In memoriam magistri Latomi dilecti

In memoriam magistri Latomi dilecti December 17, 2015

I first met David Steinmetz in April 1995, more than twenty years ago. I was not quite 21; he was nearly 59. (It is sobering to realize that I am now, at 41, closer to the age he was then than to the age I was then.) Craig Farmer, who taught church history at my alma mater, Milligan College, had strongly encouraged me to attend grad school at Duke to study with Steinmetz. I had read several of his books at that point, and had been struck by the clarity and pungency of his writing. I knew there were a lot of good scholars out there, but I already realized that few of them could write like Steinmetz. It was obvious from his writing that he was not simply a great scholar but a well-rounded human being, and furthermore a deeply committed Christian. The sentence that probably had made most impression on me was from a wonderful little essay on theological education in his collection Memory and Mission: “Until you have been slain by the left hand of God’s wrath and made alive by the right hand of God’s mercy, you may be a dabbler, but you are not a theologian.”

I came to graduate school with the typical sorts of misgivings that students from very conservative, particularly Pietist families often have. I had been homeschooled and had attended a local Christian college, even though my family found the professors at times to be a bit on the liberal side. We were not typical fundamentalists by any means–as Wesleyan Holiness folks, and furthermore as maverick Holiness people who had rejected some aspects of conventional “conservative Holiness” teaching–we were far more mystical and quirky than most conservative Christians. But we were very conservative Christians, to be sure, and furthermore because we were mystical and pietistic, we were deeply suspicious of an overly academic or systematic approach to Christian faith, even if it was conservative. My grandmother regularly spoke disparagingly of systematic theologians, and she approved of my going to grad school mostly because I would be studying church history, which she thought was a safer discipline than either theology or Biblical studies. Steinmetz’ essay in Memory and Mission addressed these concerns almost as if he were speaking directly to me. (As I would learn, he came from a very evangelical UMC congregation in Ohio and was a Wheaton alumnus, so he had no doubt dealt with these things himself.) His essay assured me, before I ever met him, that learning to be a Christian scholar didn’t have to mean letting go of an experiential relationship with God–that indeed scholarship should deepen such a relationship, and that the doubts and questions raised by scholarship might be part of the “temptations” that Luther said accompanied any serious attempt to follow God.

David and I did not hit it off immediately. He was gracious but reserved in manner–I was extremely nervous, and I’m sure I came across as cocky, because that’s how I usually come across when I’m nervous. As I began my first year at Duke, I quickly found myself overwhelmed by living on my own for the first time. I had spent much of my life in the woods of East Tennessee, twelve miles from the nearest town of any size. Durham was a metropolis by my standards, and the libraries at Duke were paradises in which I could and did get lost for hours . I had no master’s degree when I came to Duke, just a liberal arts BA. I had no background in theology or modern Biblical studies. I was interested in everything, and at the same time terrified that everything I encountered might change me in some sinister way. The liberty of living on my own and being able to spend my time as I wished (which mostly meant to read whatever I wanted) was intoxicating. I discovered sci-fi and spent hours and hours reading it instead of the work I was supposed to be doing. I also discovered the Internet (bear in mind, this was 1995) and developed a habit of arguing religion on the Internet that sucked up hours of my time, and continues to do so today. In short, I was the typical nerdy young person with far more curiosity than discipline, free for the first time from the limitations of an extremely strict upbringing but still carrying around the psychological effects of that upbringing. But I was going through all of this while a Ph.D. student at one of the finest universities in the world, rather than as an undergraduate or even seminary student.

I don’t think David knew what to do with me. Most of his students had come to him out of seminary, and some (like Richard Muller) had by his account already figured out what they wanted to do with their careers and already possessed a great deal of learning in the field they wanted to study. (He gave me the impression, in fact, that Muller had come to Duke already knowing more about Reformed theology than David did–but then, David illustrated Chesterton’s dictum about the difference between exaggerated praise and flattery. He could be ruthlessly honest about your faults while praising your virtues to other people in terms that utterly astounded you when you heard about them. Already in my first year he was telling people that my Latin was better than his own, when in fact it was merely very good for someone who had only had a couple of semesters of formal instruction in the language. No one I’ve known has ever used exaggeration more skilfully or proficiently than David, to make a valid point rather than to distort the truth.) Here I was, this loud, insecure, impossibly boyish 21-year-old (people meeting me for the first time usually thought I was about 15 at most), wandering around in polyester pants chattering endlessly about my thoughts and feelings, and really with no clue of what I wanted to do at Duke except the idea of studying the connection between the Reformation and the Middle Ages, mostly in order to sort out whether I could myself remain a Protestant or not. He tried to give me guidance, but he did so in an extremely courteous, restrained way that I found at times to be rather aloof and sardonic, but which I now realize was an expression of respect.

The most striking feature of how David treated all his students, in fact, was respect, and that included respect for their time and for their dignity as fellow scholars, from the first moment they met him until the time they got to shake his hand and call him “David” at their dissertation defense. The Ph.D. process has a lot in common with a medieval apprenticeship, and in many cases that includes some serious potential for abuse. I’ve often heard stories of grad students doing hours and hours of unremunerated work for their advisors, or doing the lion’s share of work on a project and being rewarded with a bare mention in acknowledgments. David went to great lengths to avoid any kind of exploitation of his students. He made sure I was remunerated for work I did for him whenever possible, and if he asked me to do some small errand without remuneration he would apologize and say (truthfully) that he didn’t ask such things often. At one point we were going to produce a primary-source reader together. He not only got funding to pay me for my time working on the project but also offered me full credit as a co-author, which would have given me name recognition in classrooms across the English-speaking world before I had even defended my Ph.D.: “But,” he added rather hesitantly, as if he didn’t like to mention it, “since I am the senior scholar my name will be listed first.” (Unfortunately, David eventually decided to abandon the idea.)

Now, looking back, I realize that I was frustrated with him because I found the relative freedom of graduate school terrifying and wanted someone to give me a detailed program of action and coerce me to follow through on it. Other advisors I’ve heard of would have done something much more like that. (David’s own advisor, Heiko Oberman, was one of them, by all accounts, and David’s style seems to have been a deliberate corrective to Oberman’s very controlling approach to his students.) At times, ungratefully, I thought that an advisor like that would have been better for me. But I am now extremely grateful for the fact that David was the first authority figure in my life to treat me like an adult. In fact, he treated me like an adult even when I didn’t act like one.

He bore with me when I was 45 minutes late for a seminar (though he later claimed that that was one of my more punctual days–it wasn’t only one’s virtues that he tended to exaggerate), when I forgot that I was supposed to give a class presentation, when I remarked one evening during my dissertation phase (at a very nice dinner to which he was treating all his students at a Greek restaurant, which was a pretty regular sort of thing for him to do) in great excitement that I had actually managed to do some work that day. . . . He bore with me even when I took a sudden leave of absence and ran off to Romania for six months after my second year at Duke, because the pressure from my family and my own doubts and questions and uncertainties had just gotten too much. When I say “bore with me” I don’t mean that he never expressed annoyance or spoke with less than perfect gentleness–in fact, sarcasm was his most common mode of expression, and he didn’t spare his students. He could be quite ruthless with my papers (as any good professor is), pointing out when I was “skimming over the surface of the evidence” and “leaving hostages to fortune” by unsubstantiated remarks. He remarked frequently that I had “no unexpressed thoughts” and that I contradicted everything he said. (This was not a claim that could be refuted directly, of course, without confirming it.) At one point, quite late in my time at Duke, he wrote me a rather harsh letter in which he pointed out “in the nicest possible way” that “I can rip your guts out if I want to.” (I had asked him once too often to recommend me for funding to continue working on a dissertation that showed no signs of progress whatsoever, and as he put it he was not going to lie for me and say I was making progress when I wasn’t. Well, when he put it that way. . . . ) But this, like most of the things he said, was a well-crafted piece of rhetoric, designed in this case to shock me into moving forward with my dissertation. By this point I had been at Duke for something like six years with no end in sight, and I think he realized that his usual methods weren’t working, so he tried shock therapy. In the end, David never gave up on me. And looking back, that’s quite startling given some of the stunts I pulled (and the progress on my dissertation that I didn’t make). He was not always reassuring, but he was always there–unflappable, ironic, and bemused.

Our relationship changed for the better as I finally moved toward completion of the dissertation. The moment when I came to his house to discuss the first dissertation chapter I had given him and he actually approved of it was one of the most exhilarating of my life. An entire chapter with not one place where I had “skimmed over the surface of the evidence” or “left hostages to fortune”! A year or so later, when I had completed all but the last chapter, if I recall correctly, he said in a rather stately manner, “It has been my custom to allow my students to call me David when they defend their dissertations. But I recognize that times are changing, and you can call me David now, if you want to.” I replied that if it was all the same to him, I’d just as soon wait–it would give me an incentive to finish the darned thing. Which it did. And on the day of my defense, when he shook me by the hand and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Tait,” I hesitated for about half a second, as if I were committing an impiety, before I dared to say, “Thank you, David.”

I never lost my awe of him. I was always a bit too slow to contact him, and I regret that bitterly now. On the day after Thanksgiving, David’s friend and colleague (and another of my former professors) Grant Wacker called me with the news that David had died the night before. The last time we talked had been an argument over Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation, which David (like most Reformation scholars) hated, and which I like very much, though with some significant qualifications. (Contradicting everything, still.)

At the funeral in Chapel Hill, we had “A Mighty Fortress” (of course), “How Firm a Foundation,” and an obscure but wonderful Luther hymn, “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice,” with lines like “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay, Death brooded darkly o’er me”. . . . not typical fare at a United Methodist funeral for a distinguished academic, but very typical of David. David had already told us how to think about his death years ago, as it turned out, in a sermon quoted by Timothy George in his recent CT obituary

Someday a funeral procession will go to a cemetery and after a brief ceremony, everyone will go home except me. At that moment, the vain and threadbare claim of the idols to be the final arbiters of human destiny will be shown up as the poor and empty thing it is. Only God can be God; only God has the power and the will to be God. Whatever claims to be God but is not God will abandon us one final time at the grave’s edge. On that day, the only question that will matter is whether underneath us are the everlasting arms of the living and true God.

This reminiscence has been far more about me than about David, which I suppose is appropriate. Many people have written about him in the past two weeks, and perhaps there isn’t much left to say about him except to tell how he affected me personally. He haunts me and will always haunt me–a grey-haired, majestic figure in a wheelchair sitting in a corner of my mind smiling at my latest folly. I’m sitting here at the computer trying to sum up his wit and wisdom memorably, and I can’t. I’ll leave that to others. But in the end what stays with me most is the rock-solid, ironic, unsentimental piety reflected in the quote above. Or, in the words of Herbert Butterfield which David quoted in an email he sent me at the end of my first semester at Duke: “Hold on to Christ, and for the rest be uncomitted.”

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