Project On Lived Theology: Exploring Connections Between Faith And
17, 2000 -- 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?
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.
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.
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.
the next two years, the projects 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, "Well 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?"
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 "Gods 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 projects
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 10-person groups of 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.
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. "Theres
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.
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.
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.
Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856