The website for Duke Divinity school is announcing that beloved professor and well-known ethicist, Allen Verhey has died today at the age of 68. Verhey was the author of a dozen books, including his most recent volume, The Christian Art of Dying, in which he reflected on his own struggle with a life-threatening illness.
Sometimes I will hear a student say about a particular professor – “Wow, she is so smart.” It used to make me jealous because students never say that about me. It doesn’t really bother me anymore because I think that often what they mean is that the professor uses big words, is hard to understand, and tries to deconstruct everything in sight! (Not always, but often enough.) I try to communicate clearly and focus on a very good foundation in the basics. All too often we try to get students “up to speed” on latest methods and trends. There is a place for that. But we also need to make sure the foundation is laid securely. I try very hard to lay that foundation with a strong substance.
Sometimes students leave seminary more confused than when they began. There is a kind of productive “disorientation” that must take place to break and re-set malformed theological notions. However, some professors are hell-bent on doing the breaking and very little of the re-forming. Our minds hunger for simplicity, or at least some form of consolidation.
On that note, I was happy to come across (again?) Don Hagner’s statement about simplicity and complexity in his The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Baker). In the preface he mentions that his introduction could come across as naive because Hagner tries to give straightforward answers. Here is his rationale for his “simple” approach:
Simplification is essential to a student’s introduction. Undoubtedly some will regard my approach in general as reflecting a kind of naive, rosy optimism or an unbelievable chutzpah. If it reflects naïveté, it is a ‘second naïveté.” I agree with the statement attribute to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: ‘I do not give a fig for the simplicity this side of [i.e., instead of or before] complexity, but I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of [or after] complexity’. (xi)
Indeed. So, I am OK with my students not thinking me ‘smart’ because I don’t bombard them with esoteric and convoluted terminology. I could also be accused of coming across as overly simple. Don’t get me wrong. We talk about various viewpoints and some current theories on this or that subject. But I want to make sure, at the “far side of complexity,” that I can help students touch terra firm again.