Theology in Dialogue with a Beautiful and Broken World
A chat with Kevin O'Brien, S.J., new dean of the Jesuit School of Theology
Kevin O'Brien, S.J., took the helm of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in August, after heading the largest campus ministry in the country at Georgetown University. He recently answered some questions about his path to joining the Jesuits, the role of theology schools today, and his research into how to make the Catholic tradition more meaningful for millennials.
Q: Tell us about your background-- what enlivens you as a professional and as a person?
A: I grew up in South Florida. I went to Catholic school and then Georgetown University, which is where I met the Jesuits. I thought about becoming a Jesuit in college, but I was interested in law and politics. So I went to law school and then returned to my hometown in Florida to build a legal and political career. But in my mid-twenties, things happened which called to question how am I best meant to serve? What is my vocation in life?
To figure that out, I left my law practice and taught in a local Catholic high school, and that's where my desire to be a Jesuit came back in a very powerful way. I entered the Jesuits when I was 29 years old.
The last eight years I've spent at Georgetown University, most recently as vice president for mission and ministry. In that role, I helped the president promote and share the Jesuit and Catholic tradition of education and spirituality with our faculty, our students, our staff, alumni, and their parents.
Q: Is that similar to the Ignatian Center at Santa Clara University?
A: Yes. I also supervised the largest campus ministry in the country. Georgetown has long committed to an interfaith ministry, and so we have a vibrant Catholic chaplaincy, but we also have staff to Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox Christian, and Hindu chaplaincies on our campus. My responsibility was to coordinate dialogue along ministries on campus and partner with our academic departments. It was a very vibrant and exciting type of work, both in talking about the Catholic and Jesuit tradition and bringing that into dialogue with other religious traditions.
Q: What was your favorite part?
A: Helping students talk across differences. Finding common ground is easy. All the traditions are committed to peace and justice; they profess a belief in the transcendent. But there's also differences. Teaching our students and others how to talk across some really significant differences among the faith traditions, while maintaining that common ground, to me, was most interesting and dynamic.
Q: What motivates you?
A: The Ignatian tradition of spirituality, I hope, informs everything that I do. Throughout my 20 years as a Jesuit, both academically and pastorally, I’ve focused on the richness of the Jesuit tradition of spirituality, and how that can animate not only people's lives individually, but schools and colleges.My leadership is informed by this Ignatian understanding of how God is at work in all things and all people; that God is laboring in and through us, to make a more just and gentle world; that God speaks to us through our own deepest desires, and delights in seeing those desires realized in the service of others.
Q: For those who don't know JST very well, how would you describe JST students, and why are you excited to be here and lead them?
A: It's a wonderfully diverse community on campus. One of our core degrees is the Master of Divinity, and we have a variety of other degrees, which are shorter, and some degrees recognized by the Catholic Church called ecclesiastical degrees. And we offer a doctorate in sacred theology.
Half of our students are Jesuits, other religious, and priests, either preparing for ordination or recently ordained, or returning for degrees in order to teach theology or to do further ministry in the church. The other half are laymen and women of not only Catholic but other Christian traditions who are exploring theology as we offer it here at the school. Most graduate to serve as teachers and professors, minister in local parishes, hospitals, and prisons, and serve in social ministries for the poor.
It's also extremely international. In our entering class, we have students from Jordan, Nigeria, China, Congo, India, South Korea, Vietnam, Ukraine, and Chile. Many are coming here to get theology degrees to teach theology back in their home country or home state in this country.
Q: You have said that schools of theology are important in your view for, among other things, helping the church do its thinking. What do you mean by that?
A: I like to think that the church lives and breathes in a parish or Catholic lower school, where you see young people and older people and people from all walks of life living their faith. But the church needs a place to do its thinking. Traditionally, that happens at a Catholic university like Santa Clara. A school of theology is a very distinctive feature for a Jesuit university or a Catholic university to have. A school of theology focuses the way a University thinks through matters of faith and culture.
A medieval theologian, Saint Anselm, describes theology as faith seeking understanding. Certainly faith involves our heart in terms of our prayer. Faith involves our hands and our feet because we need to do something with our faith to serve others. But God gave us a mind as well, and we need to think about our faith so that it means something today, so that it's able to be communicated to people in a way that's life-giving and effective and meaningful.
Q: Is that what is meant by contextualized theology?
A: Yes. Contextualized theology means theology does not exist in a vacuum, set apart in an ivory tower disconnected from the world.. Because theology is the study of God and God, who is love, is always relating to us and our world, thinking about God must always be in relationship to someone or something else. Put simply, contextual theology is theology in dialog with the world, with all of its beauty and brokenness.
So how do we live theology in the context of a world which is increasingly secular? How do we have that type of dialogue? What type of language do we use? What do we talk about? What does theology have to say about racism, sexism, the refugee crisis, and environmental destruction? The conversations we have today are very different than they had 50 years ago, just because the world has changed and language has changed and we who are doing the thinking about God are changing!
Q: Why do you think there are more and more students who might want this education?
A: A lot of my work recently has been studying the millennial generation and Generation Z as a people of faith. How do we speak to them about faith and what are they asking? Every semester at Georgetown I was just awash in questions. They're asking some really great questions about meaning and wanting to make a difference. In a sense, it’s the idealism of the sixties and the seventies, but it's a lot more realistic, I think. They focus on accountability and metrics. They want to serve together, as part of a community. They care deeply about community, about connecting across boundaries and barriers.
We've spent so much time fighting ideological and political battles and fixating on labels --- Republicans, Democrats, insiders, outsiders, traditionalists and progressives -- categorizing people with a variety of different labels. For young people, all those categories, they're important because they identify who we are, but for many they are also obstacles. For most young, there's more important things, and for them, it's truly building a more just and gentle world together. I'm amazed at the idealism that our young people carry, and their willingness to sacrifice to do it.
Think about the environmental movement and sustainability. There's a certain sacrifice entailed in that, and they're willing to make it for the greater good of the earth. Thnk about the difficult conversations we are having about race. Theology and faith can help deepen these conversations.
Q: There's probably a large group of students at Santa Clara University’s main campus who feel that way. What should they know about JST?
A: I would invite undergraduates or alumni or other college graduates, to think about an education here because it's truly a deepening of what they already have experienced.
The deepening is on two levels. One is on the intellectual level, here they will encounter world-class professors who will challenge them and engage them and enliven their thinking. We'll examine Scripture n a way that's meaningful to people today. They will look at history and its meaning for the Church and world today. They will learn about religions other than their own. They'll look at questions of what the Church is today, and how to talk about faith today in a way that's intelligent and meaningful. They'll learn skills in pastoral care and counseling. They will wrestle through moral questions. They will learn about the diversity of spiritual traditions in the Church. They willlexperience an intellectual deepening that will animate them on another level their faith will come alive in new and profound ways.
Our setting here in Berkeley is distinctive. We are part of the Graduate Theological Union, which is one of the premier theological consortiums of schools in the country, and we're part of eight schools of different religious traditions. There's another Catholic school, sponsored by the Dominicans, and the rest are from various Protestant denominations. We also have newer institutes in various traditions: Islamic; Jewish; Buddhist.
Some of the students we teach here are students coming from those other schools to learn here. In any classroom, there is a wonderful mix of people. You could have priests or Jesuits studying to be priests. You could have women religious. You could have laymen and women, students in their twenties, for instance, just out of college. You could have more seasoned or older students who are looking at a second career and then people from different religions in the same class. It makes an exciting ambiance to learn theology.
Q: Your next book is going to be about making the Church come alive for millennials.
A: My hope is that my next book is a conversation with young people on how we can make our tradition come alive in ways meaningful for them today.
Q: Any hints as to how that can be done?
A: By listening to the questions that young people are asking and taking them seriously, knowing that, for me, God is a question more than an answer.
Oct 10, 2016
Photo by Joanne Lee/Santa Clara University