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In the Words of Her Father

Rebecca Clancy grew up following her father, the longtime and legendary Elmhurst theology professor Ronald Goetz, from classroom to classroom. By the time she was in high school, she was auditing his classes and doing the same course work as the regularly enrolled college students. At home, father and daughter talked theology the way some people chat about the weather. It was as if the two shared a gene for theological discourse. Clancy figured that intellectual debates at the dinner table were a standard feature of every child’s family life.

“When I went to college, I was amazed to discover that no on else had read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit,” she said during a recent conversation in the Frick Center lounge. “I thought that was the kind of thing everyone did.”

Clancy is an intense conversationalist with a rapid-fire delivery. She likes to say that New Yorkers talk too slowly for her. She has followed her father’s professional path, becoming an adjunct professor at Elmhurst, where she has been teaching for 15 years, and pastor at First Congregational Church of Geneva.

It was five years ago that Goetz asked his daughter and erstwhile student to take on one last bit of homework. Already suffering from the cancer that would soon claim him, he asked her to take charge of his papers, the vast and barely organized collection of manuscripts, notes, first drafts and other writings that he had produced over the course of his prolific career.

Since he began teaching at Elmhurst in 1963, Goetz had published nearly 200 articles and essays, many in the journal The Christian Century, where he had been editor-at-large. But somewhere in the papers he was leaving for Clancy were the beginnings of a larger work that he had not yet completed. It was going to be his master work: a book about the atonement, the theological doctrine concerning the reconciliation between God and humankind. Goetz had worked on it, endlessly writing and revising, for much of his life.

Clancy hardly knew what kind of task she had taken on. When she began delving into her father’s papers after his death, she found fragments of his work everywhere.

“There were laundry baskets filled with papers,” she recalled. “There were papers in shoe boxes.”

When she was lucky, she might find a few dozen pages bound together by paper clips. More often, there was no organizing principle at all. Her father’s unmistakable—and sometimes unreadable—scrawl left no corner of paper uncovered. On some pages, it ran in two directions at once. It was as if the energy of Goetz’s intellect had erupted on the page.

As Clancy dug deeper, deciphering what she found, she realized that her father had left behind the makings of a book that even she didn’t know he’d begun. This was not his big treatise on the atonement, but something different, a lament about the state of theological discourse.

“He was writing about how theologians had become unwilling to speak bluntly about issues of importance,” she said. “He argued that theology had a right and a mandate to speak, but that theologians had become too namby-pamby and felt the need to qualify everything. Theology was dying a death of a thousand qualifications.”

She knew the work had to be published. Clancy pulled together a sample chapter and sent it to a publisher. The response was swift and positive. Now, all she had to do was finish assembling the book, stitching it together from the bits and pieces he had left her.

“There were no rules for this, no guide for how to do it,” she said. “I had to figure out whether what I was looking at on a particular page was a false start or what he really intended. What helped was that I knew him so well and had lived inside his head for so long.”

The result, edited and compiled by Clancy and Larry Matera, another of Goetz’s former students, is the book Clear and Definite Words, published by Wipf and Stock last year. The title, Clancy said, might as well be a description of one of her father’s lectures. “He had that ability to cut through confusion, be forthright, direct and honest,” she said.

Now that Clear and Definite Words is out, Clancy can see how cathartic it was for her to work on the book. She liked the idea of working toward the goals her father had set. It was satisfying for her to know that she’d been able to help him realize a project that he hadn’t been able to see through to its completion.

Her work isn’t done, though. Goetz’s big book on the atonement still looms, and Clancy continues to wrestle with it.

“You just keep going, head on into it, and gradually some clarity emerges,” she said.

“I’ve almost discharged my obligation to my father.”

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