I am reading or re-reading Berkouwer’s Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, and am struck by how abstract all this theology was, or is. For instance, Barth can talk about election of the Jews without referring to the Holocaust, and neither he nor Bekouwer seem to have the slightest awareness of the revolutions sweeping the world in the fifties and sixties. I don’t think it is possible to work on theology today without grounding it in the materialism, violence, and diffidence that so characterizes this postmodernist era. No one would pay attention. Yet when we were reading Barth and Schleiermacher that first year, we enjoyed immersing ourselves in all their abstractions and Germanic obliqueness. How to get the intellect in touch with reality—that became the problem for a long time.
This is where the liberation theologians, feminists, and theologians from opporessed minorities have helped us. Feminist theologians like Rita Brock have helped us think about the importance of the resurrection in expressing life in the face of oppressive powers. (Sallie McFague, another YDS grad, has been a major influence for me and many, especially in thinking about the environment.) Cornell West and our own Justo Gonzalez are among the host of thinkers from racial/ethnic minorities who helped us rethink basic Western perspectives on theology and ethics. So we are in a better position today, and we don’t need to lament the loss of the Barths, Tillichs, and Niebuhrs as many do.
This leads me to a second learning through all these years. When we were demonstrating in downtown New Haven in sympathy with the sit-ins, I thought of our solidarity as one of common belief and moral purpose. So for a long time I was involved with others in civil rights and the neighborhood movement carrying this belief. Then I experienced some vindictiveness and destructive behavior on the part of liberals. Some of it was directed against me personally and some of it was just anti-social. I began to realize that one’s ideology is not actually a very good determinant of one’s humanity. On the positive side, I developed friendships with conservatives whose political views were anathema to me but who seemed more genuinely likable and humane. The negative aspect is that many liberals are deceitful and untrustworthy. But I did come to realize that we cannot really judge others just because we disagree with them. When you work in community groups, you have to develop a certain blindness to human weakness and disagreeable traits and an appreciation for the contributions of others, no matter how trivial. If the cause you are working on together is worthwhile, that is what matters, and the fact that some of your coworkers are defective human beings has to be tolerated. All of us are limited, and as Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, even as we oppose destructive powers, we realize we incorporate some of their destructiveness in our attitudes and convictions.
It never really bothered me that higher education did not prepare us for the reality of the institutions we had to deal with during our lives. It is typical of young people to find their idealism destroyed when they come up against institutional inertia and arrogance. Au contraire, Messrs. Bultmann, Brunner, Tillich and the Niebuhrs did describe sin in many of its devious appearances and if we weren’t paying attention, so much the worse for us. We were assumed to have the gifts to cope with human frailty. All right, I admit I got run over a few times by these institutions. In one case it took me several years to recover. But as I surveyed the battlefield of defeat, I realized that my experience was a mere shadow of what others have undergone. And also I had resources: the love of my family, my faith in God, and a network of friends who were going to affirm and support me. So the horrors of working in the real world had some strong compensations, and still do. The failure of the church renewal movement morphed into a local ecumenism and interreligious relationships that are very healthy.
Another significant change during our lifetime is the status of the churches. Remember how we worked on church renewal during the sixties and seventies? Harvey Cox, Gibson Winter, Eugene Carson Blake, Bishop James Pike, Charles West, Paul Van Buren–these were our heroes as some of us struggled on the local level to create communities with discipline and the kind of confessional faith modeled by Bonhoeffer. We found the institutional church more difficult than we realized. Because of a series of disastrous experiences, I surrendered my orders to The Methodist Church and became a layman again. This proved to be a blessing for both parties, since the church hierarchy did not have to put up with my eccentricities, and I could work in church agencies with an awareness of contemporary theology without having to maintain the kind of piety expected of the clergy.
And when the mainlines suffered the “transposition” described by Martin Marty, I myself welcomed it and still do. Anyone who has lived in the South knows the weight of the culture rested on the mainlines. But once we were relegated to third place behind the evangelicals and the Catholics, we were freed from that burden. We discovered the size of the institutional church is inversely related to its capacity for social justice. The smaller the churches become in size, the more possible it becomes that we can be the Body of Christ. As a United Methodist, I learned to admire the Church of God, the Mennonites, Quakers, and Jews for the way they witness to their faith with integrity. Yes, it is true that if you participate in a local church you still encounter many who expect the church to be respectable in the culture, but that is why we have a confession in our liturgy (contra Marcus Borg, who thinks confession unnecessary in order to be in mission).
Finally, I affirm some things that did not change since our time at YDS. I learned some skills in biblical exegesis that I have used for fifty years and still use. These came from Paul Minear and Brevard Childs. I learned some ways of thinking about psychology from James Dittes that helped me a lot when working in the all-too-human church. Paul Vieth, overlooked at YDS because he was not an intellectual giant, did understand the importance of educating adults in the local church. And like many of you, I suspect, I learned from HRN to think about what is not being said as we consider theories and conceptions in theology and ethics. Like many of my classmates, my admiration for these teachers was as much for their genuine humanity as their intellectual brilliance.
Lou Marsh was a personal friend. We had many late-night conversations. He gave Clarice and me a couple of LPs of operas that stimulated us to become opera buffs. Lou exemplified for me what it is to be a human being. He lived, loved, and died out of a deep passion for justice and the well-being of others. We are blessed to have known him.
I think we have learned a few things since 1961. One of them is that we all have power and that no matter how diminished the status of the churches, no matter how powerful Wall Street and the militarists seem, we and others can subvert their power and articulate an alternate reality. That, I have come to believe, is the real role of those of us in faith communities: to demonstrate an alternate style of life that contradicts the style of death imposed on us by the political and economic forces of our time.