Friday, September 30, 2011

Tears for Peter Gomes

By William Bronson

I cried when I heard the Rev. Peter Gomes, minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, died last February. I am not normally emotional. I can hardly remember crying over anyone’s passing. But my tardy awareness of his leaving us, over three months late, struck me hard.

How can I explain it? I felt less embarrassed to be a human being knowing that I shared that species designation with him. I had been reading again, off and on, his Scandalous Gospel of Jesus recently, as though an angel had told me he was gone.

As I prepared an envelope and enclosed my book, How to Get to Heaven with a note about how I enjoyed his books and ministry and hoped he found my little tome pleasant, inclusive, and reasonable. I couldn’t resist a PS that said James Carroll thought it was great.

Then, looking up his address I got the news, perused the Wikipedia article summarizing his life and the brutal stroke, brain aneurism, and heart attack that took him a year before he planned to retire and a month or so before his Easter sermons.

I remember his graciousness when I met him a couple times at his Wednesday teas at his home just north of Harvard Yard, when I was at Episcopal Divinity School (EDS). I remember his wonderful sermons at Memorial Church and his wisdom when he shared the stage at Trinity Church’s remarkable 2006 conference on eschatology with Carroll, J├╝rgen Moltmann, and Barbara Rossing in New York.

But I remember most the wonderful, conversational way he wrote. His eloquence transferred to the written page seamlessly. It may be more accurate to say that he spoke the way he wrote. And imbedded in all he said or wrote was a deep wisdom, patience, and perspective.

And he lacked no courage. When he came out years ago it was in solidarity with embattled gay and lesbian students who were challenged on Biblical and cultural grounds through a periodical by fellow Harvard students. As a Republican American Baptist pastor who participated in both Reagan and Bush senior’s inaugurations, it came as a surprise to many that he would not only defend but identify by his own sexual orientation with the gay community.

When they invited him to speak with other administration and faculty members about the raging controversy, the organizers of the rally had no idea that they would receive not only a personal “confession” but a careful dismissal of the Biblical arguments against homosexuality. One may read of the whole episode in the chapter “The Bible and Homosexuality” in his wonderful bestselling The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Heart and Mind. This quote from those pages is worth repeating:

“I also knew that no one wanted me to be ‘religious.’ Religion, in fact, was part of the problem here and not part of the solution, or so it was thought by my secular friends. I knew all that, and yet I also knew that the only ground on which I could stand in this particular instance was religious ground, and so rather than a pious elegiac on civility, or an exercise in political outrage, I determined that I would make my best effort to represent my understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith as it applied to the heart of the present discontents. As the university’s pastor and preacher, as a Christian, and as a homosexual, I decided to reclaim by proclaiming a vision of the gospel that was inclusive rather than exclusive, and to do so as a Christian who was more than the sum of the parts of which I was made…I also wanted to win minds and hearts, or at least to awaken them, to a view of the Christian faith which in dispute valued charity and humility over mean-spiritedness and arrogance.”

It is remarkable, one might say destined or karmic, that someone with such a high view of Scripture was found in the center of this controversy in this place. What I love about Pastor Gomes speaking and writing is that he never second guesses the Bible. He takes it as he finds it and draws from it the lessons that it gives. While valuing Scripture, he is too intelligent to be drawn into the doctrinaire interpretations that have created such rancor in recent times.

As an older student (sixty-nine on graduation) at EDS, coming out of the evangelical community, having done my Masters in Theological Studies thirty years earlier at Gordon-Conwell, I had some anxiety about fitting into the community here. But when I discovered how much common ground I felt reading Gomes and Cox and others, I took courage. Listening to Bishop Steven Charleston preach and later receiving his warm endorsement of my book confirmed my decision to come here.

In solidarity with the blessed pastor Gomes, I would like to end with my very succinct plea from my very succinct book:

“On the issue of sexual orientation, I think it would be helpful if we would not be so obsessed with sexuality considered in the light of human anatomy. The psychological aspects of femininity and masculinity are far more important identities. And it is clear that everyone is a mixture of these two elements including the Godhead. How people are equipped physiologically need not always match their stronger psychological identity. Most of us would be androgynous physiologically if that were possible. We should not stand in judgment of the creation (which any biologist will tell us has huge variations in that regard), the Creator, or each other on this issue.”

We will miss him. He will be on my short list of those I would like to commune with in heaven, but I’m sure it will be a long line I will stand in.

*William Bronson, DMin ’08, was an airline pilot for many years and author of How to Get to Heaven.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Christian Explorations of Traveling

By Joerg Rieger

Travel takes many different forms. Some travel for pleasure, others for work, and many more travel in order to find work and a better life. Moreover, there are different travel movements under way in our time.

One is vagabonding, where mostly young people leave their homes to explore the world, seeking adventure and broader horizons. Another, very different travel movement is migration, where people leave their homelands for reasons of need and survival.

Pilgrimages constitute different kinds of travel movements—some tied up with deep religious quests and others indistinguishable from tourism, which constitutes one of the biggest travel movements of all times. These movements seem to have little in common at first sight. Yet as we explore different layers of travel, we will see what the various travelers can learn from each other and what even those staying at home can learn.

I wrote the book Traveling as someone who has learned a great deal on the road. Travel is woven into my life in many ways, combined with a lifelong wanderlust. I grew up in southern Germany, thousands of miles away from Dallas, Texas, where I live now. I have had the opportunity to travel to many countries, in both the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres. I also have had the opportunity to travel for very different reasons: for pleasure, for work, and out of sheer necessity.

Nevertheless, I write this book not merely as a traveler but also as a Christian theologian who is convinced that travel has significantly shaped our Judeo-Christian traditions and our varied experiences with the divine—a role that has for the most part been underappreciated.

Perhaps the most surprising insight of this book is that traveling is so deeply rooted in our traditions that many of them fail to make sense without it. Consider how much of the material of the Judeo-Christian traditions actually developed on the road. Abraham, regarded as one of the pillars of the faith, has nothing static about him. The people of Israel spent a good amount of time on the road. Their stories speak of slavery in the lands of a foreign empire called Egypt, of an exodus from Egypt, and of forty years of wandering in the wilderness. On this journey, they learned important theological lessons, which included profound challenges to outdated images of God.

In the New Testament, Jesus’ ministry takes place almost entirely on the road, as a person who has “no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Perhaps one of the most important theological challenges that travel poses to the Christian life is summarized in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

Christianity is what takes place on the road. Travel, it appears therefore, is more than a metaphor of the Christian faith. Location and constant relocation are central matters of the Christian life.

Traveling is, thus, a central topic for faith and life. Those who travel to live and who live to travel might be in a position to make important contributions in today’s world. These contributions include a habit of thinking on one’s feet, the broadening of horizons, a flexibility that is typical especially of travelers who have less control, various challenges to the status quo, and a much-needed awareness of our own limits and finitude.

Travelers who spend much time on the road experience in their very being what is at the heart of the logic of the Jewish-Christian traditions and what took philosophers thousands of years to understand: a new appreciation for small, particular experiences of life, out of which broader universal ideas grow. This appreciation is where theology and philosophy started when religion took place on the road, rather than with the big concepts and ideas proposed by the powers that be.

Finally, those who find themselves on the road without safety nets often develop special bonds and relationships. No travel ever occurs in a vacuum. Power, as well as the lack of power, plays an important role in our travels. Becoming aware of these things is part of the broadening of our horizons.

*Joerg Rieger is Wendland-Cook Professor of Constructive Theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. Among his most recent books are Globalization and Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010), No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics and the Future (Fortress Press, 2009), and Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Fortress Press, 2007). His website is

Thursday, September 22, 2011

East Meets West: Chi and the Holy Spirit

By Grace Ji-Sun Kim

What would an Asian theology of the Holy Spirit look like?

If you have ever attended a Tae-Kwon-Do, Tai-Chi or Akido class, you will recognize the word “Chi” or “Ki.” These three art forms of movement try to harness the intangible form of energy called Chi. Practicing them creates not only more energy, but greater health and life within one’s self.

Chi is part of the everyday lives of Asian people just as it is part of their everyday vernacular. People will greet one another and try to gauge each other’s Chi level or compliment each other’s good Chi. They will even express their sickness or low energy as having “low levels of Chi.” Chi is a powerful energy which brings wholeness, health, and vitality. Chi gives life and without it, there is no life.

In many ways, Chi sounds like “ruach” in the Hebrew Scriptures or “pneuma” in the New Testament. Is it possible that the western notion of the Spirit as found in Christianity is the same energy as Chi? This question leads me to explore the possibility of an Asian understanding of Chi which can nurture a stronger theological perspective on the Holy Spirit.

In an increasingly multireligious, multilingual, and multicultural world, recognizing the differences and similarities among people, cultures, and religions is essential. The religions in different parts of the world do not display many spirits; rather in them we find various names for the Spirit.

Spirit is a universal concept which can discover new methods of addressing, thinking about, and conceptualizing God. But the first step will be to reexamine Spirit-Chi. Spirit-Chi is found within everyone. It is a source of empowerment and healing for the wounded.

Still, Spirit-Chi is beyond mystery and conceptualization. It requires us to admit to the limitations of the human understanding. We will never be able fully to comprehend the Divine. But Spirit-Chi provides us with new language and tools to address the mysterious encounters with the Holy we have experienced in the past and continue to experience. Within this hybrid space, our understanding of Spirit-Chi can draw us closer to God. It helps us develop a deeper understanding of the Creator of all that is, was, or ever will be.

Spirit-Chi is also beyond culture, religion, and society, as it undergirds the ethos of people around the globe. When people recognize this, instead of being a barrier, Spirit-Chi will open doors for further dialogue, understanding, and acceptance. The more language we can use to talk about the Divine, the more we open our discourse and work toward accepting, welcoming, and embracing those who are different, subjugated, and Othered. So it is important to understand God as Spirit-Chi and thereby break down barriers that colonialism has established. This Spirit-Chi is within us, empowering us toward emancipation and liberation.

As we recognize the commonality among people, it will be easier to embrace and accept the Other. The Spirit that is in all things will help us step closer to welcoming and embracing one another. Spirit-Chi embraces life and makes it whole. So it is essential that humanity recognizes, welcomes, and affirms the Spirit in all faiths.

A compelling aspect of Spirit-Chi is the way it is emancipatory: it frees us from the bonds of evil that prevent us from celebrating life. It makes us stronger and builds bridges between us and our neighbors. Spirit-Chi is salvific within us and between us and Others. It is a Spirit that bonds and pulls humanity closer to all other living creatures. It will sustain us and keep us aware of our interconnectedness and interreliance.

In this broken postcolonial world, this means western Christianity can no longer monopolize the Spirit. God’s Spirit-Chi fills us up, makes us whole, and helps build harmony and peace. It transcends problems endemic to the postcolonial world and liberates those caught in the middle. The Spirit is free to roam and be what it will be.

My new book, The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology, works toward a global and intercultural pneumatology that will encourage people to live harmoniously and peacefully with one another in a postcolonial world. The next time you are in a Tae-Kwon-Do class or watching the graceful movements of Tai-Chi, be mindful of the one Spirit, which is within us all and gives us life, fully.

*Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the MATS program at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She is the author of The Grace of Sophia (Pilgrim Press).

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Luce Grant and New Opportunities

By Kwok Pui Lan

The changing religious landscape in the U.S. and the important role that religion plays in contemporary politics require leaders of faith communities to work with religious neighbors, learn to form interfaith coalitions, and foster relations with civic groups for social change.

Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) has received a grant of $350,000 from Luce Foundation to support faculty development, curricular revision, and online continuing educational programs on religious pluralism. 
Islamic Society in Boston
This is a major initiative to help the faculty, alumni/ae, and students of the school to become leaders and facilitators of interfaith dialogue and solidarity. As the religious landscape of the United States and Canada has become more pluralistic, theological education must prepare students to be conversant with different religious traditions.

The proposal to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed, created a huge controversy. But many people do not know that Muslims have lived in the U.S. for a long time. The earliest Muslims arrived on slave ships from Africa. Today, there are six million Muslims in the U.S., approximately the same number as Jews. In New York, the number of mosques has grown from 10 in 1970 to 100. Los Angeles is the most religiously diverse city of the world. There are 131 Buddhist temples and 58 mosques in Los Angeles County.

Since the Immigrant Act of 1965, many immigrants have brought with them different religious traditions. The Pew Forum Religious Landscape Study conducted in 2008 estimated that the United States is about 78 percent Christian. About 16 percent of American people do not affiliate with religious institutions and 4.7 percent practice a religion other than Christianity.

At EDS, students are introduced to religious pluralism through course work, spiritual practices, and travel study seminars. Members of the faculty engage in interfaith dialogue in their academic guilds and civic coalitions. Study seminars to Mexico, India, Lesotho and South Africa, Cuba have introduced students to religious diversity and various forms of indigenous healing practices. Buddhist meditation has been introduced to members of the EDS community.

The Luce Grant will enable EDS to offer courses on Islam. The Grant will also enable us to share what we are learning at EDS with the wider Episcopal Church and other faith communities. EDS offers online courses, intensive weekend courses, simulcast classes, and webcast live events to educate lay and ordained leaders for God’s mission. The school has established partnerships with several dioceses for life-long education and formation.

In developing this initiative, EDS can draw upon the expertise and support of our alumni/ae. Some of our alumni/ae belong to the Unitarian Universalist Church, which celebrates diversity of belief. Alumnus Anthony Stultz is the founder and director of Blue Mountain Lotus Society, a non-profit organization devoted to sharing the teachings of the Buddha within the context of contemporary life.

EDS works with other schools within the Boston Theological Institute in promoting interreligious dialogue and understanding. For example, I will attend and speak at a weekend seminar on “Interreligious Dialogue and the Cultural Shaping of Religions” sponsored by Boston College in September. During the summer, I completed a book on Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue to be published by Paulist Press. 

Nestorian Stele in Xian, China (781 CE)
On March 3, 2012, Professors Lawrence Wills and Patrick S. Cheng will convene a one-day conference on “What Would it Take to Move the Map? Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Others in the Ancient East.” This conference will focus on the interactions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the early East, especially along the Silk Road. Professor Bruce B. Lawrence of Duke University, an expert on Islam and an alumnus of the EDS, will be the keynote speaker. 

EDS is planning a travel seminar to China led by Professor Patrick S. Cheng and I in May-June 2012. The travel seminar is supported by a generous grant from the DeFreitas Foundation. In addition to visiting churches, seminaries, and Christian organizations, the seminar will introduce students to the culture and religions of China. Participants will be able to visit Buddhist temples, a mosque, and a Confucian temple to learn about the popular religions of China. We look forward to a new academic year with exciting learning opportunities.

*Professor Kwok Pui Lan is William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality and her most recent book is Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sneaking Into Libraries

By Laurel Dykstra

I researched my book Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus by sneaking into libraries. After completing my degree at Episcopal Divinity School I was no longer a student and could not afford the guest user-fees at most academic libraries, so I marshaled all my race and education privilege, tried to look like the sort of person who belonged, and quietly made use of the staff, the stacks, and sometimes the online passwords, at several of North America’s most excellent theological libraries.

Over the past few years I have been part of a project that would make such subterfuge unnecessary. The Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice (CLBSJ) seeks to make a collection of scholarly texts into a commons, rather than a limited-access resource or a privately owned treasure that passes from mentor to favorite student.

Norman Gottwald is the initiator of this collaborative venture. In 2006 he approached the Word and World People's School, a grassroots experiment in theological education for activists, to see whether that organization might accept the gift of his world-class personal library. Word and World did not have the infrastructure to accommodate this extraordinary gift but the seed of an idea was planted and grew.

John H. Elliott and Herman Waetjen, two other pioneers in the use of the social sciences in biblical scholarship, responded to Norm’s invitation to donate their libraries as well and over several years a remarkable and generous group of scholars and community-based activists came together to design and negotiate the Center and Library. Housed at Stony Point Conference Center, 40 miles north of New York City, with a developing relationship with their resident interfaith Community of Living Traditions, the CLBSJ’s mission is

“to provide informed biblical resources for those committed to the study and practice of social justice in contemporary church and society… [and to] seek to bridge the gap that presently separates critical study of the Bible from faith-based organizations and activities working for social justice and reconciliation.”

CLBSJ opens officially on the weekend of October 22-23; it is a first-class collection of books, periodicals, archival, and electronic data on biblical studies and related justice areas. Because of the interests of the initial donors, it is particularly strong in the social sciences. The Center and Library will serve the needs and interests of those from seminary, sanctuary, and streets, welcoming scholars, students, activists, educators, community organizers, clergy, and laity seeking biblical resources for restorative justice and peacemaking. To foster an interweaving of theory and practice, the Center and Library will provide an ongoing educational program of seminars and conferences on topics central to the social-critical study of the Bible and to its use in enacting social justice. There is no comparable collection, center, or organization anywhere in North America.

In conjunction with the project’s opening I have co-edited, with biblical animator and scholar Ched Myers, our inaugural volume, a remarkable anthology that is something of a hand-held version of the new library. Liberating Biblical Study: Scholarship, Art, and Action in Honor of the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice, brings together the work of biblical scholars, social change activists, and movement-based artists. The book explicitly addresses such biblical justice issues as empire, resistance movements, identity, race, gender, and economics, but it raises questions as well: What is the role of art in social-change movements? How can scholars be accountable beyond the academy, and activists encouraged to study? How are resistance movements nurtured and sustained?

I am particularly proud of the real diversity of contributors to this volume and of the fact that artists and activists are not merely included for decoration or illustration. Instead the book demonstrates practically how the disciplines of scholarship, art and activism challenge and enrich one another.

I encourage you to come to Stony Point for the library opening, to take advantage of our programming and the opportunity to write and study immersed in an amazing collection of scholarship on the biblical call to justice.

*Laurel Dykstra, MATS '97, is a community-based Bible and Justice educator and activist exploring the vocation of neighbor in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the poorest off-reserve postal code in Canada.