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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Teaching Grace in Stephen Duffy's Place 
2nd-Oct-2010 11:28 pm
What Is A Theologian?
I've found myself in a strange place by the end of the week: sort of melancholy or strangely moved, which I suppose is no great surprise for anyone with an Irish temperament. We have been planning our courses and schedules for the spring semester, and in settling that business, I found myself running into unexpected resonances with my own past.

It turns out I'll teach another two sections of my general "Catholicism" course that I've been teaching this semester, tweaking it for problems I've already noticed (mostly coming from trying to have my students read too much). I'm re-offering that one because it fulfills both the general Religious Studies requirements for undergrads, as well as being one of the required courses for the Catholic Studies minor, and just because the subject, by its nature, is broad enough to be both accessible and maximally profitable for undergrad students. I also will be teaching my first graduate course, which has got me excited: I'm being loaned out to the Loyola Institute for Ministry, which offers Master's degrees for laypeople involved in Church ministry. I'll be teaching one of their core courses, called "Church, Sacraments, and Ministry," and I'm looking forward to the kind of self-motivated, more active adult learners that I'll find in such a group of students. Not that my undergraduates aren't pretty good, but you don't find the kind of uniform pro-active approach or attitude among them that you find among students who are all in a course because they're really choosing to be.

The thing that really hit me, though, was ending up adding a course called "The Experience of Grace" to my spring schedule. As the only Catholic Systematic Theologian on the faculty at the moment (and the department really should have three), I've found myself stepping into a pair of big, and slightly familiar, shoes. Fr. Stephen J. Duffy was a prominent professor here at Loyola University New Orleans, up until his death three years ago. The theology of grace, which I consider to be the most difficult subject in Christian theology (I'm a bit freaked to be thinking about teaching a class focused on it to anyone, especially undergraduates), was his specialty. So the last few days I have been wading through old syllabi on file in the departmental office, copying those from earlier versions of this course and the other occasional ones that have caught my eye (basically for other topics I might teach). I suppose it's a particularly "faculty" sort of geekiness that gets excited at reading through other people's plans for how to teach a subject, but that's what it is.

In particular, it's stepping into Duffy's specialty that has me feeling like the understudy stepping into a role for which he most likely is not ready. Duffy is, quite literally, the guy who wrote the book on the subject. He used his own text, The Dynamics of Grace: Perspectives in Theological Anthropology, which, I noticed last night as I pulled down my own copy of the text, I had noted under my name as the first book I bought as part of my doctoral studies. Fr. David M. Coffey's "Theology of Grace" course at Marquette immediately re-arranged my own theological priorities, electrifying me with enthusiasm for this difficult subject. Had he not retired home to Australia, I might have jumped ship and just written a dissertation purely on grace than on the ecclesiology I had come to Marquette to do. (In the end, my dissertation subject let me combine my ecclesiological interests with my now more-dominant interests in grace and Trinity.) Coffey was definitely critical of Duffy in a number of respects, and I therefore wrestled and argued with Duffy in my reading as much as I might have with any theologian, but Coffey did admit that Duffy's books – The Dynamics of Grace along with The Graced Horizon: Nature and Grace in Modern Catholic Thought – were the best books on the subject out in the market. (Having just looked these up on Amazon, I'm suddenly wildly grateful to those blessed theological reprint publishers, Wipf & Stock, for putting The Dynamics of Grace back into print, otherwise I'd have a real struggle for [legal] texts for next semester.)

So I'm teaching the class on a difficult subject formerly taught by the most prominent writer of that subject. Even though hardly any of the current students at Loyola would remember Fr. Duffy for comparison, I nevertheless feel an accountability to his memory that I'm not sure I can live up to. In that light, however, it was oddly moving to have tripped across his own self-evaluation while I was looking for old syllabi. He didn't think himself much of a teacher. He recognized that he was technically proficient in his field, but he felt that he had little in the way of the gift for drawing students to the love of the subject itself: that he knew the subject, but couldn't make it any more inspiring for those students who couldn't already perceive what was inspiring in it. I wasn't in danger of idealizing Duffy in any way, but I did want to do him honor and justice, teaching his subject in his space, and in his place. (And with many of my colleagues being friends of his.) So reading his own words of humility in teaching his subject gave me another sense of connection to him, despite the fact that we never met or communicated. I have an accountability to him in the communion of the saints, and to the subject as part of the gospel and as part of the university's commitment to teaching, research and truth-seeking. But because of my own slightly inter-connected history with Duffy, and because of my great interest in, respect for, and humility in front of the subject of grace, I find myself more in awe of my duty to teach this particular course than of any other I've ever taught. So we'll see how it goes once the semester actually begins!
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