Our Visitor from Colgate: Stephen Kepnes, List Lecturer and Director of Chapel House

October 2, 2015
Steven Kepnes

On Thursday, October 1, we were fortunate to have with us at the Center Professor Steven Kepnes, Professor of World Religions and Jewish Studies at Colgate University, Hamilton, NY. He is also chair of the Religion department at Colgate. On Thursday evening, October 1, Professor Kepnes gave the fourth annual Albert and Vera List Fund for Jewish Studies Lecture, “Jewish Liturgy as Jewish Theology.” The video of the lecture can be found here. (And see here a brief interview with him.)

What was most important in the learned lecture, I suggest, was the integral and organic connections Kepnes made between the practice of faith in personal and communal worship and the theological commitments implicit in such practice. To pray as a Jew—the topic of his presentation—is to adhere to certain fundamental views of God and world, the holy as apart from ordinary life and yet enveloping and infusing it, and revelation as communicated in the Word we hear and the multiple words of worship. To pray regularly is to be drawn into a deep learning experience, so as to be formed and transformed in accord with that faith. What one believes, and how one speaks of it, remains intimately tied to that surrounding practice.

Kepnes’ lecture thus addressed some profound and basic points of Jewish practice and theology, but also raised for us larger questions about what we are doing when we study religions, from the inside out or outside in. Within the confines of a faith tradition to which we belong, we are challenged to keep study and practice connected. Though beyond the confines of his presentation, a further question naturally came to the fore: how can the outsider student and scholar enter upon another tradition to understand what it says and does, without in at least a partial manner becoming a member of it? The lecture presented us with a rich possibility, even while accentuating the great demands placed on scholars even here today, who would venture to study religious traditions religiously.

We were fortunate then to have Professor Kepnes with us for a second event as well, a Friday lunchtime conversation on a different but not unrelated topic, “Uncommon Roots: Chapel House, CSWR, and a Vision of Integral Learning in Community,” our common effort to locate and nurture boundary-crossing intellectual/spiritual conversations right on campus. We held this further conversation during Kepnes’ visit, since the theme fit nicely with his Thursday night lecture, but also because he is the Director of Chapel House, and because Chapel House and our Center were made possible by the same anonymous donor. For background, see “The Establishment of the Center,” Professor Kenneth Morgan’s 1976 account of the founding of the Center, the informative memorial tribute to Morgan posted at our website in 2012, and John Ross Carter’s "How Chapel House Came to Be," his recollection of the founding of Chapel House, of which he was the Director for over 40 years.

This lunchtime conversation—attended by about 20 faculty, staff, and students, including residents of the Center—probed the common origins of the two entities and the shared possibility of integral spiritual/intellectual learning to which they point, even while noting differences between the Center and Chapel House, particularly the distinction between the historical academic mission of the former and the more focused contemplative space that is the latter. Much of our discussion focused on the challenges of forming and nurturing communities dedicated to a richer intellectual/spiritual learning in the context of the modern university, where very often the hastening pace of life, professionalization and specialization of the disciplines, and challenges to the Humanities make seem quixotic the quest for such integral learning. But learning more of our common history and ground gave us some hope in this regard. Plans are already under way for further contacts between Chapel House and the Center, including a visit by some of us here to the Colgate campus.