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Stanford Report, February 23, 2000

Interim dean for religious life sees more values in questions than answers

When a friend at her church suggested that she consider joining the clergy, Kelly Denton-Borhaug says she laughed at the prospect.

"Since then I've come to appreciate the great biblical tradition of women laughing when a moment of revelation expresses itself," the interim dean for religious life told a noontime audience on Feb. 9.

Denton-Borhaug was the third speaker in the Winter Quarter "What Matters to Me and Why" series. The talks are designed to encourage reflection on personal values, beliefs and motivations.

"I don't know if I ever would have dared to imagine ordination or life as a clergy person, had it not been for other people who suggested it to me. They gave me the courage to envision it because I never had the experience, growing up, of witnessing women in those roles."

Raised by a father who was Catholic, a mother who was Southern Baptist and a grandmother who was devoted to the Rev. Billy Graham, Denton-Borhaug said she found her religious community in a Lutheran church near her home in a Los Angeles suburb.

She attended services with childhood friends, rather than family members, and found in the Lutheran tradition "the sense that life is a gift" and that the "giftedness of life requires something from me -- that I should use it well."

As an undergraduate in college, Denton-Borhaug said she often borrowed the books of a friend who was attending seminary, and they would debate theological questions. As a result of those conversations, she found herself increasingly being drawn to a religious life but decided to spend a year abroad in Spain to be sure.

"I went to church very seldom during that year and experienced a time of being separated from the familiarity of regular church practice I had grown up with -- and the inclinations simply grew stronger. By the end of that year I had decided that when I graduated from college a year later, I would apply to seminary."

She anticipated that writing to her parents about her decision from halfway around the world was a "quite brilliant" ploy.

"I thought, 'They'll react, they'll explode, and I'll be safely removed.' But I should have known my parents were smarter than I was. They simply refused to react until I got home, and then my mom did not speak to me for two weeks."

Denton-Borhaug said her parents had understandable concerns about her future in a profession where men predominated. Women had been ordained in the Lutheran church since 1970, but when Denton-Borhaug entered seminary, only 30 percent of her class were women and half of them dropped out by the time she was ordained in 1989.

A graduate of California State University-Northridge, Denton-Borhaug holds a master's degree and a doctorate from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley. She came to Stanford in August 1996 as an associate dean for religious life.

As a result of working on a multi-faith campus, Denton-Borhaug said, she has been "blessed by other understandings and traditions."

"There are lots of different ways of systematically looking at 'the truth' in various religious traditions: Are all religious traditions simply expressions of the same truth in different forms? Are they different windows that lead into the same room of ultimate truth? Are different religious truths more like different tops on a mountain ridge that aren't necessarily connected to one another?"

In opening remarks, Denton-Borhaug spoke about the "numinous" moments in life when the curtain that typically cloaks everyday events is lifted and "you see life's marrow -- that life is very strong, but that life also can be very fragile and fleeting."

She said she had experienced such moments when her younger brother was stricken with a life-threatening illness and when she taught English to immigrants who had made their way to the United States despite incredible obstacles.

Joking that she had never shared the angst many teenagers experience when they rebel against their parents, their god, their church or synagogue, Denton-Borhaug noted: "My adolescent rebellion was being religious." But she added that she nevertheless has appreciated and learned from the tensions that exist in her own tradition.

"I find lots of contradictions within my own religion," she said in response to one student's question. "And I love the process of questioning more than the answers. I value the ambiguity in the process."

As a wife and mother of three children, Denton-Borhaug said she also finds tensions within her immediate and extended family.

"Whenever anyone dies or gets married or is to be baptized, the immediate impulse of the family is to draw you into the role of family priest. And you have to decide what your boundaries are going to be. When do you just want to be the daughter or the sister?"

Asked which biblical passage she found most meaningful, Denton-Borhaug said it had to be the story of Mary Magdalene that is related in the New Testament Gospel of John. It was one of her ordination texts and also the focus of her dissertation on the theology of atonement.

"It's the story that takes place after Jesus has been crucified and his body has been taken away," Denton-Borhaug said. "Mary Magdalene comes to the garden in the darkness of the morning, before sunrise, looking for the body. She encounters this person, whom she assumes is the gardener, and she says, 'What have you done with the body?' She wants to anoint and care for the body according to the practices of her religious tradition.

"And the gardener, who turns out to be Jesus, says just one word -- her name. That's all that needs to happen for an incredible transformation to take place. He just says 'Mary,' and suddenly she recognizes him and her entire world is changed.

"There's something about the transformational direction of that story and the way that it's all encapsulated in that one word -- the word of her name -- that I find really wonderful and meaningful." SR