Dec.8, 2000-
Jan. 11, 2001
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Exploring links between faith and activism
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Religious Studies has multiplied like loaves and fishes at U.Va.
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Charles Marsh
Charles Marsh

Exploring connections between faith and activisms

By Bob Brickhouse

What deeply held religious convictions motivate some of the growing number of Americans who volunteer to fight poverty and homelessness, share wealth through charity, or strive to promote racial healing?

One reason answers are important is that in an era of smaller government and welfare cuts, most anti-poverty and community development groups have some faith-based affiliation, as do many efforts to build bridges of understanding among races.

A long-term theological research program based at the University of Virginia is seeking to learn more about the relation between Christian spiritual beliefs and activism, and in the process to forge a closer connection between the study of theology and the real-life experience of groups who are putting their beliefs into action.

The Project on Lived Theology, just getting under way with a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., is based on the rationale that "the living energy of faith-shaped communities is a promising and untapped source for theological inquiry," says its director Charles Marsh, associate professor of religious studies, who has long been interested in the connections between what people think about God and how they live their lives. Although the project focuses on Christian groups, one of its main aims is to promote discussion about religious faiths of all types and civic renewal.

Over the next two years, the project's participants, small groups of leading theologians and scholars, will travel around the country to meet with faith-based social action groups that represent a wide variety of liberal and conservative doctrines. In community centers in urban neighborhoods, interracial communities in the Deep South, wealthy suburban churches, and mental health centers they will try to understand in theological terms what drives people to make deep commitments to the common good. Using the same rigor with which theologians usually study texts, says Marsh, "We'll ask, why do you do this and what do you believe? How do your religious beliefs shape your perceptions of race, gender and society? What lessons can be learned?"

"The study of theology has been too often cut off from life, concerned more about theoretical concerns and justifications than the practices to which it is necessarily related," adds Marsh, who has written two highly praised books on connections between belief and social action, "Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology" and "God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights." The latter book, which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 1998, examines the lives of five religious people, including civil rights activists, a white minister, and a Ku Klux Klan leader, during the tumultuous struggle for racial justice in Mississippi in the 1960s.

Another key aim of the project is to foster better communication between Christian liberals and conservatives, both of which practice committed social activism. Despite doctrinal differences among both the project's scholars and the communities they will visit, Marsh suspects all will find "there is something in the nature of compassionate action that unites people rather than separates them." Both liberals and conservatives "understand that loving your neighbor is at the heart of loving God."

The project will include a series of discussions convened at U.Va., beginning in December. Four groups of 10 theologians and scholars will look at interrelated "lived theology" themes: faith-based community development, race, the responsible use of authority and wealth, and mental health. At the conclusion of the initial research they plan to hold a national Conference on Lived Theology in April 2003.

The community-development group will explore what religious convictions are found in urban anti-poverty initiatives such as the New Song movement in Baltimore and Harlem that has brought suburban whites to join inner city blacks in a variety of programs.

The study group on race and theology will ask how religious convictions shape perception of race and the way people treat people of other races. Two interracial religious communities the scholars will visit are Koinonia Cooperative Farm in Americus, Ga., and the Voice of Calvary in Jackson, Miss.

The group on responsible use of authority and wealth will work with suburban congregations in financially and socially powerful communities to see in what ways they try to use their resources faithfully and responsibly. A fourth work-group, on faith-based mental health communities, will look at some of the many Christian counseling centers and mental health groups, in an effort to learn more about the connection between faith and concepts of mental health and mental illness. "There's profound diversity of opinion on this," notes Marsh, who received his doctorate in religious studies at U.Va. and joined the faculty this year after teaching at Loyola College in Maryland.

The son of a Southern Baptist minister who was instrumental in desegregating churches in the South, he attributes part of his interest in the theological beliefs and social practices of ordinary people to his childhood in Alabama and Mississippi. "I became haunted with the question of why fairly decent Christians acted with utter indifference -- and often hostile contempt -- toward the sufferings of African Americans" living under Jim Crow, he says. Even more, he was struck by the role of religion in the civil rights movement and developed a desire to know what its deeply committed participants, black and white, actually thought about God.

One result of this ongoing quest is a new book, "The Last Days," to be published in March by Basic Books, a memoir about small town Southern life during the whirlwind of the civil rights movement and the terror of the Klan, and how his father dealt with this. As part of the Lived Theology Project, Marsh is currently writing another book, to be called "The Beloved Community: An American Search," on the longtime civil rights theme that racial peace and reconciliation require shared beliefs about human dignity.


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