connections between faith and activisms
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?
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.