The “Unfinished Highway”

Distinguished Alumnus Address by W. Clark Gilpin, July 23, 2019

W. Clark Gilpin is the Margaret E. Burton Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Christianity and Theology, emeritus, at the University of Chicago Divinity School. A native of Oklahoma, he received his undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma, before earning his MDiv at Lexington Theological Seminary. He earned MA and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he entered as a Disciples Divinity House Scholar in 1970. Upon graduation in 1974 he taught at Kenyon College in Ohio and then at the Graduate Seminary of Phillips University, returning to Chicago a decade later in 1984 as the sixth dean of the Disciples Divinity House.

Mr. Gilpin served as a member of the Divinity School faculty from 1984 to 2011. As Dean of the Divinity School from 1990-2000, he oversaw the establishment of a new curricular structure, a transition from the DMin to a flourishing MDiv program, and numerous faculty appointments, including in the study of Judaism and Islam. Subsequently, he directed the Martin Marty Center at the Divinity School and the University’s Nicholson Center for British Studies, and served as a member of the executive council of the University’s Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture. He was also appointed in the College and, from 1992-1996, Clark and Nancy Gilpin were the resident masters of Burton-Judson, an undergraduate residence hall.

Clark Gilpin studies the cultural history of theology in England and the US in the modern era. His first book was an intellectual biography of Roger Williams, the seventeenth-century advocate of religious freedom who founded the colony of Rhode Island. His earlier research and writing also focused on the relation between religion and education in American culture, including A Preface to Theology (1996). His more recent research has explored the relationships among religion, theology, and literature, including Religion Around Emily Dickinson (2014), a recently completed study entitled, The Letter from Prison: Testimony and Literary Form in Early Modern England, and, with Catherine Brekus, the co-edited volume American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity (2011).

In his joint introduction of the honorees, Garry Sparks observed: “A testament to Clark Gilpin’s vision within the academy is the proliferation of the use of this plural—Christianities or Catholicisms— by other scholars that signals a diversely descriptive rather than an implicitly normative approach. For many of us, he interlaced this approach through courses where he strove to diversify the readings on the public church, shepherded MDiv senior ministry projects, and compelled many of us to continue to research on our own in this vein, such as Sandhya Jha and her antiracist history of the Disciples of Christ.”

The inscription on the award conveys the significance of his academic leadership and his research, and also highlights his continuing contributions as a trustee and in teaching Disciples History and Thought at DDH, citing him: “For contributions to the historical, cultural, and theological study of religion that have shifted perceptions and reoriented practice and reflection; … for exemplary leadership of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and in theological education and the wider academy; for distinguished service to the Disciples Divinity House as alumnus, dean, and trustee, including teaching a generation and more of Disciples Divinity House Scholars to think deeply, broadly, and critically about their own tradition’s legacies, empowering them to preserve and to transform what they have received.”

Eighty-four years ago in 1935, a group of Northern Baptists and Disciples of Christ affiliated with the University of Chicago published a compact volume entitled The Church at Work in the Modern World. If we were to publish a similar book today, I suppose we would need to name it “The Church at Work in the Post-Modern World.” Nonetheless, that earlier generation of writers and religious leaders captured a vision of the church-in-the-world that evokes for me the crucial features of Disciples Divinity House across its 125-year history.

The Disciples religious educator William Clayton Bower introduced the purpose of the book by stating that the authors conceived the task of Christianity “in its relation to society to be creative. Its work is not only to be carried on in the present changing social scene, but if it is to exert an effective spiritual influence upon society, it must relate itself in a dynamic and creative way to the other social forces that are at work in the modern world.”

Edward Scribner Ames, dean of Disciples Divinity House, minister of University Church, and professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago—casting about for a way to fill his spare time—took up the challenge of interpreting Christian worship and its “work in the modern world.” I find it the most evocative essay in the entire volume.

Religion, Ames wrote, “is an experience of individuals, but it involves an associated life with other persons” in a “never completed” process of growth and aspiration that defines “the drama of human life.” This collective pilgrimage has “no finished highway ahead;” its goals are sometimes “disastrous,” and they regularly fall short of realization. Yet, throughout the centuries, pilgrims held fast to “a vision of the great life of which they were a part, and by which they were sustained” in the “comradeship” of the journey. Ames urged that “religious ceremonials”—hymns, sermons, baptism, the Lord’s Supper—should be “conceived as the imaginative representation” of “the creative and expanding life” of humanity.

Ames’s striking refrain is that worship celebrates our collective pilgrimage, the “highway” on which we are travelling, and the destination that we seek. Ames counsels us, in short, to be “grateful for what is to come.”


Which reminds me of the present day.

In the weeks since the 125th anniversary celebration for Disciples House, May 24-26, I have been reflecting on Larry Bouchard’s keynote address, on the whole series of thought-provoking panelists and storytellers, and on the celebration’s theme, “Grateful for what is to come.” The 125th anniversary resonated with many themes from the writings of our early deans—not only Edward Scribner Ames but also Herbert Lockwood Willett and Winfred E. Garrison—and it honored that early vision by creatively transforming it. The transformation of the MDiv program described by Cynthia Lindner, suggests to me that respectful, sustained multi-religious dialogue could become the model around which Disciples House might conceive “what is to come” for its role as a residential educational center. Bonnie Miller-McLemore commented that “learning thrives amid narrative,” in no small measure because stories both evoke and orient emotions. Stephanie Paulsell emphasized learning as an experimental space, which is both reflective and open to creative possibility. Robert Franklin urged moral reckoning with “the full past” as an integral component of orienting ourselves toward the future. Otherwise, we may well be “destined to produce chaplains of the status quo.”

I initially thought of these transformative ideas enunciated at our anniversary celebration as contemporary echoes of our history, as exemplified in “the drama of human life” portrayed by E. S. Ames. But echo is the wrong metaphor. We—the Disciples Divinity House of the University of Chicago—are a living body, travelling what Ames called the “unfinished highway.” And the experience of our communal pilgrimage deepens and extends both our social engagement and our sense of self.

Living toward the future is thus a collaborative act of moral imagination, imagination arising from an attentive receptivity to our spatial and temporal “surroundings.” It dares to be receptive to the future as sheer promise; to feel an obligation toward it; to invest our mental and physical resources in the future, even if its contours are largely unknown. Moral imagination does not fear that institutions will stifle it but, instead, builds them in the confidence that those institutions are the “earthen vessels” in which and through which it will create and re-create, yet again.

I am grateful for the many ways that the creative imagination of Disciples Divinity House has shaped my life across forty-nine years; I am grateful to share with David Vargas this honor today; but most of all I am grateful for what is to come.

William Clayton Bower, ed., The Church at Work in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935), vii.

Edward Scribner Ames, “Religious Ceremonials and Their Symbolism,” in Church at Work, 82-83, 86.