An 18th-century painting of a Quaker meeting hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In it a figure, perhaps George Fox himself, stands speaking with such passion that his hand is clutching his breast. Around him are gathered members of the Society of Friends. A woman sits with her chin in her hand. A man’s finger is laid alongside his cheek.
It is by living and dying that one becomes a theologian, Martin Luther said. With that comment in mind, we have resumed a Century series published at intervals since 1939 and asked theologians to reflect on their own struggles, disappointments, questions and hopes as people of faith and to consider how their work and life have been intertwined.
Who cares about history? I think about this question a lot because of my job as director of the Congregational Library in Boston. My association with this venerable Yankee institution, a large collection of things both important and inexplicable, means I’m often invited to churches that are celebrating anniversaries.
Tom walked into my office looking glum. He tossed his backpack on the floor, fell into a chair by my desk, sighed, and then rummaged through his bag for the registrar’s form. Tom is a first-year seminary student, and I’m his counselor. We walked through the courses he would be taking, most of them part of our core curriculum. Tom’s lack of enthusiasm was screaming at me. Finally I took the bait: “So, Tom, what’s the matter?” His hands went up in the air as he shot back, “What’s the deal with all of these required courses? When do we get to study things that are relevant?” Ah, I thought, the old “Let’s make thousands of years of inherited tradition relevant to me” argument. I’d just had a similar conversation with a woman in the congregation where I serve, who wondered why we repeat the “same old creed” each Sunday.
Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, remembers Vincent Harding coming up to him at a church in Denver and suggesting that they work together. Patel declined, saying he thought the mission of his own organization didn’t mesh with Harding’s. After Harding died, Patel read his obituary and learned Harding was an unsung hero of the civil rights movement and a speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. Later, at an event attended by Patel and Harding’s widow Aljosie, Patel confessed that he had passed up a great opportunity. Aljosie said to Patel: “You should know that Vincent followed your work, and he loved you, and he forgives you” (OnBeing.org, June 9).