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Thinking Out Loud
  • Faith and Business

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 24, 2014
    Faith and BusinessThe church has a knack for depreciating the vocations of the laity. Well, perhaps not all vocations of the laity. The church routinely blesses vocations like the helping professions and education, especially if they are in the not-for-profit realm. But the church is ambivalent, at best, when it comes to blessing the vocations of those folks whose business is, well, business. I find this troubling, since the overwhelming majority of Christians I know are working in the business world just making a living.

    The problem the church has with business has as much to do with an ignorance of economics as a flawed theology of vocation. When pastors and theologians begin talking about economic matters, I often cringe, not only because of their lack of knowledge in the fields of financial and economic matters, but because of the thinness of the theological reflections. Usually such conversations reflect little more than the individual’s biases dressed up in theological language to dress down someone else’s interests.

    As a theologian, I have found it enormously helpful to avail myself of good economic writing by people who know the field. There’s no better periodical in this regard than The Economist. It is the one magazine I read every week. The Wall Street Journal and the business section of The New York Times can help us see not only the trees, but also the forests of financial issues. In the past couple of years, friends also have funneled some useful books my way. I will mention just a few.

    In a bookstore in Oban, Scotland (of all places!), Brent Slay, a business leader from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and one of Louisville Seminary’s trustees, recommended to me a must-read book on economics: Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (Penguin, 2010). This is a thoroughly readable “debunker’s guide” to a variety of economic subjects such as the free market and the connection between education and economic development. Chang is a professor at the University of Cambridge and, even if you don’t agree with all of his arguments, you will find your thinking stimulated by him. He starts by saying, “There is no such thing as a free market” and never lets up for a moment until he reaches his startling conclusion. (I don’t want to spoil it for you).

    John C. Knapp’s book, How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it), published in 2011 by Eerdmans, helps outline the problem and provides what could be the basis for a valuable church school course: “On being a Christian in business.” Knapp’s book reminded me of a text I required for years in a seminary course on Stewardship and Church Finance, Peter Block’s excellent Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest (Berrett-Koehler, 1993/1996). Interestingly Block’s book on stewardship is not a “religious” book at all, but a so-called “secular” book from and for the field of leadership and management. Of course, the division between “sacred” and “secular” is at the root of many of the problems the church historically has had with thinking theologically about business. Christians of every stripe (from Evangelical to Roman Catholic to Mainline Protestant) need resources to help them understand their work in terms of their faith. But as Edward Dayton observed: “Few churches appreciate their business people as windows on the world, and fewer still provide business people with opportunities to discuss in depth the integration of business and Christian values” (Knapp, 26).

    Finally, I have to mention Peter Brown’s magisterial study, though it is a very different kind of resource from those just mentioned: Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton University Press, 2012). And, “yes, Virginia,” this is an academic book and a very hefty one at that! But what a resource! It puts to rest simplistic arguments from history about “the way the church has always viewed money.” It complicates matters in the best way possible, by introducing us to the staggering variety of perspectives within the history of our faith. It reminds us of the bedeviling “unintended consequences” of virtually every idealistic scheme devised to short-circuit the complexities of being human and living in human society. And it utterly defeats the kinds of arguments we have all heard at one time or another in Sunday schools and sermons that would lead us to devalue the vocations not only of “they who go down to the sea in ships to ply their trade upon the great waters” (Psalm 107:23), but also those who muddle off to their offices and shops each day to do the same. The church should remember that those who go about the business of business have the opportunity to do what the Psalmist tells us the merchant seamen of the ancient world did: “These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep” (Psalm 107:24).

    Our theology of vocation, it seems to me, must take account of God’s calling every Christian “through the waters of baptism” to live as followers of Jesus in every aspect of our lives, including making a living by making and selling goods. “The first order of business is to build a group of people who, under the influence of the institution, grow taller and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous,” wrote Robert Greenleaf in his Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (Paulist Press, 1977); this comprehensive flourishing of employees’ lives includes, I believe, making a living. That always means more than just making money, but it never means less than that. And the first order of a good Christian theology of vocation should be to bless the variety of ways God calls us to be faithful wherever we find ourselves, rather than to judge as somehow less Christian the labors of businesspeople.
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  • Forgotten Sister

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 18, 2014

    Jane Franklin: Forgotten SisterJill Lepore’s mother always wanted her to write a book about Jane Franklin. Lepore, who teaches American History at Harvard University and writes for The New Yorker, explained in an essay published last summer that she finally did write the book, though too late for her mother to read. And it is an excellent and revealing read. (Jill Lepore, “The Prodigal Daughter,” The New Yorker, July 8 & 15, 2013, pp. 34-40)

    Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Knopf, 2013) tells the story of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, Jane (or Jenny), perhaps the one person in life, and certainly the person in his own family, to whom Franklin was closest. To Jane, her brother was her “Second Self.” But their story is a story of contrasts.

    He, the internationally famous Dr. Franklin: scientist, statesman, “founding father,” diplomat, philosopher and bon vivant. John Adams, Franklin’s fellow diplomat to France, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, rather waspishly wrote of Franklin: “His name was familiar to government and people, to kings, courtiers, nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as to plebeians, to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady’s chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen, who was not familiar with it, and who did not consider him a friend to human kind.”

    She, a woman virtually unknown to the pages of history, except as the sister of a famous man, who spent her entire life caring for her family: a woman of sharp intellect and considerable wit who, one suspects, had much to say and almost no one to listen.

    Working from a modest collection of written materials, Lepore tells Jane Franklin Mecom’s story. In doing so, she reminds the reader of the scores of volumes of blank pages of books never written “by” other women like Jane Franklin, and the incalculable loss they represent to human history and human wisdom.

    What little we do have from Jane Franklin’s pen makes us wish for so much more. A tiny book constructed of paper “made from rags, soaked and pulped and strained and dried.” A few letters, so little in print in comparison to the voluminous writings of her renowned brother, Ben. This woman who had little access to literature – beyond a very few sermons and extremely dry theological texts – read what she could find and wrote poignantly from her own experience, an experience of life that centered on child-bearing, child-rearing, and, given the tragic realities of her time, grieving. As a contemporary of Jane Franklin, Jane Colman writes beautifully and movingly:

    “Thrice in my Womb I’ve found the pleasing Strife,
    In the first Struggles of my Infant’s Life …

    “In Travail-Pains my Nerves are wreck’d,
    My Eye-balls start, my Heart-strings almost crack’d …

    “But O how soon by Heaven I’m call’d to mourn
    While from my Womb a lifeless Babe is torn?”

    Jane was married at fifteen (the legal age for marriage in Massachusetts at that time was sixteen, Lepore tells us). By the time she gave birth to her last child, her twelfth, she was thirty-nine. And through those years, she had experienced personally the terrible reality of what we so clinically refer to as “infant mortality,” but which she would call simply death. And death visited often.

    “Do the right thing with Spirit,” Jane Franklin once wrote. And reading this remarkable book of her ages, one can hardly help but be amazed at the courage that kept her laboring at the wheelhouse of duty, trying valiantly to “do the right thing with Spirit,” feeding and nurturing her family, even as her husband (who apparently lost his mind before he lost his life) leaves her alone in the world. We do not even know for certain where she is buried. Such is the notoriety of obscurity. And such the fate of millions.

    Toward the end of the book, Lepore reflects on “the insufficiency of history” through the lens provided by Jane and Benjamin Franklin’s lives. She notes the observations of Charles Brockden Brown who, in an essay, “Historical Characters Are False Representations of Nature,” [Literary Magazine, V.29 (February 1806), pp. 113-117], argued that historians blind their readers “to the pathos of small lives.”

    Indeed, they do far more damage than that, according to Brown. He writes: “The human character appears diminutive, when compared to those we met with in history, yet am I persuaded that domestic sorrows are not less poignant, and many of our associates are characters not inferior to the elaborate delineations which so much interest in the deceptive page of history.” Historians, he believes, deceive us into thinking that the characters that strut across their pages are somehow superior to the people who lived in obscurity. “If it were possible,” he continues, “to read the histories of those who are doomed to have no historian, and to glance into domestic journals as well as into national archives we should then perceive the unjust prodigality of our sympathy to those few names, which eloquence has adorned with all the seduction of her graces.”

    Thus we know so much about Ben, and so little about Jane. She wrote so little. But what little she did write shimmers with life. And so, we are sure, did her life. And so do so many lives of whom we will never read.

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  • Finding Jesus: A Lenten Meditation

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 10, 2014

    Thinking Out Loud ImageThe film version of Winston Groom’s 1986 novel Forrest Gump yielded many great quotes, but my favorite comes from a conversation between Gump and Lieutenant Daniel Taylor when the two meet in New York after returning from Vietnam.

    Lieutenant Dan: “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?”
    Forrest Gump: “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”

    Looking for Jesus can be a fraught and complicated occupation. I have a good friend, a pastor, who told me recently that when she started her ministry in the congregation she now serves she was told, “We don’t use the ‘J word’ here.” She said that she tried and tried to figure out what obscenity started with the letter J. She racked her brain, but couldn’t come up with it. Finally, she gave up and asked, “What’s the ‘J word’?” An incredulous church member told her, “Well, ‘Jesus,’ of course.”

    Flannery O’Connor, in the preface to the second edition of her comic novel, Wise Blood, famously talked about the challenge of finding Jesus. She articulates this challenge by reflecting on the experience of Hazel Motes, the central character in her novel. Motes is an atheist evangelist (and I mean, an old-fashioned southern evangelist whose message is caustic atheism) who is God-obsessed and Christ-haunted.

    O’Connor writes: “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to do so.” (Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1952/62).

    That ragged figure, of course, is Jesus. Hazel runs as fast as he can away from Jesus, only to run straight into his arms.

    Where do we find Jesus? Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked this question throughout his life. I am particularly fascinated with two of his responses, the first of which occurred in a series of lectures he gave in 1933. They were originally published in English translation in London under the academic-sounding title of Christology, but the title of the American edition picks up on the theme that runs through them, Christ the Center. Bonhoeffer’s version of the question, “Where do we find Jesus?” is “Where does Jesus stand?” His answer is so compelling, and I will share it with you in full:

    “He stands pro me. He stands in my place, where I should stand and cannot. He stands on the boundary of my existence, beyond my existence, but still for me. This expresses the fact that I am separated from the ‘I’ that I should be by a boundary which I am unable to cross. This boundary lies between me and myself, between the old ‘I’ and the new ‘I’. I am judged in my encounter with this boundary. At this place I cannot stand alone. Here Christ stands, in the center, between me and myself, between the old existence and the new. So Christ is at the same time my own boundary and my rediscovered center, the center lying both between ‘I’ and ‘I’ and between ‘I’ and God. The boundary can only be known as a boundary from beyond the boundary. In Christ [humanity] knows it and thus at the same time finds his new center.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, John Bowden, tr., Harper & Row, 1966).

    Bonhoeffer was pursuing the question of where we find Jesus right up to the end of his life. This comes through with special force in two passages from his Letters and Papers from Prison, both in the notes he made for the book he never got to write, in a section he intended to title, “The Real Meaning of Christian Faith” and in a letter to his close friend Eberhard Bethge on the 16th of July, 1944, from Tegel Prison. Again, I will quote the passages at length where Bonhoeffer begins with a sentence fragment indicating our “finding” or “meeting” Jesus:

    “Encounter with Jesus Christ. The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that ‘Jesus is there only for others.’ His ‘being there for others’ is the experience of transcendence.’ …  Faith is participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, and resurrection). Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation.” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Eberhard Bethge, ed. Macmillan, 1972, 381).

    Where do we find Jesus? Bonhoeffer continues to ask. Where does Jesus stand? He stands with the God who is pushed to the margins and beyond. As he writes to his friend: “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” (360).

    The Jesus who is found standing pro me (for me) is the same Jesus who calls me to find myself in standing for others. The Jesus who is found on the cross, calls us beyond ourselves to that spiritual reality many describe as “self-transcendence,” by “being for the other” as he is for others.

    But, of course, the paradox of finding Jesus is that we are the ones being sought, not God. This represents the irony of the term so often applied to those who are curious about faith, but often unaligned to a religion, “seekers.” The real “seeker” is not me, but God. The real “seeker” is what O’Connor referred to as that “ragged figure” of Jesus who moves “from tree to tree” in the back of our minds, and at the margins of our lives, and at the boundaries of human existence and society, pushed out of the world and onto a cross so that he might stand at the center of our lives.

    Lent is a good time to remember Søren Kierkegaard’s prayer that finds Jesus front and center:

    O Lord Jesus Christ … save us from the error of wishing to admire you instead of being willing to follow you and to resemble you. AMEN.

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  • The Consolation of Philosophy

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 04, 2014

    Epictetus has been my astringent companion for more than fifteen years. And a bracing friend he is.

    EpictetusThe purest spirit among all the Stoic philosophers, Epictetus tells the truth as he sees it - and always without any varnish. This former slave (his name means "Acquired"), a Greek living under the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero, Epictetus taught on the streets in the common language of Koine Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, during the very time (c.A.D. 54-68) when our fledgling Christian movement was beginning.

    My own little hardbound volumes of his discourses, in the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press) have traveled with me from sea to shining sea. Dog-eared, read, marked, learned, inwardly-digested, endlessly indexed and cross-indexed and loved to death, these volumes have seen me through many sad and perplexing hours, through times of self-doubt and self-pity, as well as times of joy. They represent an ultimate consolation of philosophy, reminding me again and again what it means to be a human, why wisdom matters, and how we ought to live.

    Epictetus is one of the great pagans of faith, not Christian, but long beloved by Christian theologians, saints and philosophers through the ages, because of his sacred wisdom. He gives us one of the finest descriptions of the concept explored and used so fruitfully by John Calvin, the idea of adiaphora (matters of indifference or inconsequential matters), the idea that some things just aren't essential and shouldn't be fought over. But he gives us more, much more. He describes for us a way of being that remains unshaken by life's inevitable ups and downs.

    What do you have control over in this world? Epictetus asks. Perhaps very little, really. Storms and plagues may wipe out what you possess and take the health and compromise the safety of those you love. Tyrants can take your physical freedom, even your life. You may not have control over external circumstances. But you do have control over your personal understanding of and response to what happens to you. In this, at least, you are free. Only one thing is under your control: "the proper use of impressions," or our interpretation of that which happens. But that is enough. 

    Epictetus says that philosophy does not profess to secure for us any external circumstances. Each person's life is the subject matter of the art of living. And this art of living is mastered when we are able to take whatever life throws at us with equanimity and grace. The achievement of this quality of wisdom will not come overnight, he reminds us, but "nothing great comes into being all at once." And when at last we have learned the art of living, we will become immune even to the threat of death by the most terrible tyrant.

    We will greet calamities and cruelties to ourselves with the same grace as when we meet good fortune, knowing that "difficulties reveal what we are," and nothing can make us miserable unless we allow it to do so.

    "If all this is true," Epictetus says, "and we are not silly nor merely playing a part when we say, 'Man's good and man's evil lies in moral choice, and all other things are nothing to us,’ why are we still distressed and afraid?"

    Is it possible for a person of genuine wisdom, then, to express sorrow and pain? Yes, of course, Epictetus says. Even the wise person is only human. "And I am not saying that it is not permissible to groan, only do not groan in the center of your being." You may groan, in other words, but do not despair. Even death has no more power over us than to deprive us of life. One can kill me, Epictetus says, but the killer does not have the power to "hurt" me. 

    The goal of philosophy, according to Epictetus, is to educate and form a person who is able to "lift up your neck at last like a person escaped from bondage, be bold to look towards God and pray, 'Use me henceforward for whatever Thou wilt; I am of one mind with Thee; I am Thine; I crave exemption from nothing that seems good in Thy sight; where Thou wilt, lead me; in what raiment Thou wilt, clothe me. Wouldst Thou have me to hold office, or remain in private life; to remain here or go into exile; to be poor or be rich? I will defend all these Thy acts before humanity; I will show what the true nature of each thing is.'"

    Perhaps only a person who had spent a good part of his life a slave in chains could conceive so perfectly of a philosophy which is basically a Declaration of Independence from all external circumstances. Epictetus tells us that no one can take away our freedom, even if he places us in the darkest dungeon; no one can triumph over us, even if they take our lives. No one has the power to make us miserable, no matter what they do to us. Freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose; nor is joy dependent upon the vagaries of circumstances. Freedom is a state of mind which can be cultivated with discipline. And joy is available to everyone who knows how to be free.

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  • Frank Hill Caldwell - Senatorial, Dignified Eloquence

    by Chris Wooton | Feb 28, 2014
    Editor's note: for the next several months, as we celebrate the 160th anniversary of our founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive sporadic blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us!


    This blog post was guest-written by W.G. "Bill" McAtee. For twenty-six years, Bill McAtee was an executive for Transylvania Presbytery in Lexington, retiring in 1997. A Distinguished Alum of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (BD ’59; ThM ’65), he served 14 years as a trustee of the institution and also taught as an adjunct faculty member. He also has served as an instructor at McCormick Presbyterian Seminary and Lexington Theological Seminary.

    Fannie and Frank CaldwellDr. Frank Hill Caldwell’s long tenure as president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (1936-1964) spanned turbulent years of the middle decades of the twentieth century. He entered office in the wake of internal controversy created during the previous administration; weathered the Great Depression and the 1937 Flood; survived the carnage of World War II, the Cold War détente and the advent of the civil rights movement. He shaped the Seminary as few presidents have.

    Under his stewardship, Dr. Caldwell:
    • Created the “League of Support” among friends of the Seminary to increase endowment and contributions;
    • Guided the Seminary’s serious consideration to relocate, if necessary, as part of the proposed plan to consolidate Presbyterian seminaries due to lingering financial hardships of the Depression;
    • Delegated responsibilities for an effective development program that “brought in committed business, advertising and public relations laypeople to work for the Seminary;”
    • Recruited a new generation of full-time faulty with earned doctorates;
    • Presided over post-war student enrollment that “strained the Seminary’s faculty, income and facilities to accommodate them;”
    • Welcomed the first African-American and woman enrollees opening the way to a more diverse student body;
    • Provided administrative leadership to strengthen the library so that it “became a stronger and more modern resource for theological education;”
    • Lead the faculty in revamping the curriculum that reflected “acceptance of a moderate historical-critical understanding of Scripture;”
    • Instituted new teaching methodologies, including a model field education program, preparing students to live out the Seminary’s motto of “preaching the ancient gospel to the problems of a modern world;” and
    • Increased the “close and warm relations” with its Presbyterian constituents.
    The lasting effect on all he encountered during these times, only they can enumerate.

    Dr. Caldwell’s influence on me was very personal. The Caldwell-McAtee relation began long before I was born. My Daddy and Frank, multigenerational Mississippians, were seminary cohorts at Louisville Seminary in the 1920s. My sister, Jane, and the Caldwell’s daughter, Anne Starling, were students together in Southwestern at Memphis in the late 1940s.

    When I needed to be enrolled in a seminary in order to get my draft board deferment as a candidate for the ministry in 1952, Caldwell simply wrote a letter to the board saying, “He’s enrolled.” In my years at seminary in the late 1950s, I had the misfortune of not having a single homiletics class Dr. Caldwell taught. I did get a glimpse of his brilliance in convocations and chapel services. The bulk of his time involved relocating the Seminary - his crowning glory.

    He taught me by example. He invited me into his office for random conversations late in the afternoon when business was done and he was enjoying one of his fine cigars. He offered pastoral condolences to me when my Daddy died during my middler year.

    Dr. Caldwell’s influence stretched far beyond the Seminary as elder statesman in Presbyterian circles, both North and South. He was elected General Assembly moderator of PCUS in 1966 and served as co-chair of the Joint Reunion Committee along with Harrison Ray Anderson. He made a powerful and pivotal speech on behalf of sending the union presbytery proposal to presbyteries at the 1969 PCUS General Assembly. In 1983, he made the motion to adjourn sine die at the final PCUS General Assembly in Atlanta at the reunion of the Presbyterian denominations.

    He was always “Dr. Caldwell,” sometimes “Dr. Frank,” and on occasion it was “Chief” as he was known by many of his students; to close friends and family, simply “Frank.” But he was only part of the deal; Fannie Wells was the other part. Together they created a whole new relational world, a new extended family filled with new meaning for hundreds students, faculty, trustees and supporters of Louisville Seminary.

    I summed up the impact they had and the essence of who they were in my eulogy at Miss Fannie’s memorial service in Caldwell Chapel on April 18, 2008.

    “It was in this world where Dr. and Mrs. Caldwell presided during four decades. Some are ‘kin’ to this world by blood and the accident of birth or marriage; others of us are ‘related’ to it by affinity and volitional choice, all of which in part shaped the persons we are, past, present and future. We became Seminary Family in this place called Louisville.

    “All that being said, it is hard to remember one without the other - Miss Fannie and Dr. Frank. Together they were host and hostess to their world wherever they were and whoever was in it:
    • She was adjective and adverb to his noun and verb;
    • She was Jeannette to his Nelson, lyrical sweet mystery of life;
    • She was Ginger to his Fred, tripping the light fantastic;
    • She was Gracie to his George, joyous exuberant laughter.”
    A multitude of thanks, Dr. Frank and Miss Fannie, for inviting us into your world!
    [1] Rick Nutt, Many Lamps, One Light: Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary: A 150th Anniversary History. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002). pp. 111-161.
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  • Durable Ideas

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 25, 2014

    Thinking Out Loud IMage "Durable Ideas" 022514Few scholarly papers have ever gotten off to a less promising start than Isaiah Berlin’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which was published originally in 1951 in the second volume of Oxford Slavonic Papers. But this modest paper, with the less than tantalizing subtitle, “An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History,” became “the little essay that could,” finding its way into all sorts of anthologies and reading lists.

    As Berlin’s essay made its way in the world, its core idea also eventually made its way into the mainstream of contemporary culture. The idea is drawn from the ancient Greek poet, Archilochus, who wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin himself uses this idea to critically reflect on Tolstoy, ultimately seeing this great Russian writer as a fox who wished he was a hedgehog. Because of Berlin’s employment of this idea, it has gained such currency in popular culture to merit a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine.

    Why? What is there about this idea and some other ideas that make them so durable?

    Recently I informally surveyed the stock of ideas that informs the way I look at the world with this question in mind. I think there are at least five qualities which durable ideas possess. And I think these qualities apply whether the ideas originally emerged in the sciences or in the humanities. For example, durable ideas have these same characteristics whether the idea was first intended to illuminate research into quantum gravity, as in the case of (Stephen) “Hawking’s Principle of Paradox” [M. Jinkins, The Church Faces Death (Oxford University Press, 1999),64-67] or in the study of semiotics, as we see in Rebecca Chopp’s theological use of the concept of “open signs” [Rebecca S. Chopp, The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God (Crossroad, 1992)].

    Durable ideas are: (1) vivid and clear; (2) adaptable; (3) they have the power to reorient our thinking; (4) they are generative; and (5) heuristic.

    1. Durable ideas are vivid and clear ideas. I would almost say that durable ideas are simple, but that probably isn’t accurate. Some durable ideas are quite complex. But a durable idea is always graspable by an attentive and alert person. Take, for example, arguably the most durable idea that emerged from Jim Collins’ Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001): get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. Anyone who has ever been a part of an organization knows what this means and (I suspect) knows implicitly how important it was. The idea is vivid (it is also visual, though not all durable ideas are). The idea is clear (and therefore memorable).
    2. The adaptability of durable ideas is probably their prime characteristic. Once the basic concept of the difference between the fox and hedgehog is understood, it can be immediately employed in any number of different social contexts and applied as an analytical tool for any number of subjects. It can be used in the most “pop” of settings (such as the oft repeated question, “Are you a fox or a hedgehog?” that substitutes as astrology for some philosophically-inclined folks) or in highly technical scholarly studies, such as Philip E. Tetlock’s brilliant study, Expert Political Judgment (Princeton University Press, 2005).
    3. Although Alfred North Whitehead condemned all taxonomies as the death of learning, and durable ideas often share something of the quality of the categorical thinking that is the essence of a taxonomy; nevertheless, a really durable idea has the power to reorient our thinking, even to shock us out of our usual way of seeing things. In this sense, a durable idea need not be an idea with which we agree. It may be more of an itch than a scratch. For example, while Reinhold Niebuhr’s idea of “moral man and immoral society” has been the flash point of arguments, and people both strongly agree and strongly disagree with Niebuhr’s framing of the question of individual and public morality, the idea’s durability lies more in its power to frame the questions than with any particular aspect of his argument.
    4. Which points directly to the fourth characteristic of durable ideas, their generative quality. A durable idea evokes, even provokes, conversation, sometimes heated, but often interesting. “Theology,” Kathryn Tanner once wrote, “is something human beings produce.” Thus she builds on a deeply Christian principle that has found articulation throughout the ages. She contributed, in her study, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Fortress Press, 1997), to a fascinating and important conversation that emerged from the earliest church and has resurfaced through the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation and through nineteenth- and twentieth-century theologians like Karl Barth (including the essays he wrote under the title, The Word of God and Theology shortly after the First World War) to the present day. Some ideas are durable because they relate so well to persistent concerns.
    5. But perhaps the most important characteristic of a durable idea is its heuristic quality. A durable idea becomes a tool for us to use to investigate a subject and to understand it better and more deeply. In the world of congregational leadership, for example, Edwin Friedman’s family systems theory brings into currency a constellation of durable ideas: “self-differentiation,” “over-functioning,” and “non-anxious presence” among them. Since the publication of Friedman’s Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (Guilford Press, 1985), a generation or two of organizational leaders have found the concepts in this book profoundly helpful in exploring and understanding better the institutions they lead. And this is true despite the fact that a variety of extremely perceptive critics have found all sorts of problems in Friedman’s work, from its tendency to bless autocracy to its monistic understanding of truth.

    Durable ideas endure because we find them interesting and useful. Among them there are big ideas and relatively small ones. I wonder which ideas you have found most durable and why.

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  • New Blood

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 17, 2014
    "Newcomers," writes Jessicah Krey Duckworth, “are angels unawares... Newcomers are the people we least expect to bear the image of Jesus." In her fascinating book, Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013) she explains how some congregations not only have discovered from the newcomers among them things about God they never previously knew, but experienced renewal.

    There are a number of insights for evangelism and congregational redevelopment in this study. Many have long suspected that the reason at least some congregations do not grow is because they do not really want new members and the new perspectives these new members bring. But Duckworth, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a former professor at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, and now a program officer for the Lilly Endowment, Inc., focuses our attention on Christian education and nurture within a congregation. Examining the "ministry of welcoming newcomers as an educator" she explores how it is that newcomers "learn to live as disciples." And she discovers what a congregation learns about discipleship through the participation in its life of these new members.

    "A newcomer's presence within a congregation," she writes, "reminds the congregation that there are people who do not yet belong. This reminder is most unsettling because the majority of established members experience their congregation as a promising context where they are nurtured in faith, hope, and love. Established members assume that newcomers experience this promise as naturally as they do." The very presence of newcomers, she explains, unsettles the congregation, raising questions about what it means to belong, about who really does belong and what must one do (think, feel, believe) in order really to belong. Long settled questions re-emerge. "Newcomers sit in the pew perhaps, but they are not yet committed to be 'my people,' and more, the congregation is not yet committed to welcoming them as 'my people.' The newcomer's question, 'Who are my people?' reverberates within the life of the people under the cross, creating an unsettling tension between question and promise."

    It is typical for congregations to offer multi-week classes for new members. Sometimes these "new member classes" function, at least in part, to resolve the tension as quickly as possible, assimilating the newcomers into the congregational ethos. But such classes may have the unfortunate, unintended consequence of short-circuiting a creative moment in the congregation's life (to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer) "to meet the Christ who is already present" in the life of the newcomer, even as the newcomer is discovering the Christ who is embodied in this particular community. A crucial, irreplaceable moment of mutual growth can be lost here. But this need not be the case.

    Duckworth invites us to do the essentially theological work of engaging the questions of "Who we are" in Jesus Christ which are raised by the presence of the newcomer. And she reminds us that we can only do this theological work by attending honestly to the question of "who" these newcomers are. This means that our rush to generalities, "We welcome everyone, no matter who they are," can serve as a way to avoid getting to know this newcomer, and can undercut the opportunity the community has to grow in Christ, and can undercut this opportunity just as surely as a community that demands as a condition of inclusion that a newcomer conform to the community's ethos.

    There is a tension between promise and question which offers enormous opportunities for growth. However: "This tension between promise and question exists only when newcomer questions are engaged within the church. Tension is created when the congregation asks the newcomer, 'Who are you?' and then listens deeply to the response." And this tension, we must remember, is a creative tension that has the power to transform our communities of faith.

    Duckworth's study reminds us that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit remains the most unsettling set of teachings in the life of the church. The Love who is none other than God meets us in and through others in the community. When we pray, "Come, Holy Spirit," we are praying for fire. And fire warms because fire burns. We do ourselves, and we do the church, and ultimately we do God a disservice when we misread the Book of Acts and the New Testament's epistles in such a way that we filter out the unsettling, earth-shaking disruption of God's presence in and through those who heard the unprecedented gospel message but who heard it with very different ears. We grow in Christ through our encounter with those in whom God is at work, but at work in ways previously unknown to us.

    New blood is as essential to the life of congregations as it is to every other human endeavor. God speaks through newcomers, inviting us to be strangers no more, but reminding us that our task is not simply to make others over in our own image.

    Jessicah Duckworth says it best, drawing on an extended metaphor she introduces at the beginning of her book: "Rather than protecting God's promises for ourselves or protecting 'our' church castles from the waves of newcomer questions, I invite congregations to encourage newcomers in asking the questions that established members also ask. When established members engage the questions alongside newcomers, all are encouraged to articulate the promise of divine kinship and figure out together what faithfulness and belonging look like."

     

    Go comment!
  • New Blood

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 17, 2014
    "Newcomers," writes Jessicah Krey Duckworth, “are angels unawares... Newcomers are the people we least expect to bear the image of Jesus." In her fascinating book, Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013) she explains how some congregations not only have discovered from the newcomers among them things about God they never previously knew, but experienced renewal.

    There are a number of insights for evangelism and congregational redevelopment in this study. Many have long suspected that the reason at least some congregations do not grow is because they do not really want new members and the new perspectives these new members bring. But Duckworth, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a former professor at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, and now a program officer for the Lilly Endowment, Inc., focuses our attention on Christian education and nurture within a congregation. Examining the "ministry of welcoming newcomers as an educator" she explores how it is that newcomers "learn to live as disciples." And she discovers what a congregation learns about discipleship through the participation in its life of these new members.

    "A newcomer's presence within a congregation," she writes, "reminds the congregation that there are people who do not yet belong. This reminder is most unsettling because the majority of established members experience their congregation as a promising context where they are nurtured in faith, hope, and love. Established members assume that newcomers experience this promise as naturally as they do." The very presence of newcomers, she explains, unsettles the congregation, raising questions about what it means to belong, about who really does belong and what must one do (think, feel, believe) in order really to belong. Long settled questions re-emerge. "Newcomers sit in the pew perhaps, but they are not yet committed to be 'my people,' and more, the congregation is not yet committed to welcoming them as 'my people.' The newcomer's question, 'Who are my people?' reverberates within the life of the people under the cross, creating an unsettling tension between question and promise."

    It is typical for congregations to offer multi-week classes for new members. Sometimes these "new member classes" function, at least in part, to resolve the tension as quickly as possible, assimilating the newcomers into the congregational ethos. But such classes may have the unfortunate, unintended consequence of short-circuiting a creative moment in the congregation's life (to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer) "to meet the Christ who is already present" in the life of the newcomer, even as the newcomer is discovering the Christ who is embodied in this particular community. A crucial, irreplaceable moment of mutual growth can be lost here. But this need not be the case.

    Duckworth invites us to do the essentially theological work of engaging the questions of "Who we are" in Jesus Christ which are raised by the presence of the newcomer. And she reminds us that we can only do this theological work by attending honestly to the question of "who" these newcomers are. This means that our rush to generalities, "We welcome everyone, no matter who they are," can serve as a way to avoid getting to know this newcomer, and can undercut the opportunity the community has to grow in Christ, and can undercut this opportunity just as surely as a community that demands as a condition of inclusion that a newcomer conform to the community's ethos.

    There is a tension between promise and question which offers enormous opportunities for growth. However: "This tension between promise and question exists only when newcomer questions are engaged within the church. Tension is created when the congregation asks the newcomer, 'Who are you?' and then listens deeply to the response." And this tension, we must remember, is a creative tension that has the power to transform our communities of faith.

    Duckworth's study reminds us that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit remains the most unsettling set of teachings in the life of the church. The Love who is none other than God meets us in and through others in the community. When we pray, "Come, Holy Spirit," we are praying for fire. And fire warms because fire burns. We do ourselves, and we do the church, and ultimately we do God a disservice when we misread the Book of Acts and the New Testament's epistles in such a way that we filter out the unsettling, earth-shaking disruption of God's presence in and through those who heard the unprecedented gospel message but who heard it with very different ears. We grow in Christ through our encounter with those in whom God is at work, but at work in ways previously unknown to us.

    New blood is as essential to the life of congregations as it is to every other human endeavor. God speaks through newcomers, inviting us to be strangers no more, but reminding us that our task is not simply to make others over in our own image.

    Jessicah Duckworth says it best, drawing on an extended metaphor she introduces at the beginning of her book: "Rather than protecting God's promises for ourselves or protecting 'our' church castles from the waves of newcomer questions, I invite congregations to encourage newcomers in asking the questions that established members also ask. When established members engage the questions alongside newcomers, all are encouraged to articulate the promise of divine kinship and figure out together what faithfulness and belonging look like."

     

    Go comment!
  • There Be Dragons

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 11, 2014

    Recently, my old friend Scott Black Johnston and I spent a morning wandering through The Cloisters at the northern-most tip of Manhattan Island. This museum, which is part of the Metropolitan Museum system, contains some of the most extraordinary treasures of medieval art and architecture to be found anywhere in the world.  

    The seven beautiful (and piercingly sad) tapestries of the "Hunt of the Unicorn" are worthy of a visit even if one saw nothing else in the museum. The tapestry titled, "The Unicorn is Found" has been read by many as a visual allegory of Christ's passion. It is extraordinarily moving interpreted through that lens. However, I have to say, the next tapestry in the series, "The Unicorn is Attacked," took my breath away when it is read Christologically. This tapestry portrays the gratuitous violence of the crucifixion as powerfully as the most graphic crucifix, placing the murderous spears in the hands of the twelve hunters (who, in the previous panel, may represent the apostles).  

    Moving from room to room in the magnificent building that looks like a Romanesque or Gothic monastery transplanted from the French countryside to the cliffs above the Hudson River, I was most struck by the recurrence of one particular figure in paintings, statues, frescoes, tapestries and other works of art: the dragon.  

    Dragons lurk everywhere in medieval art. Crushed beneath the heels of Christ or a saint, an abbot or a unidentified "wild man," dragons yield to the power of God. Rushing through the air pursued or pursuing a lion, one dragon displays the aerodynamic features of a jet in a fresco that looks like it was painted by an Art Deco enthusiastic, though the guidebook assures us that it is Spanish, ca.1200. Curled beneath the talons of an eagle, another dragon looks menacing, its tongue lapping at the air ready to spit fire, despite the bird's tenacious grip.  

    Evil, we are told again and again in medieval art, is all around us. Dangerous though it may be to mortals like us, spreading its malignancies through pestilence, warfare and crime, evil is ultimately defeated already by Christ.  

    One art object, in particular, almost teases and mocks evil, converting the good news into a message of divine comedy. A golden water vessel (known technically as an aquamanile) is crafted in the shape of a dragon. It sits on a table or shelf as harmless as a small terrier, its mouth agape as a spout, its tail curled into a handle. The fierce beast may once have breathed fire, but its fire is now quenched by the water in which you wash your hands for dinner.  

    The interplay of the art, from a faith perspective, is almost overwhelming. Yes, the dragon causes great suffering, yes, its venom and fire inflict great pain, but the dragon's end is already assured.  

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  • Rough Neighborhood

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 04, 2014

    Jim Stewart, the pastor of the Danville Presbyterian Church in Kentucky has a great sense of history. He serves one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in Kentucky. Indeed, his congregation, organized in 1784, reputedly once occupied the first house of worship for Presbyterians in Kentucky; a replica of the log church stands today on Constitution Square in Danville. Last fall while I was there preaching for the Danville Church, Jim gave me a copy of their history: Richard C. Brown's The Presbyterians; Two Hundred Years in Danville, 1784-1984 (1983).  

    There are older Presbyterian churches in the United States. The Reverend Patrick O'Connor, a trustee of Louisville Seminary, serves the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, Queens, in New York City, a church which started in 1662, and has bragging rights to being the oldest continuously serving Presbyterian Church in the United States. But as I read Brown's history of the church in Danville, a town proud also to be home to Centre College and the birthplace for Danville Presbyterian Seminary, our predecessor, I was again struck by what a rough neighborhood Kentucky was in the late eighteenth century.  

    Of course, it wasn't even Kentucky then. In those days we would have been considered Virginians. And a good deal of the "roughness" of the neighborhood was in fact caused by our own Presbyterian forebears who were not particularly polite to their church-going neighbors.  

    These were the years just before and after the American Revolution, you see. The organizing pastor of the Danville church settled his family there in 1783, the year Britain recognized the independence of the new United States of America. Feelings still ran high in the former colonies, especially toward those former colonists who belonged to the Anglican Church, the state Church of England. Reading their story, I couldn't help but reflect on how far we've come in ecumenical relations.  

    Presbyterians could be particularly hostile to traveling Anglican clergy on the frontiers of the Carolinas and Virginia. One such traveling Anglican, the Reverend Charles Woodmason, writing in his journal, complained bitterly of bothersome Presbyterians.  

    Presbyterians "interfered" with Rev. Woodmason's pastoral activities, he tells us, by changing the dates of preaching services on posted notices, hiding the keys to the Anglican meeting houses, and distributing whiskey "two hours before his services to get his congregation drunk." Presbyterians, he said, refused him hospitality (a serious offense on the frontier) and gave him false directions. "And if that wasn't enough, one entry in his journal states, 'they hir'd a band of rude fellows to come to service who brought with them 57 dogs (for I counted them) which in Time of Service they set fighting, and I was obliged to stop.'"  

    The passage that raises Rev. Woodmason's complaint to art is that parenthetical remark "for I counted them." Can't you just picture this poor Anglican preacher in a spin, besieged by ruffians and dogs, stopping to count the fifty-seven cantankerous canines?  

    I'm pleased to say that relations between the Anglican and Reformed communions has improved considerably since the seventeen hundreds. Benign neglect of the ties that bind is, thankfully, our most egregious ecumenical failing.  

     

     

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  • Lewis Sherrill: Presbyterian Pioneer for Theological Education

    by User Not Found | Jan 30, 2014
    Editor's note: for the next several months, as we celebrate the 160th anniversary of our founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive sporadic blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us

    This blog post was guest-written by Louis WeeksPresident Emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Virginia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. In retirement, he preaches and teaches, consults with churches and seminaries, and he contributes for websites including Faith and Leadership and Resourcing American Christianity.  He is the author of a number of books, most recently: To Be a Presbyterian, Revised Edition, 2010, and A Sustainable Presbyterian Future: What's Working and Why (2012). For 24 years he was a member of the faculty of Louisville Seminary.
     

    In his sesquicentennial history of the seminary, Many Lewis Joseph SherrillLamps, One Light, Rick Nutt claims that the contributions of Lewis Sherrill helped "make Louisville stand out in the practical area of theological education-the area for which it has been best known and most distinctive."[1] True, indeed! In fact, one can argue that few others have done as much as this pioneer to set the course for appropriate preparation for congregational ministry in North America.

    When we moved to Louisville in 1970 and I began teaching at the Seminary, Helen Sherrill was among the first to offer us the hospitality of her home. She had us for dinner after I preached at the Anchorage Presbyterian Church, where she had been the first woman ruling elder. All four of us were there--our son Lou who was five, second son Sid age three, my wife Carolyn, and me--all of us! Lou and Sid behaved well for the most part. Carolyn and I did too, for that matter.

    Over the mantel in her home, Mrs. Sherrill had a dignified portrait of Lewis, her deceased husband. He gazed out on us with a penetrating look, a half smile. Both kids noticed his portrait. I determined to learn more about both of the Sherrills. And so I came to appreciate Helen Sherrill pioneering in the social work arena, her lobbying for women to become students at Louisville, and her church leadership. And I contributed an article for the Journal of Presbyterian History on the contributions Lewis Sherrill made to theological education and to the church more broadly.[2]

    Lewis Sherrill was a Texan. Born in Haskell, Texas in 1882, he stayed in Texas through his undergraduate experience at Austin College (A.B., 1916). Venturing East, he came to Louisville Seminary for a B.D., interrupted as he served the YMCA and the U.S. Army during World War I. Graduating from Louisville in 1921, he married Helen a week later and soon was serving the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, Tennessee. As a pastor he read broadly and deeply in the new discipline of psychology, and he joined the vibrant Religious Education Movement in its early years.

    The faculty at Louisville recognized his gifts as well as his new area of involvement, and they called him to become a member in 1925. He taught such subjects as "Religious Education," "Church Efficiency," and "The Religious Education of Adolescents." As it did for some other members, the Louisville faculty gave him a leave for Ph.D. studies at Yale University under Luther Weigle. Sherrill and his family returned to Louisville in time for the Great Depression, which tested the resilience of Louisville Seminary as other schools and non-profits more generally. Nevertheless, he taught and preached prolifically throughout the thirties. He found time, too, to write some profound, simple books for the church: Presbyterian Parochial Schools...,(1932) Religious Education in the Small Church,(1932) Becoming a Christian(1943), and The Rise of Christian Education, (1945).

    While some in the Religious Education Movement paid more attention to the social sciences than to the Bible and the Church, Lewis Sherrill certainly was not one of them. His 663 sermons, archived in the Ernest White Library, reveal his mature struggle with the texts of Old and New Testaments, a rich comprehension of the issues confronting congregants, and a concern with the whole of the Christian life. Over time, his orthodox conservative theology yielded to a variegated ecumenical, inclusive worldview, as for many of us.

    Sherrill's later books, for which he is better known, Guilt and Redemption (1945), The Struggle of the Soul, (1951), and The Gift of Power (1955), evidence the anxiety and the retreat from a facile faith in progress that had characterized the pre-war West. Increasingly, his writing focused on the crucial nature of Christian community and congregational koinonia. All three books grew from lectures he provided for various seminaries. All exercised considerable influence on the whole generation of post-World War II theological leaders, not just Christian educators and those in practical theology. And his influence emanated from his administration as well as from his books and teaching.

    Sherrill spent 20 years as Dean of Louisville Seminary and helped, with Charles Pratt and Morton Hanna, fashion the unique "Todd-Dickey Rural Training Parish" experience for hundreds of seminarians, permitting them supervised ministry in small groups while they served small churches in southern Indiana. This "laboratory" for apprenticeship in ministry, in turn, helped characterize the distinctively practical nature of the Seminary's course for future. Naturally, such a trajectory would later come to include such elements of the of Louisville Seminary courses of study as the DMin program, the congregation-based instruction, and even the focus on marriage and family therapy.

    When theological seminaries banded together for mutual support in an increasingly bureaucratized culture of American higher education and to establish standards for the various degree programs, Sherrill made another contribution by serving as the first Executive Secretary of the nascent American Association of Theological Schools, from 1935 to 1938. He gave again as its president, from 1938 to 1940. There he made certain that supervised "field education" was part of the curriculum, as well as practical theology.

    Sherrill moved to Union, New York, for the final seven years of his teaching career, 1950-1957, the year of his death. His final two works were published while he served there. But the major work of Lewis Sherrill occurred while he served and helped lead Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.          



    [1] Rick Nutt, Many Lamps, One Light: Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary: A 150th Anniversary History. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002). p.72.

    [2] Weeks, Lewis Sherrill: The Christian Educator and Christian Experience. Journal of Presbyterian History (1973)   pp. 235-248.


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  • Bonhoeffer and the Mission of a Seminary

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 26, 2014

    The kind of education needed to lead congregations wisely and well has been debated for centuries. One can discern the battle lines being drawn in the early church. But in the modern era this battle has often broken out in the apparently placid halls of academe.

    What do those preparing for ministry need to know and when should they know it? And where should it be taught and by whom?

    In Europe, during the past couple of centuries, there was a sharp division between theological education as it was understood and taught in universities and the practical instruction for ministry provided by seminaries. The most recently published volume of the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937 (Fortress 2013) reveals Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s attitude to this division.

    The editor comments: “Like many other university students of the time, Bonhoeffer viewed the requirement of attending one of the church’s seminaries which were designed to provide practical instruction preparing students for the second examination necessary for ordination, as a waste of time. Students such as Bonhoeffer, who had been engaged in the rigorous academic work demanded by the universities, did not think that much was to be gained from this requirement. However, by the mid-1930s his attitude had changed dramatically; the changed circumstances in which the church found itself made the underground seminaries of the Confessing Church a necessity.” Virtually overnight, we learn, the seminaries went from being, as Eberhard Bethge said, “the step-child” to “the darling” of the church (2). In fact, one need only peruse the companion volumes 14 and 15 (the second of which was previously published in 2012 as Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940) in Bonhoeffer’s works to understand why both Bonhoeffer’s and the church’s attitude changed toward theological education.

    The crisis faced by the church in Bonhoeffer’s time was, of course, the rise of Nazism and its totalitarian claims, its efforts to bring every aspect of human life under the singular rule of Hitler and the political, nationalistic, racial and social ideology he represented.  For an all too brief, shining moment there was a viable resistance movement within the church, but this soon splintered then calcified, as the world plunged into war. By attending to the efforts of Bonhoeffer and others during this interlude we can learn a great deal about the purpose of theological education.

    Bonhoeffer, as leader of a seminary to provide ministers to the “Confessing Church,” adamantly refused to allow the study of scripture and theology to devolve into merely “objective” disciplines. His deep critical understanding of scripture and his astonishing knowledge of theology and the history of Christian doctrines are evident everywhere in his lectures. He is unsentimental in his views of community, staunchly anti-utopian and subtle in his analysis of social justice. He is courageous and courageously inconsistent, a man of integrity who navigated the realities of a dangerous political world deftly. All of thiscould have been said of him as a university professor. What one sees coming to the fore during these crucial years, however, is the confessional subjectivity of this remarkable teacher and his understanding of the vital roles of preaching, pastoral care, spiritual nurture, teaching, catechism and biblical study in the lives of the whole people of God.  He wants his students to inhabit a theological world, to allow spiritual realities to shape them into a particular kind of congregational leader.

    Bonhoeffer points to the incompleteness of the study of theology that refuses to be mindful of confession of faith. He also notes the fragmentary nature of a study of scripture that will not recognize that this text which we critically examine is the earthen vessel through which God’s Word is communicated. Perhaps even more significantly, Bonhoeffer’s change of attitude reflects an elevation of the life of the laity—to seeing the whole people of God (in all the complexities and contradictions of their lives) as Christ’s Body in the world.

    Each crisis bears its own gifts. The crisis faced by Bonhoeffer’s church and academy is very different from the crisis we face today. Our culture is racked by divisions of all sorts; some people seem to nurse a spirit of aggrievement in order to gain power over others who are different. Others just nurture the divisions themselves for personal and political gain. A galloping sense of entitlement and exceptionalism fans the flames of individualism, threatening even the most essential institutions. At the same time, the hide-bound entrenchment of institutions resists even the most necessary changes that would allow them to adapt, flourish and nourish human life for generations to come (the essential benefit of institutions in the first place).  I could, of course, go on and on, but analysts of our society and church have trodden this ground until it is a beaten path. Theological education that hopes to address the contemporary crisis must hold together the critical and the constructive. It must be courageously counter-cultural in insisting on the highest standards of knowledge and critical thinking. But it must be equally courageous and equally counter-cultural in insisting on the scandal of the gospel. I find that the three sentences beginning with “our culture is racked” could be more explicit and clearer overall. I find the assertions rather too abstract to know precisely which societal/cultural divisions and problems you are alluding to.

    The biggest questions facing theological education today are not related to which “delivery platforms for educational content” you may wish to choose; the biggest questions concern the very purposes of graduate-level theological education in the first place. For what ends are our students learning? The roles they will play in leading congregations must determine what they need to know and how we can best teach them (and learn with them).

    What I find most hopeful in Bonhoeffer’s story can be summarized simply. I find it hopeful that in the midst of crisis people are indeed able to change and to grow. Bonhoeffer certainly caught a new vision for theological education which led him to serve as leader of the seminary at Finkenwalde (1935-1937) and to find new ways to provide theological education underground after Finkenwalde was closed. The students who studied with Bonhoeffer were products, as was he (as are most of us who teach in seminaries today) of the university system which had previously had no time for the kind of seminary they founded together at Finkenwalde. I also find it encouraging that the seminary they founded was not a replication of the ones that preceded them. In a time that demanded uniformity of thought (under the totalizing power of Nazism) they formed a kind of Protestant monastic community whose allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ was a deliberate provocation and act of resistance. And, I find it deeply hopeful that they believed that history lies in God’s hands and that the Word of God speaks whether through us or despite us, but that what we do matters as an expression of God’s love for God’s whole world.

    As Bonhoeffer said in a sermon on Isaiah 60: 1-6: “But be consoled, do not become depressed at the darkness over the earth; it will become light, light through you.” (598)

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  • The Maladjusted Prophet

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 21, 2014

    Most of us cannot now hear a particular passage from the Prophet Amos without thinking of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The passage reads: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The prophet’s words are carved into stones memorializing Dr. King’s legacy, and, I suspect, will always be linked to the martyred leader’s ministry.

    What may not be remembered, however, are Dr. King’s fascinating characterizations of the Prophet Amos, and some others, which appear in some of his greatest writings and sermons.  In Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (a text that should be considered essential to the “canon” of sacred documents in our national life), Dr. King speaks of the role of the extremist in our culture. “I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction,” he writes, from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love…. Was not Amos an extremist for justice…. Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ….” (James Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 297; all quotes from Dr. King in this blog are from this invaluable volume.)

    Dr. King’s characterization of the Prophet Amos as an extremist reminds me of Abraham Heschel’s portrait of the prophets, as persons with a divinely gifted apprehension of evils among us to which we have become insulated to the point that we “may be dying without being aware of it.” “The prophet’s word,” Rabbi Heschel once wrote, “is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.” (The Prophets, New York, Harper & Row, 1962, Vol. 1: pp. xii, 16) Amos, like the other prophets, feels the world at a higher intensity than most of us. All of the prophets are as Dr. King observed, “extremists”: extreme in their sensitivity, extreme in their unwillingness to accept the harm done to others as “standard operating procedures.”

    In several other writings, however, Dr. King uses another term to characterize the work of the Prophet Amos and others: “maladjusted.” Dr. King is being deliberately ironic in these writings, taking a term used to dismiss behaviors as odd or pathological and breathing into that term a new and deeper ethical understanding.  Dr. King observes that there is a technical sense in which the word “maladjusted” can be usefully employed. In psychological terms, none of us want to be thought “maladjusted,” he observes. “But there are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination,” he writes, “I never intend to adjust myself to the inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.”  (Washington ed./ King, “The Current Crisis in Race Relations” 1958, p. 89)

    A prophet, like the Prophet Amos, according to Dr. King, is and ought to be “maladjusted” to the injustices of the age. Amos’ maladjustment led him to cry out, “Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

     In various sermons and addresses across the years, Dr. King included Lincoln and Jefferson in his list of the socially and ethically maladjusted, along with Jesus of Nazareth. But, in his last sermon, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, on the eve of his assassination, Dr. King does something very interesting as well as prophetic. He seems to assume that his audience has heard his previous comments about the maladjusted prophet, and he becomes even more personal, even more intimate in his invitation to those listening to his address. “We need all of you,” he says. “And you know what’s beautiful to me, is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel…. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.’” (Washington, ed./King, “I See the Promised Land” p. 282)

    Abraham Heschel, in a fascinating chapter in Volume 2 of his study of The Prophets, reflects on “Prophecy and Psychosis.” Interestingly, he titled a section of this chapter, “The Prophets are Morally Maladjusted.” He writes: “The prophet is a person who suffers from a profound maladjustment to the spirit of society, with its conventional lies, with its concessions to man’s weakness…. The prophet’s maladaptation to his environment may be characterized as moral madness (as distinguished from madness in a psychological sense).” Rabbi Heschel’s analysis helps us understand the genius of Dr. King’s ethical insight, and, by extension, of Dr. King’s invitation to us all. Heschel writes: “The prophet claims to sense, to hear, and to see in a way totally removed from the normal perception, to pass from the actual world into a mysterious realm, and still be able to return properly oriented to reality and to apply the content of his perception to it. While his mode of perception may differ sharply from the perceptions of other human beings, the ideas he brings back to reality become a source of illumination of supreme significance to all other human beings.” (Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. 2, 188)

    Let us give thanks for the maladjusted prophets with whom God has blessed us. And let us pray that we may share in their spirit of maladjustment for the sake of the reign of God among us.

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  • Fatal Events

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 14, 2014

    Please file this blog under "Rants."

    The commercial for a new pharmaceutical wonder - marketed directly to the public - touts its remarkable healing powers complete with heart-warming video.  Then, in the audio disclaimer, we are warned of the drug's unfortunate side-effects.  "Ask your doctor if Winklemyoxydromide is right for you. Side effects, which are usually temporary, may include vomiting a weird purple gelatinous substance while whistling annoying commercial jingles, uncontrollable shouting of the words "Huxtable  wobbles," scurvy, dropsy, oopsy, and doopsy.  Some subjects have experienced a fatal event while taking Winklemyoxydromide.  See your physician immediately if you experience any of these side effects."

    Hold the phone!  

    I ran the commercial back using the replay function on that clever handheld television control device of which the U.S. Constitution guarantees every male citizen of this country exclusive possession.  There it was again!  

    "You may experience a fatal event," stated with the insouciance of the soulless.  

    I turn to my bewildered spouse, who is doing something constructive, though I can't recall what.  

    "What does that mean," I ask.  "A fatal event?"  

    "Death," answers Debbie.  

    Death.  

    Since when did death become a fatal event?  

    Can we really imagine Dylan Thomas raging, raging against the fatal eventuating of the illumination?  

    Those of us of a certain age will remember a comedy routine by the late George Carlin, in which he talks about the tendency in American culture to use language to avoid meaning while simultaneously increasing the syllable count.  Turns out that not only was Carlin brilliant and hilarious, as well as stunningly profane, but also prophetic.  The fatally-eventuated (aka, late) Carlin chronicled the inflation of terms that over time become increasingly less clear.

    "I don't like words that hide the truth," Carlin says, "I don't like words that conceal reality."  

    Carlin took as his prime example the term "shell shock."  Memorable, simple, clear, descriptive (two alliterative syllables), the term "shell shock" was coined in the First World War, Carlin said, to describe the condition of soldiers who were psychologically scarred by the terrors of war.  "The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap."  By the time of the Second World War, "shell shock" had become battle fatigue, "four syllables now," Carlin said, and it doesn't sound so bad, maybe a condition you could cure with a nice nap.  During the Korean War, "shell shock" had become "operational exhaustion," eight syllables and the condition "sounds like something that might happen to your car."  In the Vietnam War, "shell shock" became post-traumatic stress disorder, eight syllables PLUS a hyphen: unimaginable pain, Carlin says, "buried under jargon."  

    His humor lifts up for us the obfuscation masquerading as euphemism that has become so prevalent in contemporary society that we hardly notice that we ought to call it by its original term:  lies. 

    So, back to my rant.  The ad (if it should be made at all, and frankly I think it is a bad idea to market pharmaceuticals directly to the public) should say: "If you take this drug, your pimples might clear up, but you also may die."  

    By the way, I guarantee the next euphemism for death will be “post-existential episode” (more syllables, a hyphen and even less clear).

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  • Overcoming Tribalism

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 07, 2014

    By now we've all seen the relatively new research about the aversion very small children have to people who differ from them. "Stranger aversion" runs just as deeply in society, it seems, as its opposite "hospitality" runs in our faith.

    Jared Diamond, in his brilliant study of traditional societies, "The World Yesterday" (New York: Penguin, 2012), observes that aversion to, suspicion and distrust of strangers is a common element in most traditional, small scale societies. Based on five decades of personal, in-depth research among small tribes as varied as the Dani (from the Baliem Valley of the New Guinea Highlands) and the !Kung (from Africa's Kalahari Desert), Diamond analyzes many aspects of their cultural norms, one of the most fascinating of which relates to a frequently observed aversion to strangers. Clearly Rousseau missed something pretty important on this score.

    Diamond observes that "speakers from the Central !Kung dialect" refer to speakers of their own dialect (relatively speaking, a very small and localized society) as "true, good, honest, clean, not harmful" persons.  They have a word specifically constructed for those who speak their same dialect. They also have a specific term for those who do not share their tribal dialect: "bad, strange, harmful." Diamond writes: "Like members of other small-scale societies, the !Kung are apprehensive of strangers. In practice, they succeed in finding some kin term to apply to almost every !Kung whom they meet. But if you meet a strange !Kung and can't discover any relationships ... then he is a trespasser whom you should drive off or kill."

    Of another tribal group, the Nuer, Diamond comments that strangers are either attacked, particularly if they belong to the rival tribe, the Dinka, or they are "merely despised (if they belong to any other type of people.)" From their perspective, there are really only three categories of humanity: their tribe (whom they trust and defend); the Dinka people (whom they hate and with whom they war); and all other people in the world (whom they despise and look down on).

    During his extensive travels and research in New Guinea, Diamond has observed a similar phenomenon among traditional societies there. The concept, indeed, of friendship, in the sense of "people we like" and with whom we "share interests," is foreign. Instead one finds commonality on the basis of "whether one's group is politically allied with the other person's group." At one particularly self-revealing moment in Diamond's account, he says, referring to the concept of friendship: "I was astonished to realize that I had been making an incorrect assumption of supposed human universals that It hadn't even occurred to me to question."

    Diamond's analysis of traditional societies provides valuable insights into our common humanity and fascinating ideas, for example about child-rearing, that we would do well to study, perhaps even imitate. But when it comes to stranger-aversion, the resonance between the insularity and tribal-affiliations of traditional societies and certain aspects of modern culture and politics in the United States are disturbing.

    I confess that there are times when I am surprised, for instance during an election cycle, of the similarities between bitterly divisive political ads in the three regions where we have roots: Kentuckiana; Georgia; and Texas. I'm sure the same can be said of political ads in virtually every state of the Union, but I know from personal experience that in all three of these "markets" I have seen political ads that reassure the viewer (often in a deep, well-modulated, but "folksy" voice): "The people of [fill in the name of your local tribe] are hard-working, family-minded people. We use our common sense. We go to church on Sunday, we love and care for our children and our elders, and still value the things that matter." By implication, people from other tribes and regions are lazy, irreligious, lacking in common sense, don't love their families, don't care for children or old folks, and have rotten values. There's a version of "thinking local" that is really just an expression of tribalism, in other words, and it is neither very attractive, nor productive, nor conducive to our basic humanity.

    Reading Diamond's study, I reflected anew on one of the most formative books of the twentieth century, Martin Buber's classic I and Thou. This remarkable book shaped the thinking of generations of theologians, philosophers, cultural students and political thinkers, its terminology entering the mainstream of our speech. Buber challenges us to move beyond making "objects" of other people, projecting onto them our assumptions and stereotypes or simply using them to promote our own agendas, to see and hear and understand other persons as living subjects, as "thou" in relation to "I." By so doing, we reflect the fundamental "I and Thou" relationship between God and each of us.

    There seems to be an act of intellectual empathy that precedes and makes possible the emotional empathy needed to transcend a tribal aversion to strangers. Once we can fathom that every other person, however different, however distant, is also made in God's image, indeed, that the image of God is most fully reflected in our being in relationship, then we are empowered to imagine what it means to be both human and different. There's no real virtue in loving those who are just like us and who serve our interests, at least according to Jesus of Nazareth; virtue lies in loving those who are different, even potentially troublesome. Maybe Jesus knew a thing or two about overcoming the destructive power of tribes. 

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  • Yet Another Auld Lang Syne

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 31, 2013

    The threshold of each New Year is decked with tinsel and anticipation. Celebrationis the dominant theme. But as anyone who has lived through several New Years knows each year like each day brings its own troubles and challenges. These lie before us unknown scrabbled among the joys to come. How we negotiate the unknown aspects of yet another auld lang syne says a great deal about us and our faith. 

    Late one damp English night last summer, Debbie and I were taken on an after-hours tour of St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, by a member of the Military Knights of Windsor. An inscription we saw at the tomb of King George VI spoke to us of the faith necessary to deal with the future. 

    King George VI was the reluctant monarch who guided Britain through the Second World War. His brave story is told in the movie "The King's Speech" in which Colin Firth plays the part of the King. The inscription at his tomb comes from a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins, and it was quoted by the King in his radio broadcast on Christmas Day 1939, the first Christmas of the conflict which would become World War II. 

    The inscription reads: 

    "I said to the man

    who stood at the

    gate of the year,

    Give me a light that I

    may tread safely into the unknown

    And he replied

    Go out into the

    darkness and put your

    hand into the hand of

    God, that shall be to

    you better than a light

    and safer than a

    known way."

    When I was young I did a lot of camping, hiking and canoeing, much of it in the Boundary Waters region of Minnesota and Canada. We would trek into the wilderness for weeks at a time, portaging from one lake or stream to another across rocky trails. On one of these trips our guide allowed the group to experiment a bit with our rudimentary navigational skills, and we ventured off our map and wound up in a swampy region beset by clouds of mosquitoes and the biggest, most vicious flies I had ever seen. Even the faint trail disappeared as darkness fell. I still recall the fear I felt testing each footstep, longing for a little more light to see us safely to higher ground where we might pitch camp for the night. But it was the hand of our experienced guide that got us through our misadventure and back on a safe path. 

    Doubtless we have all been on a path when the one thing we wished for was light. But the King's inscription reminds us that there is something even better. 

    Whatever this New Year brings - and I hope it brings you great joy - we can be sure it will bring challenges and even sorrows as well. May God's hand guide you through the unknown.   

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  • The Christmas Miracle

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 17, 2013
      

    The miracle of Christmas has been described so beautifully by so many, from the authors of the gospels to contemporary poets. Here is a classic description and its modern echo: 

    Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), one of the greatest theologians of the early church, preached a sermon, "Christmas, the Word of God Cannot be Explained by Humanity." It remains one of the most evocative descriptions of the miracle of Christmas. 

    "And now, with what words shall we praise the love of God? What thanks shall we give you? God so loved us that for our sakes, God, through whom time was made, was made in time; and God, older by eternity than the world itself, was younger in age than many of God's servants in the world; God who made humanity was made a man; God was given existence by a mother whom God brought into existence; God was carried in the hands which God formed; God nursed at breasts which God filled; God cried like a baby in the manger in speechless infancy -- this Word without which human eloquence is speechless." 

    Madeleine L'Engle, famous for her classic book, A Wrinkle in Time has written some moving reflections on her faith, including The Irrational Season from which this Augustinian echo comes: 

    "Cribb'd, cabined, and confined within the contours of a human infant. The infinite defined by the finite? The Creator of all life thirsty and abandoned? Why would he do such a thing? Aren't there easier and better ways for God to redeem his fallen creatures?" 

    However we try to articulate the Christmas event which theologian Karl Rahner described as "the miracle of the possibility of the free gift," the incarnation remains beyond even the best gifts of our greatest wordsmiths. 

    In the presence of the Eternal Word made flesh all humanity falls silent. 

    Merry Christmas!  

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  • An Improbable Union

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 13, 2013
    By Ashley Schaffner, with assistance from Rick Nutt 

     

    Editor's note: for the next several months, as we celebrate the 160th anniversary of our founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive sporadic blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us

    In 1853 a group of brave Presbyterian leaders launched the Danville Theological Seminary on the campus of Centre College in Danville, Ky. The seminary, like nearly every other seminary, barely survived the Civil War and the period of reconstruction that followed. In 1893, another Presbyterian seminary was started in Louisville. The Louisville seminary was made up mainly of southern Presbyterians, while the Danville Theological seminary was mainly northern Presbyterians. During a time when few thought the union of, or even cooperation between, these two groups was possible, leaders of the two schools joined forces in 1901 creating the only seminary jointly sponsored by both sides of the church. 

    Let's back up a bit to the middle of the 1895-96 school year at the seminary in Louisville. The endowment income was not as robust as seminary leaders expected, and churches were failing to provide sufficient gifts. To ease the financial pressure, the faculty recommended that aid no longer be offered to students, a decision that greatly decreased the number of applications and ultimately the student population. From 1896 to 1901, the student body had dwindled more than 50 percent (from an enrollment of 67 to just 28). 

    Post war struggles in Danville and the declining enrollment in Louisville had both seminaries in dire financial straits. It became clear that divided Presbyterianism in Kentucky could not support competing schools, and it was then that the seminary in Louisville began exploring merger with 'that other struggling Kentucky Seminary' in Danville. 

    Early talks eventually led to plans of consolidation, with both boards approving the merger in the spring of 1901. The Louisville board approved unanimously, although board member B.H. Young stated his judgment that the plan was "not satisfactory or wise." 

    The plan called for joint ownership and control of the new seminary in Louisville. The Board of Directors would have 24 members. The PCUS Synod of Kentucky elected six members, the PCUS Synod of Missouri elected six and the PCUSA Synod of Kentucky elected 12. Since the PCUSA did not have to elect people who were members of the synod, the school could receive wider ownership. The plan took into consideration the anticipated objections of those who saw the merger as being on 'shaky theological ground,' noting that both seminaries existed for the same purpose of educating people for ministry, and that the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of both churches were the same. The PCUSA synod approved the consolidation plan easily. 

    The PCUSA General Assembly voted in favor of consolidation without incident, but the proposal generated substantial opposition in the PCUS from those who feared cooperation with northerners who were considered more liberal (both theologically and socially). They reasoned that the Old School Calvinism of the PCUS could be compromised by the joint control of the training of the ministers. With questions of safeguarding the traditions of the PCUS muddying the waters, it became unclear whether the merger would actually ever happen. 

    When the PCUS General Assembly met in 1901, the Committee on Theological Seminaries, by a vote of six to five, recommended in its report that the denomination not approve the consolidation of Danville and Louisville. The majority sympathized with the difficulties of both seminaries, but, among other reasons, thought recruitment would only be more difficult if the seminary were put under outside control (outside the synod). 

    Thankfully, the issue finally came to a close when a substitute motion that included approval of the merger passed by a vote of 120 for and 56 against. It was clear that the General Assembly was not completely on board with the merger, especially when it made this declaration: 

    "That while the Assembly may not wholly approve the wisdom of the consolidation of the two seminaries, yet, in view of the fact that there was practical unanimity in the Synods of Kentucky and Missouri as to the measure, and because of the safeguards thrown about the compact, this court hereby imposes no bar to such consolidation, but gives its assent thereto, leaving the entire responsibility thereof to the Synods of Kentucky and Missouri." 

    In other words, "It's your baby. Good luck."

    A couple of protests were filed against the vote, but to no avail. And thus, Danville Seminary and Louisville Seminary were joined in 1901 as the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of Kentucky. This was also the start of the modern-day Seminary's reputation of being a 'bridge' between North and South. Though the phrase was meant almost literally back then, the metaphor has changed over the decades. The modern-day Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary is still a bridge: a bridge between theological differences, a bridge between the academy and the church and a bridge between races and faiths.  

    Ashley Schaffner is director of communications at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Rick Nutt is professor of Religion at Muskingum University and author of Many Lamps One Light, a 150th Anniversary History of Louisville Seminary.

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  • Flannery's Gift

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 10, 2013

    "Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work.... Please help me dear God to be agood writer and to get something else accepted.... I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace. Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing." [Flannery O'Connor, A Prayer Journal (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2013).

    Mary Flannery O'Connor got what she prayed for. That was the tragedy and the blessing of her life and her art.

    While working on her Master's degree at the University of Iowa, the young native of Savannah, Georgia (whose spoken tongue was all but indecipherable to her teacher, Paul Engle, when she asked him if she could be admitted to the Writer's Workshop) wrote an eloquent and moving journal of spiritual growth, now published as "A Prayer Journal." Page by page, traversing the calendar from January 1946 to September 1947, we are drawn into the inner life of a writer Thomas Merton refused to compare with the likes of Hemingway and Sartre, but with "someone like Sophocles." [Robert Giroux, "Introduction" to Flannery O'Connor, The Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985), vii, xv. ]

    "I want to be the best artist it is possible for me to be, under God," she writes, "Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You." (39) At one moment she revels in the sense of serving as God's instrument to express an early published story, at another she laments her mediocrity, a mediocrity not only she feels in her art and craftsmanship, but in her humanity and love of God. "Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself; yet I see myself so equal to it that it is impossible not to throw it at myself." (22) "I don't want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ," she prays, "I want to feel. I want to love. Take me dear Lord, and set me in the direction I am to go." (35)

    Surely O'Connor is not the only young writer who has prayed, "Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel." (18) But the field of pious aspiring novelists narrows considerably to very few who might kneel with her to pray also: "I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from." (7) "I would like to be intelligently holy." (18) "Please help me to push myself aside." (3) And:"give me a strong Will to be able to bend it to the Will of the Father." (5)

    She yearns for purgation, for the cleansing refining fire of God's love, to burn away the dross and to leave her pure and true. "What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that -- make mystics of cheeses." (38)

    O'Connor discerns a connection between suffering and sublimity that runs through Christian devotion. She prays for God to forge in her the beauty of virtue and art for which she believes she was created, and she prays for God to give her the courage to submit to the pain required for such beauty to be forged. She knows that only God's grace can make her open herself to God's creative work, and that only God's grace can sustain her through the course God sets for her. "We are dependent on God for our adoration of Him, adoration, that is, in the fullest sense of the term. Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You for even this I cannot do for myself. Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You.... Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore You." (8-9)

    What O'Connor did not know during the year in which she wrote these passages, during a year in which she also struggled with seminars and short stories and the start of her novel, Wise Blood, was that just before the Christmas of 1950, some three years after the close of this journal, on a mid-winter train journey home from Connecticut to Georgia, she would suffer her first attack of lupus, the disease at the hands of which she would suffer for the remaining thirteen years of her life, restricted to the family farm near Milledgeville, Georgia. This woman who prayed for an ascetic revolution, but also insisted that she didn't want to be a nun, nevertheless did undergo a kind of rural anchorite hermitage where "revelations of divine love" were crafted and recrafted to the incessant squawks of peacocks. W. A. Sessions, closes his introduction to O'Connor's prayer journal by observing: "Paradoxically, those years of suffering became the most fertile for her writing, and she produced some of the greatest fiction in American literature. Ironically, the prayers of her journal had been answered." (xii)

    I suspect that O'Connor might have quibbled with his adverbs. Her prayers, however, were answered. 

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  • Leadership and Attentiveness

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 03, 2013

    Over a decade ago, psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote some exceptionally helpful resources on "emotional intelligence." Leaders and students of leadership have learned a great deal especially from the essays on this subject which he contributed to the Harvard Business Review, such as "What Makes a Leader" and "Leadership That Gets Results." When I taught leadership, management and finance in Texas, I found Goleman's approach to flex between different leadership styles helpful for demonstrating to students how effective leaders draw on a variety of models of organizational leadership, shifting from one model to another depending on what is most needed in a particular moment with a particular organization. Goleman understood that the leader's "emotional intelligence" guides him or her to know what sort of personal touch or perspective or response is required at which moment.  

    In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, Goleman contributed new insights building on his earlier work in an essay titled, "The Focused Leader." Those responsible for leading organizations will want to read the article for themselves so I will not provide a comprehensive summary of his ideas. But I would like to zero-in on one key idea. You might consider this a follow-up on a theme introduced recently in the blog, "Would Jesus Multitask?" in which I explored attentiveness and mindfulness, subjects Goleman also discusses in his essay.  

    The "focused leader," according to Goleman, possesses sufficient self-understanding to be able to focus on the needs of others (within the organization and those served by the organization). People who are self-aware, those who have self-knowledge, are the most capable of relating well to others. As Goleman explains, those who are cognitively and emotionally empathic, those who demonstrate empathetic concern for others, are able to find an appropriate level of distance from the feelings of others (while also understanding those feelings cognitively and emotionally) so that they can respond wisely and well as leaders, and are able to resist merely reacting, i.e. being drawn into emotionally high situations such as conflicts.   

    Goleman describes this balance between feeling with others (empathy) and finding the appropriate emotional distance from them as the "intuition-deliberation mix." Those who get this "mix" just right are able to keep an organization moving forward while staying in relationship with the organization's internal and external constituencies. Those who get it wrong either lose touch with constituents or become so distracted by the anxiety or hostility of constituents that they can't lead. He provides a helpfully nuanced way to re-conceptualize some key insights many of us learned from Family Systems Theory. However, it is at the point of his analysis of strategic thinking that his insights really come home for me. 

    "Any business school course on strategy will give you the two main elements: exploitation of your current advantage and exploration of new ones," Goleman writes. He uses the terms "exploitation" and "exploration" in a technical sense familiar to those who have done strategic planning. He continues: "Exploitation requires concentration on the job at hand, whereas exploration demands open awareness to recognize new possibilities." 

    Both exploitation and exploration are essential to imagine innovative approaches and make them a reality on the ground. But exploitation, focusing as it does on making the most of the immediate situation, "is accompanied by activity in the brain's circuitry for anticipation and reward." As such, exploitation is reinforced by staying in the familiar course. If we did it "this way" last time and the time before that, and it worked well enough and we felt good, then we feel an internal motivation to keep doing it that way over and over in the future. However, in a rapidly changing environment (such as the one in which every organization exists today), exploitation of current advantages may not be what is needed "next," at least not if we want an organization to thrive into the future. 

    Exploration is required for successful innovation, but exploration requires a very different mindset from exploitation of current advantages. "When we switch to exploration," Goleman writes, "we have to make a deliberate cognitive effort to disengage from [the routine of exploitation] in order to roam widely and pursue fresh paths." Exploration not only does not feed the anticipation/reward circuitry of the brain that exploitation does, coasting along "in a familiar routine," it even creates some anxiety because it pushes us out into the unknown. And it is precisely here that a really problematic collision occurs that can prevent an organization from moving forward. 

    In order for exploration to be stimulated, leaders must be mentally, emotionally and (I would add) spiritually able to reflect creatively. What keeps this from happening? Goleman asks. "Sleep deprivation, drinking, stress, and mental overload all interfere with the executive circuitry used to make the cognitive switch [from exploitation to exploration]. To sustain the outward focus that leads to innovation, we need some uninterrupted time in which to reflect and refresh our focus." However, if the anxiety of an organization's internal or external constituency is sufficiently high and constituents are highly reactive, they may seek to keep the organization in the (relatively-speaking) more comfortable mode of exploitation. They may try to find ways to sabotage their leaders' capacity to explore and innovate by undermining the mental and emotional resilience of leaders. The long-term health and vitality of the organization can be held hostage by those with a strong interest in exploiting the present, unless leaders find ways to claim the time and space to rest and play, and sustain the good health necessary for generative and recreative thought.  

    Strategic thinking is a lot closer to surfing - sensing how and when and where to position yourself on the surfboard to ride a promising wave while staying aware of what is going on in the larger environment - than it is to producing a massively footnoted volume on the nature and destiny of your organization. Goleman helps us figure out at least a few of the most important things to pay attention to while we're paddling out to catch the next big one. The most important factor for good strategic thinking, however, according to Goleman, may simply be keeping our balance!  

    The essay to which I refer in this blog is, Daniel Goleman, "The Focused Leader," HBR (Dec. 2013), 50-60. Goleman's new book is Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (HarperCollins, 2013).

     

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