Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Ghosts at Southern Seminary: A Lenten Haunting

Even though I still live in the same city, Louisville, KY, I don’t often visit the campus of my theological alma mater, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, mother seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention.  At first, it was too painful to visit the campus and see just what R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (Al Mohler) has done as president to destroy the school that I knew and replace it with one of the same name, but almost no continuity.  It’s still painful, but it has the largest theological library around and, from time to time, I sneak in to do research–but only after I have tried the library at nearby Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary first.

Last week, circumstances brought me again to the campus, and, for the first time in a very long time, I allowed myself to move past the pain of the fundamentalist war in the SBC which resulted in the takeover of my alma mater (completely after the retirement of the former president, the late Dr. Roy Lee Honeycutt)–and every other seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, and to walk around campus in the early morning remembering the school as I first knew it.  I relived the memories of when I first arrived and encountered again the “ghosts” that haunt these halls and grounds. If the school ever recovers from what Mohler has wrought here, I wonder if those restless spirits will then find peace.  My mind drifts backward:

It was New Year’s Day, 1986.  I finished the drive from Atlanta, GA where I had been living temporarily with my parents as I saved to come here.  I had recently graduated from a small Baptist college in South Florida  and taken an M.A. in history from Florida State University as I made my final decision between law school and seminary.  Most of the other would be seminarians I knew at my small college were making plans to go to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX, but I had checked it out and been unimpressed with SWBTS’ academic rigor.  None of the other SBC seminaries had any attraction for me.  The news from the 1985 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas was sufficiently disturbing –the feud between fundamentalists and those they considered theologically “liberal” was growing and could become a denominational schism as had happened in the late ’70s with the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod–that I did consider seriously attending seminary outside the SBC.  After all, I first “became Baptist” as a young Christian through encounters with African-American Baptists and then, later, with Baptists in Germany.   “Baptist” was an important modifier identifying my tradition of Christianity, but I was much less emotionally invested in “Southern Baptist.”  So, I considered some other seminaries–but SBTS had a strong lure that I did not resist.

I had felt connected to the school before I visited.  My home church pastor was an alumnus and his connections brought some of the seminary’s brightest to our church for annual revival meetings.  At FBC, Jacksonville Beach, FL, I heard famed NT scholar Frank Stagg preach on the “unhindered gospel” displayed in the Book of Acts.  I heard church historian C. Penrose St. Amant (pronounced “Sahn Amahn.”) illustrate God’s faithfulness through reference to figures in the history of the Church universal. I had heard Henlee H. Barnette preach against nuclear arms and for the care of God’s earth.  I had finally heard the great theologian Dale Moody, one of the few Protestants and only Baptist ever invited to lecture at the Gregorian University in Rome, preach through the Book of Ephesians.  All these giants were retired by January 1986, of course, but they had been my lure. If I were to study theology in an SBC seminary, there could be no other choice than SBTS–once of Greenville, SC, and since shortly after the Civil War, at Louisville, KY.

On that January morning in ’86, I rounded Lexington Road and entered campus, mesmerized by the gondola tower on Norton Hall and the spire of the seminary chapel.  I unloaded my car, helped by others who were there 2 weeks before the start of term and set up my room in the dorms over Boyce Bible School–a dorm where I would live until getting married in another January–this time in 1990–but I knew nothing of that later date with destiny–hadn’t even met my bride-to-be.

As I walked over the campus again, I wept.  I remembered the feelings from that New Year’s Day in ’86.  I was excited, but anxious.  I had been an excellent student in my small college–but so had everyone who was now here. It was a much bigger pond for this poor fish.  Could I swim in it successfully? I remembered wondering that strongly.  Baptists are not usually known for academic brilliance, but Southern was a different story (as are some other schools in American, Canadian, British Baptist circles–and around the globe).  In the Boyce Centennial Library, one can see the desk where A. T. Robertson (1863-1934) wrote his “Big Grammar” of NT Greek–that revolutionized the study of NT Greek, not as a “Holy Ghost” language, but as the ordinary koine Greek of the Mediterranean in the Hellenistic era. There’s Whitsitt Hall, named after the 3rd President of the seminary, William Heth Whitsitt (1841-1911), a church historian who was forced to resign because he demonstrated that, Landmarkists to the contrary, Baptists do not connect back in unbroken succession through sectarian groups to the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River!  In this place, piety and scholarship were not seen as enemies, but part of a seamless whole.  I wondered if I could measure up.

I did.  Despite the constant attacks by the fundamentalists on all the professors with whom I had come to study–attacks which ultimately prevailed in the early ’90s, I obtained a world class theological education here–for a tiny fraction of what it would have cost me to study at comparable schools. 

I doubt that ever again will so many Baptist scholars of such magnitude ever be assembled together in one place–and, perhaps, that is best. Perhaps,  diaspora is more fitting. The root problem of the SBC–and what makes it different from Baptists everywhere else on the globe–is its size and cultural power. But Baptists were born as minority dissenters and were never meant to be an empire.  The SBC is imperial Baptistland–and that is shown in its long defense of slavery, segregation, its continuing defense of the subordination of women, and persecution of sexual minorities.  The founder and first president of this school, James P. Boyce (never one of my heroes) was a self-described “ultra-pro-slavery-man” from the antebellum landed gentry of the South who left his studies with Francis Wayland of Brown University (the first Baptist university in America) because of Wayland’s anti-slavery views and transferred to Princeton Seminary where Charles Hodge’s brand of Calvinism was more congenial to Southerners who saw slavery as predestined for Africans and their descendants by the hand of a sovereign God!  But, until Mohler, the school had grown beyond Boyce and his 19th C. scholastic Calvinism.  It had produced most of the faculty at the other seminaries. It’s leaders, especially 4th president E. Y. Mullins and A.T. Robertson  had helped Principal H. Wheeler Robinson of Regent’s Park College (Oxford) launch the Baptist World Alliance in 1905.

I thrived here.  I learned the history of Christianity here with Patristics scholar E. Glenn Hinson, American Church historian Bill J. Leonard, and Reformation scholar, Timothy George.  (The latter has since gone in directions I cannot follow, but I nevertheless learned enormously from him.) I studied theology here with Molly Marshall–who later officiated at my wedding as is now President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in KS, an American Baptist school, David Mueller (who deepened my love for Barth and had me wrestle with all the great modern theologians from Schleiermacher onward), and Frank Tupper. I studied philosophy of religion with Dan R. Stiver (encountering Paul Ricoeur!) and theological ethics with my Doktorvater, Glen Stassen, as well as with Paul D. Simmons.  Pam Scalise pulled  her hair out trying to teach me to read biblical Hebrew. She and Tom Smothers and Paige Kelly and especially John D. W. Watts imparted to me a great love of the Biblical prophets and the Hebrew Bible generally.  David Dockery, Alan Culpepper, Gerald Borchert, and–visiting from his retirement back to England–George R. Beasley-Murray deepened my already deep love for the Greek NT.  I encountered world religions–and a mighty passion for justice and a rethinking of missiology–in John N. Jonsson from South Africa.

Here I met my bride (of 2o years now), Kate Westmoreland-White, in a homiletics class where we graded each other’s sermons. Here I became a founding member of the campus chapter of the Southern Baptist Alliance–now evolved into the small denomination to which I belong, the progressive and ecumenical Alliance of Baptists.  Here I responded to Emilio Castro (then president of the World Council of Churches) and sought to become a missionary theological educator–only to be rejected as too “theologically liberal.” (Walter Rauschenbusch and Crawford Toy were also Baptist scholars before me who were rejected by mission agencies.) Here I marched against homelessness in Hands Across America, and began my lifelong ministry with the poor people of our inner cities–with them, not TO them. From here I went on my second trip to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace.  Here I joined the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  Here, I rounded up 14 other students and went to Washington, D.C. in March of ’89 to “Stand for Truth” against apartheid in South Africa and our governement’s support of the apartheid government there. There I was arrested in D.C. with Jim Wallis of Sojourners, with Walter Wink, with a young Jesuit named John Dear (now very famous) with nuns who had never heard of Baptists interested in social justice–I was glad to break stereotypes.

But, now I have to stop. Because now the memories flash on other ghosts–vicious, dangerous ghosts.  I do not want to relive these memories–but they flood through anyway.  The students who were paid by fundamentalist trustees to secretly record faculty lectures and see if quotations could be snipped apart from context and run in denominational presses as “proof” of the “rank liberalism” of the seminary!  Of the illegal copying of Molly Marshall’s doctoral dissertation for ignoramuses to use as “proof” of her supposed “universalism” in soteriology.  The manipulations to try to get her denied tenure–and, when that failed, Mohler’s eventual forcing of her resignation because “we have the votes” on the trustee board–regardless of her defense and before any such defense were possible.  The similar fate of Paul Simmons–whom the fundamentalists had hounded for years because he holds a mildly pro-choice view in the ethics of abortion–a matter on which the seminary’s Abstract of Principles (which all faculty sign) is completely silent.  My personal confrontation with Judge Paul Pressler (one of the architects of the fundamentalist takeover) for his dishonesty and lack of integrity in the way that he confronted sisters and brothers in Christ with whom he disagreed. Roy Honeycutt’s heart attack and decision to retire early–hoping (in vain!) to thereby shape the trustees’ choice of his successor as president.

The pain is less these days. I have been gone from here many years, now. I have worked to forge an identity as a global Baptist–and as a baptist, a member of the Believers’ Church groups. I transferred my alumnus status to the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR), the first of the post-fundamentalist Baptist seminaries in the South.  In many ways, I have shaken off the dust of this place and the sorrows it hold for me.

And, yet.  And, yet.  As a student–at the back of mind was the thought that my highest joy would be if someday, I could return here and teach. Now, no one could pay me enough to teach at the “new” Southern of the Mohler-era. And that hurts–it hurts that teaching here can no longer even be a dream of mine because my conscience would not let me do so as the school is designed now.

I look out over the campus quad–long ago nicknamed the “Josephus Bowl” –and I see the ghosts of Dale Moody and Clarence Jordan, Robertson, and Eric Rust, and Findley Edge, and Anne Davis and W. O. Carver and Clyde T. Francisco, and so many others. And I realize that the school is but another “clay pot” that God has used. The treasure, the gospel, is not in these bricks and mortar. If this earthen vessel has ceased its time to be used of God in the way that it was in its former glory, other places will arise–and maybe already have.

“Ichobod,” the glory has departed.  But the remembrances and ghosts of that former glory remain.  I wipe my eyes as I head back to my car and hope that it is some time before I need to walk here again.

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February 28, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, education, obituaries, testimony, theological education | 19 Comments

Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), Christian Philosopher

This the birthday of Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), one of the most important philosophers of the 20th Century.  His critique of structuralism (the dominant French philosophical trend of the 1960s and 1970s), his strong Christian witness in an increasingly secular society, and his pacifist witness against France’s wars in Algeria and Vietnam, all combined to lead to Ricoeur’s being ignored in his homeland throughout much of his career–even while he was being hailed for his work around the world.  A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.
Born 27 February 1913 in Valence, Drôme to a devout Protestant (French Reformed Church) family, Ricoeur was immediately a minority in Catholic France.  Ricoeur’s father died in battle in World War I and his mother had already died six months after his birth due to complications in delivery, leaving Ricoeur orphaned at the age of two!  He was raised by his paternal grandparents and an aunt in Rennes, helped by a government stipend for war orphans.  Ricoeur’s family put a premium on Bible study and this kindled in him a love of books and study altogether.  At the age of 20, Ricoeur received his licence (equivalent to a baccalaureate degree ) from the University of Rennes in 1933.  In 1934, he began studying philosophy at the Sorbonnes (the University of Paris–reorganized in the 1970s into several universities, the original University of Paris at the Sorbonnes was one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Western civilization) where he was influenced by Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), a leading Christian existentialist.  In 1935, Ricouer was awarded the agrégation with the second highest score in the nation for philosophy.  (In France, the agrégation is a highly competitive civil service examination, completion of which allows the laureate or professeur agrégé to teach in higher education.)  He married (Simone Lejas, a childhood friend, with whom he raised five children) and began teaching at lyceé (sort of “high school plus” in America) as well as studying in Germany.

However, the Second World War interrupted Ricoeur’s promising academic career.  He was drafted to serve in the French Army in 1939.  At some point in his life, Ricoeur became a Christian pacifist.  His name is listed as a signer of several post-War statements of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) and he was a prominent member of the French chapter of IFOR known as MIR or Mouvement internationale de la RéconciliationI have been unable to find out whether Ricoeur came to such pacifist convictions before World War II or after experiencing it, but, since France does not have any mechanism for recognizing conscientious objection, Ricoeur would have been drafted even if he had religious objections to war.  Only if he were physically unfit to serve, would he have been allowed to refuse the draft. (This violation of the rights of conscience goes on still in most of the world, today.  Even in the U.S., to be counted as a conscientious objector, one must have moral objections to all wars, not just to a particular war–negating the moral force of the “just war” tradition which most claim to observe.)  Ricoeur’s army unit was captured during the German invasion of France in 1940 and he spent the next five years as a prisoner of war.

Ricoeur’s detention camp was filled with intellectuals including Mikel Dufrenne who organized classes and readings that were so rigorous that the Vichy government recognized the camp as a degree granting institution.  Ricoeur studied (especially the work of Karl Jaspers [1883-1969] and taught in the camp and later he and Dufrenne wrote a book on Jasper’s work.  He also used this time to begin translating Edmund Husserl’s Ideas I from German into French.

Upon repatriation after the war, Ricoeur met his 5 year old daughter for the first time.  For three years after the war, Ricoeur taught at a lycee, then, in 1948 he was appointed to teach the history of philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, the only French university with a Protestant faculty of theology.  He continued to teach at Strasbourg until 1956.  In 1950, Ricoeur received his doctorate (equivalent to a Ph.D.), submitting, in the French tradition, two theses or dissertations.  His “minor” thesis was the translation of Husserl’s Ideas I that he had begun as a prisoner of war, along with commentary.  His “major” thesis (on the interaction between the human will and the constraints of necessity) was published as Le Volontaire et l’Involuntaire (English translation published as Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary).  This established Ricoeur as an expert in phenomenology, which was then the dominant philosophy in France.

From 1956 to 1965, Ricoeur taught at the Sorbonne in the Chair of General Philosophy, publishing some of his major early works. In 1965, he became an administrator at the University of Nanterre, in the Paris suburbs.  Nanterre was a new university, intended as an experiment in progressive education and Ricoeur hoped he could mold it to fit with his vision of free life of the mind, out of the stifling traditionalism of the Sorbonne and its overcrowded classes.  But Nanterre became a hotbed of student protest in the Spring of 1968 (when students seemed to rise up all over Europe and North America), and even though Ricoeur was a reformer and a strong critic of French imperialism, he was derided as an “old clown” and a tool of the French government.

Disenchanted with French academic life, Ricoeur taught briefly at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium) before accepting a position at the University of Chicago in 1970.  From 1970 to 1985, Ricoeur taught in both the philosophy department and at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. During this time, Ricoeur incorporated his former work in existentialism and phenomenology into a study of hermeneutics and language, culminating in his three volume masterpiece, Time and Narrative finished in 1985.  In 1985, Ricoeur returned to France (now hailed as an intellectual superstar) and split his time between Paris and Chicago until finally “retiring” from active teaching (but not writing) in 1992.

Ricoeur’s works have been widely translated (including into Chinese and Japanese) and his thought in many different fields of philosophy (and religion) hailed in many quarters.  He has received numerous honorary doctorates (the favorite way of academic institutions of showing honor and respect to scholars and others),  and in 1986 gave the pretigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh–one of the highest honors at the intersection of theology and philosophy.  The University of Florence awarded him the Dante Prize for outstanding work in the humanities in 1988.  The University of Heidelberg awarded him the Karl Jaspers prize in philosophy in 1989.  The University of Tübingen awarded him the Leopold Lucas Prize in 199o. In 1991, Ricoeur received the French Academy Grand Prize in Philosophy.  In 2003, the Vatican awarded him the Pope Paul VI award for ecumenical advancement in Christian thought.  In 2004, he was a co-recipient of the John W. Kluge Award in the Human Sciences, awarded by the Kluge Center at the U.S. Library of Congress.

In the late 1990s and as the century turned, Ricoeur began to bring his many disparate studies (metaphor and symbol, the nature of evil, a hermeneutical anthropology, biblical studies, ethics, political and social philosophy, narrative) together in a way that allowed people to see his overarching vision, the unity of his thought (not quite a system).  It understands human beings as free and responsible, though shaped by narrative traditions, including religious traditions.  It is a vision of individual freedom and responsibility, yet of society connected for the common good.  As the many disparate strands of Ricoeur’s work have been finally woven together, his importance has become even clearer–for the fields of hermeneutics and biblical studies, ethics, political philosophy, and theology, as well as for philosophy after the “linguistic turn.”

February 27, 2010 Posted by | biographies, pacifism, philosophers | Leave a comment

Highlighting Some Peace Blogs

From time to time, I will highlight some of the blogs I read on my blogroll.  Here are three that focus on peacemaking–a passion of mine that I believe to be central to the very meaning of the Christian life.

FORpeace is the blog of the U.S. chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  Go here to see updates on nonviolent actions, plus news, analysis, and commentary.

Peace Blog is the Paul Kawika Martin’s blog for Peace Action, the largest grass-roots peace organization in America.  Paul Kawika Martin is the Executive Director of Peace Action.  Peace Action focuses on positive actions for peace, “just peacemaking” practices.

The Quakers’ Colonel is the blog of retired Col. Dan Smith, who, in 2002 joined the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation as military and intelligence analyst.  On his blog, he taks about military spending, peace processes, intelligence matters, wars, and related matters. Remarkably, after a lifetime in the military, he does this in service of Quaker peace values.

Baptist Voices for Peace and Justice is the group blog of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  Four (4) very active members of BPFNA (Mike Broadway, Prof. of Theology and Ethics at Shaw Divinity School, Frances Kelly (community organizer with Healthcare for America), Dan Schweissing, American Baptist missionary, & Ryan Price, Baptist pastor in Vermont) take turns updating this blog.

Peace Theology is the website and blog of Ted Grimsrud, who teaches theology and ethics at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, VA.  This is one of the most informative sites of its kind on the web.

Enjoy, folks.

February 27, 2010 Posted by | blog, peace, theology | 4 Comments

Stark Challenges to Jesus’ Divinity

Thom Stark’s series debating the orthodox view of Jesus’ divinity, “O My God-Man” is finished after 16 parts. It’s meticulously researched and I urge full engagement.  Some of Thom’s points are very strong, but others are weaker–such as his view of Col. and Philippians, in my view.

This series took much work and demands careful response.  Here’s a link to the full indexed series.

February 25, 2010 Posted by | blog series, Christology, Divinity of Christ, theology | 22 Comments

Contributions in Ecumenical Theology

On my old blog, Levellers, I sometimes participated in group projects led by other theology bloggers.  These proved to be some of the most popular posts with my readers, so I want visitors to Pilgrim Pathways  to be able to find them, now that Levellers is d.o.a.

Encounters with Tradition  Ben Myers, Australian theologian who runs Faith and Theology, probably the best theological site in the blogosphere, ran a 7-part series called “Encounters with Tradition” showing how different theologians wrestled with their own theological/ecclesial traditions and also learned the “grammar” of at least one other tradition as a “second first language.”  My own contribution to the series is # 5 and called “Becoming a Global Baptist.”  The entire series is found here.  Scroll down to the bottom and start with the introduction. Enjoy:  The other entries make up for mine. The comments to each entry are closed, but many of them are worth reading, as well.

The second series in which I participated ecumenically in the blogosphere was called “My Peace I Leave Unto You.”  This was a series of posts on Christian pacifism.  Each participant described their own conversion to Christian pacifism and how that fit with their particular theological tradition.  My contribution was called, “Gospel Nonviolence:  An Anabaptist-Baptist Approach.”  Other contributions included a British Reformed pacifism, pacifism within the Restorationis/Stone-Campbell movement, a U.S. non-denominational Evangelical pacifism, a Free Church pacifism, and the pacifism of a convert to Orthodoxy.  In my view, it was sad that we never had a contribution from any of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers/Friends, Brethren), or from Catholicism (Catholic pacifism comes in several flavors:  Benedictine pacifism, Franciscan pacifism, Jesuit militant nonviolence, Merton/Trappist pacifism, Dorothy Day/Catholic Worker pacifism, to name the most obvious forms), the Holiness and Pentecostal traditions, nor a pacifist perspective from someone lifelong in the Orthodox tradition.  Nor did the series contain any contributions by women, non-whites, or inhabitants of the Global South.  Still, even within its limits, it was a good series.  An index to all entries is found here.  This was all done at Inhabitatio Dei, the great theological blog of Halden Doege.  Readers are invited to check all these things out for themselves.

February 25, 2010 Posted by | blog series, ecumenism, pacifism, testimony, theology | Leave a comment

Book Review: Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation

William C. Placher, ed., Callings:  Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005).

We’ve all asked it of ourselves, others, and (often) of God:  “What should I do with my life?  What do I want to be when I grow up?  How should I do God’s will and earn a living for myself (and, possibly, a family)?”  Sometimes others ask these questions of us.  Sometimes we don’t finish asking such questions in adolescence.  Sometimes we ask them again at other points in our lives–or we are still asking them at mid-life or even in retirement. (In the latter two cases, the question often becomes, “What should I do with the rest of my life?”) 

If we are Christians, the questions take a particular shape.  We don’t just ask what we’d enjoy doing, what brings us joy, what skills do we have or can obtain that are marketable and would be useful to society–although we may ask all those things too.  But as Christians, we know that we are disciples, followers of Jesus, and that “our religion”  isn’t just something to fit into our spare time. So, we want to be able to line up our lives and life work with God’s will, God’s purposes of grace, with the work of the Kingdom. (This may also be true for persons of other faiths, but, if so, I shall let them speak for themselves.)   So we ask about our calling or vocation  from God.  We seek to discern such a call and, while some find such to be blindingly obvious–a sense of purpose so overwhelming as to be like a very Voice from the Heavens or a blinding Vision to pursue–others find discernment of vocation more difficult.  In either case, we may seek advice from others, including the voice(s) of our faith tradition whether through the person of a pastor or spiritual director or mentor, of by searching the written records of  the thoughts of those who have gone before us.

William C. Placher has edited a collection of such written wisdom from the early church to contemporary Christian thinkers in Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation.  After an introduction to the theme and a prologue reviewing some of the biblical passages most consulted about vocation/calling, Placher organizes the excerpts from Christian witnesses chronologically, in four sections. The divisions correspond to major shifts in context which led to large, basic, changes in the way the Church largely understood the very concept of vocation. 

Section I. Callings to a Christian Life: Vocations in the Early Church, 100-500 begins in the Second Century, when Christianity was still very much a minority religion, often illegal within the Roman Empire, and sometimes subject to persecution.  In such a context, the call was to become a Christian–a break from the world and life one knew.  This concept, that one’s vocation was to BE A CHRISTIAN (however one earned one’s daily bread) survived the legalization of Christianity under Constantine and continued on even to the point where Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire–for a time.  In this section, we hear about calling and vocation from Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, the anonymous author of The Martyrdom of Perpetua, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Palladius, the anonymously written Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and Augustine of Hippo whose Confessions invented the autobiography and the spiritual memoir.

Monasticism in Christianity had already begun in the early centuries after Constantine, whereby one might pursue a calling to a “religious life” apart from everyday “secular” life in the world–a “religious calling” that might be pursued alone as a hermit or in a community of other “vowed religious,” i.e., of monks or nuns.  In the second period/division vocation is almost entirely understood as a call to such a separate religious life.  Thus, section II. is titled, Called to Religious Life:  Vocations in the Middle Ages, 500-1500.  Those “in the world,” whether as married laypeople or as “secular clergy” not part of a monastery or convent, were generally not thought to have any calling or vocation all.  In this section, Placher lets us hear the voices of John Cassian, Sulpicius Severas, St. Benedict, Bernard of Clairveaux, John de Joinville (one of the most detailed chroniclers of the Crusades), St. Bonaventure, the great female mystical theologian Metchild of Magdeburg, St. Thomas Aquinas, Christine de Pisan, the anonymous author of The Mission of Joan of Arc, and Thomas á Kempis.  I would have liked to hear more Eastern voices in this section and some selections from reformers cast out as heretics (whether or not we today would still consider them heretical), such as Peter Waldo or Jan Hus.  Still, I am grateful Placher included several female witnesses in this section, often left out in our mental pictures of “Medieval Christianity.”  And the selections by de Joinville (his account of St. Louis’ supposed calling to lead a military crusade) and on Joan of Arc do show exceptions to the Medieval norm that vocation was automatically a monastic vocation.

The third section takes us from the Reformation to the edge of the 19th C.  The Reformation introduced or reintroduced (or, at the least, gave new emphasis to) the concept of all honest work as a calling from God.  Thus, section III. Every Work a Calling:  Vocations After the Reformation: 1500–1800.  As expected, we hear from Luther (5 selections!), Stadler, Calvin, St.  Ignatius of Loyala, St. Teresa of Avila, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, William Perkins, George Herbert (2 selections), Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, George Fox, Gerrard Winstanley (a welcome surprise!), William Law, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley (3 selections).  The Luther’s outsized representation is easily explained:  No other representative of classic Christianity wrote as much about the nature of vocation as Martin Luther.

The final section, IV.  Christian Callings in a Post-Christian World, 1800-Present has no uniting concept, and the writings are the most varied yet.  We hear from Søren Kierkegaard, John Cardinal Henry Newman, Feodor Dostoyevsky, Horace Bushnell, Pope Leo XIII, Max Weber, Walter Rauschenbusch, Howard Thurman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Karl Barth.  At least since 1800 (if not before) Christianity has become a truly global religion. Therefore, despite Placher’s undeniable achievement in this volume, it was genuinely disappointing to see no selections at all from Asia, Africa, or Latin America.  Are we to gather that there is no Christian wisdom on vocation and calling from these quarters?  This is quite the oversight–the more glaring because Placher has gone beyond the “usual suspects” in much of the book.

Nevertheless, this book is a treasure, both because of the witnesses contained and because of Placher’s own introductory comments.  This is theological reflection rooted in and connected to the practices of the church, in this case the practice of discerning one’s calling or vocation.  Unfortunately, it is unlikely that any suggestions for revision will be undertaken in a second edition since the editor, who taught at Wabash College in Indiana, unexpectedly passed away in late 2008.  That, in itself, is a tragic loss for the contemporary life of the church and we are blessed that this project was finished and published as a final gift of Placher’s own vocation as a theological educator.

February 24, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, biographies, book reviews, church history, spirituality, testimony, theology | 1 Comment

Georg Friedrich Handel (23 February 1685-14 April 1749)

Finally (but first in historical order), a birthday I almost missed except for a reminder by a friend–obviously one more in tune (so to speak) with the history of classical music than I– this is also the birthday of the great composer, Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1749).  Born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach, Händel was a brilliant composer of operas, oratorios, and concertos.  Born in Germany and musically educated in Italy, Händel emigrated to England and became a naturalized British citizen.  He was influenced strongly by the great composers of Italian baroque, but also by the English composer, Henry Purcell. In turn, Händel influenced many, including Hayden, Beethoven, and Mozart.  Händel’s most famous work is, of course, the incredible Messiah.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | biographies, composers | Leave a comment

Karl Jaspers (23 February 1883-26 February 1969)

Today is also the birthday of Karl Theodor Jaspers (1883-1969), the psychiatrist and Christian philosopher who made major contributions to the fields of psychiatry, theology, and philosophy.  A German existentialist and personalist, Jaspers was influenced by Kierkegaard and Nietszche in philosophy and by both Christian and Buddhist mystics in theology.

Jaspers was a major influence on Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer.  More can and will be said at another time.  This is just a birthday “shout out.”

February 23, 2010 Posted by | biographies, philosophers | Leave a comment

W.E.B. DuBois (23 February 1868-27 August 1963)

This is the birthday of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963), one of the great public intellectuals, civil rights leaders, and political philosophers of all American history and one of the two or three greatest figures of American 20th C. 

Pan-Africanist, sociologist, historian, author, editor, DuBois (pronounced “doo-Boyss” ) was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard University (1895), and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  At the turn of the century, DuBois predicted correctly that “the color line [would be] the problem of the twentieth century.” Despite undeniable progress, it continues to be an issue into the 21st.  In the words of the historian, David Levering, “In the course of his long, turbulent, career, W.E.B.  DuBois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth century racism:  scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity.” 

In the midst of the speeches at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, word was brought to Dr. King and the other speakers at the Lincoln Memorial that W.E.B. DuBois had just died in Ghana.

I will write a fuller biographical sketch at some other time on this blog, but I could not let this birthday pass without a mention.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | biographies, civil rights, civil rights leaders, History, race, racial justice | 3 Comments

Environmental Theology–Byron Smith’s Contributions

I hope one day to write something significant concerning environmental theology and ethics.  In the meantime, Byron Smith, an Australian doing doctoral work in theology at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland), has written some excellent series that you should read on his blog, Nothing New Under the Sun.  Each of the links below is to the first post in a series.  They are worth your time and attention.

Jesus and Climate Change

.Would Jesus Vote Green?

Peak Oil and the End of Suburbia

And these are single postings that should not be missed:

Corporate Growth: What is Wrong with the World?

Copenhagen and Climate Change: Hope and Hopelessness

What do we do with what we know? A story

Comments should be directed to Byron at his blog, of course. He blogs on much else that is worthwhile and I think it a public  service to make his blog known to any of my readers who haven’t discovered him.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | blog, blog series, environmental ethics, environrnmental theology, ethics, theology | 4 Comments