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Mordecai Johnson

A few years ago when I read Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition, I posted a series of blogs about the book, particularly the various figures he discussed.  At the time this was the third book I'd presented in this way, also having done so with Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy and David Brooks's The Road to Character.  Dorrien's book was his attempt to do something he thought lacking in the history of American religion--discussing the various movements in black religion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led to the development of a distinct theological tradition of the black social gospel.

Now I've begun reading his second volume in this history, Breaking White Supremacy, which takes us from the 1920's up to Dr. King.  Part of Dorrien's aim is to show how King stood within a rich, well-developed tradition.

Mordecai

The first figure discussed in this new volume is longtime Howard University president Mordecai Johnson.  As with many of the figures Dorrien writes about I have previously known either nothing or very little about them.  Reading about Johnson fascinated me.  

Johnson's mother Carolyn named him after the character in the Book of Esther, believing that her son has a special mission in life.  He used education as a means of advancement.  At the University of Chicago he experienced modern science, liberal theology, and socialism, merging both with his Christian faith and throughout his life advocating that Christians should never fear knowledge.  Otherwise the faith would face a credibility problem.  Dorrien writes, "In Johnson's experience education was liberalizing and empowering, and he wanted as much as he could get." 

At Rochester Seminary he soaked up the social gospel theology of Walter Rauschenbusch.  Johnson wrote in a letter, "Religion is going to be a great factor in the new adjustment.  There never was such a reformation as we are now on the verge of.  This religion reemphasized with new aspects to suit the modern needs will bring forth great moral and spiritual engineers.  God grant that I may be one of these among my own people!"

In his early preaching career in West Virginia, he advocated three themes: "'the brotherhood of man,' the necessity of Christian unity, and the Christian mission to build the kingdom of God."  He preached, "If the church is to live there must be a Christian movement to give reverence to human personality, a movement to use all the forces of modern knowledge and technology to build a social order which will raise and enlarge the life of every human being."

Also, "A selfish human being is a monstrosity, is a monstrosity.  Any human being who lives for himself and himself only is a monstrous creature.  The very foundation of his life is the basest of all human qualities--ingratitude.  For a man to be selfish in such a world as this, he must shut his eyes and his mind and his heart to all the great things that he has received from the human race."  Selfishness was the root of sin, even racism and lynching ("the most diabolical crime in the universe").

In 1922 he spoke at Harvard's commencement and gave a powerful speech on  American racism.  Dorrien summarizes "Johnson still believed that Christianity and American liberal democracy--'our American faith'--offered the best and most light.  But the actually existing United States betrayed both."

When Johnson went to Howard, as the first black president, he wanted to build a major and influential institution that would promote blackness.  His time was filled with controversies, and some viewed him as an overbearing leader.  But he succeeded in building a black intellectual powerhouse that trained leaders of the civil rights movement.  

He was an early supporter of Gandhi, believing that the movement against Jim Crow had much to learn from him.  He viewed Gandhi as "the epitome of true religion."  He spent forty days in India in 1949.

Democracy is "the highest friendship that we have known."  It must be built upon respect for the human dignity of all people.   Moreover, anyone who opposed the sacred worth of the individual was not a Christian. 

Johnson praised King: "You have led your people on a victorious pathway seldom tried in human life.  You have shown them how to mobilize the fullest powers of their souls for effective resistance to evil and who to overcome humiliation and abuse without violence and without hatred in deed or in words."


The Wounding and Healing of Desire

The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and EarthThe Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth by Wendy Farley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this book in 2016 and gave it only three stars. Last autumn I was looking over part of it to use in a sermon and what I read really resonated, in a way I didn't remember it resonating before. So, this winter I've re-read the book and this time I found much that I really liked. I highly recommend it if you are someone who has been deeply hurt and are looking for healing spiritual practices?

2016 review
How do we respond to and spiritually mature through our suffering? A worthy contribution to spiritual theology standing in the tradition of some of the great mystics like St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, Simone Weil, etc.

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Christ the Heart of Creation

Christ the Heart of CreationChrist the Heart of Creation by Rowan Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Despite philosophical training in metaphysics, I'm not all that interested in theological metaphysics. My basic metaphysical approach is the organic philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and the traditions of Process philosophy and American pragmatism. But when it comes to theology I approach the language as metaphorical and shrouded in mystery and have no real impulse for the sort of nuanced language that can occupy theological metaphysics.

Which means this book was a serious stretch for me. Because Williams is very interested in the very nuanced and complex metaphysical Christological language in the church's tradition. I stuck with the book and found a few interesting points and gems here and there (the appendix on Wittgenstein was maybe the most interesting). But really I just spent most of the time unconvinced that anyone should spend time caring about these details.

It was also a stretch because my process/pragmatic worldview begins with a very different set of premises than Williams. Things he assumes again and again as starting points were to me the very things that needed to be argued for, for I often disagreed.

And Williams is not an engaging writer at all. I have enjoyed the theological metaphysics of John Zizioulas for instance, but his writing is very engaging. The same cannot be said for the former archbishop. Though this phrase did make me cackle (and text a Lutheran friend): "Luther was not exactly a monophysite."

So, the benefit of reading this book was stretching myself and reading a very different approach and style than my own.

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Quest for the Living God

Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of GodQuest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God by Elizabeth A. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Johnson is a captivating writer of theological prose. This book could serve as an excellent introduction to the major trends in theology the last eighty years, but it is also richer than that. In this time period modern theism has been replaced by a wide diversity of new, global perspectives on God, brought together in conversation in this volume. For more some sections reviewed people and movements I was already deeply informed about, while other chapters were fresh and surprising and gave me long reading lists for the future.

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Moltmann on Nationalism

Jurgen Moltmann calls the rise of national a setback for humanity.   

Of course he has personal experience growing up under the Nazis.  An excerpt:

He challenged Christians to reject nationalistic ideas.

"The church of Christ is present in all the people on earth and cannot become 'a national religion'," he said.

"The church of Christ ecumenically embraces the whole inhabited earth. She is not a tribal religion, nor a Western religion, nor a white religion, but the church of all humanity."

He added: "The church of Christ is not national, but it is a church of all the nations and humanity."


Praying As Believing

Praying As Believing: The Lord's Prayer And The Christian Doctrine Of GodPraying As Believing: The Lord's Prayer And The Christian Doctrine Of God by Timothy Bradshaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my second time to read this insightful theological study of the Lord's Prayer. I read it first in the mid-Aughts and used it then to shape a youth Sunday school series. This autumn I re-read it while preaching a sermon series on the Lord's Prayer. The book uses the phrases of the prayer to explore a wide-range of theological concepts, mostly centered on the nature of God.

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The End of Memory

The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent WorldThe End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World by Miroslav Volf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A profound theological exploration of remembering and forgetting.

Volf was at one time a prisoner of the communist forces of his native Yugoslavia, where he underwent interrogation that was a form of psychological torture. What should he do with those memories? What should all people do with memories of pain, trauma, and suffering?

A deeply personal book that draws from the rich wells of the Christian tradition, literature, and philosophy, Volf considers how we should remember and remember well and when and how we should forget, including how forgetting is connected to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Volf's ideas are filled with hope and healing for a broken world. I found the book not only intellectual stimulating, but personally helpful.

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