, the divine, a longing to know God’s ways, a yearning for wisdom that transcends knowledge. In his Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa said:  “This is the real meaning of seeing God—never to have this desire satisfied. But fixing our eyes on those things that help us to see, we must ever keep alive in us the desire to see more and more.”4

The Cloud of Unknowing

Some of you may find this phrase descriptive of your present condition. I suspect all of us dwell in this cloud at various junctures of our lives. While the phrase likely originates with Augustine, the Cloud of Unknowing is a fourteenth-century treatise on contemplative prayer. The anonymous author is suspicious of conceptual reasoning in the spiritual life, which involves a “blind groping for the naked being of God.” Ultimately, we know God through the difficult and demanding work of love.

It may seem strange to cite this work in a convocation inaugurating the academic year. But it serves as a reminder that logic and knowledge—even “big data”—only take us so far. It also connects the Christian tradition to the mysticism of other religious tradition—it might, for example, be read as a text for Christian-Buddhist dialogue. Moreover, the Cloud of Unknowing reminds religious leaders, and those who aspire to such positions, that absolute certitude, triumphal claims, and vacuous assertions are markers of shallowness. As one of the characters in Chaim Potok’s novel In the Beginning asserts: “A shallow mind is a sin against God.”

The image of the cloud of unknowing evokes a related term, “learned ignorance,” attributed to Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464).5  Learned ignorance acknowledges that what religious believers strive to understand, that is, God and the ways of God, transcend their ability to grasp fully and articulate adequately what they have experienced. Nicholas of Cusa knew what the writer Marilynne Robinson has said so beautifully in our time: Language, “lovely as it is, is the merest scrim on reality.” The experience that seems to underlie religion, she says, is that we are “unspeakably fragile and brilliant observers of a grandeur for which we have tried through all our generations to find words.”6

The struggle to find words is, I suggest, a contemplative practice. Writing is among the preeminent demands of the Union curriculum, and it is an arduous task. As one wag put it, “Writing is easy. You just sit and stare at a blank sheet of paper until blood pours out of your forehead.” The computer screen may have replaced the blank sheet of paper, but the blood still pours out.

So why require writing? Writing demands attentiveness and perseverance in the face of the unknown. It also involves dwelling in the cloud of unknowing. Prize-winning fiction writer E.L. Doctorow has said that when he begins a story, he has no idea of how it’s going to end. The process of composition, he says, is akin to “driving at night in the fog. . .You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”7  By the way, he does at least six or eight drafts of anything he writes.

Painstakingly working draft after draft fosters learned ignorance and guards against a religion of easy answers. Never let it be said that a Union student submitted a paper after only one draft.

The Cloud of Unknowing is also manifest in the Union curriculum in our requirement to learn about religious traditions beyond Christianity. However, prescient, Union’s founders could hardly have foreseen such a development. Their presumption was that it was sufficient to know about Christianity, that is, Protestant Christianity. Of course, once they let the Catholics in, it was all over!

On this date—September 11th—and in this city, it is painfully clear that that people of different religions and cultures must engage with one another for the flourishing of our fragile planet. Yet, in engaging difference, we find ourselves in a cloud of unknowing because the “other always disturbs the self-sufficient world.”8  The willingness to dwell in the cloud of unknowing counters the tribal instincts that play out as ethnocentrism and xenophobia

The Cloud of Witnesses

This term originates in the Letter to the Hebrews, which is more sermon than letter—but at least it is in the canon of all Christian churches. Having composed a paean about the faith of the ancestors, the anonymous author of Hebrews speaks of the community being surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1).

As part of this convocation, we have invoked some among this cloud of witnesses. Many more might be named, but one in particular offers a strong “witnessing presence”: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, appointed as the Henry Emerson Fosdick Visiting Professor in the fall term of 1965 (no, I was not here then!). On November 10th, he gave a lecture entitled “No Religion Is an Island,” and his concluding paragraph suggests what might be some of the hopes for our own community across our lines of difference.

It is neither to flatter nor to refute one another, but to help one another, to share insight and learning, to cooperate in academic ventures on the highest scholarly level and, what is even more important, to search in the wilderness for wellsprings of devotion, for treasures of stillness, for the power of love and care for man [and woman]. What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord endures forever as well as here and now; to cooperate in trying to bring about a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God.9

As this convocation proceeds, I invite you to bring to remember with gratitude those beloved people who constitute our cloud of witnesses—those who have been archangels walking with us along dusty roads, those whose clarity of vision sustains us when we feel enveloped in thick darkness, those whose belief in us and love for us enables us to persevere when we are sure there is no mountain.

What our cloud of witnesses is saying may be eloquently encapsulated in the poetry of William Cowper and set to music by Benjamin Britten:

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head.

1. Samuel Terrien, The Elusive Presence: Toward a New Biblical Theology (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 457.
2. Denise Levertov, The Life around Us: Selected Poems on Nature (New York: New Directions, 1996), 61.
3. Levertov, Life around Us, 71.
4. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist, 1978), 116 (#239).
5. See Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings, Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. H. Lawrence Bond (New York: Paulist, 1997), 85-205.
6. Marilynne Robinson, “Credo: Reverence First,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 36/2 (Spring 2008), 29.
7. Cited, The Writer’s Almanac, January 6, 2011.
8. Michael Barnes, Theology and the Dialogue of Religions, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 230.
9. Abraham Joshua Heschel, “No Religion Is an Island,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996), 249-250.


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