We live in an age of great conflicts and petty hopes. Take first our hopes. In the book The Real American Dream, Andrew Delbanco traced the history of the scope of American dreams—from the “holy God” of the Puritan founders, to the “great nation” of the 19th-century patriots, to the “satisfied self” of many today.
I teach a variety of courses at Piedmont College, but “Introduction to World Religions” is my favorite. I have taught it more than 20 times now, to more than 500 students. One of them tells me how different the news from Iraq sounds now that she knows the difference between Shi‘as and Sunnis. Another brings me pictures of a new Hindu temple going up in his old neighborhood, which he is able to interpret for his alarmed parents. Students who complete the class say they feel more at home in the world. They are less easily frightened by religious difference. They are more informed neighbors, better equipped to wage peace instead of war.The only place the course backfires is in the unit on Christianity. Students who have spent every Sunday of their lives in church may be able to name the books of the Bible in order, but they rarely have any idea how those books were assembled. They know they belong to Victory Baptist Church, but they do not know that this makes them Protestants.
An elderly family member with Alzheimer’s was incapacitated after a fall in her apartment, and my family and I became responsible for her care. Unfinished work mounted up, we had taxes to do, and we felt all the swarming nibbling host of worries that fray the nerves without sinking the soul. I would be an ungrateful sod if I thought such trials anything exceptional.Yet Christian hope pertains to the lesser as well as the greater trials of our life. The short petition that follows the Lord’s Prayer in the Roman eucharistic rite expresses the idea beautifully: “In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
“Speak truth to power.” The phrase resonates with the biblical prophets and the courage it takes to challenge those preoccupied with maintaining their power at the expense of truth. The phrase rings true in Robert Mugabe’s rule over Zimbabwe, or in the stonewalling silence of a church in the wake of a sexual abuse crisis.Yet in American culture, and especially in mainline Protestantism, the phrase has become hackneyed. Pastors invoke the phrase in sermons; seminary professors use it in classroom lectures; groups organize around it. One person even suggested that the phrase is the very heart of the pastoral vocation. Is it really?
In American theological education, we are in the midst of recruitment season. Applications to M.Div. programs across the country have been read and argued over by admissions committees, and offers of admission have gone out in the mail. Now we are wooing our accepted students, making the case that our school is the right place for them to become the ministers God is calling them to be.