Since becoming Dean of the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel in July, Reverend Elizabeth Davenport has hosted diverse programming that engages the spiritual side of a dominantly secular institution: sermons celebrating Darwin and diversity, interfaith dialogues, and most recently a race and religion workshop featuring Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright. The Maroon sat down with her to talk about her career at the University of Southern California (USC), the fine line between acceptance and homogeneity, and the audacity of the cloth.
Chicago Maroon: What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?
Rev. Elizabeth Davenport: Knowledge is something you can acquire without knowing how to use it wisely; but it is the essence of what makes us wise. It takes knowledge of the human condition, knowledge about what we are within the universe, to be wise. I used to think that by the time I was 20 I would have it all figured out. But now that I’m 53 I realize that you go on learning forever. I like being this age. I wouldn’t be 20 again if you paid me.
CM: Why’s that?
ED: It was painful. You’re making mistakes and taking so seriously the things that go wrong. When I was in high school, I understood that I was supposed to go out and make others conform to what I believed. But through encounters with others, I realized that there is no one easy answer to the major questions. I gained a deep-seated appreciation for the questions and the answers of other religious traditions…
I feel like now I have some idea of what this is all about, but what can you do? If we all waited until we became wise, we wouldn’t get much done. You’ve got to practice; you screw up, but people forgive you and you learn. We just hope that in the end we make more mistakes upon ourselves than upon everybody around us.
CM: It takes audacity to presume one may be a spiritual leader. What made you think you could do it?
ED: When I was seven, I decided I wanted to be a priest. Everyone laughed at me—it wasn’t possible for a girl. Women could not become Anglican priests in England until 1994, or Episcopalian priests, the U.S. equivalent, until 1976. And my parents kind of expected that my brother and I would become scientists like they were.
But I just knew that this was what I was going to do. It wasn’t that I claimed it and said, “This is going to be mine.” No, I felt drawn to it. I loved the sense of theater, of what we did in church; I loved the feel of it, the ancient plainsong and chanting.
I feel kind of pleased about the fact that I’ve become what I always hoped, and lucky that I’ve lived at a time when I could. In other ages, I would have been burned at the stake. Seriously, that is what happened to women who’ve known, and owned, and claimed, and shown their spiritual leadership.
CM: Recently the barriers faced by gay and lesbian people in religious settings have received more attention than those faced by women. How was coming out for you as a spiritual leader?
ED: I didn’t come out to myself until my 30s and by then I had gone through so much questioning because of the sexism I faced in religious institutions that my bigger issues had to do with being female. Coming out was relatively easy and almost celebrated in the environment I was in.
CM: The University doesn’t mention in its articles about you that you have done so much work with LBGT populations. What do you make of that?
ED: My basic bio says that I founded the LBGT office at USC. My dissertation is on the subject of queer families and the impact that the presence of same-sex couples with children has on the explanations of the “right” ways of being family within Christian congregations. So it’s odd that that doesn’t come up. I don’t avoid it; I haven’t really faced discrimination for my sexuality in the way that I struggled with sexism.
CM: Could you talk a bit about the struggles you faced?
ED: In the Church of England, doors were literally closed to me. I couldn’t be ordained to the priesthood though I had completed the full training alongside my male colleagues. People were patronizing even when they thought they were being complimentary. You’d get the “Oh, that was very good, wow.” They would never have thought of saying that to a man…
I think it’s freeing for both men and women that we do things differently now. It used to be literally that the people who created the creeds, a very small group of men in the early part of the Christian era, defined religion for all of the rest of us for all time. We don’t think that way anymore.
You can go too far the other way, and which is one of the issues with postmodernism—everybody’s voice is treated as if it were on level with everybody else’s. That’s a caricature, but it’s where postmodernism could lead in the wrong hands—to acceptance void of critical examination.
CM: As dean, you put a lot of emphasis on embracing diverse views. How can you respect someone if you think that he or she is wrong on a fundamental issue?
ED: I can respect someone for the unique person that she is, but that doesn’t mean that she is qualified to speak on every topic, or that her opinion necessarily holds the same weight as that of someone who has professional training or special capacity to think critically about a topic at hand. I don’t expect you to have the wisdom of a 70-year-old, but I don’t disrespect you for being young.