My first class this semester is the second half of a year long course, “Reading the World.” Our overarching theme for this semester will be Modernity. Last semester we covered the beginnings of Christianity up to the Reformation. 16 centuries in one semester. This semester we’ll be covering 4 centuries in much more detail. While our overarching theme is modernity, how Christianity has reacted, critiqued, dissented, and embraced the movement, we will have a specific theme for each week. Here are just a few: Reformations and the Religious Roots of Modernity; Enlightenment Empiricism and Religion; High Enlightenment and Secular Reason; Social Progress; Liberalism and the Challenge of Fundamentalism; Pentecostalism and Globalization.
We’re going to be reading about how theologians make sense of modernity, and at the same time about communities of faith and how they make practical sense of modernity in their own contexts. The attempt through the semester will be this kind of integration, to see the connections and dissent between various secular social thinkers, religious communities, and academic theologians.
This will be a good continuation of my experience last semester, in which I first encountered the critical manifestations of modernity and liberal theology here at the Boston University School of Theology. Last semester it was like getting hit in the face by liberalism – from day one I was presented with so much that I find uncomfortable and contrary to my tradition. And yet on the other hand I often find glimpses of ideas and ways of thinking that my tradition can learn from. So that is my task, to find what is good and edifying within theological liberalism, while being cautious and critical of the blatant abuses of liberal theology. But that is the difficulty – not everything is unhealthy, and not everything is wholesome.
So I’ve decided to approach this semester and the rest of my time here as though I am attending a 3-year-long conference. A delegate of the Church of the Nazarene, sympathetic to the work of ecumenism, I am here to be trained as a theologian, a critical thinker, and as a religious leader (which is one of the greatest honors and outcomes of being a student here). All the while I will encounter a faculty and many students that wholeheartedly embrace the ethos of theological liberalism. And they are quite warranted to do so, for this tradition has just as many demons as it does angels, just like any other tradition.
There is quite a lot to be proud of here at BU STH, as was illustrated in my class today. Dr. Christopher Evans, professor of American and Church history, taught my class that the seminary has been called the “School of the Prophets,” a label that stands as a testament to the rich history of faculty and alumni that received their theological education in Boston. Prominent among these are Edgar Helms, the founder of Goodwill Industries, a not-for-profit that offers job training, community programs, and the popularly known thrift stores; William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, known for its charity work in urban centers. Edgar Helms, instrumental in the movement known as the Social Gospel, believed that Christian teachings could be applied to social problems, taking historical, theological, and biblical resources to engage social theory. Certainly, though it is often not a subject winning popularity in conservative circles, the work of the Social Gospel movement has much to offer the Church-at-large. Furthermore, Anna Oliver (1849-1892), a woman who’s name is almost forgotten, was the first woman in the United States to graduate from a theological seminary, and she tried all her life, though unsuccessfully, to be ordained in the Methodist church. Another Anna, Anna Howard Shaw (1847-1919), was the first woman to be ordained in the Methodist church; and Georgia Harkness (1891-1892) was the very first woman to hold a faculty chair in a North American theological seminary. And, perhaps most notably, the life and the work that this nation celebrated only yesterday, that of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the bastion of the Civil Rights movement, a giant of a leader in the black community, and a Christian visionary that all disciples of Christ can hold up as a hero.
In many ways the School of Theology has proved a leader not only in religious education but religious leadership. This is a history of which I am proud to be a part.
The history of faculty and Alumni at BU STH also reveals its liberal history. John Dempster (died 1863) was a pioneer of American Methodist theological education and is considered one of the founders of BU STH. His life and work is marked by a desire to integrate religion with the other aspects of learning (notably a worthwhile endeavor for Christians everywhere). William Fairfield Warren (1833-1929), the first president of BU and the first dean of the School of Theology, proved the university thoroughly Methodist but very open to new understandings of religion, the sciences, and the humanities (again, an endeavor that can produce wholesome fruit). Holding strong sympathies for theological liberalism, the School of Theology can be seen from its very inception to have liberal influences, and saw itself as a prominent place where theology and the movement of modernity met. Thus, from the late 19th century and on to the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of modernity was not to simply tolerate the world, but to change the world for justice and hope. Social progress was an idea embraced, for the world could get better because the church was going to lead people to a better reality.
As we study we’ll be asking how religious people engaged Modernity. Overall, religious people could be said to have asked this question: “How do you view the world?” As Dr. Kirk Wegter-McNelly put it this morning, before the Reformation the world was understood, very simply, as a vessel that is here in order for us to live out our faith, with something greater to be expected in the life to come. With the advent of Modernity, the world is seen, not as something to be feared, but something to be incorporated into what we do. And the following is the summary that Evans gave us in class concerning BU: The STH heritage embodies three characteristics of modernity: an embrace of the world, a critique of the world, and a mission to transform the world. We’ll see.
As I try to try to take what is good, from this tradition and this place, and as I critique what I see as unhelpful, I find it helpful to play around with a little thought-exercise: I feel like I can approach my time here sort of like attending a 3-year long conference. I think this will help me keep a sensitive distance so that I don’t just jump headlong into theological liberalism. I am not here to become indoctrinated into the tradition of BU, but there are many things at BU and in its history of which I can be proud. I know that there is much here that I can embrace – most prominently, being trained by some of the best theological minds to think critically about theology, religion, society, history, and the world. I want to become a professor of theology and church history, so this top-notch faculty will be invaluable as I grow as a theologian. However, there will be many places where I will push back against what is being presented to me. But that is okay. And the faculty encourages us to do that! The worst thing would be to come here and think uncritically, to just go through the motions and get a degree, and along the way accept all the tenets of theological liberalism. Rather, I am being trained to think critically about the world, about this Body called the Church and its history, and my own theological assumptions.
All in all I am excited. This semester will be difficult, but hopefully less chaotic than last (I’m a little more prepared now).