David Curlin


Why did you decide to pursue a Master's degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School?

I have become increasingly thankful for my time at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  I initially chose the school because my brother, Dr. Farr Curlin, was part of the U of C faculty working in the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.  He spoke highly of the Divinity School faculty.  Secondly, I was attracted to the idea of “joining the conversation.”  I thought this was a powerful motif to understand how we think about the world. Finally, the Divinity School’s excellent reputation confirmed my leanings.

What were the highlights of your experience as a student?  

Honestly, I felt like I was over my head for much of my time in the Divinity School.  Though I can’t say the experience was enjoyable, I can say, in retrospect, that the experience was invaluable.  People ask me how my year at the U of C impacted me, and I respond, “It taught me real humility.”  How? First, I encountered real expertise!  As a chaplain and captain in the Army, I’m in a work environment where the word "expert" gets thrown around a lot.  Unfortunately, the casual use of the term blinds people to how little they know and conveys a grasp of a particular reality that is a complete illusion. Secondly, being in the presence of real expertise awakened me to the profound complexity involved in answering many of life’s most important questions.  Thirdly, as an orthodox Christian, I found many of my convictions were held by only a minority of my classmates and professors.  This made for a very rich learning experience and honed many of my convictions while helping me learn to really listen and, in many cases, appreciate those of different convictions.

What are you up to these days, and how does your time at the Div School factor in to your current work?

Presently, I work in the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  I am part of a teaching team charged with preparing soldiers to effectively engage the many varying cultures of the world.  My time at the Divinity School equipped me to make a unique contribution to this effort in the following ways.

I was the first instructor to really challenge the use of the word “expert.”  In the military, we are guilty of primarily talking with ourselves.  As a result, we are often unaware of how limited our perspective is.  Secondly, the U of C introduced me to a professional culture.  We are trying to train our special operation soldiers to grasp the complexity of the world in which they live.  Though we claim that our soldiers are “experts” in cross-cultural engagement, we do not have a professional culture in which deep thought about the world is nurtured.  I would not have been so aware of this gap had I not observed a real professional culture at the U of C. Thirdly, my time at the U of C taught me the profound importance of humility in seeing the world aright.  Though I did not enjoy the feeling I had at the Div School of being overwhelmed, I am amazed, in retrospect, how much the experience engendered real wisdom in me, making me aware of how little I really knew. Finally, I gained a real respect for the rigors and contributions of academia.  The military has historically had somewhat of a prejudice against the academy, and my time at the U of C made me very aware of how damaging this prejudice has been in blinding us to critical realities that should have been in consideration as strategic decisions were made.  Bottom line, historically our ignorance has led us to vastly underestimate the complexity of the cultures we hoped “to help,” and overestimate our potential capabilities to engender change. I’m convinced had we been in respectful dialogue with the academy we would have been much less likely to set out on some quixotic campaigns.

The net result of my Div School experience is that I am equipped with intangibles that have allowed me to make a real contribution not only to the formation of our special operations soldiers, but also in the introduction of a different way of thinking about ourselves in the leadership culture that is shaping the force for the future.