Preach About God

When I have occasion to visit a seminary or divinity school and talk with students I am impressed that they seem to know why they are there and what they believe. My recollection is that I enrolled in order to figure out what I believed and whether or not I believed at all. I showed up for class with a pathetically thin theological and ecclesiastical resume. I had grown up in a family that attended church regularly, went to Sunday School, youth fellowship and summer camp, was impressed with the ministers I met along the way but never gave much thought to the content of the Christian Faith I had inherited. The first indication that there was something there worth thinking about and struggling with came in a required college religion course. The professor, Charlie Spotts, a crusty, old Evangelical and Reformed Church minister, had a reputation for pulling the rug out from under what little religion entering freshman had by introducing his students to critical thinking about the Bible. For most of us it was the first challenge to our unquestioning literalism. Professor Spotts explained that it didn’t happen at all the way Genesis tells it. Creation took a long time: the world and all life evolved over millions of years. The Bible is not a book about history, biology, geography. It is a book about God and human beings. Students reported their new insights to dismayed parents who then wrote to the college president demanding that the entire religion department be fired. I was intrigued. My parents, and my Presbyterian pastor assured me that Spotts was right. Suddenly, in the context of reasoned, critical thinking this stuff mattered more that it ever had and, of all things, was interesting.

It’s humbling to acknowledge but that’s all I brought to divinity school. It certainly wasn’t a fully developed sense of call to ministry. I wanted to discover what the Christianity I had inherited was all about.

The Divinity School of the University of Chicago was the locus of Process Theology in those days. Having no idea what that meant but curious, I signed up for a course taught by the distinguished Process Theologian on the faculty. I confess that I had no idea in the world what he was talking about in his lectures, which I simply did not understand. After giving up taking notes, I listed my favorite baseball players and their life-time batting averages. Sometimes I made a list of vocational options instead of ministry which clearly was not for me. I made an appointment to talk to him and, as respectfully as I could, told him that I was utterly lost and hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about. His response was to tell me, curtly, to drop the course.

Three teachers saved me, kept me engaged, began the process of helping me figure out what I  believed and whether it was important enough to contemplate giving my life to it. Joseph Sittler taught the required introductory course in theology for entering students. I had never met anyone like Sittler. Engaging, literate, eloquent, funny, his lectures were equal parts scripture, history, literature – Walt Whitman and always T.S. Eliot, hilarious anecdotes from life in Hyde Park, and the fortunes of the Chicago White Sox who, in fact, won the American League Pennant that year, played the Dodgers in the World Series, and lost. The required text which is still on my shelves, was Swedish Theologian Gustav Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Church. The course and that text were an answer to prayer: the content of the faith, articulated thoughtfully, open to the world, in a way I could actually understand. Sittler was an unapologetic churchman as well. Divinity School faculty preached at weekly services in Bond Chapel and I looked forward to Sittler in his Lutheran ecclesiastical garb, a scholar-minister of the Gospel at work.

James Nichols taught a course on Modern Church History. Nichols was a Presbyterian and for the first time I was thinking about the depth and breadth of the Christian story in the context of world history. He was quiet, not nearly as effusive as Sittler, his lectures were dry but loaded with interesting content. I looked forward to them. I started to become hooked.

The third and most unlikely teacher was a visiting professor from Cambridge University, J. S. Whale. Whale’s lectures were part history and part theology and part pastoral practice. He was witty, engaging and downright entertaining particularly as he commented on American life and the American Church from his British academic perspective. I was so intrigued with J. S. Whale that I ordered and devoured his little book, Christian Doctrine, eight lectures on the fundamental beliefs of Christianity which he had delivered to the Cambridge University community. It wasn’t on the reading list and my Process Theology friends assured me that it was a waste of time. I loved it. I got it down from the shelf this week, noticed the personal inscription I had asked for and he graciously provided, and the underlined first paragraph of the book which helped me understand why I was there and has helped me ever since.

“A young curate called on William Stubble, Bishop of Oxford, to ask him for advice about preaching. The great man was silent for a moment and then responded, ‘Preach about God and preach about twenty minutes.’…The Christian preacher has many opportunities but one theme. So too, all lectures on Christian doctrine are concerned from first to last with the reality, nature and purpose of the living God.”


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