May 22, 2017

The Danger of Being Extremely Religious

            Paul’s conversation with the Athenians at the foot of the Areopagus is one of the most interesting and challenging scenes in all of Scripture. He has worked his way through the city, the philosophical and religious epicenter of Greco-Roman culture, and his teaching provokes an opportunity to engage proponents of a pantheon of deities.

            Putting aside his usual citation of the Hebrew Bible, with his interpretation of how Jesus fulfills the prophetic teaching, Paul uses one of their own poets and religious longing to proclaim his message of resurrection. Luke Timothy Johnson describes this encounter portrayed in Acts 17: 16-31: “Here truly is a fundamental step, an affirmation of human culture not as sufficient in itself, but as a worthy vehicle for the truth of the Gospel toward which, unwittingly, it was striving.”

            So . . . religious longing is good; however, what if it becomes a practice of hedging all bets, lacking specificity? It was the altar to an unknown god that pressed the Apostle’s attention, especially since “he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (v. 16). This was especially offensive to him because he did not believe that gold or silver or stone, “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (v. 29b) could depict the One he worshipped. Only humanity could reflect the living God, especially the one appointed to give “assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (v. 31).

            Paul’s respectful approach granted him a hearing among the intelligentsia of the city, and some received his message. His meeting with adherents of other ways of faith provides a template for our contemporary interfaith work. It calls us to question how we respond to the structures and practices of other religions. Often we cannot see our own idolatries as we allege them in the traditions of others.

            This week the United States President is visiting the major sites of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Only an approach of courtesy and consideration will prove constructive in a time of competing religious visions of the world.

            Clearly, Paul believes that God honors human searching for the holy. Humans are built for worship; our sinful nature prompts us to worship the wrong things usually. Culture shapes faith, and some worship the cultural myths of American Christianity rather than the God who calls to repentance. Regularly, politicians conscript civil religion to support their particular view of the nation. In a religiously plural nation, this is both offensive and dangerous.

            Paul concludes his teaching with his encompassing claim about the resurrection. God has reset the whole landscape by raising Jesus from the dead. It is this unprecedented new event that gives us insight into God’s intent for the whole of creation.

            Being extremely religious is good when it is expressed with humility, acknowledging that the whole truth about God always eludes human perception. Yet, presumptuous religion remains idolatry. Barth warned that Christianity is vulnerable to that, also.

            Molly T. Marshall

May 15, 2017

Sent Forth, with Blessing

     Saturday dawned bright and crisp, perfect for outdoor pictures and an academic processional. Graduation day is the joyful culmination of years of perseverance and sacrifice, for both the student and the family and friends that supported their long obedience in the same direction. It makes visible the reality that God continues to call leaders for the church and other fields of service.

     Commencement celebration has been a tabernacle event for Central over the past several years as we have moved from church to church for the graduation ceremony. This year, our wandering ceased, and we were able to host the service in our own 21st Century Learning Center on campus.

     Though we were packed in a bit, we rejoiced in being home for the school’s 115th commencement. Now that the most recent building project has been completed, we have space for our varied traditions: the blessing of women graduates; celebration of alum achievement; and post-graduation reception. With the addition of Smith Courtyard, we can spill out of the building into a lovely outdoor venue.

     As the multicultural dimensions of our school have grown in recent years, we have been intentional about putting this diversity on display. A Chin youth choir and ensemble provided special music for the ceremony; translation for the whole service was offered in Korean; and we heard Scripture in Burmese, Korean, and English.

     Our commencement speaker, the Reverend Doctor Pamela R. Durso, Executive Director of Baptist Women in Ministry, challenged the graduates to think deeply about the call to friendship as their mode of ministry. God’s befriending of the world has been displayed in self-giving, and those called in Christ’s service must follow the same pathway.

     One of the privileges of being President is to confer the degrees. The Provost, Board Chair, and I share this task, but I get to say the words that ritualize the new status the graduates hold. As I was offering the traditional words for the Master of Divinity students, it struck me that no one can possibly “master Divinity.” We can only be grateful recipients of the grace upon grace we have received. Divinity masters us, not the other way around.

     Our faculty is superb in nurturing the very best in our students, and their character is essential in shaping these graduates for effective service. For years to come, they will remember examples and insights from these gifted scholar-practitioners. As the rabbis say, “to remember the words of a teacher is a holy thing.”

    We send the class of 2017 forth with blessing. We pray that God will guide them toward places where they might participate in the Reign of God, as the resurrecting power of the Risen Christ is making all things new.

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares leaders for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.