Hamline News

Faith Creating A Foundation

faith article

We worship together at Commencement. We cite John Wesley’s charge to “Do all the good you can.” We begin every event with an invocation.

But we never talk about faith.


If faith is, as Professor Mark Berkson wrote in one of the following essays, “the foundation of relationships among humans,” then it is meant to be explored, studied, and most of all, shared.

So we asked six professors to share their thoughts on faith. They wrote about their own experiences, as children and parents, as neighbors, as teachers. They discussed how they see the understanding of faith changing in America. They wrote about their relationships and their communities, and the role faith plays in their lives.

Faith in a Pinch
By: Earl Schwartz

My parents weren’t all that familiar with the role of the Crucifixion in Christian doctrine, but they had an inkling of its implications in at least one respect: Both believed that recognition of another’s suffering is the one revelation that can make a difference in a person’s life. My father’s reasoning on the subject was, like most everything about him, understated and direct. He would simply insist that it all came down to the biblical admonition that Israelites never forget the bitterness of their own enslavement. Anyone who remained conscious of having been treated cruelly would certainly recoil from embittering the lives of others. He saw this consciousness as the beating heart of biblical faith.

My mother, on the other hand, would cite the story of an unpleasant old woman who shared an apartment building with her and my father when they were first married. The woman proved an irresistible target for harassment by young children. On one occasion, when pushed to the limit, the woman remarked to my mother, “You know, when you pinch me, it hurts me, too.” My father’s revelation came from the Book of Exodus, my mother’s from this woman, but both learned the same lesson.

Over the years, my parents were commonly seen as embodying many virtues, but first among them was their extraordinary faithfulness, which they would attribute to this shared revelation. This was their faith, articulated through faithfulness to the “pinched”—beginning with each other, but extending to their children, their brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, friends, hitchhikers, fences, petty thieves, bank robbers—a mighty mix-multitude that came their way. Sometimes this faithfulness seemed to go beyond all rational bounds. On one occasion a pair of painters, left alone in my parents’ house, made off with a large jar of change (accumulated each year to divide up among the children and grandchildren at Hanukah) and some jewelry. At first, the painters denied that they had committed the theft. My parents, all advice to the contrary, allowed them to complete the work, even as the men became increasingly unguarded in their comments. When the job was done the painters were paid and went their way. One night, not long after, a panicked young woman, the girlfriend of one of the painters, appeared at my parents’ door, stammered an apology, unloaded the stolen items, and hurried off. I can only imagine how many other JeanValjeans they confounded.

It wasn’t that they were pious, much less saintly. Consider, after all, the company they kept. I wasn’t kidding about the bank robber. I think he and his wife split up around the time he was sentenced, but my parents stuck with him through two federal prisons, and my father was one of his sponsors when he was released. My parents, to be sure, never robbed banks. They had their limits. They were honest, hardworking, practical people, but it seems to me that it came to this: When you pinch a bank robber it hurts him, too. “Never with just his solitary cross,” the great Swedish writer Par Lagerkvist reminds us, “...always with those of the two criminals. Always with the three crosses together.”

My mother, in a way, even extended this faithfulness to objects—provided they were secondhand. She loved the challenge of buying used goods, but unlike more prudent collectors, she followed her own inscrutable tastes. Among other things, she was unable to leave behind any item that she associated with being Jewish, no matter how superficial or odd the association. A Star of David on a plate or a Hebrew word on an ashtray was enough. When asked to explain why she would buy such things—things that were often, by any conventional aesthetic standard, eminently worthy of abandonment—she would explain that she couldn’t bring herself to leave them with strangers. These homely plates and ashtrays were stray sheep, in need of a safe home where they would be understood and appreciated for what they were.

My brother, sister, and I grew up in this world of parabolic faithfulness; faithful, and yet largely untarnished by a clinging need for reciprocity. You could see this in the way our mother cared for our father. As his health declined, she was unfailingly by his side, but when he died, she quickly surveyed her horizons and moved on. She seemed to me completely free of the corrosion that comes from the self-reproach of “could have beens” that never were. She knew how to hold on, and having held fast, she knew how to go on. This was the household in which I was raised.

According to the Book of Numbers, God has a household of sorts as well. It comes up in connection with Miriam and Aaron’s complaint that their brother Moses was unworthy of the preeminence he enjoyed (Numbers 12:1ff). Moses, we are told, held his peace, refusing to strike back at his embittered kin, but God shows no such restraint, and rises to his defense. You may be prophets, God tells Miriam and Aaron, but not a prophet like Moses. “In all My house,” God says, “he is the faithful one.”

Until recently I had taken the “faithful” in this passage to refer to Moses’s faithful service to God. “Your grumbling,” I understood God to be saying, “shows a lack of faith in Me.” However, I recently noticed something new. God’s reproof is provoked by Miriam and Aaron’s infidelity towards their brother—a faithlessness Moses refuses to return in kind. It is in this context that God responds, “In all of my house, he is the faithful one”—faithful to me, as he is to you.”

I learned to think of faith that way in our house, too.

Faith, Hope, and ... Economics
By: Jenny Keil

1 Peter 3:15 “… Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…”

Let’s be honest. Much of the news today is not good. Maybe it’s the cold, gray, winter weather; maybe it’s the never-ending reports of more lives lost in Iraq. For many of us, it might be something much more personal: a young mother fights breast cancer, a student mourns the loss of a parent, the painful anniversary of a child’s death passes by. There are plenty of reasons, it seems, to despair. And yet, when asked to reflect on the role of faith in my life and how it impacts my work at Hamline, I gladly agreed. I can’t write from a place of scholarly expertise—I teach economics, not religion. I am simply a Christian who takes the lessons of my faith seriously. I write today because every time I think about my faith, I am filled with… hope.

And more than anything, during this season of my life, hope is what I long for.

My faith journey is not terribly remarkable, nor unique. I was raised in a relatively small Methodist church in Michigan. I would characterize my Christian upbringing as solid and dependable, and perhaps just a little too comfortable. My early understanding of faith might more accurately be described as “habit or ritual.”

Today, my family and I are members of a very large, suburban Lutheran church that is very different from my childhood church. This church is alive! No habit or ritual here, no resting comfortably in the pew (there are no pews!); having faith now means taking action, and believing we can make a difference in the world. So we try. We feed the hungry. We clothe the naked. We share because it is the right thing to do. We sing crazy songs (no hymnals!) and we talk often about how to carry our faith with us into our Monday through Saturday lives. This means if I am serious about my faith, I can’t keep it a secret.

Until this article, my experience sharing my faith at Hamline has been limited to private conversations and two public talks. I spoke at Hamline chapel in 2003 and I visited with students at an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship meeting in 2005. But Faith, Hope and Economics? Is it possible that my faith impacts my teaching?

I had the privilege of teaching a first-year seminar this past fall to a very bright group of students, Hamline’s Presidential Scholars. We studied what might be considered a very unliberal [sic] arts topic: money. We took an interdisciplinary approach to several complex questions: What do the world’s major religions tell us about money? How much money is enough money? Should we be alarmed about the rate of poverty in the United States? What we discovered as a common thread among major religions is the call to care for those who are less fortunate. It seems that with respect to helping others, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists are more alike than they are different.

We also looked for role models in the business world and found many positive examples of individuals with extreme wealth and a heart to share that wealth with those who are less fortunate. Our initial explorations indicated that great wealth and the Christian values of generosity and caring were not necessarily an either/or proposition.

All economics courses begin by distinguishing between positive statements (describing the world as it is) and normative statements (describing the world as it should be). While the facts are interesting and the tools of economics are powerful, the fun in economics happens when normative questions are asked. Of course, talking about how the world should be is impossible without an underlying set of beliefs.
This is where my faith comes in. I believe that as a Christian I am called to be kind and to help those in need.

Teaching about the power of the free market is only half the story. Teaching in a liberal arts setting, and remaining true to my Christian beliefs, compels me to ask normative questions about how great wealth should be shared. Often, the answers do not come quickly or easily, but at least the questions get asked. In fact, pondering difficult questions is what makes economics so interesting and relevant.

And it is listening to my students’ answers that brings me back to hope. Hamline students often speak passionately about the need for change and their willingness to work hard to achieve it. My hope for them is that they will use the tools from their education to make a difference in the world. Find a way to work a job that you love, to support yourself and your family in a comfortable way, and then be generous. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Be optimistic about the future of our nation, and always be ready to give an answer for the hope that you feel.


Beyond What You Imagine: My World of Islam
By: Fahima Aziz

I have been asked to write about Islam. I hesitated and had to think about this task—a simple task that seems painfully difficult and complex after 9/11. September 11th changed many people’s attitudes and evoked many misconceptions about Islam. Soon after 9/11, a number of churches and universities invited me to speak, to “explain” Islam to America—the subtext of these explanations often being a desire to disperse these misconceptions. Today, I will present fundamental humane principles of Islam which, not surprisingly, are common to most major religions of the world and talk about my experience of Islam as I know it now and as I have lived it as a young girl in Bangladesh.

My first memories of Islam have to do with the religious festivals which I celebrated with my family, which consisted of my parents and my twelve brothers and sisters in Bangladesh. These festivities were interspersed with exciting and captivating stories about Prophet Mohammad and the early days of Islam. My first conception of God or Allah was a kind of force, a luminous and powerful life-giving energy. This light-energy completely lacked corporeal substance, and thus was neither male nor female, and, of course, it did not belong to any race. The Holy Book Qur’an says, “God is beyond what you imagine.”

Thus I am deeply grateful that my first ideas of God were formed by Islam, because I was enabled to think of the Highest Power as one completely without sex or race, and thus completely unpatriarchal. This is a powerful concept in the hands and hearts of those Third World women who are, like me, both Muslim (followers of Islam) and feminists. We begin with an ideal of a deity who is completely above sexual identity, and thus completely above the value system created by patriarchy.

Whereas my childhood knowledge of Islam came from cultural festivals and stories, nowadays I turn to the Qur’an (the Arabic word meaning the recital) for a deeper understanding of the reliable and flawless verbatim words of God, a record preserved in Heaven, revealed to Prophet Mohammed by Angel Gabriel in 610 A.D. Muslims believe Prophet Mohammad was the true messenger of God sent to bring people back to the religion Islam, first preached by Prophet Abraham (the founder of Islam). I remember being taught the Five Pillars of Islam by my parents, which are unfaltering faith in Allah (Shahada), prayers (Salat), charity (Zakat), fasting during the month of Ramadan and pilgrimage (Hajj) to the Sacred House in Mecca. I also remember the resolute teaching of the oneness of God and about God’s mercy and compassion.

The first pillar of Islam comes naturally and easily to me. I believe in God and live a life of a Muslim, not for the fear of Hell, not for the desire for Heaven but solely for God’s eternal beauty. My upbringing helped me to view God as a loving and compassionate creator. This to me is the essence of Islamic spirituality and Islamic humanism.

I was taught that a Muslim should pray five times a day—a special way of reciting verses from the Qur’an. I was also taught if one couldn’t do it five times, try three, and if that’s not possible, then at least once a day. If one’s schedule of the day does not permit one to pray, then remembering Allah once, as a good Muslim, is enough. This resilient element of Islam was evident in our lifestyle: My parents prayed five times a day, but we children were somewhat relaxed about this religious duty, and did not feel compelled to pray five times a day because of our busy schedule as school and college students, nor did our parents pressure us to do. To some degree, this helped me to embrace Islam readily.

It also helped me to understand and appreciate the Qur’anic statement, “There is to be no compulsion in religion.”1

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims of Bangladesh fasted; this meant no consumption of food or water from sunrise to sunset. I remember being concerned about the hardship fasting would inflict upon the very poor and infirm people in the heat of Bangladesh’s summer—where temperatures of about 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more are common. I was quickly relieved to learn that fasting is only recommended for able and healthy adults. Children, and the very old and sick are exempted from it. I remember my parents and older siblings fasting, and as a child I was not allowed to do so, but I recall the joy and solemnity associated with the festivities and delicacies at the end of the day when the adults ended their fast. I couldn’t wait for those days when I could actually fast. These days, during the month of Ramadan, I make my own deal with Allah, especially on those days when I have to teach three classes in a day and badly need my cup of tea! After all, imparting education is my sacred charge.

God is forgiving.

A Muslim is supposed to undertake the Pilgrimage to Mecca when one is older and has accumulated enough wealth. I am still waiting for that to happen in my life. What stirs me the most about the Five Pillars of Islam is the concept of charity or Zakat.

When I was growing up, I recall my older brothers and sisters helping my parents with the simple calculations of the obligatory charity set at 2.5 percent of the family’s net income. In addition to that set amount, my mother would include rice and lentils, the staple food in Bangladesh, and garments to clothe the needy. I distinctly remember I felt so proud the day I was old enough to help with the calculations and readily handed out alms to the destitute and beggars in one of the world’s poorest countries. I am deeply grateful that my religion instilled this important value of social justice as a guiding principle.

Social and economic justice is a constant and oft repeated theme in the Qur’an. I enjoy reading these specific verses that relate to social justice: “Do you see the one who rejects religion? That is the one who rebuffs the orphan and does not encourage feeding the poor”2 (107 Assistance). “And what will convey to you what the steep road is? Emancipation of a slave, or feeding on a day of hunger an orphaned relative or a destitute pauper. Then one will be of those who believe and practice patience and kindness”2 (99 The City). Growing up in Bangladesh, I strongly felt the humane messages reflected in the above verses of the Qu’ran were, to some degree, a source of solace for all people, even the poverty-stricken ones, despite the tribulations of this struggling third world country. It is Islam that first helped me to understand myself, not just as a social being, but as a feminist. I chose to continue to create for myself an Islam that is completely free from patriarchy. I believe that this non-patriarchal Islam is the original and true form of Islam.

And there is more: Prophet Mohammad spoke about women’s rights almost obsessively, both in the Qur’an and in the various commentaries. The prophet struggled valiantly against the patriarchal revolution that was in progress before his time. His great reforms included the right of a woman to divorce a man by repudiation; a law making it a crime to accuse a woman of adultery without four witnesses to the act; including women in the decision-making process of the community; appointing a woman as a religious authority second only to himself; abolition of female infanticide and limitation of polygamy2 (4 Women). The Quran also specifically declares the right of women to be paid for work and the right to inherit2 (4 Women).

These reforms were swept away by conservative men who followed him and who reestablished full patriarchy. It is the specific role of the Islamic feminist to challenge the Islamic fundamentalists by pointing out that all the misogynist interpretations and practices were accretions added later, after Mohammad’s time. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have inherited a form of Islam that was nurturing and liberating. The Islam of my parents was humane, and in the best sense liberal: both had been deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and the poetic humanism of Rabindranath Tagore, neither of them a Muslim. Both of my parents emphasized tolerance and respect for all races and religions; and both stressed the absolute primacy of the individual conscience in religious affairs.

As a young girl, I was assigned several imams (teachers of Arabic) who not only taught but attempted to interpret the Qur’an. One of these was a woman with whom my sisters and I argued incessantly about the proper place of women in Islam. Why should women wear any special garb that men were not required to wear? My pious imam would only smile. And, of course, we were right. The Qur’an does not require any special garb for women, requesting only that they dress with modesty—veils and other costumes were class devices originally borrowed from other cultures, and institutionalized by patriarchy long after the time of Mohammad. In retrospect, it seems that my imam’s indulgent smiles were a kind of signal to continue our enquiry, which we did. My sisters and I, all in different professions, are all advocates for peace and equality in Bangladesh, America, and the world at large.

References: 1.Thomas Cleary, The Essential Qur’an, Harper San Francisco, 1993.

2. Thomas Cleary, The Qur’an: A New Translation, Starlach Press, 2004.

Crossing the Divide: Toward a Spirit of Generosity
By: Deanna Thompson

“There is enough!” The speaker urged,“Say it with me! ‘There IS enough!’”

My daughters and I joined the chorus of voices, “There is enough!” “There is enough!” The speaker concluded, “That’s the message of the story of Jesus and the loaves and fishes, a message that we need to heed today!”

Given that my daughters and I are Christians, it would seem likely that we heard these words from the pulpit one Sunday morning. In actuality these words were part of a rousing speech given by newly elected Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. Ellison, first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, who delivered the keynote speech at the 2007 Statewide Celebration of Martin Luther Dr. King, Jr. in Saint Paul. The speech not only succeeded in honoring the great American prophet (and Christian minister) the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but it also served as a clarion call for unity across the religious, political, and economic divides that separate us. Building on some oft-neglected messages of Dr. King, as well as on Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scriptures, Ellison presented a startling model for unity in the midst of a society all too often preoccupied with division. In our post-9/11 world, we often see international battles cast in religious terms, such as the war against terrorism framed as a battle between Christian and Islamic civilizations. Given that reality, the fact that the heart of Ellison’s speech was a story about Jesus and his generosity likely struck many as surprising. For those whose knowledge of Islam goes beyond the headlines, however, it’s clear that for Muslims, Jesus stands as a revered prophet of God. Thus there was an appropriateness to Ellison’s invocation of Jesus, especially on a day set aside to honor a Christian activist who built his philosophy of non-violence, integration, and equality upon central themes within his own religious tradition.

But Ellison’s use of the loaves and fishes story struck several other relevant chords as well. Ellison painted a picture of the thousands of tired and hungry folk who had come to listen to Jesus that day. He noted the disciples’ skepticism that the small basket of food would make any difference at all. Here Ellison highlighted Jesus’s reaction, observing that he could have heeded the skeptics surrounding him. Jesus could have gone along with those who claimed, “It’s just not possible to feed these people.” At this point Ellison brought this story into the contemporary scene, observing that this is what many in our country were saying last fall, “It’s just not possible that Minnesotans will send an African American Muslim to Congress!” But Jesus refused to listen to the doubters, and instructed the disciples to hand out the food. To their amazement, there was enough! The impossible was made possible. And Ellison clearly took joy in the impossible possibility of being a Muslim representing Minnesota in the U.S. House of Representatives.

To bring this message of “There is enough!” even closer to home for his audience, Ellison invoked some important words from Dr. King. Ellison relied on aspects of King’s thought largely ignored today. To be sure, our young people, having grown up with the national holiday, know about King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Some have also been given the powerful “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to read as well. But many fewer know the speeches he gave during 1967–8, the last year of his life. These speeches focused primarily on two issues: the war in Vietnam and the economic disparities embedded in our country.

Attention to racial inequalities remained close to King’s heart, but the more he immersed himself in the problem of racism in America, the more he uncovered its interconnectedness to things like access to living-wage jobs, and to how racial disparities too often mirrored economic disparities. When King was assassinated, he was in Memphis to march with striking garbage workers. To overcome poverty had become his primary work. It’s clear Ellison has read these words of King’s, and this is where King and Jesus’s insistence that “There is enough!” come together.

“Let us be dissatisfied,” King recounted shortly before his death, “until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.” King referred to this stance as one of “divine dissatisfaction,” for according to his reading of the Christian message, following Jesus meant walking the path of justice and equality, not just for yourself but for all God’s children. And this is where Ellison’s recurring theme of “There is enough” seemed to originate.

There is enough in our society, but fundamental inequalities exist that prevent the “enough” from making its way to all. Ellison called all of us to be dissatisfied with the way things currently are, and for the creation of a “new politics of generosity” to emerge in our country, a politics built on the principles of Dr. King, and embedded in the very fabric of the Abrahamic religious traditions. This stance of generosity prods those of us who stand in these religious traditions to support policies like increasing the minimum wage, but Ellison also challenged religious folks to cross those lines of religious divide. He challenged the Muslim community first to ask themselves why women are not yet leaders of a mosque, and to reach out to a Jewish synagogue and start an interfaith group.

He then challenged Christians to do the same.

I have attended at least ten such celebrations honoring the Reverend King, and this is the first keynote speech I’ve heard directly connecting King’s principles of justice and equality with the fundamentals of his faith. The inner logic of King’s Christian convictions was articulated so eloquently not by a fellow Christian, but by a practitioner of Islam. That the speech resonated deeply with religious and civic values held dear in our family was not lost on my daughters, either. As we were leaving the auditorium, my ten-year-old remarked, “That was the best speech I’ve ever heard.” My seven-year- old added, “I think Keith Ellison has a special relationship to Dr. King!” I stepped out into the snowy sky feeling that we had not only honored Dr. King, but that we also were shown a glimpse of how we might begin to cross even the most difficult divides that separate us from one another.

Faith beyond belief
By: Mark Berkson

0In many of the courses I have taught, students talk about their own religious commitments, beliefs, and practices. Over the last ten years or so I have noticed an interesting trend in students’ religious affiliations. More and more students have described themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and more students have said that they belong to traditions other than the one into which they were born. Increasingly, these are traditions outside the Abrahamic monotheistic traditions, from Zen Buddhism to Bahai to Wicca. Surveys over the last few years suggest that these are nationwide trends. One of the fastest-growing groups is the “nones,” people who indicate no specific religious affiliation on surveys. Americans who are religiously unaffiliated nearly doubled during the 1990s (from 8 to 14 percent of the population). While some are agnostics and atheists, most describe themselves as spiritual and indicate a belief in some form of higher power. Some create syncretic forms of spiritual practice, drawing on symbols and practices from multiple traditions. In addition, greater numbers of Americans describe themselves as having “multifaith identities,” either through having parents of different religions or through embracing a new tradition (often some form of Buddhism) while maintaining a commitment to their “birth tradition” (usually Judaism or Christianity). These trends have led to an increase in the number of Americans who are pluralists, meaning that they believe that more than one religious tradition is (or can be) true and they reject the notion that the only vehicle to truth and salvation is through a single religious tradition.

At the same time, there is what might be called a “counter-trend”: the notable growth of fundamentalist Christian denominations.

Fundamentalists generally reject pluralism; they are exclusivists, believing that their doctrine is the only way to truth and salvation, and that others are misguided at best, and damned at worst. It is worth reflecting on why these two opposing forms of religious identities and attitudes are both increasing. I see both trends as responses to the challenges of rapid cultural change and intellectual critique. In our age of accelerating globalization, individualism, and multiculturalism, traditional sources of community and meaning have been disrupted. Critiques of religion that originated in the Enlightenment (reason, skepticism, science) have been joined by new voices, including feminist and GLBT scholarship, which offer alternative approaches to the understanding of text and authority.

When faced with such challenges, religious communities often take one of two approaches: to resist these changes or to embrace them. In times of profound change and dislocation, some find security in standing firm on an absolute foundation that provides ultimate meaning, guidance, and assurance. Others reject the notion that any single tradition, authority, or text can possess truth in its entirety and consequently take on new forms of religious identity and practice. While both approaches can provide meaning and fulfillment for people, each is prone to certain kinds of problems, risks, or excesses. For fundamentalists, absolute certainty, exclusivistic triumphalism, textual literalism, patriarchy, homophobia, and the rejection of certain forms of scientific inquiry, can lead to anti-intellectualism and division between communities.

Among the syncretists, problems arise when the beliefs, practices, and symbols of other religions are taken out of context and brought together in a superficial way. Father Thomas Keating explains the value of working deeply within a single tradition rather than creating a pastiche: “When you make a collage of various traditions, you run the risk of digging too many wells in a desert…whereas if you work one well that has a good reputation, where water is to be found, it might be more rewarding in the long term.” Critics of “cafeteria-style” religion argue that a commitment to a religious tradition involves a submission of the ego that can be difficult but essential to spiritual growth, whereas these new approaches allow one to construct an individualistic form of religion that makes things easy on the practitioner. Beyond this, there is often a lack of community for syncretists, which can exacerbate the problem of individualism.

Ultimately, students come to see that one need not reject tradition to find open-minded, pluralistic ways of being religious. The key issue is not whether one is committed to a single religious tradition, but rather how one is committed.

This is where we must consider different conceptions of faith.

When I ask students to define “faith” at the beginning of the semester, they often respond, “unquestioning belief without evidence or proof,” assuming that faith is incompatible with reason or doubt. This is the kind of faith vulnerable to the criticism of rationalist skeptics such as Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Despite their tendency to generalize and oversimplify, they pose an important question: Why would we celebrate unquestioning belief in the religious sphere of life when we would not admire it in other spheres of life? We must continuously test all of our beliefs in the light of reason and conscience. Gandhi wrote, “I decline to be bound by any interpretation…if it is repugnant to reason or moral sense.”

On the other hand, there is a type of faith that is quite different from that which is equated solely with belief. It involves an active commitment to the path, texts, exemplars, symbols, and communities within a tradition. This is a faith not confined to propositional claims one carries in one’s head; it is a faith that is lived through body, mind, and spirit.

This kind of faith is a form of trusting connection, which is the foundation of relationships both among humans and between humans and the divine, however conceived. This faith dissolves rather than constructs boundaries.

It has become clear to me that not only does a strong faith allow room for doubt, but moreover that faith needs doubt and constant critical examination to prevent it from descending into unquestioning dogmatism. While all religions have their exclusivistic, divisive tendencies, we can also see another way of being religious within every tradition: a way that involves commitment to open-minded inquiry; a celebration of reason along with an intellectual humility; a commitment to pluralism and the equal treatment of all human beings regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation; and an emphasis on compassion and social justice. I am encouraged by the fact that it is this type of faith that is held by many students at Hamline University. This is why I think of the classroom as a sacred space and why I am glad that the word “religio” remains on Hamline’s seal.


Methodism: Merely heritage, or an important part of Hamline’s future?

By: Rev. Linda Gesling

When a small group of students meets at regular times for activities such as early morning prayer, Bible study, and community visits, they can become easy targets for the jokes and labels of those who consider the real calling of the student to be parties and all-nighters.

The same was true in the 1720s at Oxford, when the Holy Club of John and Charles Wesley and others earned the derisive title of “Methodists” for their activities, a name that stuck, eventually defining a movement and then a denomination.

But what is the place of Methodists at a university like Hamline today? Are they even visible at Hamline? Does anyone care? Such questions bubble up from time to time—from students, parents, donors, Catholics, even United Methodists. Hamline’s rootedness as a church related university was more visible in the days when chapel was required for students. There was also concrete evidence, provided by the Methodist section of the library stacks, streets named Asbury and Simpson, and the steady stream of people traveling back and forth across Englewood to the church, where faculty and students attended chapel and often worshipped on Sunday.

The visual evidence today is arguably even greater—the statue of Bishop Hamline that serves as focal point for the campus, along with a sign bearing a United Methodist cross and flame that explains the connection, as well as the flag’s use at ceremonies. But some might argue that the signs increase when the meaning grows less, others that church-relatedness is more outdated than ever in such a pluralist society, and still others that a relationship with any religious institution is a thing to be feared. Does continuing Hamline’s relationship with the United Methodist Church make a difference to the Hamline University of today? Of tomorrow?

There are no easy or even single answers to these questions. Using lenses refracted by Wesleyan theology and Methodist history, however, reveals that Hamline not only has remained United Methodist, but it also has the potential to model deeper meanings of its church-relatedness to enhance its sense of identity and its distinctiveness.

There are areas where Hamline is more church related than most people realize. Knowledge applied to life. Recent scholarly interest in John Wesley has focused on his contributions as a practical theologian. Solidly schooled in the classics, he continually translated complex theological concepts into everyday insights about the nature of holiness that followers of many education levels could appreciate. Similarly, one of Hamline’s strengths is its commitment to offering students opportunities to move back and forth between academic endeavor and practical application. While this appears to be an educational philosophy, it is theologically rooted as well.

Inquiry as sacred, knowledge as necessary.

John Wesley was intrigued with the scientific developments of his day, even experimenting with electricity and promoting various medical remedies. He also embraced developments in textual criticism that enhanced the study of the scriptures. The Methodists who founded this university on what was then a prairie wanted not just clergy for the churches they saw coming along, but doctors, lawyers, and teachers for the increasing population. To be a United Methodist university is to be engaged in the search for truth in the many ways it can be found.

There are also several aspects of Hamline’s United Methodist identity that if enhanced, could strengthen Hamline’s ability to achieve its mission of developing students’ knowledge, values, and skills for successful lives of leadership, scholarship, and service. Education of the whole person. United Methodists are concerned about the physical, mental, and emotional aspects as well as the spiritual well-being of all persons. While the Hamline Plan and other initiatives aim to develop the whole student, further ownership of who we are as a Methodist university could give permission to conceive of this in new ways. Just as some schools require a physical education class to educate the whole person, Hamline could increase opportunities for spiritual and emotional development in its education process as part of a theologically rooted statement about health.

Citizens of the world. Within the United Methodist heritage is a commitment to social justice, an activism for righting the wrongs of the world in the here and now. Actively claiming this identity would be an affirmation for focus and direction in the years to come. Church-related universities have the particular potential to become an energetic force in a religiously pluralist society, and can lead toward greater openness and understanding in a way that many public institutions and church-exclusive (as in “only Christians allowed”) universities cannot.

Fear and misunderstanding mark some of the dialogue at Hamline when efforts are made to lay greater claim to a church-related present rather than mere heritage. Some fear that it means excluding those of other faiths or denying scientific endeavor its right to objectivity. Others hope that it means day-in-and-out efforts to encourage more commitment to Christianity. But Hamline’s history of inclusivity precludes such a fate, for its founding charter in 1854 stipulated that “no religious tenet shall be required of any person.”

There is the possibility for a third option—a strong, present, church-related identity that strengthens everything we do and enhances our ability to succeed in the future. Forging this identity will take an equally strong belief that it can make a difference and real courage and patience to confront the fear and misunderstanding.

The opportunity remains open.