A Monthly Blog Dedicated to New Experiences and Practices in Faith Development
Editor’s Note: In the coming months we will post a blog each month in hopes of deepening our experiences in Christian education and faith development. We will seek to share insights on how one might grow in her/his relationship with Christ. We will use a variety of methods but each month we will visit with a professor from a different university or seminary to explore what is happening on his/her campus in relation to faith development. In addition to learning about what is happening in theological education we will also ask for recommendations on what folks are reading at their seminary.
See below as an imagined interview that might have taken place in 1954 with Dr. Edwin O. Kennedy, Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
DT: Dr. Kennedy, thank you for sharing some of your valuable time with us in getting to know what is going on at Union Theological Seminary.
EOK: My pleasure. I love to talk about Union.
DT: You certainly have a wonderful perspective of life at the seminary, because in addition to your academic role as Professor of Practical Theology, you have the added responsibility of being the Seminary’s Secretary who supervises the alumni program, the enlistment of students for the seminary, and coordinator of the activities of the Seminary’s Board of Directors, Faculty and Student Body.
EOK: It is a unique opportunity for me to express my love and gratitude for an institution and group of people that I love and respect dearly.
DT: Give us a general feeling of what is going on at Union these days.
EOK: I think we are experiencing a golden moment here at Union. The faculty is simply amazingly gifted in so many ways. Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich have made our seminary the center of neo-orthodox and liberal theology, and they are accompanied by such great theological minds as Frederick Grant, John Macquarrie, and Daniel Day Williams.
DT: That is certainly impressive, but do you worry that this might be a bit intimidating for someone wanting to train for the ministry?
EOK: Not at all. Each of these men are so approachable that they make faith a community experience. What’s more, their emphases are integrated into thoughtful intentiality for the practical realities of ministry. In addition, we have in our midst those who have been called to the local church and its disciplines. George Buttrick and Paul Scherer are two of the finest homileticians anywhere, both still heavily invested in the preaching ministry of the local church. And there biblical scholars like James Muilenburg who makes the Bible come alive.
Frederick Buechner, a budding young author who Dr. Buttrick brought to the seminary because of his curiosity about his Christian calling, stopped to see me after his first semester and talked about the spirit of Union – of the majestic wisdom of Tillich and Niebuhr. But he was most mesmerized by Muilenburg. He said of his introductory Old Testament course:
“Up and down the whole length of the aisle he would stride as he chanted the war songs, the taunt songs, the dirges of ancient Israel. With his body stiff, his knees bent, his arms scarecrowed far to either side, he never merely teaches the Old Testament; he is the Old Testament. He can be Adam, wide-eyed and halting as he named the beasts – “You are . . . an elephant . . . a butterfly . . . an ostrich! – or Eve, trembling and afraid in the garden of her lost innocence, or David sobbing his great lament at the death of Saul and Jonathan, would be Moses coming down from Sinai . . . You don’t just hear about the Bible, you enter it!”
Although Union certainly emphasizes the academic side of graduate studies, we never forget our commitment to creating competent ministers for the church-at-large.
DT: How does this faculty, so heavily invested in academia, do that? How can they get past the intimidation factor?
EOK: Well, for one thing while they have exhausting schedules, they keep regular office hours to have time for conversations and dialogues with our students. What’s more, they intentionally have the students into their homes. For instance, Reinhold Niebuhr has several evenings each semester when students join him and his lovely wife Ursula in their apartment near campus. When the Niebuhrs are in town they love having the students in their home, and the students love them, even to the extent that they often call Dr. Niebuhr “Reinie”!
And the Niebuhrs constantly introduce the students to the culture available here in the city, taking them to art galleries or Yankee Stadium or acquainting them with distinguished guests. I’m told that recently the Niebuhrs had students in to meet the poet, W.H. Auden.
DT: It sounds as if Union is much more of a community than one would think.
EOK: I think so. And it is part of my job to create opportunities for such community to happen.
DT: Switching the subject a bit, what are the issues challenging the students these days in terms of theology, social justice and the likes?
EOK: I think it would be fair to say that Union is struggling with the effects of the Cold War on the country in general and the church in particular. Union was intimately involved with the philosophical and ethical conflicts of World War II. You are well aware of the Seminary’s relationship with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his agonizing decision to leave Union and return to Germany. That experience still affects us. In fact, we have Bonhoeffer’s room set aside for students and visitors to visit and consider the implications of his faith.
But then, there is Dr. Tillich himself. Through the work of the faculty here we get him out of Germany just in time to save his life and brilliant mind. Then there is our friend Abraham Joshua Heschel, the amazing Jewish rabbi from the Jewish Seminary right around the corner, who is a regular guest lecturer here. He, too, escaped Germany. Both of these men felt the agony of those days in such personal ways.
Thus the war’s wounds and still-unhealed scars weigh heavy on our hearts and minds. And then to complicate these matters, there is the shadow of the nuclear holocaust that covers us all. What is the world to do, what is the church to do with the all-consuming power now available to so many countries and leaders?
In one of the recent lectures on campus, a minister said, “Long ago the New England preacher, Jonathan Edwards, talked about ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God. Today,” the pastor continued, “we have to worry about the power of God in the hands of angry sinners.”
Nuclear armament is an issue of consequence here. But there is also the emerging question of race relations. How do we relate to persons of color and ethnicity? These are some of the things that we are trying to discuss theologically so that our ministers can be equipped to assist their congregations in these difficult matters. It is a traumatic time in so many ways, but it is also one of unparalleled opportunity for people of faith to step forward.
DT: In seeking to do that, have you developed any new strategies or teaching techniques?
EOK: We still emphasize the lecture method, but more and more we are working with our faculty to provide forums for give-and-take dialogues. In doing that we are attempting to develop methods by which conversation can take place around an issue where knowledge and understanding are shared without biases that end in polarization. We want our students to be able to comprehend both sides of matters, so that they can come to more thought-out conclusions.
DT: Related to that, I suppose, is the question of what the students are reading these days.
EOK: Niebuhr’s books are still being read and discussed here. His writings on political realism, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics, Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History, Christianity and Power Politics, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, and others are still potent in their emphasis on being realistic about politics, especially in regard to the church.
The first edition of Dr. Tillich’s systematic theology has become a most talked-about resource as well as his most recent, Courage to Be.
Ministerial students are devouring Dr. Buttrick’s books on ministry — Jesus Came Preaching: Christian Preaching in the New Age, Christian Fact and Modern Doubt, Prayer, Christ and Man’s Dilemma, So We Believe, and his latest, Faith and Education.
Dr. Scherer’s books on preaching are also popular, with his Lyman Beecher lecture series captured in his book, For We Have This Treasure, being most popular.
DT: Dr. Kennedy, thank you so much for your willingness to share Union with us. We are much the better for it.
EOK: It was my privilege. Please feel free to call again . . .