Chancellor Kline, President King, Faculty, Board, Corporation, Alumni, and Friends, thank you so much for the experience of this masters of religious studies program. It has been personally and professionally transformational.
Love. It turns out, after all the truths I’ve learned, it’s all about love. My mother taught me that love is everything, and she did so with the most effective of articulations—with her example. She was warm, kind, forgiving and unfailingly loving towards my brothers and I. But she was also no pushover. We obeyed her, even through our teen years, as my brothers approached or crested six feet and beyond, we always hearkened and complied. She taught me that the Lord is an all-loving God, and that despite appearances in Old Testament stories she read us, He was never angry with us, and He loved the entire human race unconditionally. At the time, I had no idea what a gift she was giving me. With the innocence of childhood, I fiercely loved the Lord back, and thirsted to learn about Him. I watched how my mother loved and guided us all, and how she loved Him, reading His Word daily, as she still does, and in my inadequate way, I have tried to follow her example.
In my young adult years, when I paused for long enough, I felt the Lord’s forgiving, warm and constant love in spite of all manner of intellectual and emotional desertion on my part; later, His love sustained me through crises in faith, the untimely death of my father, and much more. Bizarrely, while at times I doubted the Lord’s existence, I never doubted His love; but when these crises hit, I still railed against what I thought were its limitations, and against doctrinal ideas which seemed out of date or blatantly discriminatory. Returning to New Church education after several years away in the UK, I was full of thirst to understand how could I help young people find their own truth, and continue to feel the Lord’s love along their own intellectual and emotional paths however near or far they strayed. The MARS program beckoned.
I was not prepared for how incredibly invigorating and stimulating I would find my studies at Bryn Athyn College. The program offers the opportunity to undertake in-depth study of the doctrine and apply it to your field of expertise or occupation. I dived into my studies with an enthusiasm which would have astounded peers who knew me in my undergraduate days.
My outstanding teachers led me through thorough and careful study of the Writings in an environment which preserved academic freedom and encouraged the spirit of open inquiry. There were for me two pivotal epiphanies. First, Peter Rhodes taught me that the Writings are revelation, not a rule book. So I read them to see what the Lord was trying to reveal to me, in every nuance of every passage we studied. And the second epiphany: I learnt that there was a hierarchy of truth, and that genuine or essential truths were the ‘bare face and hands’ truths where the internal sense and the sense of the letter of the Word were one. These are the universal truths accessible to all mankind, and necessary for our salvation. Genuine truths are the lamp which enlightens all other truths. Love to the Lord, and love of the neighbor are two such truths. We read in the work Arcana Coelestia, “The understanding...cannot be enlightened unless people believe that love to the Lord and charity towards the neighbor are the chief and essential qualities...provided we are governed by these we can go on to see countless truths.” So I tried to approach my studies open to what truths the Lord would reveal to me, and strove to view and apply them through the lens of love to the Lord and neighbor.
I was privileged to share the Doctrine of the Lord class with fellow graduate, Gordon Jorgensen. What a joy to witness this wise man’s lifelong excitement about reading the Writings, to hear his measured and sage insights, and to wrestle intellectually alongside him with Grant Odhner’s penetrating questions. In one paper, Gordon wrote “Not only does the Lord want to draw people to heaven, He has a specific place in mind for each person who is willing to be led to heaven.” I loved this idea. The Lord’s revelation is tailor-made to lead every human being along his own unique path, to his own unique place in heaven. How could I use the truths that I was learning in my area to help our College students on their path? I want to show them that the Lord is there, every step of the way, and especially at forks in the road, with his unconditional love, irrespective of the directions they choose.
As the classes progressed, the extraordinarily systematic nature of the Writings fell into place for me. The sense of order which descended, and the enriching particulars shaped my teaching, my administrative duties, my dealings with students, and my relationships, personal and professional. My other fellow graduate Jane Edmunds, who is Principal of Kainon School, in Durban, describes her experience of the MARS as “immensely interesting, enlightening,” perfectly “dove-tailing with real-life professional experiences.” Jane was valedictorian for her own graduation ceremony in South Africa; she wrote “Achieving a certificate is successful but this is not nearly as important as the real significance of it. A certificate of achievement is merely a kind of ticket reminding one to go forth and use one’s knowledge to serve others.” Jane and I have used our studies daily in our professional lives.
I wrote my thesis on sexual intimacy in the context of conjugial intimacy. As a Health teacher, in the context of sex education, I wanted to highlight for college students that a strong sense of self must precede the pursuit of lasting intimacy. As Erik Erikson points out, “To truly meet others with whom to share a ‘We’, one must have a sense of ‘I’.” The study makes the case for intimacy as an evolving spiritual complement of each individual’s genuine and unique expression of their own femininity or masculinity.
I found that much of current secular intimacy research echoes the teachings of conjugial love, and with breath-taking symmetry. It turns out that the vast majority of us yearn for a soul mate, one to love one to eternity. My study asks college students, “What do the Writings reveal to you about the nature of intimacy?” Not what have ministers taught you, or what have your parents or teachers forbidden you do, but what is the Lord revealing to you through His Word about the ideal of truly intimate love? At every stage of life, we all need to renew our hope and our intent to intimately love the spirit of one soul mate to eternity. And the truths we wield in pursuit of intimacy need to be held up to that enlightening lamp of love, the genuine truths of loving the Lord and loving the neighbor.
I am so grateful to all my teachers for sharing their brilliant minds, extensive expertise and inspiring love of New Church doctrine. But I especially want to mention Jane Williams-Hogan. Dr Williams-Hogan is associate dean of the MARS program. She has been my mentor, my teacher, and my friend. Her passion for furthering scholarly study of the Writings and Swedenborg is awe-inspiring, and her output is phenomenal. And yet, in addition to all Jane’s excitement and dedication to uncovering the truth, and her prolific scholarship in promoting it, she always makes time to take a student out to coffee, and to give words of encouragement and motherly support. Like my mother, it is not like she’ll let you get away with anything, she is an exacting professor, but she is also so very kind and loving. Jane, thank you for everything. In my inadequate way, I’d rather like to follow your example too. Again we read in the work Arcana Coelestia, "To teach truth without good is to walk as one who is blind, because Good is what teaches and leads, and Truth is what is taught and led. Unless truth is lighted up by good, or unless faith is lighted up by kindness, there is nothing but darkness."
In all you do, know that the Lord’s love is constant, and unconditional. Receive it, channel it. Hold the lamp of genuine truth to all your actions, to illuminate all your beliefs, to shape all the ways you live your truth, and light them with loving kindness.