Following the Questions Wherever They Lead: A Conversation with Mark D. Jordan (SF73)
March 24, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa
Mark D. Jordan (SF73) is R. R. Niebuhr Research Professor at Harvard Divinity School whose work encompasses Christian theology, European philosophy, and gender studies. After completing his undergraduate studies, he earned an MA and PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and has since received a John S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, a Fulbright-Hays grant (Spain), and a Henry Luce III Fellowship in Theology. The author of eight books and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Jordan began a phased retirement from Harvard in 2019. Here he discusses the planned gift that he and his husband, William Holden, recently made to St. John’s.
When did you become interested in religion?
I had an intense religious conversion right before I went to St. John’s. I landed at St. John’s in Annapolis as a fairly young February freshman, ready to do work on Christian tradition, the relation of theology to philosophy, and, especially, ethics.
I intended to go to Santa Fe, but they were then only running the February freshman program in Annapolis. So I transferred to Santa Fe in August to start my sophomore year.
Did you take some time off after high school, or did you go to a different college and change your mind...?
It’s more embarrassing than that. I dropped out of high school.
That’s actually a very St. John’s thing to say. I’ve talked to a number of Johnnies who have relayed that exact experience!
St. John’s was my gamble. They were going to make a respectable man out of me. I remember getting the admissions letter a few days before Christmas and thinking, “Oh good, I’m not going to be flipping burgers. I can go to college.”
Looking back, I don’t know what arrangements they had with the accrediting agency for that, but what’s interesting is when I graduated from Santa Fe, the prep school from which I had dropped out graciously awarded me an honorary high school diploma.
The Santa Fe campus had only come into existence a handful of years earlier, in 1964, right?
Our predecessors had already attained mythological status. We were mere mortals following the footsteps of giants—as the myths frequently reminded us.
The college was small, and those were the years of ferocious attrition. I believe that what became my class in Santa Fe started at about 125. Some 35 of us graduated. So it was a very intense community. In those days, too, going down to the plaza felt like crossing the desert to an exotic city.
What stands out from your initial experience of the Program?
One of the things St. John’s instilled in me was the courage to follow questions wherever they lead and not to worry about the property signs that people put up to fence off certain areas. So I started reading and just kept going. In high school, I’d been reading Thomas Aquinas and I continued to do so as a first-year student, but I also fell in love with the way Plato is read at St John’s.
I had, at the same time, this fascination or obsession with language, so I was reading a lot of twentieth-century linguistic philosophy. I remember being scolded by one of my tutors, because I was carrying around a famous twentieth-century book about language. He looked at me and said, “Well, we don’t think too highly of that sort of thing here.” But I had been taught—and already learned—that you stick by your questions.
My senior paper at St. John’s was on Thomas Aquinas and Plato. The advisor who was reading it told me that it was interesting but two times longer than it needed to be—and he was right! I went on to do a dissertation on the doctrine of creation in Thomas, on how God can be read through the creation.
Are there any memories from your time in Santa Fe that strike you differently now?
When I was at St. John’s there was passionate discussion about how the curriculum was or was not related to the arts and literature, because among the students and faculty there were people who wrote novels and poems, or people who painted and threw pots and photographed morning light on chamisa (my fixation at the time). How could we include those arts within the Program?
I remember sitting one day in the dining hall in Santa Fe and thinking, “We don’t have to include them. They already include us!” We were surrounded by this jaw-dropping beauty, and looking back now, I realize that part of what held me in place to do the work was that experience of the landscape in Santa Fe.
If I’d stayed longer in Annapolis, I probably would have gotten more appreciation for the salt marshes, but in Santa Fe you receive immediately the gift of being able to read powerful books in this theater of beauties. Trying to write those beauties has become more and more important to me—so I take that moment in the dining hall as a premonition.
How do you characterize your ongoing relationship with your St. John’s education?
I’m one of those people for whom the St. John’s curriculum was exactly right. It gave me ways of reading and teaching and writing that I have used for the rest of my life.
In later years, at other schools, I gained the reputation of having a distinctive teaching style. In the context of those places it was distinctive, but from the point of view of a graduate of St. John’s, it’s just the way you do things. There’s been this awareness all along in my professional life that I was just putting into practice what I was taught at the college.
People also remark that there is an unusual breadth to what I publish, in thirteenth-century Christian theology and twentieth-century French philosophy and history of medieval medicine and the contemporary relations of literature to ethical writing. But there’s one question underneath that leads me zig-zagging through different libraries.
What is that question?
The question is about how human language shapes us, shapes our bodily lives, especially in relation to things that exceed us, like the divine. How can a human language be a vessel for more than human teaching?
What is your continuing relationship to the college as a brick-and-mortar entity?
I’ve lectured at both Santa Fe and Annapolis. In fact, I was supposed to have a lecture in mid-February, 2022 at Annapolis, but we postponed it because of the virus.
I’m a fairly reclusive or even shy person, and I’m not a great joiner, so I haven’t been involved in the Alumni Association or attended reunions. But I still own the copies of Plato and Aristotle that I bought the first day I was on campus at Annapolis. I still use them to teach. So I feel a daily connection to the work of the college.
How did you and your husband decide what kind of gift to make to St. John’s?
The college was really clear that if Bill and I wanted to designate the money for particular purposes we could. But having spent my entire life in colleges and universities, I know that an overly specific gift can rapidly become an albatross: institutions spend a great deal of energy trying to re-interpret specifications that were laid decades or centuries before, when academic fields or curricula were utterly different.
Generally, I know that endowment money is harder to find than current operating money, and unrestricted endowment money is the scarcest of all. So that’s why we decided to give our money for whatever general purposes the college deemed important. If we didn’t trust the college to make that discernment, we wouldn’t be giving the money.
As a college teacher, I’ve never had a lot of money to give the college year to year. That was the motive for making a bequest or planned gift. We’re not raising children, we don’t have family obligations, so we are free to say, “Here’s what we’ve accumulated. Put it to good use.”
I whisper under my breath, “Apologies for not being able to contribute more to the annual fund!”
How do you hope your gift will support the college in the future?
As someone who teaches in the humanities in the United States—and someone, especially, who has taught in programs of Christian theology—I sometimes feel that I’m being surrounded by crashing or shrinking institutions. The question of what homes or habitations we can make or find for this kind of work is a pressing question in many schools, not just at St. John’s. The important thing is not to preserve particular institutional shapes but to continue the work.
As a teacher, you learn over time that how you articulate your questions today or this semester can change dramatically. Still, underneath, there’s a current that flows, that continues to feed you through your teaching and writing.
I feel that about the college, too. There may be—will almost certainly be—many changes in the articulation of the curriculum, but what I want to support is the current underneath. If you believe that the kind of work St. John’s does reaches deeply into human capacities or needs or pursuits, then that work will be important as long as there are humans.
I look forward into a future that I really can’t discern. I have no idea what the college’s curriculum is going to look like in a hundred years, but I very much hope that St. John’s will be around to provide fundamental education.
Please visit our Gift Planning site to learn how you can make St. John’s College a part of your legacy.