On the Joy of Saying I Don’t Know

May 24, 2018
Professor Laura Nasrallah
Professor Laura Nasrallah. Photo: Harvard Divinity School

Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity Laura Nasrallah was the faculty speaker during the Multireligious Commencement Service on May 23, 2018. Below are her remarks:

Reverend Professor Walton, hard-working Dean Hempton, beloved colleagues, wonderful parents and children and partners and friends of our great graduates, and fabulous class of 2018, welcome.

Class of 2018, congratulations. MDivs, all joy. MTSs, all joy, ThM, all joy. ThDs, all joy. This late afternoon we’re gathered to celebrate you. We’re here to celebrate with this great cloud of witnesses—and to celebrate these witnesses, your parents and partners, your children and your families of birth and of choice, your friends. Thank you for lending us our marvelous students. Thank you for the support you offered through their crises of confidence, their exhaustion at late-night writing sessions, for the food provided, for the laundry done, for the proof reading, for loving them to this place, for encouraging or at least allowing them to pursue a degree in divinity despite perhaps wondering where it would take them. One of our students described his experience at his field education site of standing at a threshold, waiting for the children of the church to come to him for a lesson. He told me, “Waiting is a kind of love.” I am such an impatient person, and he taught me that: Waiting is a kind of love. And you have waited for our dear graduates, sometimes waited on them, but definitely waited for them through the long nights, the occasional long silences, as they labored on their education. We thank you for your love. We applaud you.

And to our dear graduates: You have come to us from California and from Indonesia, Utah and China, from Korea and Texas and Scotland. Some of you are veterans. Some of you are already ordained. Some of you have worked in a funeral home, some have been teachers, some even worked in investment banking. You’ve come to us bearing knowledge and experience, and your own beautiful selves—queer and not, trans and more, of many colors, of many religions, of no religion at all. You’ve honored us with your presence and you’ve taught us and each other. From those who entered in 2015 or in 2016 or in an unnamed year far earlier than that—our long-suffering doctoral students—we have been together through a few hard years. You have taught us, the faculty and staff, to ask questions about justice, about citizenship and belonging, about grief and anger and hope at this moment in our nation and the world, and about bringing new kinds of knowledge and experience into the classroom.

Thank you for the time you have given to us, the portion of your lives you have shared—one year, two years, three years, and, from our doctoral students, even more, whose sweet labors have added so much to our lives, whose children we have celebrated, whose publications we have admired. And we will be a part of your lives forever, not only intellectually or in your memories or in your networks and friendships, but in the databases of alumni affairs, which will pursue you wherever you are. I’m an alum, and they still send me news. I once got an email on the topic of changing careers. It worried me deeply. Was it a sly joke from a colleague? A hint from my dean?

From convocation to your commencement tomorrow, from "Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion" class to today, you have come a long way. From that moment when someone who would later become your friend did a lot of posing in section about knowing Judith Butler’s theory—or maybe did know it, from that moment in the library when someone got all Foucauldian on you, to now: it has been a late-night-bleary-eyed, early-morning-exciting journey.

Speaking of "Theories and Methods" class, today I want to talk with you briefly about the joy of saying I don’t know. This is not to celebrate ignorance—there’s enough anti-intellectualism out there, enough fake news, enough of a feeling that you can wing it without considering history or data, without thinking about the root causes and ongoing effects of racism, sexism, economic injustice. This afternoon, I’m not asking you to celebrate not knowing or ignorance. I’m talking about celebrating that wide open, slightly terrifying feeling of saying I don’t know.

Sometimes we’re not good at that at Harvard. We learn to protect our flanks early—perhaps as early as that first theories and methods class. We learn to nod as sagely as we think Durkheim might have. We learn to say aquedah with Professor Levenson and fiqh with Professor Johansen and modou-modous with Professor Kane and rten ‘brel with Professor Gyatso and basileia with Professor Bazzana—and work on getting the pronunciation right. Early in the semester, we learned to look up what we didn’t know and to cover for it quickly. But after those first weeks of intimidation—and they happen to faculty as well as students, I want you to know—I think we start to soften a bit, we ease into the fact: I don’t know. That’s why I’m here. That’s why we’re here.

And the best experiences at HDS are perhaps those in which we don’t even need to admit we don’t know. Face to face, on the couches outside of the library, we ask a question of someone whose viewpoint and life experience are utterly unlike our own. What do you think? Or, alone at our desks, reading some ancient text, we puzzle away, considering: I don’t know what I think about that. I don’t know what that city looked like, how the temples smelled, how the hymns resounded. But I can learn more.

Not to get all Socratic on you, but to admit that you don’t know can be the greatest wisdom. There’s a saying of Jesus that I really like, which comes from the Gospel of Thomas. Jesus says, “Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be disturbed. When one is disturbed, one will marvel, and will reign over all” (logion 2). It’s a kind of a map to our pattern here. We came here seeking. Maybe by the end of "Theories and Methods," or by the end of the first year, we thought we had found something. And then we were disturbed—disturbed at the political situation, disturbed because of our exhaustion during reading period, disturbed because of a challenging conversation with a classmate, disturbed because we wanted more knowledge. We were disturbed and then we marveled, caught in the wonder of learning.

The Divinity School is a place to celebrate not knowing. That is not because we don’t know anything, but because we know a lot, enough to know there’s so much more to learn. It is a place to celebrate humility. That is not because we are naturally humble as religious people or as those who study religion, but because we have studied and seen enough to know that sometimes you have to fall on your knees in front of something, take off your shoes, and say, “This is holy ground.” This happens not only with divinity but also with each other. This happens not only with each other, but also as we seek to understand a creation and a cosmos that’s groaning in the current crises, awaiting some kind of redemption.

Our schools, our universities, our religious institutions, and our NGOs are the spaces of utopian work. Some of these institutions are replete with problems of colonialism and wealth and privilege, built on the labors of slaves, limned with prejudice. But they can also be the spaces of promise. They have glittering moments of thinking otherwise. Of asking, “What is that?”; of saying, “I don’t understand that.”

HDS as part of the academy is not separate from the real world. (Prof. Stephanie Paulsell told you this early on.) We too are of course real. We’re a pathway, an on-ramp, a laboratory, a place to experiment. At HDS we’re a think tank for possibilities and impossibilities, a place to dream of a more just world, a place to consider about how to care for creation, a place to work toward coalition and understanding. There have been experiments here. There have even been experiments in this very space of Memorial Church, with our students involved, students who lived before many of you were born. I’m particularly thinking an event in November 1971, when Boston College Professor Mary Daly was invited to Memorial Church to preach, breaking the longstanding tradition of male speakers. They did not know what they were getting into, inviting Daly, who taught theology and religion, inviting a revolutionary feminist who humorously, punningly, called herself a “positively revolting hag.”

After a sermon titled, “The Death of God the Father,” Daly invited her listeners to affirm their faith by walking out of the church together. A real walk out, a radical move. One Harvard Divinity student, interviewed afterwards, said, “I was going where I’ve always been ... We have not left out of malice or cowardice. In the bonding of sisterhood we find strength, creativity, and possibility...” According to one reporter, our own beloved teacher and colleague Professor Diana Eck “described walking out of the church with Daly, and then coming back in for coffee.” Professor Eck said, “‘I’m a liminal person, not in and not out. I wanted to talk with the people who were still inside. The coffee was important.’”

The coffee is important. Or the juice or the cookies. Even the Tuesday ritual of the Dean’s Tea at HDS. It’s very important: not only the nutrition, but also the experience of liminality and community.

And we know that this story of Mary Daly didn’t end there. Eight years later, after the publication of one of her books, Daly would receive a letter from African American poet, writer, womanist Audre Lorde. Lorde criticized Daly’s work for its limited understanding of and openness to black women’s experience. For all the revolutionary content of Daly’s thought, there were things she still didn’t know. For all the revolutionary possibilities of our thought, there are still knowledges that we need to seek out, still more to be done.

Tomorrow you commence, stepping out, I hope, into the joy of a lifetime of admitting, “I don’t know.” I have some good news and some bad news. The good news, the great news: You’ll get a degree tomorrow. Most of you are receiving master's degrees. Even our doctoral students have probably come in with a master's degree and have received a master of philosophy on the way through. The bad news: I’m not sure the title master applies. The longing that brought you here has not resulted in mastery. We’ve been questioning that language—should we use the term master to describe the heads of houses or colleges at Harvard? How should the term “master” apply in this still kyriarchal world? I’m using a term from Professor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s work, a word that indicates the idea that one can master or dominate or own another, an idea that has persisted in various ways and times, in the Roman Empire and in antebellum America and beyond.

To say “I don’t know” is to reject a false claim of mastery. It is to celebrate ethics: I don’t know, and there is more that I need to learn. It is to celebrate curiosity. It is to stretch out, longing, yearning for what we don’t know and can’t even figure out how to capture in language, a kind of apophatic desire (those of you who have had classes with Professor Stang will understand). I don’t know and I want to learn. I’m still hungry and thirsty for knowledge, like a hart longing for streams of water. To say you don’t know is to admit that you need the past, that you urgently want history, that you desire the power of the ancestors. To say you don’t know is not to be humiliated but to enter humbly into relation with each other, with the world, with divinity.

You have done tremendous things here. We recall your thinking about performativity, ritual, and trauma, your use of queer theory to think about ancient slavery. We remember your work in convening discussions to advance racial justice and healing. We recall your time at a monastery in Japan, or working on a new institute class for the LDS Church, or bringing Latinx voices to the center of conversation, or driving a really long way to preach. We remember your leadership in die-ins, teach-ins, and regular old conversations. We remember how you used podcasts, film, and end of term papers to tell your stories and the stories of those for whom you’ve cared. We recall your beautiful voices, arguing in the classrooms of Divinity Hall and Andover, translating scriptures, or lifted in song as we heard today. We remember your careful papers, rich in footnotes, falling into centuries of scholarly conversations. We are proud of you and grateful, grateful for the sparks that you carry from our classrooms, from the library, from the cafeteria in Rockefeller Hall or from lying on the grass outside Andover, into the world: you justify us, you make us light.

You know a lot. You learned a lot here. We learned a lot from you. While among us, you sought for knowledge of each other which is ever incomplete given our precious differences. You continued to seek and to find, yearning in your desire for knowledge—whether of self or of other or for divinity that is barely glimpsed among the beating wings of the cherubim. I hope that your time at HDS has given you a strong spine to face the challenges upon which you commence. I hope it gives you a soft face to enter into further conversations. And every time you write on your résumé or say to someone, “I have a master's degree from Harvard,” maybe pause. Question that idea of mastery. Stretch out toward new knowledges. Continue to say, “I don’t know.” Don’t apologize for not knowing. Don’t pretend you do know in a world of violent ignorance. May the longing for knowledge that brought you here drive you green and glad through your lives. Seek, find, be disturbed, and marvel.