An Invitation to Learning
Address given at the Academic Convocation of Mercer School of Theology
September 10, 2014
Good evening. It is indeed an honor for me to be invited to give the address for this year's convocation of Mercer School of Theology. I am not sure by what reason or credential such an honor has been bestowed on me. But, I am humbled by the privilege and would like to thank Bishop Provenzano and Dean McGinty for extending the invitation.
The topic of the address I have been given by Dean McGinty is "An Invitation to Learning." I don't know if the Dean was aware at the time, but the title couldn't be more appropriate as we celebrated today in the Episcopal calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts Alexander Crummell, who is a priest, missionary and educator saint of our Church. Born a child of a freed slave in New York in 1819, Crummell was first educated at a Quaker school. Later being denied admission by General Seminary because of the skin of his color, he nonetheless pursued the theological education in the Diocese of Massachusetts and was subsequently ordained to the diaconate and the priesthood by the Bishop of Delaware in 1844. Then, he went to England to study at Queens College, Cambridge University in 1853. After Cambridge rather than returning to the US he became a missionary in Liberia. He returned to the US in 1873 and settled in Washington, DC where he founded St. Luke's Episcopal Church and the Conference of Church Workers among Colored People which eventually became the Union of Black Episcopalians. He was also one of the founders of the American Negro Academy and was numbered among the leading African American intellectuals at the time. He died in Red Bank, NJ on this day in 1898. Against all odds, this child of a former slave persistently and creatively found his way to gain the best education anyone could have and used that gift for God's mission among the disenfranchised people in Liberia and this country. Clearly his life is an example of what we are gathered to explore this evening — to make the connection between our theological learning and our mission and ministry, how our learning and our mission need and feed each other. So, I can only hope that my half-baked ideas can be of some use to you.
I heard somewhere that the intellectuals are those who have been educated beyond their capacity. As some of you know, I spent some years in Oxford, and Oxford is filled with over-capacitated minds. Many brilliant minds can handle such over education. But, there are also those over-capacitated minds who just love to don long academic gowns and wallow in esoteric intellectualism. The longer the academic gown the more over-capacitated one's mind is. And there is no better example of esoteric waste of time than the high table dinners that can go on four to five hours with the second and the third desserts after a three-course dinner.
Soon after I became Chaplain of Keble College, I was invited to one such high table dinner at another old college which shall remain nameless anonymous. Everyone got a designated seat, and I was seated next to the college's law professor on my left. As soon as we sat down, he quickly launched into his grilling and asked me, "Well, Chaplain of Keble College, tell me. Do you know what new god has been invented in the last ten minutes? You religionists seem to invent a god all the time. We don't even come up with a new law that often." To which, I replied, "You seem to know a lot about gods, Professor. But, I must confess I really don't know much about them, because I believe in just one God" He, then, turned to his left and ignored me for the next ten minutes.
He turned to me again and said, "But, you must believe in religion. You are a priest and Chaplain of Keble." I replied, "Actually I don't believe in religion, Professor. I practice religion and I believe in God." He turned to his guest on the other side again and ignored me for the next ten minutes. I wasn't sure whether to feel sorry for myself or for the person on his left.
He turned to me yet again and said, "What about Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair? (This was soon after the Iraq war had begun.) With their Christian belief in their speech, they continue to claim God's will in their political decisions. I don't know if your God was right on this one." This was a challenge. I replied, "I am not sure if God really had much to do with their decision deep down, because they probably would have come to the same decision without God. You must admit that there were just as many Christians who were against their decision as those Christians who were for their decision. So, perhaps the decision really had little or nothing to do with God, but more to do with their egos and their struggle for political power." He again turned to the other side and ignored me for the next ten minutes. So went the rest of the evening in, what they call, the second dessert after a three-course dinner. I consoled myself by thinking that in many cultures the left side is often symbolic of the devil. Thank God for the port, which was being freely passed around throughout the night!
In the course of this excruciatingly painful high table dinner, however, the law professor did ask me one question worth pondering upon. He asked me, "Do you think atheists should study theology?" Unlike the American universities, undergraduate students at Oxford can study theology, and many theology students claim to be atheists. Apparently the theology professor of that college didn't think atheists should theology. So, the question: should atheists study theology? Obviously they can if they so choose. But, the real question behind it is, can they do a proper job of it?
Mark McIntosh in his book, Divine Teaching, offers a helpful reflection on this issue. In an Augustinian manner, McIntosh defines theology as knowledge given by the divine revelation in the context of the community of believers in an ongoing relationship with God. This definition is squarely incarnational in paradigm. God is the primary actor or revealer of knowledge and it is done in the context of the community and of the personal relationship with God. God is at once both the subject of inquiry and the teacher of the divine knowledge. Then, he cleverly adopts Paul's three virtues in 1 Corinthians 13 as three theological virtues: "faith, hope and love, [which] taking root in you would point to a remarkable subject of study."1
Then in the language of the Church Fathers, McIntosh goes on describe theology as a mystical vocation rooted in the spiritual discipline of prayer, which leads the student to, what Origen called, "the ultimate contemplation, the more direct and immediate hearing of the divine speaking, theo-logia." He also quotes Evagrius' famous saying, "If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian."2 This reminds me of a seminarian colleague who once told me that she didn't do theological exegesis of scriptural texts, but preferred spiritual exegesis of biblical texts. Should we really disconnect theological inquiry from spiritual grounding and spiritual discipline from theological curiosity?
I share the vignette of the Oxford high table dinner because the law professor seems to represent in his devilish way the attitude many secularly oriented people have toward religion and the church. I am sure you are familiar with many religious surveys, which point to the decrease in religious participation and membership and the rise of the so-called Nones. How often have you also heard people say that they believe in God but they don't want to have anything to do with 'organized religion.' What do they really mean by that? Perhaps they mean to reject religion in an intellectual sense, or to resist what they perceive as the power structures of the religious hierarchy. Or it reflects some form of anticlericalism. Rather than being defensive to or insulted by such a remark, we in the church ought to take it as a wake-up call for some serious self-examination.
While I was in England, there was a program on BBC 2 one year called, What the World Thinks of God. Any attempt to wrap the human mind around God in ninety minutes is bound to be simplistic and anticlimactic. But, the program did offer a challenge. Its survey reported that Britain was one of the nations with the lowest percentages of believers in God and that more Britons thought that the world would be more peaceful without God. This was not surprising on one level, given that it was not long after the Iraq war started. But, perhaps this was also a sign that people yearned to see true compassion and love triumph over evil, but did not see it happening among religious people and in religious institutions. When the name of God is invoked to marginalize and hurt others and to carry out violence against innocent people, it is difficult to see anything useful or good in religion.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey was already sensitive to this issue and was writing about the place and role of Christianity in the secular world. In his 1964 Holland Lectures entitled, Sacred and Secular, he began the lectures by observing the inescapable paradox of Christianity: "Christianity has always presented the paradox of a concern for this world and a will to renounce it for the sake of something beyond."3 His main thesis, which has been largely forgotten by now, is the phrase he borrowed from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "religionless Christianity." On the surface this is an oxymoron. How can we have Christianity without its religion? What Archbishop Ramsey was advocating was that Christians in their practice of religion must strive to transcend the boundaries of the very religion they practice. The replacement of God with one's religion is precisely what he feared the most. But, that seems to be exactly what has happened in the fundamentalist and the literalist forms of Christian faith. There is a vast difference between the giant abstraction called 'organized religion' and the faith we live by to help us get through the dark and difficult moments of life.
Of recent, the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, has examined this issue of secularization of the modern culture in his opus magnum, entitled A Secular Age. In it he examines the five century-long process of the secularization of the western culture and society, which has resulted in the secular age of today. This 900 page tome is a difficult read and not a bedside reading for most people. Or perhaps it would be a good bedside reading if you have difficulty falling asleep. But, James K. A. Smith has written a more accessible explication of this book with an enticing title, How Not to be Secular.
In it Smith notes that Taylor "not only explains unbelief in a secular age; he also asserts that even belief is changed in our secular age. There are still believers who believe in the same things as their forebears 1,500 years ago; but how we believe has changed. Thus we need to ask ourselves: how does this change impact the way we proclaim and teach the faith today and into the next generation?"4 At one point Taylor suggests that those who leave faith because of science are less convinced by the scientific data and more inspired by the story that science tells and the self-image that comes with it, i.e., rationality equals maturity. "If Taylor is right," Smith writes, "it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or evidence but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith. The goal of such witness would not be the minimal establishment of some vague theism but the invitation to historic, sacramental Christianity." 5
In closing, I leave with a thought on one area of our faith that demands a more robust, complex understanding of our faith. Elizabeth Johnson in her book, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, published in 1990, alludes to this in the epilogue. "If I may be allowed a prediction, the next wave to rise and roll into the church's consciousness will be that of non-western christologies, as the young and growing churches of Africa, Asia and India formulate their own answer to Christological question in words and concepts taken from their own cultures."6 I think Johnson is challenging and inviting us to a theological mission of developing a more robust and complex understanding and language of faith that honor the culturally diverse views and experiences of Jesus and that tell the story of our common multicultural life experiences. This is an exciting new challenge that invites all of us to take this theological mission seriously, for it will have a lasting effect on our mission at hand into this century. Thank you very much.
1. McIntosh, M. A., Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Blackwell Publishing, 2008) p. 6.
2. Ibid. p. 26.
3. Ramsey. A. M., Sacred and Secular, Holland Lectures 1964.
4. Smith, J. K. A., How Not to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans Publishing 2014) p. 23.
5. Ibid. p. 77.
6. Johnson, E., Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (The Croosroad Publishing 1990) p. 145.