Monday, May 11, 2009

A New Birth of Freedom

A New Birth of Freedom
John 1: 51
January 18, 2008
Marsh Chapel
Robert Allan Hill

Our gospel today can best be heard from the last sentence, wherein the clearly clairvoyant Johannine Jesus belittles Nathaniel’s marvel at him by acclaiming divine freedom, historic change, and a horizon of hope. Divine freedom: you will see the heavens opened. Change in history: you will see the angels of God ascending and descending. A horizon of hope: you will see the Son of Man.


First, freedom.

God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

The nature and dimensions of freedom are very much on our minds this week. Others from other spaces will want to continue to explore more fully the political, social, and economic features of this freedom. We have though, first, another job to do. It is the job of preaching. It is our task to name freedom. In that sense it is a theological job, though preaching is more than theological reflection. It is our confession that Jesus means freedom.

The other morning I took my daughter and grandchildren to the Aquarium. With you I celebrate this cultural gift, and make common cause with their fine work in opening the world to wonder. Surely there are many fine places to spend an hour or two in our fair city. Is there a single one, though, that will pierce your soul and spirit with a sense of the creative power, natural wonder, and physical freedom of the world in which we live? I challenge to stand in front of the Pacific Rim tank, with fish of a hundred colors and shapes, and not be overtaken, in wonder, by the power of freedom set loose in the universe.

It is our conviction that the God who makes allowance for being, who calls us and all into being, is the God of freedom. Freedom on Sinai. Freedom on the Mount of Olives. Freedom on the way to Emmaus. Freedom itself set free. Freedom evolves.

Does your God, your apperception of God, make space for evolution?

Your patent or latent view of God makes every sort of difference.

If as the Scripture says, “God is love”, then human freedom is real...Freedom is the absolutely necessary precondition of love. (W S Coffin, Credo, 27).

Our incoming President made a fine speech last year about race. He did so to clarify his own thinking, and our thinking about his thinking, with regard race. This was widely known and acclaimed. But to do so he had to clarify his own thinking and our thinking about thinking, with regard to a form of religious thinking. To date, to my knowledge, no one has fully appreciated the theological depths and dimensions of his March 18, 2008 address. As we come to the inaugural, perhaps we could pause to appreciate his theological insight, all the more choice since it is offered by a lay person.

Obama that day said ‘No’ to Jeremiah Wright, in terms like these: unlike others, unlike another generation, we do not believe that our fate and our future are irrevocable chained to our tragic past. He offered his view, that change can happen, real change, which is real hard, over time, in real time, can really happen. He explicitly rejected a harsh, providential, divine determinism or damnation for a country that certainly has known its share of sin. He stepped aside from the litany of sin and atonement, and stepped toward the liturgy of confession and pardon. That is a layman’s theological statement about divine and human freedom. Life is not purpose driven, for ill or good. Life is not divinely ordered and directed, in the small or in the large. Life is not found in the rigid orthodoxies neither of fundamentalism nor of radicalism, neither in the Biblicist fundamentalism of a Rick Warren nor in the Liberationist radicalism of a Jeremiah Wright (produced by his teacher and mine, James Cone.)

I have yet to see a single serious writer, preacher or journalist identify the ironic similarity, the congruent similarity, the family resemblance of Warren and Wright. One is from the far right and one is from the far left. Nonetheless, they offer the same religious perspective. (In what I say I do not criticize them. They are good people. They do good work. Though I profoundly disagree with them and adamantly oppose them, I acknowledge their desire to know and do the right and the true and the good. I too fell in love early on with Karl Barth, so I know from inside the powerful pull of their perspective). Yet here is the irony. While they differ completely in politics, Warren and Wright offer the same religious perspective: The Bible is the sole Word of God, either in personal purpose (Warren) or in cultural judgment (Wright); God is known in providence, whether from the Law (Warren) or from the Prophets (Wright); it is God, not we ourselves, who makes all change, whether from the right (Warren) or from the left (Wright); the human being is left to submit (Warren) or rebel (Wright), finally doubly predestined as Augustine finally had to admit before Pelagius; history is tragedy, fore (Warren) and aft (Wright); freedom is an illusion (Warren) or a presumption (Wright). (You will note that this is not a very cheery world view J).

Both Wright and Warren are indebted, theologically, to Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr and the Neo-Orthodoxy against which Howard Thurman and others have unsuccessfully, but rightly, preached for fifty years. Thurman was 100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago. Warren is Barth from the front, and Wright is Barth from the back. But from front or back, it is still Barth. They both have taken seriously the first of Niebuhr’s grave points, about the tragic sense of life, and they both have neglected utterly Niebuhr’s second, his concluding sermon, that there is in the human being a divine freedom, a capacity for a spiritual discipline against resentment, and so an open future, a divine\human heteronomy. Both radically and fundamentally minimize the capacity of the human being to change, and the potential for human society to improve. They both radically and fundamentally mute freedom, whether for a new post-Biblical freedom for gays to find their place in society or for a new post-radical shared leadership of many hues in the cause of racial justice. They both (and quite successfully to this date) define American Christianity over against the liberal tradition. And, so far, they have won the day.

What astounds me, still, is that the theological insight of Obama’s race speech has had no attention. Against a purposey providentialism (Warren), against a denunciatory determinism (Wright), Obama affirmed freedom on March 18, 2008:
But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
Embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.
The problem with radicalism and the problem with fundamentalism is the same problem: they see the future only from the past. “The sun also rises and the sun also sets. What has been is what will be. What has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun.” They see what they expect to see. And so they chain us, with all due sense of purpose, from right or left, to what has been. And so they chain us, with all due citation, from right or left, of the Bible, to what has been. Here is the key line: The profound mistake is that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.
In thrilling mystery this morning the Gospel denies that we are irrevocably bound to a tragic past! In the same way, this week’s inaugural denies that we are irrevocably bound to a tragic past!


Second, change.

John’s gospel exudes freedom. For John Jesus means freedom. With freedom, scary thought, things can change, either for the better, or for the worse.

At a wedding this weekend, guests from New York chose to spend Saturday at the Kennedy museum. I said a silent thanks that they had chosen that spot this weekend. It is a place that says, ‘I believe America should set sail, and not lie still in the harbor’ (JFK).

You remember, I expect, a time when the utter misery of others at last permeated your spirit, and you seethed with an angry hunger for change. You drove by the South Bronx, safe on the highway, riding in a new car, and looked down on the city and saw PS 131, with 6 year olds coming out, and you thought, “How do we do this? How do we let this happen?” Or you had to stop at the emergency room in a small town hospital—a toothache, a broken limb—and you looked around and for the first time the hidden poor of the land were real. You served in the dining center or suited in the storehouse or read books in the daycare. You heard Marion Wright Edelman, really heard her, when she said that 20% of our American children are raised in poverty. You saw something, of all places, on television, and it made you weep. You read an article about children hurt, wounded, killed, in the fog of war, as they took shelter in a school house. You crossed the border into Tijuana and all those brown little faces and browner little hands reaching for coins sent a chill through you on a sunny, hot day. Your club offered a day of service and you ended up, not on the sunny side, but on the slummy side of the street.

God loves: especially those left out. With the divine gift of freedom there comes the chance for change.

In two fine novels, Gilead and Home, over the past several years, Marilynn Robinson has given you a sympathetic reading of determinism (fundamental or radical), which, ultimately, though cautiously, she rejects. Here is the climax of Home:

Her second book places the apparently damned Jack in earshot of a young woman who has married an old preacher:

“Just stay for a minute”, she said, and Jack sat back in his chair and watched her, as they all did, because she seemed to be mustering herself. Then she looked up at him and said, ‘A person can change. Everything can change’…Jack said, very gently, ‘Why thank you, Mrs. Ames. That’s all I wanted to know’. (p 228)


Third, hope.

Given the darkness, confusion and corruption of our time, it is more than tempting to turn a cynical eye and ear upon the earth.

The thrilling mystery of our gospel today, though, argues otherwise. The community that composed the Gospel of John knew a rare kind of freedom. Theirs was not only a freedom of religion, but also a freedom from religion. So, in this mysterious verse, the writer acclaims openness, even to the heavens; he pronounces motion, even among and between angels and men; he pulls forth what strangely for him is the highest title of Jesus, the Son of Man. An open heaven is a symbol of divine freedom given as human freedom. The Jacob’s ladder of ascent and descent is a symbol of power to move, to change. The heightened title, Jesus a divine figure, is a symbol of hope that will not let go.

On Christmas Day we stood outside Trinity church after a fine morning service. Hope was in the air. What the Aquarium is to freedom, what the Kennedy museum is to change, the churches of our community are to hope. They are living, speaking symbols of hope.

When you are tempted to lose hope that their might be liberty and justice for all, I hope you will think of the family just now about to set up housekeeping at the White House.

When you are tempted to lose hope that our education or medical provisions can be fair or just, I hope you will remember that one teacher who touched you, that one doctor who helped you.

When you are tempted to lose hope that peace might ever come between Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Jew, I hope you will remember that other peace, hard wrought, has come, in other places. I give you Ireland. I give you South Africa.

When you are tempted to lose hope that a durable economy might evolve wherein those who have much do not have too much and those who have little do not have too little, I hope you will remember the Hudson River voice of a crippled President, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.

When you are tempted to lose hope that the voice and place of women, world-wide, might ever be sustained, I hope you will remember Susan B Anthony, ‘failure is impossible’.

When you are tempted to lose hope that the world can work, I hope you will remember Jesus’ thrilling mystery, ‘Truly, truly, I tell you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ For just as freedom leads to change and change leads to hope, so also hope brings change and change brings freedom.


We enter a time in which there is the possibility of a new birth of freedom.

It was not a pretty June morning on which Abraham Lincoln spoke the words of this morning’s sermon title. It was not on a beach, in Hawaii or Florida that he spoke. It was not in the peaceful backwaters of a decade of progress and plenty. It was not after a long and easy life. It was not out of quiet reflection is a monk’s peaceful cell.

Lincoln spoke over the graves of thousands. He spoke in the roaring November wind. He spoke on the corn stubble of a Pennsylvania field. He spoke as a leader who might be losing a war. He spoke as a man more acquainted with sorrow and defeat than perhaps any other person of his time, or any time. He was our greatest leader, and a pretty fair lay theologian himself. In a couple of years he would himself be dead.

We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . and that government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth.

Robert Allan Hill 2009 Spring and Summer Guest Speaking Schedule

Robert Allan Hill
2009 Spring and Summer Guest Speaking Schedule

1/17/09 Four Seasons Boston (wedding)

2/04/09 Christian Unity Event, Boston University

2/10/09 Chi Alpha Boston University

3/18/09 Lecture Respondent, Dr K Darr, Marsh Chapel

3/15 New Haven Theological Discussion Group, Yale University Divinity School (participant only)

4/2/09 Boston University Academy

4/18/09 Harvard Memorial Church Overseers’ Committee

5/15/09 Commencement Address Northwestern University, Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary

5/22/09 Coyne Family Lake Winnipesauke, NH

5/26/09 Visit: North Central New York Conference Retirement Dinner, Syracuse

6/4/09 Conference Speaker Baltimore Washington Annual Conference, UMC

6/5/09 Luncheon Speaker Wyoming Annual Conference, UMC, Scranton

6/12/09 Troy Annual Conference, UMC, Saratoga Springs, Breakfast

6/16—6/19 Western New York Annual Conference, Buffalo (conference member)

7/18/09 Ithaca NY (family wedding)

7/26/09 Union Chapel, Hampton NH

8/2/09 Summer Marsh Friends Gathering, Hamilton NY

For Fall: 10/09 Weekly Tuesday School of Education Sponsored Presentation and Dialogue with Dean of Students Kenn Elmore and SED Dean Hardin Coleman

(Plus usual annual Boston University Invocations and Other: 3/26/09 Service Recognition Dinner, 5/1/09 Senior Breakfast, 5/13/09 Retired Faculty and Staff Luncheon, 5/17/09 BU Baccalaureate, 5/09 BU Commencement)

Theological Temptations

Theological Temptations
A Sermon from Marsh Chapel
Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean


Your love of Christ shapes your love of Scripture and tradition and reason and experience. You are lovers and knowers too. We are ever in peril of loving what we should use and using what we should love, to paraphrase Augustine. In particular we sometimes come perilously close to the kind of idolatry that uses what we love. We are tempted, for our love Christ, to force a kind of certainty upon what we love, to use what is meant to give confidence as a force and form of certainty. It is tempting to substitute the security and protection of certainty for the freedom and grace of confidence. But faith is about confidence not certainty. If we had certainty we would not need faith.

1. Errancy

Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture. You love the Bible. You love its psalmic depths. #130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange names. Obededom comes to mind. You love proverbial wisdom. One sharpens another comes to mind. You love its freedom, its account of the career of freedom. The exodus comes to mind. You love its memory of Jesus. His holding children comes to mind. You love its honesty about religious life. Galatians comes to mind. You love its strangeness. John comes to mind. You love the Bible like Rudolph Bultmann loved it, enough to know it through and through.

You rely on the Holy Scripture to learn to speak of faith, and as a medium of truth for the practice of faith. Around our common table today in worship, we share this reliance and this love. The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, and the interplay of congregations present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture. A preacher descending into her automobile in Boston, after an earlier service, listens to this service to hear the interpretation of the gospel. A homebound woman in Newton listens for the musical offerings and for the reading of scripture. On the other side of the globe, way down in Sydney, Australia, a student listens in, come Sunday, out of a love of Christ that embraces a love of Scripture. Here in the Chapel nave, on the Lord’s Day, scholars and teachers and students have in common, by their love for Christ, a love for the Scripture, too. In this way, we may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s motto: homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

But the Bible is errant. It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of study just did not happen. They did. That does not mean that we should deconstruct the Bible to avoid allowing the Bible to deconstruct us, or that we should study the Bible in order to avoid allowing the Bible to study us. In fact, after demythologizing the Bible we may need to remythologize the Bible too. It is the confidence born of obedience, not some certainty born of fear that will open the Bible to us. We need not fear truth, however it may be known. So Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight. John (chapter 8) includes the woman caught in adultery, but not in its earliest manuscripts. Actually she, poor woman, is found at the end of Luke in some texts. Paul did not write the document from the earlier third century, 3 Corinthians. The references to slavery in the New Testament are as errant and time bound as are the references to women not speaking in church. The references to women not speaking in church are as errant and time bound as are the references to homosexuality. The references to homosexuality are as errant and time bound as are the multiple lists of the twelve disciples. The various twelve listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the other Gospels.

The Marsh pulpit, and others like it, are not within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority. We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition. The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative. Do you hear that? It begs to be heard. Today’s passage from Matthew 4 is an idealized memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore. It looks back sixty years. What do you remember from January of 1948? Nor was it written for that kind of certainty. It is formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.

If I were teaching a Sunday School class in Nebraska this winter I would buy the class copies of Throckmorton’s Gospel parallels and read it with them.

We grasp for certainty, but confidence grasps us.

2. Equality

You love the tradition of the church as well. Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed…John Wesley loved the church’s tradition too, enough to study it and to know it, and to seek its truth. The central ecclesiastical tradition of his time, the tradition of apostolic succession, he termed a ‘fable’. It would be like political debaters today using charged language like ‘fairy tale’. Likewise, we lovers of the church tradition will not be able to grasp for certainty in it, if that grasping dehumanizes others. The Sabbath was made for the human being, not the other way around, in our tradition.

Baptism is as traditional and central a variously understand practice as Christianity possesses. It is in some ways the very doorway to our traditions. Yet listen to Paul today. In his context, he rejects baptism. For him gospel trumps tradition.

Our linkage of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry, however traditional, fall before grace and freedom. Further, on a purely practical level, another generation will not be impressed by church growth strategies rooted in the exclusion of 10% of the population. There is a serious upside limit to the use of gay bashing to grow churches. My three children in their twenties are not going to stay around for it.

It is theologically tempting to shore up by keeping out. But it has no future. Equality will triumph over exclusion. It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

If I were convening a Lenten study in suburban Washington DC I would have the group read G. Wills’ Head and Heart: American Christianities, for some perspective on the way traditions change.

3. Evolution

You love the mind, the reason. You love the prospect of learning. You love the life of the mind. You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. You love the reason in the same that Charles Darwin, a good Anglican, loved the reason. You love its capacity to see things differently. (Marsh Chapel will host a series of ten sermons on the theme ‘Darwin and Faith’, offered by preachers from around the country, during the summer of 2009)

Of course reason unfettered can produce hatred and holocaust. Learning for its own sake needs virtue and piety. More than anything else, learning to last must finally be rooted in loving. Did you hear the one thing requested in our vibrant Psalm? To inquire in the temple. Inquiry!

The universe is 14 billion years old. The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 500 million years ago multi-celled organisms appeared in the Cambrian explosion. 400 million years ago plants sprouted. 370 million years ago land animals emerged. 230 million years ago dinosaurs appeared (and disappeared 65 million years ago). 200,000 years ago hominids arose. Every human being carries 60 new mutations out of 6 billion cells. Yes, evolution through natural selection by random mutation is a reasonable hypothesis, says F Collins, father of the human genome project, and, strikingly, a person of faith.

If I were the chaplain of a small private school in New England I might have my fellowship group read this winter F Collins, the Language of God. He can teach us to reason together.

It is tempting to disjoin learning and vital piety, but it is not loving to disjoin learning and vital piety. They go together. The God of Creation is the very God of Redemption. Their disjunction may help us cling for a while to a kind of faux certainty. But their conjunction is the confidence born of obedience. Falsehood has no defense and truth needs none.

4. Existence

You love experience. The gift of experience in faith is the heart of your love of Christ. You love Christ. Like Howard Thurman loved the mystical ranges of experience, you do too. Isaiah, in looking forward, can sing of the joy of harvest. We know joy. Joy seizes us. Joy grasps us when we are busy grasping at other things. You love what we are given morning and evening.

You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

But beloved, a simple or general appeal to the love of experience, in our time, in 2008, is not appealing or loving. It is not experience, but our very existence which lies under the shadow of global violence. To have any future worthy of the name we shall need to foreswear preemptive violence. How the stealthy entry of such a manner of behavior could enter our civil discourse without voluminous debate and vehement challenge is a measure of our longing for false certainties. Our existence itself is on the line in discussions or lack of discussions about violent action that is preemptive, unilateral, imperial, and reckless. One thinks of Lincoln saying of slavery, ‘those who support it might want to try it for themselves’. Not one of us wants to be the victim of preemptive violence. We may argue about the need for response, and even for the need of some kinds of anticipatory defense. But preemption? It will occlude existence itself.

If I were gathering a book club in downtown Boston to read this winter I would select the articles and books of Andrew Bacevich. Our future lies on the narrower path of responsive, communal, sacrificial, prudent behavior and requires of us, in Bacevich’s hero Neibuhr’s phrase, ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’.

There are indeed theological temptations in the unbalanced love of Scripture, tradition, reason or experience. As we come soon to Lent let us face them down. Let us face them down together. Let us do so by lifting our voices to admit errancy, affirm equality, explore evolution, and admire existence. The measure of preaching today in the tradition of a responsible Christian liberalism is found in our willingness to address errancy, equality, evolution and existence.


Perhaps we could set to music a hymn with these verses, in some combination:

God is love.
Love is both mercy and justice, both compassion and holiness.
Compassion is more important than holiness.
God loves the world (not just the church).
The church lives in the culture. The church lives in the culture to transform it. (Not above it to disdain it, not below it to obey it, not behind it to mimic it, not before it hector it).
The church is the Body of Christ.
Christ is alive. Wherever there is way, truth, life…
Life is sacred.
Life is a sacred journey to freedom.
The Bible is freedom’s book.
The Bible is a source, not the source, of truth
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
War is hell.
Peace is heaven. Jesus is the prince of Peace.
Gay people are people.
Women’s bodies are women’s bodies.
Women and men need each other.
There is a self correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.
The founder of Methodism is John Wesley (not John Calvin).
The ministers of the conference are the conference. Period.
Ministry is preaching.
The fun of faith is in tithing and inviting. ‘Remember the poor.’
Tithing is required. It is core, not elective.
Death is the last enemy. As Forest Gump said, atop his beloved’s
grave, ‘My momma told me that ‘death is a part of life’. But wish it
God’s love outlasts death.

The Future of Theological Education

Thoughts on the Future of Theological Education
Boston Ministers’ Club
March 2008

With William Blake, I take as my text Numbers 11: 29. “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets”.

1. Exemplum Docet

A man in early retirement has decided to bicycle across the continent, starting with his rear tire in the Pacific, down in San Diego next to Coronado Island, and finishing with his front tire in the Atlantic by Provincetown. The trip he makes is in memory of his son who died two years earlier. Father and son did much cycling together, and after two years haunted by demons, Dad cycles with a hope of exorcism. He stops on a Sunday morning in the little town of Onega, Kansas. He is, in no particular order, tired, lonely, bereft, empty, needy, hopeful, utterly clear about his own mortality and his existential location, east of Eden. A Methodist, he goes for worship to the Methodist Church. A smallish congregation embraces him. The ordered service enchants him. The minister’s prayer restores him. An hour of worship:
To Quicken the Conscience by the Holiness of God
To Illumine the Imagination by the Beauty of God
To Open the Heart to the Love of God
To Devote the Will to the Purposes of God
In the heart of continent, his heart has been warmed. In form and content, the sermon is one of the finest he can recall. A brief note in the bulletin tells about the minister. The cyclist calls his wife from the road that evening. With a gratitude that sometimes replaces our more native human sense of entitlement, he describes the wonderful service, the preacher’s heart and mind and wisdom and concludes, as the cell phone fades: “Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised at that, I mean the true excellence of her healthy, vocal leadership. I remember the Bishop saying at conference that seminaries, particularly those connected to the Boston Theological Institute, are developing healthy voices for a new age.” The future of theological education will bring renewal to the church by developing healthy, vocal, excellent spiritual leadership.

2. Divine Delight

I met for the winter semester with my Greek class a few years ago in March. I asked them about “the future of theological education and the renewal of the church”. This dozen students, resembling Galatians 3: 26-28, had much and much good to say. Black and white, female and male, Presbyterian and Baptist, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, right brain and left, intuitive and deductive, greek geeks and struggling c’s, the class is a hologram of the future. This is what Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite meant, recently, by describing theological schools as “places that preserve the important open space in which to integrate great issues”. As they mulled our question, I reminisced about the fall term, and the beginning grammar, and three points of discovery we enjoyed together.

Their issues I listed in the key of d: “diversity, debt, distance, degree, disciplines, debility, dialogue”. But my mind retraced their eager study of the autumn.

We read together Matthew 9:9ff. “Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. I cautioned my colleagues not to assume they already knew the meaning of the verse. After all Matthew did say, go and learn. Perhaps, just perhaps, more than Hosea is here. In this crucial passage Matthew describes what caused him to have been forgiven and what effect that had. The nature of the event itself he hides from us. The cause of his forgiveness is inclusion in a new movement, a new community, a new society. This brought Matthew—aha!—to the experience of mercy which delights God. We hear ‘I desire mercy’ as an imperative, a command to do. But Matthew meant something else. Go and learn he says. Θελω: I …desire, want, enjoy, take pleasure in---mercy. This is not first about what we do, but first about what God loves. Mercy. Do you know God to be a pardoning God?. If there is enough space and generative probity in our teaching, we will allow ourselves to discover and to be discovered by Another Reality. The Divine, who delights, who delights in mercy. I listen for voices that translate the tradition into insights for effective living. The future of theological education will bring renewal to the church through healthy voices that announce the divine delight in mercy.

3. Christ at the Center

My students went around the table making their lists regarding theological education and the renewal of the church. They said things like this: “I looked up praxis in my dictionary and did not find it…integration is always a personal, though not individual project… who will address spiritual formation? The seminary, the church, the denomination, who?… there is too much separation between the church and the school…no, there is not enough: seminaries need churches like fish need bicycles, and vice-versa…who will attend to the nature of call?…Seminary is lonely. “

I admit my mind wandered a little, back to November when we came upon Galatians 2, and its remarkable announcement of the πιστιs χπριστου Ιησου.

I cautioned us not to assume that we already knew the meaning of the phrase. Such a phrase carries power and danger, particularly in a time like ours that slides, in some places, toward a unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity. How are we to translate? An objective genitive, «faith in Jesus Christ»? Or a subjective, authorial genitive, «the faith of Jesus Christ»? What is the basis for salvation? Human faith in Christ or the faith of Jesus Christ, that is his faithful death? We divided about equally, no bad thing. But all left a little less certain, and, oddly, a little more confident.

I listen for voices that resound in the affirmation before the question, “Are we lovers anymore?” The future of theological education could bring renewal to the church through healthy voices that announce the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us.

4. Spiritual Sensibility

We had gone over the 90 minutes, but the discussion rolled on. I noted that a friend of mine had listed 8 issues for leaders of Schools of Theology: the burden of taking initiative, the weight of accumulated grievances and inappropriate expectations, telling the story and knowing the mission, competing constituencies and contradictory expectations, building a board that cares (but not too much) and caring for a board (but not too much), MONEY, cooperating with others, finding the time for self-care.

My mind, though, careened back toward December, when we translated Matthew 25. The students were by that time reciting their own warning not to assume but to learn and grow. They paused before the word for “least”. As you have done it to the least of these my brethren…ελαχιστοs. It means the littlest, the most diminutive, the smallest of the brothers and sisters. Could this be a baptismal moment? Is the reference, at least in part, to children? As you have done it to the littlest of these in my family, you have done it to me? These infants—hungry, thirsty, powerless, imprisoned in infancy. We wondered. The world does not lack for wonders, as Chesterton said, but only for a sense of wonder. Delores Williams had been with us the week before, bringing a wondrous womanist reflection on the least, and on need, and on the wildnerness. I listen for voices that remember the least, last, lost.

The future of theological education may bring renewal to the church through healthy voices that announce a spiritual, preferential option for the poor means renewal for the church.

The divine delight in mercy. The faithfulness of Jesus Christ. A spiritual, preferential option for the poor. Three theological thoughts about the future of theological education.

5. Three Practical Footnotes

Education is about people, and 90% of what happens in any school is related to the people present. Let us say something, briefly, about the people involved in theological education.

1.A healthy, vocal leadership, clergy and lay, depends on a regard for faculty. Faculty provide height. I remember visiting Lou Martyn, 10 years out of seminary. He offered me a noon libation, and said, among other things: “We have tried here to keep heaven a little higher”. Frost’s poem on the Star comes to mind:
It asks of us a certain height
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far
We may take something like a s tar
To stay our minds on and be staid
All Frost’s star says, you remember, is “I burn”. So, faculty need the freedom to burn, to produce the spiritual blaze Solzhenitsyn said the world expects, to generate, to be creative, to take the full responsibility for creative freedom and to “burn”. (Douglas John Hall’s 12/02 article in Theology Today winsomely underscores this point.) Party of rigor, party of responsibility, all. Burn. In my view, such lofty freedom to burn serves one central lordly goal: to live as examples for vocal leaders, healthy preachers, who themselves, Sunday by Sunday, will become common as sagebrush, and then be set on fire by the Holy Spirit: 1. To earn a Ph.D. in Theology is very difficult. 2. To struggle to publish, through all the disappointments, necessary early on, is more than hard. 3. To endure the burden of community, the inevitable clash of views in a “small town”, takes courage. (Isaiah Berlin’s motto is mine, to live in a liberal openness of spirit, but in a way that “softens the collisions”.) In short, for faculty I hope for more “space”.

2.A future, healthy, vocal leadership in the church needs students who are debt free. One of the saddest patterns to have developed in our Canadian and American churches in the last 20 years is the pattern of joking reference to the Wesley question at ordination, “are you in debt so as to embarrass yourself?” This is hardly a laughing matter anymore. We need to produce debt free graduates who are then free in ministry to boldly go where no one has gone before. Some responsibility for this lies with our students, but more lies with our systems. Out of debt such graduates are free to provide the depth that the soul seeks in the ground of being.

Who are the students today. My longtime friend, and my clergy and teaching colleague Chris Evans has a new article out about today’s students. Here is its paragraph abstract:

Discussions on teaching and learning within theological seminaries often center on the question of student diversity, focused primarily upon issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. At the same time that seminaries are challenged to deal with a multitude of pedagogical suppositions emerging from increasingly diverse learning goals, seminaries must also pay attention to the ways their students challenge an institution’s core mission to train ministers for service in churches/denominations. Based upon the author’s experience teaching in a mainline Protestant seminary, the essay discusses three student cultures that often overlap among today’s seminarians. These three student cultures, what I call the “church seminarian,” “new paradigm seminarian,” and “vocational seminarian,” carry very different understandings of the seminary’s role to prepare students for ministry. A critical discernment of these cultures might challenge seminary faculty to reevaluate their educational and missional suppositions, amidst divergent student career objectives.

3.A future, healthy, vocal leadership in the church needs administrators in the schools of theology who by nature build community. The Bible is freedom’s book, the pulpit is freedom’s voice, the church is freedom’s defense. Faculty freedom and student freedom deserve and require the disciplined and responsible liberty of a village green, an open space for communal life that breathes with the spirit of liberty. We choose to work in a school of theology because we affirm its mission. Administration is a ministry all its own, and it has to do with the crucial work of building spaces for freedom. What faculty bring to height, and students to depth, an administration provides in breadth. The administration is not the enemy! As McCullough reports while writing about Truman, that great President, “While General Macarthur was fighting the Pentagon, General Ridgeway was fighting the enemy.” ( Truman,p. 834)

Faculty provide height. Students provide depth. Adminstrators provide breadth.

6. Voices for a New Age

In early September of 2001, Jan and I drove across New York State, on a Saturday afternoon, following the Army Navy game at West Point. To the right somewhere in the Catskills emerged this sign, black letters and white background: JOIN THE CLERGY. Who are we inviting into ministry?

Some of the work of invitation and recruitment (primarily the province of the church) does fall to the schools of theology. Some of the work of invitation and recruitment (primarily the province of the laity) does fall to you, the veteran clergy. To whom have you spoken of late?

Who will come forward, out of another generation? Who will step up to preach the Gospel, to administer the sacraments, to lead the church, to care for the hurt, to speak for the poor, to provide the “unity and continuity of the church through the ages”? Where are the best and the brightest, the wisest and most sensitive, women and men of imagination and who will stand sentinel and herald the dawn of a New Creation of love and light? The pulpits of our church are not safe, easy places, not happy refuges for weak, unbalanced or needy folks. Jesus came not to be served but to serve. We need the finest top 5% of another generation earnestly to listen, to consider whether God is calling you into the ministry. Where are those men who could do anything, from engineering to medicine to law to business, who will gladly consider all things loss that we may Jesus gain? Where are those women who could command excellent compensation, roles in more lucrative cultural leadership, and high places in public and private realms, who will gladly take up the cross that we the crown obtain?

The 21st century is spread out before us, full of potential for grace and also for disgrace. Where are those young voices that will submit to the maturation of two decades - minimum time to train for real preaching - in order to prepare to quicken the conscience of a new era? Where are those young hearts, still freshly covered with the morning dew of idealism and hope, who will turn away from competitive gain and turn toward the promise of community? Where are the lovers, the dreamers, the seekers, the pioneers who could take the old world of the church and make it young again? And what are we doing to imagine and construct an ethos in which the expectation is that, sooner or later, our best and brightest will fill our pulpits?

What kind of person do you want to see coming up the path, in the rain, while you sit waiting inside on the hour of your husband’s death? What kind of man do you hope to hear speaking from the chancel, on the Sunday after your bombshell diagnosis is given? What kind of woman do you truly desire to perform your daughter’s wedding, counsel your son after a moral failure, help your community assess a call to arms from Washington, listen as you change careers, or offer prayer at the last breath?

We may want to answer that set of questions a full generation before we need an embodied response.

Do we want a healthy pastor? Then perhaps the churches could consider a decent health plan, one with teeth in it. Speaking of teeth, one with dental care.

Do we want an educated pastor, one for whom education is a value along with love? Yes, we remember that Wesley said, “learning without vital piety is like a jewel in a swine’s snout.” But Wesley, an Oxford Don, was the greatest champion of education. An educated pastor, who values a real and good education, will want the same for her children and family. Are we ready as a denomination to compensate our clergy so that their children can attend college?

Speaking of children, do we want to make any space for children in our ministerial families? Children are costly and difficult. Are we willing to provide the housing, salary, pension, benefits that will make space for a young couple that loves their children?

Do we want an emotionally balanced pastor? Then perhaps we can see the value of support systems, denominational and therapeutic, to address this desire.

Do we want a pastor with a global outlook, an ecumenical perspective, for whom the whole world is a parish? Then, perhaps, allowance should be made for travel, for study, for sabbatical, for writing, for growth.

Would to God that all the Lord’s leaders were preachers! I listen for the voices for a new age!

David Mamet had some interesting things to say, a while back, to actors, dreamworkers in the theater:

“Write for yourself…be an artist…Teach yourself some perspective so that you are not at the mercy of the current fad…study voice and movement…learn the difference between the beautiful and the attractive…Make yourself the expert…love the theater and learn about it and strive to improve it and create a new profession for yourselves…Train yourself for a profession that does not exist… That is the mark of an artist—to create something which formerly existed only in his or her heart”. (Writing in Restaurants, 141). Some of this could help budding preachers too.

The future of theological education will bring renewal to the church by developing healthy voices for a new age, excellent spiritual leaders who announce the divine delight in love, the faith of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us, the spiritual preference for the poor. The future of theological education will include height, depth and breadth—faculty, students and administrators. The future of theological education will depend upon the active invitation, church and academy, laity and clergy, to JOIN THE CLERGY.

7. Thoughts on Pastoral Excellence

In addition, let me also add a few thoughts about the pastoral excellence, a phrase currently in vogue.

The matter of pastoral excellence and personal health is crucial to present and future study and service. It matters for the church and for the school in equal measure. Particularly it matters for the laity of the church, who engage and are engaged by the ministry of the clergy. Unhealthy ministerial leadership hurts most the laity. The gospel of grace and freedom requires preachers who can exhibit grace and freedom, who can model dimensions of ‘spirituality’ (like excellence, undefined in much of our talking) that are freely gracious and gracefully liberating. How can we preach a gospel of grace and freedom without ministers who embody grace and freedom?

Let me next set out some complementary assumptions or perspectives with which I think I participate in this kind of conversation. These are angles of vision or points of view that are perhaps different from, though not contradictory to, the largely unspoken assumptions and perspectives we have used together. It is hard to change the carburetor while the vehicle is cruising down the turnpike, so we often leave systemic or perspectival discussions to rest stops like this one. That is as it should be.

First, the mission of the school of theology is to educate clergy. Two words is a good number for a mission statement, and ‘educate clergy’ are the two words I would choose. By educate I mean twenty things, among them the intention to form life-long learners who are self taught on the basis of a robust exposure to classical materials. By clergy I mean twenty one professionals, among them teachers, preachers, leaders, executives, and those who teach all these, who will bring dimensions of meaning, belonging and empowerment to the new creation, during their day in the Day of God. In saying this I do not deny or contradict the lengthy mission paragraph we have affirmed as a faculty. It is good, but not easily remembered. In saying this I do not deny the important ongoing discussion of theology as the core of theological study, largely because pastoral excellence absolutely requires, utterly depends on every shred of decent theological study available. (In the long run.) In any case, of the 5 funding streams I can dimly perceive which currently pay our rent and grocery bills, ALL 5 assume that our mission is to educate clergy. For this reason I think Foster’s book, Educating Clergy, has something to offer us.

Second, the faculty is the curriculum. 90% of curriculum choices and teaching enhancements are made at the point of permanent hire. Who teaches largely answers the questions about what is taught and how it is taught and when it is taught and so on. In the church, we talk in terms of ‘conference program’ or ‘denominational ministry’, but the dynamic is the same. The ministers of the conference are the conference program. Period. The faculty is the curriculum. Forgive a New Testament digression, but this is what the irascible Apostle to the Gentiles meant, I think, in 2 Corinthians 3: 1ff, a most difficult chapter to translate well. He contrasts print documents with the human being. “Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your (our?) hearts to be known and read by all (men)…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts”. Again, I do not here deny the importance of collegial conversation, learning with and perhaps teaching with each other, sharing best practices, and growing steadily ourselves. We, though, come, each one, with decades of commitments made, investments undertaken. We are the curriculum. But I seldom hear us acknowledge this.

Third, as just one person around the table, and speaking from 30 years of preaching twice each week, many visits each week, etc., I cannot think of one paragraph, sentence, phrase, word or syllable that I heard, read or learned in seminary that was not helpful in ministry. The issue is not that some of it is good and the rest is hooey. The issue is that we have 3 years (actually more like 18 months) in which to provide a sound basis for sound ministry. It is all essential, and all helpful, particularly what may seem most unhelpful at the time. The challenge is to provide enough excitement about the documentary hypothesis and the synoptic problem, enough intrigue about Chalcedon and the reformations, enough tensive enjoyment of Aquinas and Guttierez, enough admiration for Steimle and Chalmers, that a whole of life of learning in ministry ensues. Not one shred of Bible, History, Theology, and Rhetoric is superfluous to real ministry, let alone to ‘pastoral excellence’. In other words, I assume that the dichotomy, learning vs. piety, is a false one.

I enjoyed reflecting recently on short papers my colleagues wrote last year about pastoral excellence. Here are some seven of the high points, from my perspective, cited in italics without attribution, and then followed with brief remarks of my own. All of these contributions (and others as well) were meaningful to me, made me think, caused me to pause, so I cite them with affirmation and gratitude.

1. I also think that students who elect to attend a university-based school of theology must expect intellectual rigor and challenges in the classroom. Post-undergraduate, professional theological education is task-oriented to a significant degree, and it requires productivity. It cannot be purely a “pastoral” enterprise if, by “pastoral,” one means “comfortable” and “challenge free.” Of course, I don’t think that’s what “pastoral” means at all. Teaching, preaching, care giving, etc., are courageous enterprises; and those who prepare to undertake them require courage, insight, discipline, and knowledge. Not all of these attributes can be acquired in classrooms, of course, but all of them can at least be nurtured in classrooms and in various activities that comprise our life together.

Yes. Pastoral excellence assumes intellectual rigor, if it assumes anything. That doesn’t mean dull as beans bookish sermons, or ‘more educated than thou’ clerics. It does mean insight, imagination, curiosity, accuracy, truthfulness.

2. Finally, I think we should consciously set in place a program to mentor our international students. Faculty can play an important role in mentoring, but students can as well. Such outreach could go a long way not only in helping our international students succeed in their studies, but also help all of us further to develop an aspect of our communal life that lies at the heart of what is happening in churches and other religious institutions around the country and the globe.

Yes. Each one teach one.

3. Thinking of this in relationship to my students, I do think the free-standing seminaries are able to train ministers more fully and effectively to minister within the particular traditions and church communities as they are. Students in these settings are more prepared to, so to speak, hit the ground running. Students who graduate from STH have, I think, a steeper learning curve.

Yes. Richard Norris said to me, near graduation: ‘five years from now, your education here will seem unhelpful, or worse, but ten years from now it will be precious, invaluable’.

4. A case in point is chapel worship at STH, for which there are already two opportunities for “spiritual” Sabbath in the curriculum. Student attendance is poor and faculty attendance (or even faculty encouragement of student attendance) is sometimes non-existent.

Yes. Exemplum docet.

5. However, by the end of the two hours I began to ask “What conversation are we in?” Is this about the overall curriculum revision that is taking place at the School of Theology or more specifically about the formation of second year Master of Divinity students and the integration of spiritual practices and Sabbath habits into the Field Education program?

Yes. I guess it has been both. I believe that finally integration is a personal, though not individual, task.

6. Contextual assignments like case studies, verbatims, heuristic research, interviewing, team presentations, etc., might help us to create a “mentoring” milieu in our classrooms, thus creating training opportunities for critical reflection and strategizing. This kind of approach might help us overcome the impossible task of trying to mentor individually 40 students in each year’s class.

Yes. Learning skills inventories show that many learn better with these means and media.
7. I don’t think teaching students to nurture themselves (mind, spirit and body) is a matter of just being good stewards of our lives. I believe the integrity and effectiveness of our ministry depends on our example.

Yes. Our example.

8. Thoughts on Pastoral Imagination

To conclude, I would like to lift up the possibility of some sustained, communal conversation about Foster’s book, perhaps with Foster present. His overview of current theological education, has several distinctive advantages, only one of which I will lift up here. In this largely positive, even happy travel through various theological schools and seminaries, Foster regularly returns to the issue of pastoral imagination, as he terms it: How does a seminary education cultivate a pastoral, rabbinic or priestly imagination that integrates knowledge and skill with religious commitment and moral integrity for professional practice? (p.327) The exploration of his work is directed at those educators who have found ways to answer that question: Clergy educators innovate or adapt by drawing on resources of inherited religious and academic traditions to convey or model for students’ pastoral, priestly, or rabbinic imaginations. In our study, students often spoke of moments in their learning as awakening or discovering new meanings in sacred texts, alternative strategies for the conduct of some clergy practice, or new dimensions to their calling and vocation (23).

I hope that the next several years will allow us to consider the integration of theology and practice with regard to the pastoral imagination, as it is discussed by Foster, and sung by Blake:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning Gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.

I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.