The Afterlife of Ideas

May 24, 2018
Lindsey Franklin and Denson Staples
Student speakers Lindsey Franklin and Denson Staples. Photo: Michael Naughton, HDS

MDiv candidates Lindsey Franklin and Denson Staples were selected by their student colleagues, faculty, and staff as the class speakers for HDS Commencement 2018. The following remarks were delivered by Franklin and Staples at the Diploma Awarding Ceremony on May 24.

♦♦♦

Staples: To our classmates, faculty, staff, friends and family: WHEW! What a three years it has been!

Franklin: Or, to the MTS graduates, two years! Or, to the PhD graduates, six years!

Staples: Or eight! Or nine! For the sake of everyone’s morale, we’re gonna cap it at nine. It could always be worse: you could be a faculty member. What a lifetime it’s been!

Franklin: No matter how long it has taken us, most of us have struggled at some point to arrive at this day. And, to be honest, the two of us struggled to make sense of our time here in a way fitting for Commencement.

Staples: So instead of saying what feels right for Commencement, we’re going a different route. Saying what feels true.

Franklin: At a moment when the world is on fire, as it so often is, our time at HDS has been full of ideas.

Staples: Go figure, it’s grad school.

Franklin: From books and articles, to office hours with professors, to conversations with classmates, to archaeological digs, to studying sacred texts, to learning languages. This has been a time of encountering new ideas of all kinds.

Staples: As the old folks used to say, “that’s not nothing.” Ideas matter. Although we like to think we are their authors, our ideas also form us. What we imagine is possible in this life is constrained by the ideas we hold.

Franklin: In our final religion and race class this spring, and drawing from Saidiya Hartman’s discussion of the afterlife of slavery, Professor Todne Thomas reminded my classmates and me that ideas have an afterlife. We are, sometimes, haunted by their longevity. This ritual of Commencement marks an end to the years we have spent wrestling with ideas in conversation with our faculty, colleagues, and communities. Commencement is a beginning of the afterlife of those ideas. We are now responsible for how they live on, through us.

Staples: We have each encountered meaningful, challenging, self-altering ideas here. I still remember gathering here in the fall of 2015, nearly three years ago now, for the start of the academic year. Harvey Cox delivered a convocation address that he called “The Babylonian Captivity of Theology.” In it, Cox argued that “theology, by its very nature, is or should be troublesome” and “vex the guardians of the status quo.” I still remember how inspiring it was to hear, at the outset of a divinity school education, Cox’s call to action: “let’s be troublesome,” he declared before reminding us that “In order to be troublesome, one has to be first troubled.”

I was inspired by Cox’s words then. I disagree with them a bit more, now. Go figure, it’s grad school. You see, after three years studying Islamic and Christian theology, I have seen the many ways that thinking theologically can support and maintain the status quo. Prophets and Jesus and God can be invoked to fetter human life as much as to set it free. If I am honest, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single crisis or social problem today that has not been exacerbated by theology. Police brutality against black and brown bodies, including here at Harvard as recently as last month; pervasive sexual and gender-based violence, spotlighted recently by Tarana Burke’s #MeToo campaign; unchecked anti-Muslim racism, disinhibited in many by those leading this country. Flint, Michigan still has no clean water. We trust you can recall the litany of ills plaguing our world. How can we not see the traces of centuries of theology here? When God is invoked to sanction crusader violence and colonial missionary activities yesterday, or settler-colonial displacement of racial and religious others today, our path to the hyper-surveillance of black and brown folks is readymade. When your masculinist, omnipotent Father God is an Unmoved Mover penetrating the world, life in a femme or feminized body becomes more precarious. When your God is the only way, the only truth, the only life, the denigration of adherents of other faiths, or those who affiliate with none, follows quickly thereafter. Yes, theology can be deeply troublesome to the world, but sometimes it is troubling not because it vexes the guardians of the status quo, but rather is weaponized by them. So the deeper and more unsettling truth is that theology is what we make it. At the center of so much talk about God is us: humanity. Pulling levers behind a curtain, creating Oz, a god in our own image and likeness.

Franklin: It was my first, heady year at HDS when I read Professor Mayra Rivera's Poetics of the Flesh. Describing the folds between "body and flesh, flesh and word, body and world," she illustrates with her words the ways we are "constituted in relation to the world." Sitting in the library reading this text, my whole body came alive, tingling, my face flushed. The idea that we are continuously creating one another—physically, emotionally, spiritually—caught fire in me. I could feel the truth of it in my body. We are continuously becoming, always in formation. This idea puts language to what I have felt here at HDS—I have been formed by my fellow students, my professors, the staff, by my Divinity School experience.

Yet, we also constitute the world. And, if our bodies are ones that the world has marked somehow as powerful, if we are read as straight or white or Protestant Christian, we often constitute the world in ways that enforce structures of power—heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, Christian hegemony. That we are formed by one another allows us to do violence to one another.

We have this myth that relationships across difference are inherently disruptive of the status quo. But, as I have learned writing my thesis on multifaith spaces, relationships across difference so often replicate the power structures they are situated in. Relationships across lines of religion or race or class are not troublesome in and of themselves unless they are also oriented towards dismantling the very systems that make them difficult to build in the first place. This means that a multireligious divinity school, like theology itself, is not inherently troublesome:  the pluralism we espouse does not necessarily stymie injustice either here or beyond these walls.

Staples: These ideas are meaningful to us. But they remain ideas. For them to have an afterlife requires life after this place. It requires living:  the commencement of our living these ideas into being. How will we be changed by those ideas and live differently in light of them? For me, that means letting go of some of the ideas about God that I was steeped in growing up. Those ideas vilified so many groups. I now find myself among some of the groups that theology demonized. More importantly, living out the recognition that theology has no essential qualities, that we make it what it is, will require me to throw my own hat, tassel and all, into the ring. For those buckling under the boot of oppression, it’s not enough for me to absorb all this talk about god and not talk back. Living out theology’s indeterminacy will require me to construct theologies of my own, to overcome my uncertainties and insecurities, to share them with others. To talk about God until the abolition of policing. To talk about God until sex is not a weapon. To talk about God until the toppling of triumphalist Christian exclusivism. I won’t see the realization of much of this. It is the work of many lifetimes. But it is how I’ll spend this one.

Franklin: To be totally honest, I am not sure what the afterlife of these ideas will look like for me. I am one of the ones here today who does not have a pat answer to the inevitable "So, what's next?" question. I do know that the ideas formed here in Divinity School live in my body. I do know that being in continuous relation with the world, being constituted by and constituting those around me, calls me to be in community. I do know that my call to ministry will entail me weaving together communities of people, likely across lines of difference. So, how do I do it in an ethical way? As one who is called to Christian ministry, I aim to continuously orient myself and my communities towards dismantling those systems of power that we are situated in, the systems of power that work through us. I can’t assume that relationships across difference are inherently disruptive. Being attuned to how power moves through relationships demands humility, continuous reflection, and willingness to take responsibility for the ways in which my body perpetuates harm in those I constitute.

Staples: So, Class of 2018 and those gathered today:  what ideas mean the most to you?

Franklin: What ideas are you ready to relinquish? And, on the other hand, what ideas are most important to share, to let constitute yourself and others? How can you make them real and ensure their longevity?

Staples: How can you grant them an afterlife?