Skip to main content

Faith and the Consolation of History

James Hudnut-Beumler
Vanderbilt Divinity School
August 24, 2012


Over the last two years I noticed a trend. Worse yet, I noticed I was part of the trend: deans of divinity schools have been dropping like flies. First Wake Forest, then Chicago, then Duke, then Harvard, then Yale, and now Vanderbilt Divinity school will replace a dean who served a decade or more with a fresh leader.
Perhaps because I’m the last of my generation to go, I’ve been called by a number of search committees and headhunters to offer perspectives on what is needed in a position like mine and to suggest names. The most often-repeated question that has caught my interest and bears our reflection at opening convocation is one that came in several formulations, but it usually went like this: “What should a divinity school do and be in the eclipse of the Protestant mainline church that created it and how should our new dean face the challenge of the demise of the mainline Protestant churches?” I remember thinking to myself, “And you’re the person trying to recruit someone to do this job?”
I will tell you in a minute how I answered these questions, but there were different valences behind them, for people see different things in the ruins of an old building. Some seemed to want to just study what was past, content to treat divinity education as the study of what people used to believe. Others seem to blame us—the faculty— for not caring enough about the real church. And some seemed to want to make sure that the new dean of their school would lead a revival of the mainline, as though that is all it would take to return us to 1958, the year of my birth and the high point of the Protestant establishment’s grip on 20th-century culture.
Here is what I said:
The university divinity schools have already changed and have thrived, mostly, by meeting the diversity of students—nondenominational, Pentecostal, Catholic, evangelical, Orthodox and, yes, mainline Protestant, that come to them wanting to learn ancient traditions about the love of God and love of neighbor. And then the graduates do many different things, all of which give me hope because they don’t insist on the boxes that we were born into. If there is to be revitalization in the so-called mainline churches, it’s not going to come by forcing students and graduates into their grandparents’ institutional expectations, but by finding a liberative common ground.
“Ah, yes,” my callers would then say. “And have you any names to suggest?”
Well, because I’m an American religious historian, a child of the 1950s, and a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the hardest-hit traditions, these matters have continued to percolate. So I want to use the time remaining to me in this talk to explore the relationship between the hopes of the people who built this building in the then newly renamed divinity school and ourselves. I want to talk about what I’ll call faith and the consolation of history.
We seek consolation when we are disconsolate, and it is my experience that not only in those calls I just talked about, but also in the traditions that once predominated in the culture—Methodist, U.C.C., Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ , and American Baptist—disconsolation and wonder at membership loss reigns.
In 1958, 52 out of every 100 adult Americans were affiliated with a mainline Protestant denomination. Presidents, Congressional leaders, business leaders and Supreme Court jurists came overwhelmingly from this religious subculture. It is difficult today to appreciate how institutionally powerful the mainline was in the middle decades of the 20th century. Today the equivalent number is 13 percent of adults, but so many of them are older that the 10 percent level is just around the corner. The two other demographic giants of 1960, the Southern Baptists and the Roman Catholic Church are also experiencing stress, with the SBC in membership loss free fall and the Catholic Church treading water only because of immigration. Among native-born Catholics, membership patterns replicate mainline Protestant loss of interest in each successive generation. Even in the historically African American denominations, the official numbers may not change from year to year, but the numbers in the pews are on the wane. Yes, you might say, but young people are leaving those old churches for more relevant, vital, spirit-filled emergent churches. And again I would have to burst your bubble. When you put all the losses and gains together, organized religion isn’t doing as well in this country as it used to do, and it’s not because our nation has grown up morally either.
If you aren’t at least a bit disconsolate at this point, then I’m not being true to my New England Puritan roots in this jeremiad. My critical point is this: Americans of any faith cannot be as sanguine about the prospects of organized faith expression for healing what ails them and their nation’s soul as were the people who dedicated this chapel in 1960. They lived under the threat of the atomic bomb in a deeply segregated society. Yet, as events were to unfold, faith leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Thomas Merton, William Sloan Coffin and James Lawson would use the shared resources of the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant traditions to address these wounds. People ask me where today are the great faith leaders like the ones I just mentioned. I say I think I’ve met some in the students I’ve taught, but the more relevant question is: Where are the people who will follow today’s great leaders?
Students who paid attention in “Formation of the Christian Tradition” may have caught the allusion to Boethius in my talk’s title. Boethius went from success to success under the emperor Theodoric the Great. He was named a Roman consul in 510, but then he went from the honor of having his two sons named consuls in 522 to being placed on death row for displeasing the emperor in 524. Before he was executed for treason the next year, he wrote one of the most famous books of the Middle Ages, The Consolation of Philosophy.     
The book itself reads something like Job; life is not fair. One day you’re up; the next you are dead. Love, fame, fortune, family, wealth, good looks, they all go. In fact, it is to Boethius we owe the term “wheel of fortune.” And what does philosophy tell him that lasts? Only God and goodness. You can’t get God to help you protect that other stuff, either. You can only submit to God’s glory and sovereignty and love. The only safe base is with God.
And that, of course is not far off from the message of Jesus’ words of the Sermon on the Mount and Psalm 145, is it? Can any of us cause our lives or our heights to lengthen through worry? No. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life … strive for the Kingdom of God and for God’s righteousness….” So said Jesus.
And so I, a historian of modern American religion look at this mess that we have inherited and made of modern American religious life. This glorious mélange of faith groups and practices, of praise choruses and Christian rock, of incense and chant, and friends who are “spiritual, but not religious” and I ask: Does history offer any consolation? Not a cheap answer that everything will be like I want it to be, or like the U.S. Catholic Conference, or the Presbyterian General Assembly, or the even the Mennonite Central Committee wants it to be again. No, I search history to see whether there is hope for faith on earth, to be consoled by the knowledge of hope and here is what I find:
While the fortunes of particular forms of religion have varied, faith in a living God survives.
Temples and cathedrals have been destroyed, but a worshipful sense in the God of creation lives on.
Indeed for at least a millennium and a half, the most repeated Psalm on earth is the full version of Psalm 145 that reminds Jews especially, and Christians, and Muslims, and all who have ears to hear, that God is Good and righteous and endures through all generations, worthy of thanks and praise.
If you new students disappointed your loved ones by coming to a divinity school at a time when religion was less popular than in former days, I have this to say—maybe your loved ones were hoping for the wrong things out of a higher education.
I find my hope in this divinity school in a curious 30-plus-year-old phrase in our purposes and commitments statement in the catalog: “The divinity school is committed to the faith that brought the church into being, and it believes that one comes more authentically to grasp that faith by a critical and open examination of the Hebraic and Christian traditions.” This statement reminds me that we don’t place our bets on any one form of the church, but on the faith that
  • brings you to your knees, and
  • makes you sing out in gospel praise, and
  • causes you to dedicate your life to ancient Scripture study, and
  • leads you help other addicts believe in a higher power.
History offers us no guarantees that American religious institutions will thrive. Instead it confirms Boethius’s wheel of fortune. But to quote another ancient source, history also confirms that “faith, hope and love, these three abide.” And that’s enough consolation to go on; enough to start a school year … and enough upon which to stake our lives.
So let us begin again.