"Among the scores of my former students, none has risen to my defense," said James M. Gustafson, Woodruff Professor of Comparative Studies and Religion. "But it has not been my purpose to raise disciples."
Nevertheless, it was obvious that for many faculty in the audience at the second annual Emory University Distinguished Faculty Lecture on April 7, Gustafson holds the position of teacher, mentor, friend. His lecture, titled "Particularity/Universality: A Retrospective Tracking of a Career" was a more personal narrative than perhaps anyone had heard from Gustafson, regarded as the "dean" of American Christian ethicists. That narrative may mean that his lecture was "a very limited success," said Gustafson, but it was clear his audience didn't agree.
William Cody, president of the Faculty Council, which sponsors the lecture, introduced Gustafson as "someone who has truly changed the culture of Emory University for the better." As director of the Luce Seminar, Gustafson engaged over 80 faculty members from across the University in interdisciplinary dialogue focused on a central theme. "I hope very much that this lecture does become an annual event because it follows very much upon our aspirations with the Luce Seminar," said Gusfason.
Calling himself "a cultural relativist," Gustafson related the influences of his youth in the upper peninsula region of Michigan, where "what people ate, where they worshipped, the second languages we spoke. . . were related to our national origins." His exposure to those various cultures both in the United States and later during service in Burma and India from 1944-46, meant that there "was something of a sociologist in the making" during his early years. What he learned was that "human historical and cultural differences-that is to say particularities-are indubitable. Differences are powerful and at least as powerful as the presence of sameness."
In society, differences among people often lead to judgments and to prejudice, Gustafson admitted. "But comparative valuations assume at least two things: some hierarchy of values along which differences can be graded, and a privileged position in the hierarchy by one's own difference." If particularities led to injustice and distortion, said Gustafson, "there had to be some place to go for some standards of morality and some standards of judgment about the adequacy of what one read, what one did and what one said." Books helped in the quest for those standards, he said.
One book that Gustafson said had decisive impact on his life "by helping me explain myself, understand myself," was George Herbert Mead's Mind, Self and Society, a look at meanings and how those meanings are internalized to compose a persisting self that forms one's perspective on the world.
In examining his own particularities, said Gustafson, he noted that many of his personal qualities were circumstances over which he had no control. "I was a Swede, a Christian, a Protestant. All these defining characteristics were accidents of birth, weren't they?" Did understanding the accidental nature of such particularities make all these things not only relational but of equal value? It was this kind of questioning that meant there was "something of a theologian" in the making of Gustafson's career.
"Can the historically particular claim to be universally true?" asked Gustafson of Christianity. This surely is the central philosophical question of Christian theology, its universality, he said. Often, said Gustafson, it is particularity that gives access to what can be affirmed generally if not universally.
It was Gustafson's mentor and friend, University of Chicago theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, with whom he studied and came to agree regarding the roles of particularity and universality. Niebuhr's writings accept and defend historical and cultural relativism and the fatedness, the sometimes accidental nature of being Christian, said Gustafson. But Niebuhr also affirms that "through the particular, Christ, one can know that God is a friend, and not an enemy."
After reading and discussing more than 100 books in the eight years of the Luce Seminar, Gustafson said he has drawn three conclusions. First, that the polarity that divided the title of his lecture was "much too sharp," and while opposites can be addressed at a high level of generality or abstraction, one can also make tripolar or quadripolar distinctions or look at questions from many other perspectives, including from the vantage point of many interdisciplinary intersections. Second, the distinction has a graded value depending on the subject matter and disciplines involved. Third, the finer the grain of material with which we deal, the more qualifications we find necessary in the bipolarization between the particular and the universal or advocacy of either pole. "This is one of the deepest convictions I've formed out of the Luce Faculty Seminars," Gustafson said.
Based on these experiences and conclusions, Gustafson made a plea to his audience "not necessarily for the continuation of the Luce Seminar, but for time and space and institutional arrangements in which scholars, teachers and students can confront different, dense and fine-grained materials, have time to attempt to understand them, and interact with our mutually critical interpretation and understanding for the benefit of our own scholarship" and for the benefit of the University as a whole.
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