Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Reunion Memories

It arrived in the mail, a reminder from the alumni association of my alma mater, like the tolling of a bell.  Twenty five years, it'll have been, since I wrapped up my bachelor's degree at the University of Virginia.  And, of course, I'm supposed to be eager to return, excited to recall my youth, here in the deep weeds of my midlife as my children prepare to go off to college themselves.

"What is your favorite memory from your time at U.VA.," it asked.

There were representative recollections in the little brochure, samples of what we in our sagging, graying late forties are meant to have as our fondest memories of Mistah Jeffahson's University.  Football featured prominently, or is apparently meant to.  Sports...and football in particular...are three-quarters of the Whitman's sampler of memories presented.  That, and sledding.

Important things happened to me at the University of Virginia.  I have vital memories of that time.

None of them have anything to do with any of the variant forms of sportsball.  Oh, sure, I worked at Bryant Hall, washing the dishes of athletes back when that was a dining facility, and not part of an 86 million dollar sportsplex that includes luxury suites and donor recognition lounges.  Do I remember games?  Not so much.  There were one or two, here and there, and they were fun in their big loud way, but those memories aren't what defined that time.

What I remember, instead, are the relationships I formed in the small tribe of my fraternity.  I mostly remember those, although there's some...er...haze in there.

And more significantly, I remember the classes.  

Beyond the relationships, what was important, powerful, memorable, and life-transforming about the University of Virginia were the academics.

What I learned there changed me as a person, and redirected the arc of my life.

Courses in psychology deepened my understanding of the human soul, how it can break, and how we can build it back.  Courses in film introduced me to visual media, to the power and subtlety of the form, and to Kurosawa, whose genius still amazes.  Courses in Eastern European literature, African literature, and the writings of Latin American authors and poets deepened my understanding of both the variances of culture and our shared humanity.

It was at U.VA. that I was first exposed to historical-critical scholarship in Religious Studies, with professors who opened my mind to the serious study of the Bible as literature.  I'd been struggling with my faith, struggling with the relevance of Jesus-following in my life, in the face of an often crass and reactionary cultural Christianity. Those classes were a joyous apocalyptic unveiling.  Suddenly, the books of my faith were rooted and grounded in the real, in a way that didn't subvert their sacred character but only deepened and enriched them.

It was at U.VA. that I first encountered the heady interconnection between philosophy and faith in the human struggle to find meaning.  In a graduate level course on Nietzsche, I discovered Tillich and Kierkegaard and thinkers whose existential honesty helped shape my understanding of myself and my faith.

My coursework gave me the intellectual depth to thrive for ten years at the Aspen Institute.  They helped water the seeds of my calling as a Presbyterian pastor.  And they continue to shape me.

My senior seminar in the Religious Studies department involved a depth study of the Amish, one that was so lingeringly fascinating that over twenty years later I used the primary text from that class to help write a novel.  The one that actually interested a publisher, and that'll hit bookstores as a hardback in early 2017.

That education, provided by professors who were almost uniformly excellent, really did stick.

Which, I would hope, Mr. Jefferson would find heartening.  That was his vision, as I seem to recall.