(title is a quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)
By God’s amazing, slow, and steady grace, the community of New College Berkeley celebrates our 40th anniversary this year! In April 1977, David Gill and Ginny Hearn drove to Sacramento and filed the incorporating documents for this new school in Berkeley, the culmination of years of visionary and strategic work by David, Earl Palmer, and others. For forty years this ministry has been fostered and fortified by a large community of faculty, staff, trustees, and program participants as it’s navigated the changes of history and culture.
As our fall programs begin in Berkeley and around the Greater Bay Area, we rejoice and we remember.
Changes We Have Witnessed
When New College for Advanced Christian Studies was founded, we were at the tail end of the 60’s and store fronts on Telegraph Avenue still had boards covering windows that had been broken during the days of student protests. Gerald Ford left the White House that year and Jimmy Carter, an evangelical Christian, entered it as the 39th president of the United States. During Carter’s presidency, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, and the public expression of Christian faith became more ardently political and conservative. The Moral Majority disbanded in the ‘80s, but today we see a resurgence of American Christian nationalism. NCB has steadily affirmed a Gospel-centered faith, committed to loving God and loving our neighbor through devotion and engagement. We are grateful for the deepening of our sense of God’s calling and the stretching of our hearts that comes through Scripture study, prayer, and conversation with people from different traditions, like those in the interfaith Graduate Theological Union and in the various church communities that we serve.
In our own northern California neighborhood, Apple Computer was incorporated in 1977, setting in motion phenomenal changes in daily life around the globe. At New College we saw academic work transformed by access to personal computers as our students wrestled less and less with typing and retyping their papers. Today we are in the midst of another communications revolution with heads of state tweeting messages and 2 billion people checking into social media platforms multiple times a day. Thanks to gifted NCB Trustees Kathryn Badalich and Young-il Choo, and communications director Esther Cho, NCB this month has launched a new website! We continue to seek God’s wheat in the chaff of cultural change.
The late ‘70s were a time of greater equality for women in the US and in Christian circles. In 1977 the first woman was ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, and in 1979 The Reformed Church in America started ordaining women as ministers. From its founding in 1977 NCB embraced women in leadership, on the Board of Trustees, on the Faculty, and in the student body. Founding Trustee Ginny Hearn, who passed away on August 19th this year, was a leading biblical feminist in American evangelical circles, as was Sharon Gallagher, also a Founding Trustee. Ginny and Sharon have contributed to the ministry of New College throughout our history, and Sharon served as Associate Director for 22 years. All of us who have served as women in leadership of biblically committed ministries appreciate how exceptional NCB has been in its full and equal inclusion of women in leadership.
In 1977 the values of young people were shifting, in part related to Baby Boom demographics and shifting economic and workplace exigencies. From 1967 to 1977 American college students valued “developing a meaningful life philosophy” over “being very well-off financially,” but the prior value steadily declined while the latter increased. In 1977 the rising interest in materialism surpassed the diminishing interest in developing a meaningful life philosophy (see Dey, Astin, and Korn, The American Freshman: Twenty-Five Year Trends, 1991), and we registered that shift at NCB.
When the school began, people took time from their professional studies and careers to earn NCB theological degrees that enhanced their lives of Christian discipleship. Phil Stillman, an anesthesiologist currently serving as a Trustee, briefly stepped off his career path to earn a New College degree that, he tells us, has significantly impacted his profession and his personal faith as he walks with the Lord. As time went on, NCB needed to adapt to what was possible and desirable for Bay Area Christians, and that meant shifting to a continuing education model and away from granting our own degrees. We were blessed by the opportunity in 1992 to affiliate with the Graduate Theological Union as a place where our fine faculty can teach. Many of our students from the community mingle with seminary and university graduate students in our courses which bring a Gospel-centered theology to academic studies.
Spirituality Vs. Theology
With the turn toward materialism in our culture and the increasing stress of less upward economic mobility, people have experienced their thirst for spirituality. In the 1970s the word “spirituality” was not to be found in the university, and theological seminaries were thriving. Today, public universities have institutes and even professorial chairs that use the word “spiritual,” and seminaries are in a steep decline, with many closing or becoming departments of Christian universities.
New College Berkeley has always had a primary commitment to equipping the laity for lives of discipleship, so we have not ridden the same thermals as the seminaries. Our focus has been on practical theology—how we understand our faith for the sake of following Jesus Christ in our daily lives—namely, Christian spirituality. Unlike seminaries, for most of our history we’ve not had a full-time student body, and most of our faculty have been adjunct or visiting (please visit our website to see the list of amazing people who have taught at NCB during these 40 years!). The strategic change we’ve made in the past decade is to increase our focus on spiritual formation, offering pioneering programs around the Bay Area for adults of all ages in retreat, group spiritual direction, and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.
The number 40 is significant in the texts of most world religions, including our own. Some say it simply means large and approximate, like “umpteen.” Some say it signifies transformation, as with the 40 years of the Hebrew people’s exile, the penitential 40 days of Lent, or the 40 days of recovery from addiction. We at New College Berkeley celebrate the 40 years of ministry, cherishing the people who have journeyed with us in those years, and we look with hope and commitment toward the years ahead. Join us as we celebrate this milestone year at our gala on September 30th!