Idolatry, Polarization, and the Politics of Faith
By Serene Jones and Aaron Hollander
The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones is the 16th President of the historic Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, the first woman to head the 182-year-old institution. A highly respected scholar and public intellectual, Jones occupies the Johnston Family Chair for Religion and Democracy. She is a Past President of the American Academy of Religion, which annually hosts the world’s largest gathering of scholars of religion. Jones came to Union after seventeen years at Yale University, where she was the Titus Street Professor of Theology at the Divinity School, and Chair of the University’s Program in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of several books, including Trauma and Grace and, most recently, her memoir Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World. Jones, a popular public speaker, is sought by media to comment on major issues impacting society because of her deep grounding in theology, politics, women’s studies, economics, race studies, history, and ethics.
Dr. Aaron Hollander is Associate Director of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, Associate Editor of Ecumenical Trends, and Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fordham University. He currently serves as Vice President of the North American Academy of Ecumenists, on the steering committee of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network, and on the faculty of the Summer Course in Ecumenism at the Centro Pro Unione in Rome. He is a scholar of ecumenical theology and lived religion, with his PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and his master’s degree from the Irish School of Ecumenics (Trinity College Dublin).
Aaron Hollander, for Ecumenical Trends: President Jones, I’m delighted to have this opportunity to speak with you on behalf of Ecumenical Trends; thank you so much for making the time. We are institutional neighbors – I have a wonderful view of Union Theological Seminary out my office window at the Interchurch Center, alongside Riverside Church, Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Hudson River running up into the distance. I’m constantly reminded of the enormous potential of the exchanges that can be had in so dense and diverse an intellectual atmosphere.
In preparing for this conversation, I had the pleasure of reading your latest book, Call It Grace,1 which I found to be that rarest of things for a work of scholarly theology: a genuine page-turner! The way you anchor high-octane historical theology in the conditions and struggles of life lived in the contemporary world was very moving, but also instructive, I think, for recognizing the power of theology as a voice in the public sphere. For our readers who haven’t had the chance to read Call It Grace, would you connect some of the major dots in your trajectory towards where you find yourself now, as President of Union Theological Seminary? Are there moments that you would highlight as particularly galvanizing or reorienting for your sense of purpose?
Serene Jones: Well, let me first say how delighted I am to be in conversation with you, Aaron, and to be part of Ecumenical Trends – and I have to admit up front that I am envious of your view!
Thank you for taking the time to read Call It Grace, which is, in a sense, a book that attempts to introduce major theologians to a lay audience. I found that I couldn’t meaningfully introduce the theologians that I chose – major theologians across the Christian tradition – without giving concrete examples of how they had made a difference in my life. This meant that I ended up writing a book that is part theological primer and part spiritual autobiography, and I say all of this as preface to your question because the book outlines a journey that I could not have anticipated would lead to the Presidency of Union Theological Seminary but led me there despite myself. I suppose that’s always the work of grace, leading us to and through places that we don’t anticipate.
I am the daughter of a marriage and family counselor (my mother), and of a systematic theologian (my father) who worked as a Dean and President – President of one small university in Oklahoma, and then Dean of two theological schools. So I grew up in a deeply theological household, in which leadership in the church and leadership in theological education were always at the forefront of our conversations. I mean, we would have to practice saying Kierkegaard’s name correctly over dinner – I remember that from as early as seven years old! Our first cat was Spinoza. So my family life growing up was not only a theological and church-grounded endeavor, it was always an ecumenical endeavor as well. Even then, as would manifest in my own work later on, there was a constant sense that the life of the church can never be separated from the broader work of doing justice in the world and living lives of proactive peace and deliberate goodness with respect to our neighbors – with whom we share much common ground, and from whom we differ in substantial, often frightening ways.
My family was always simultaneously active at church and active in local and national politics. For my parents, that meant civil rights and the anti-war movement; for myself, when I was in college, and then in seminary, it meant the anti-apartheid movement, the feminist movement, and, in particular, working as a union organizer at the same time as I was studying theology. This history is certainly one of the key themes of my journey toward Union, because in making the decision to come to Union, I didn’t make a general decision that I wanted to be the president of a seminary. I made the very specific decision that I wanted and felt called to be a leader in this particular community, because Union Theological Seminary has, from its beginnings to today – now almost 200 years – been a singular voice in bringing together issues of public concern and social justice with profound ethical and theological concerns. In other words, the mission of Union and my own understanding of the work of the church in the world resonated deeply in compelling ways.
AH: This much was particularly clear in Call It Grace, how important it is to you not even to stand with one foot in the political or social world and one foot in the ecclesial world, but to stand with both feet in one intimately entwined theological-political reality. It seems clear that you agree with Reinhold Niebuhr that there is no such thing as an “apolitical” faith – only a faith that is or is not willing to take responsibility for its political entailments.
In keeping with this intimacy of the church with the world, I was struck also by the importance of land in your narration of your own “core stories.” What has it been like taking up leadership in New York, putting down roots in New York, as someone whose theological imagination has been so shaped and nourished by your rural upbringing in Oklahoma?
SJ: That’s a great question. In the book, Call It Grace, I write about how the places that we live shape how we give order and meaning to the world around us – especially the places we dwell earlier in our lives, which continue to live with and inside us as we move and travel and change. For me, that was rural Oklahoma, where my family has lived for four generations, since the very beginning of that land being a US state. So it’s no coincidence that I have a kind of territorial or map-making theological imagination, which tends to look at themes and topics and events and issues as if I’m looking at a map of how different farms are laid out and intersect on tracts of underlying land. For me, moving to New York City was indeed a shock to this imaginative logic in many ways, in no small part because I grew up with sight lines that went on for miles and miles with little in the way. Unless you go up many stories in a New York City building, all you can see is what’s literally right in front of you. Yet that city vision, though shorter-range, isn’t lesser – because it’s dense, overflowing, with multitudes of people and cultures in a fractal proliferation of diversity. Being closed in and crowded by voices and languages and traditions and religious orientations of every conceivable kind was bound to be disorienting, but also a sheer delight to hear this sort of cacophonous sound of a space that was so alive.
And it quickly became apparent to me that the reason that Union Theological Seminary has been so deeply committed to having both feet in the theological ground of our social-ethical commitments is because it’s impossible to do otherwise when you dwell in New York City. The sounds of the city, the winds of the city, the landscape of the city, the struggles of the city, blow through the doors and windows of the seminary every day, quite literally. That has been transformative for me.
AH: I’m so interested in your perspective on this, coming from the rural middle of the country as you do, because I was born and raised in New York City. So was my father; so is my daughter. And, for all our love of being cosmopolitan and our gratitude for being so connected with the life of the city, there are ways that people like us, who have grown up in this environment, can take the proliferation of diversity for granted and can struggle to see and comprehend what our country and civic climate are like where this is not the norm.
A case in point – and I suspect that this has an urgent bearing on the state and priorities of American seminary education at our moment – is that many people I know were shocked by the events of just over a year ago: the armed insurgency at the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Perhaps even more shocking were the ways that those events were so heavily laden with Christian iconography, media, rhetoric, and affect.2 Setting aside for the moment the theological or ethical questions we might be tempted to ask – tempted because they allow us to distance ourselves – about whether these phenomena are “truly” or “authentically” or “legitimately” Christian (as we might do with the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the like), it seems indisputable at least that, historically speaking, the motives and the media of the Capitol siege have to be interpreted in relation to their Christian coding. So I’m wondering three things – first, were you as shocked as I was by what took place last year at the Capitol; second, do you have thoughts about the ways that our deepening political crisis and the violence accompanying it are enmeshed with Christian discourse, imagery, and belief; and third, how might you describe the role or opportunity of a seminary like Union in relation to the urgent task of interpreting what happened on January 6th?
SJ: Well, first of all, as to the shock of the day, you certainly were not alone. I was at home working on a document, and I was half-watching the election verification in Congress when the riots began, and I too watched with shock and growing horror; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in real time, and I still feel to this day that what we saw happening – a multitude of men and women, brandishing crosses and iconography of Jesus, singing hymns and loudly praying, then breaking the windows and doors on the Capitol and threatening to lynch members of congress and the Vice President – should have been unimaginable in my lifetime.
And yet, unlike many people I know who have grown up in New York City or in predominantly urban areas, I have the experience of looking at the people who were involved and not seeing some alien other, but thinking: that looks like my aunt, or that looks like John who I went to high school with, or that looks like Sally who lived next door to me growing up. These are just imaginary examples, not real people I saw at the riots – and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the participants were only rural people. But the loudly Christian, white supremacist, apocalyptic orientation of the insurgency was familiar to me. It was part of the bread and butter of daily life in rural Oklahoma, and though it was not part of my own outlook, in the sense that my family were always outliers with respect to how progressive our own theology and politics were, it was still a perspective that was alive among my friends, my community, people I loved.
That recognition, that familiarity, has an existential impact in the sense that it keeps us from turning them into freakish others; they are real human beings, with dramatically dangerous impulses and misguided ideologies that need to be engaged and redressed, but nonetheless, people who feel – often correctly – that their suffering is being overlooked. There’s so much anger and fear around unemployment, around crushing addiction, around the lack of federal aid when the changing climate weakens the reliability of agricultural cycles, and so forth. Granted, there are also anger and fear rooted in a white supremacist fever dream of “replacement” by minorities and migrants, which I unequivocally reject.
As for the Christian coding of so much of what took place on January 6th, it was sickening and horrifying to see such a gross, destructive twisting of the justice-loving Christianity I embrace. It continues to disturb me deeply that Christian-looking “sound bites” and shallow references to scripture, theology, and faith are thrown around so viciously and vacuously. Once you scratch the surface of the Christianity invoked by domestic terrorists, there is no theology, no scriptural warrant, no deep faith commitment there. They turn Christianity into an ossified rock to use as a weapon, rather than respect the life-giving water that it is.
The churches – and seminaries like Union – need to take this all very seriously today, not only because of the clear ethical crisis we are facing but also because, across this huge political abyss that exists in the United States today, and equally rooted with moral authority in rural and urban communities (that is, not perceivable as an overreaching federal appendage), the church is one of the few institutions that still has the capacity to bring people together across that divide.
AH: Yet the divisions in the church, between and within denominations and even between and within parishes, seem to be regularly preventing this bringing-together from happening. To what extent is there even a consciousness in the churches that bridging political divides – which are carved along lines of real moral divergence – is desirable, much less possible? Are churches still places where political polarities can be challenged? I’ve seen some fascinating research on this – and have had corroborating conversations with colleagues working in the national denominational offices, for instance of the ELCA – and what’s coming up in this research and conversation is a pattern where so-called “purple churches” – those where the political breadth of the parishioners creates a situation allowing for relationships and nuanced conversation between people whose views are otherwise segregated into stark, polar opposition in much of civil society – are disintegrating. Church leaders are caught in impossible situations, losing their authority among parishioners who dismiss them as either too conservative or too liberal; parishioners are leaving in search of communities where their own views are affirmed rather than left in tension. I can hardly blame them for doing so – I’m not surprised by this effort to create morally and intellectually “pure” spaces – but there is an epistemological cost to this. And if this is the case, then your hope that the church could actually enshrine an alternative to a society divided by identity, morality, and politics is under threat.
Forgive me if I am assuming too much, but I imagine that a community like Union might struggle to think empathetically and productively around the Christian commitments that animated the Capitol siege. It’s easy to say: “Well, that’s bogus Christianity.” It’s much harder to think through the nature of our responsibility for the crosses at the Capitol. You use the category of “responsibility” so richly in Call It Grace – so, are self-designating “progressive” Christians responsible in some way, not only for trying to understand, but also for trying to communicate meaningfully with that particular way people have chosen to express the claims of the gospel in their lives – even if we might think it horrifically misguided?
SJ: If I had answered this question ten years ago, I would have been much more sanguine about the need for progressive Christians, and particularly white progressive Christians, to “cross main street,” as they say, and have conversations with conservative white Christians about our faith and what it has to say about what is happening in our society and between its constituents. But right now, the divide is so stark and deep, I can tell you theoretically what I think we should be doing, but simply having the desire to do it is not enough to make it happen. I’m not so sanguine anymore about what crossing that main street from a progressive church to a conservative evangelical church means or would require. To be honest, at Union, we have often tried to cross that divide in terms of our programming, and it may be that we’re doing something wrong, but we have not been able to convince people who are committed to not having that conversation with us to change their minds about even getting that conversation going.
Union has the honor of having been the place that Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent time when he was in New York, time that was transformative for him. And at our own moment, Bonhoeffer is an extremely useful theologian because he wrestled with precisely these questions: what is his responsibility to a right-wing fascist church, the German Christian movement spreading across his country and not least in his own denomination, that he feels has completely lost its way? Is it his job to keep trying to have conversations and maintain space for relationships, or is his job to actively oppose and push back, and if necessary to cut all ties? Bonhoeffer never has an easy answer to that, because he’s committed to building the beloved community and so he doesn’t give up on his neighbor, but at the same time, he’s not sanguine at all about the possibility of reconciliation, when so deep a division has torn open the church and the stakes are so high.
AH: That’s a helpful, if alarming, comparison. I would like to think, and I would like to hope, that there are forms of Christianity in this country that will find their way to being a Confessing Church. What I worry about, though, is whether this righteous stand – what we absolutely want to believe, and are reasonable to believe, is moral conviction at a time of intensifying stakes – is also at the same time a capitulation to an American political epistemology in which every act, every policy, every ethical conviction, signifies and enacts enrollment in one or the other side of a zero-sum struggle. Let me be clear, I absolutely reject the flabby both-and-ism of throwing up our hands because “both sides” are behaving cruelly and conceiving of the other in narrow and self-serving ways. That’s true, on some level, but it doesn’t eliminate the profound ethical lacuna between forms of Christian life and thought that serve the marginalized versus those that abandon the poor and seek the favor of the powerful. It doesn’t warrant peace without justice. However, it is possible to be both morally right and spiritually imprisoned. Can we even imagine a contemporary American Christianity that is not sectarian, that is, not consenting or (more likely) giving active support to the sectarian imaginaries that command the rest of our civic landscape? If not, how can we be sure that our own understanding hasn’t had its wings clipped by the pressures and incentives of its context?
SJ: One of the features of sectarianism, one of the reasons it is so dangerous and has to be distinguished from a mere disagreement of goals or attitudes, is that we are typically much more capable of recognizing it in others than in ourselves. We likely don’t think we’re being sectarian – we’re just standing up for what’s right, after all – but we may become sectarian in our behavior or mentality, given the politics around us that invite us to treat our social antagonists as irredeemable, illegitimate, or even inhuman.
I think that one of the central features of the faith that I have been nurtured in, which is sort of a classic old-fashioned Protestant theology, is always to affirm that, before God, every living creature is equal, and every person is of equal value, and that in each of us is the capacity for enormous good, and yet also within all of us is the capacity for destruction and sin. This is where that lovely phrase, “we are all saints and sinners,” comes from. I think that if a progressive Christian vision can hold on to the humility and the aspiration that this double vision of humanity enshrines, then it can help us resist the temptation of arrogance, and it can restrain the ease with which we make easy sectarian categorizations of “those people,” because it asks us constantly to confront the impulses within our own selves that could be arrogant or destructive. This kind of rationality and this kind of piety allow us at one and the same time to resist the working of evil and to acknowledge that we are implicated in its endurance, and to take a moral stand without dehumanizing those against whom we find ourselves needing to stand. We can resist loudly and actively without positioning ourselves as perfect.
AH: I was moved in reading your book by your continual appeal to John Calvin – I haven’t read the Institutes since graduate school, but there’s an aphorism of Calvin’s that has stuck with me for years: his recognition that “the human heart is a factory of idols.”3 What are the idols that we are creating and propping up today? And I don’t mean “we” as Americans or Christians in general (because then it would be all too easy to let ourselves off the hook by tacitly suggesting that such idols are the construction of those Americans, those Christians – as with the “nationalistic self-love” that you rightly tackle in Call it Grace) – what are the idols that command the hearts of progressive, ecumenically-disposed, justice-oriented American Christians?
SJ: Such an important question. I go back to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on this, in keeping with the insights of so many others, that the major idol of this nation is the idol of capitalism – in the sense that it so informs every dimension of our existence, providing the conditions for the possibility of our thought and life, that it has become a god that defines us without our even being conscious of its defining power. That is, our lives come to be ruled by corporate interests in which there is no democratic voice, no participation, such that we learn to measure our value according to the commodification of the world around us, and we forget – or actively resist – alternative frameworks of vision and value. In Dr. King’s time but even more profoundly in our own, capitalism is such a comprehensive condition of our life and thought that it’s like less like having an idol in your house and more like living inside a house carved out from an idol: it’s so big, so encompassing, that it’s invisible, even for those of us who claim to resist its orienting influence.
Inseparable from the idol of capitalism, in this country, is the idol of white supremacy – and here too, progressive Americans and progressive Christians are gravely mistaken if we take comfort in exempting ourselves from its governing influence. This country was built on the back of chattel slavery and native American genocide, each of which required the creation of white supremacy to justify – even sanctify – its extremely lucrative atrocities. The culture generated in these early days of the American enterprise continues to this day, benefitting and incentivizing, indeed implicating, progressives just as much as conservatives. Where conservatives prefer to absolve themselves by asserting that white supremacy doesn’t exist at all, white progressives are just as willing to absolve themselves by acting as though they’ve dealt with and dispelled all the dimensions of white supremacy within themselves, somehow arriving beyond its influence. So doing, white progressives prove that they are still captive – because it’s not just about their preferences or beliefs, it’s about a whole structure that they comfortably inhabit, having their perception shaped by its norms. Progressive Christians have no small amount of work to do to understand and take responsibility for this legacy.
AH: You’re calling attention to the ways that white supremacy in this country really does function as an “original sin.” This is an association that comes up frequently, but what I think is useful about the metaphor is that it’s not just a platitude; it actually helps us to understand racism – like original sin – as something that isn’t elective and can even be vigorously resisted but that continues to shape us, shape our identities, shape our actions, and shape our desires, even when we may be radically opposed to it intellectually. But the flipside of this tragic recognition is the much more hopeful recognition that we don’t have to be free of sin, exterior to sin, occupying some kind of morally-purer-than-thou high ground in order to name and wrestle with sin.
May I suggest a third idol, on a slightly different wavelength? I think your comments about humility begin to address this, but I wonder if we can push a little further – not least to consider the work being done, or needing to be done, on this front at a community like Union Theological Seminary. One of the things that I keep observing, in conversations that I’ve been a part of and communities that I’ve been a part of, is an intense pleasure and self-congratulation about being right – I don’t mean “right” in the sense of winning pub trivia, but rightness in the sense of moral rectitude, of being on the right side of history, and so forth. Let me be clear that I’m not in the slightest suggesting that doing the right thing is a mirage, or that we shouldn’t do everything in our power (and leap out over the abyss of our powerlessness) to be on the right side of history. But I keep coming back to the urgent warnings throughout the ascetic tradition, from the ancient world to today, about the risks to the soul incurred precisely by those who are doing everything right. Evagrius Ponticus issues the famous dictum not to “turn the antidote of the passions into a passion” – that is, to allow our struggle for holiness and love of neighbor to become their own sources of pride and self-importance.4 Francis of Assisi taught his brothers and sisters that the greatest threat to their enactment of the gospel was not their vulnerability to abuse by the world but their belief that monastic life would set them apart from and above the world. John Wesley warns us of the “enthusiasm” that accompanies and corrupts even genuine holiness, leading us to believe that the saints cannot err and that we need to disguise or downplay our own difficulties. Maria Skobtsova rebukes conventional monastic communities for their egotistical self-satisfaction and attraction to spiritual power while the world burned around them. So too, in your book, you eloquently reflect on Howard Thurman’s insights about the ways that allowing hatred to power our righteous opposition to wrongdoing shrinks our moral horizon and keeps us captive to the very thing we resist, challenging it only on its own level.5 And you yourself discuss in quite personal terms the corrosive quality of even a righteous victim’s thirst for revenge.6
I’m especially interested in your perspective on this as leader of a community that is justly famous for its commitment to justice and religion as a force for good in the world – “the bell tower of Christian conscience,” as one of your colleagues put it.7 How are we to face this sort of enticement to self-importance, to pride, to sectarianism, even – perhaps especially – in the pursuit of good and legitimate goals?
SJ: I wrote Call It Grace pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd… I can’t say pre-climate catastrophe, but that catastrophe has been escalating much more quickly and visibly over these past two or three years. And even in this short time I’ve come to see more clearly that underneath the hunger for self-righteousness – which of course is not just a risk for progressives; maybe that’s obvious, but it’s worth being explicit about – is a profound trauma and a dangerous lack of self-worth, which leads to addiction, leads to violence, leads to aggression, leads to self-harm. It’s not incidental that, at the same time as we’re getting more self-righteous as a society, all across our political divisions, we’re destroying ourselves with drugs and alcohol and violence, and we’re watching suicide rates go through the ceiling. What are we to make of the fact that we’ve rarely been more divided, rarely more self-righteous in our divisions, yet never more self-destructive of our own existence? It’s as if the whole culture is just coming unhinged, and the two reactions are to hate yourself or to wallow in a narcissistic and ultimately false love of self. This is precisely when the simple awareness of the love of God, communicated through the love of people for one another, becomes the most radical thing you can center in your life – instead of centering one’s own work, one’s own righteous cause. What I’m trying to name here is the underside, the rot at the roots, of that self-righteousness that you’re describing so well.
AH: It sounds like you’re suggesting that this pervasive woundedness or trauma, which incentivizes self-importance and narcissistic narratives for palliation, is something that cuts across the social or cultural polarization, undergirding the many ways that we all generate identities in opposition to one another and self-segregate into communities that stave off fear or anxiety through validation by like-minded others. And if the level on which our brokenness (whether existential, political, or institutional) fertilizes our oppositional identities cuts across our constructed polarities in this way, might it also be a basis for some kind of breakthrough or at least a depolarizing point of connection?
SJ: It’s so hard to say whether this is too much to hope for, but it may be worth hoping for nonetheless. I think that at the heart of this profound sense of woundedness is the fact that capitalism and white supremacy – those two great idols that demand our fealty and reward our capitulation – leave us morally empty. There is no “me” that isn’t bound up in systems of exploitation, privilege, and dehumanizing perception; there is nothing that makes life valuable and beautiful that can’t turn flavorless when it is commodified. So the construction of a self that derives its meaning and value from being opposed and superior to one’s cultural, political, religious antagonists is one symptom of the utter vacuity of so much of life constrained by capitalism and white supremacy; what feels like an affirming, validating righteousness is in fact a loss or diminution of self.
You would know this, given the work of the Friars of the Atonement in addiction recovery ministry, but one of the few places in this country right now where you can get Republicans and Democrats and people who never vote in the same room together is in the basements of churches for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. This is one place where you see people coming together and admitting how lost they are and how empty and damaging their behavior has become to themselves and to others. And as I tell my students – if you ever start feeling utterly helpless about everything, get on your computer and go to one of the online AA or Al-Anon meetings, and just sit there and listen to people’s stories about how they’re finding ways forward. It’s humbling and hopeful to see that, for all the ways that we feel trapped in systems of injustice and cruelty and commodification, our future is not completely defined by our past, and our relationships are not determined by what they have been or the ways they have broken.
AH: Thank you for bringing up the Friars’ shelter and community of recovery at St. Christopher’s Inn, up at Graymoor. There’s a wonderful reminder, in what you’re saying, that the rehabilitation ministry is itself profoundly ecumenical – in the sense that it involves a reorientation of the people involved toward themselves and toward one another, enabling new possibilities of life and the repair of relationships that had been severed or corroded. The Friars and other staff who are involved in this ministry would doubtless agree with you that one indispensable condition for the possibility of positive relationships with one another is a repair in the self. And the reverse is also true: the ecumenical ministry of the Friars, at its best, is rehabilitative or restorative for relationships and selves, for communities and individuals, enmeshed as we are in – but as you say, not defined by – long histories of domination, violence, violation of trust, and animosity that we have adopted as loadbearing pillars in our sense of self.
This is, of course, an ecumenical journal, and these pages have seen much intense discussion around what ecumenism is in the process of becoming. Among other things, ecumenical spirituality has come firmly into the foreground, in the sense of the spiritual practices necessary to reimagine our relationships and purge our sense of identity of the many poisons deposited there by those same antagonistic histories.
I want to pose a question to you that came up in the course of our editorial dialogue about the future of Ecumenical Trends as we concluded our 50th year of publication:8 ecumenism has, over the course of more than a century, been one continual attempt to imagine, articulate, and build alternatives to the sectarianism, the polarization, the divisions that degrade not only relationships between religious communities but degrade those communities themselves. And yet, it seems today that the work of ecumenism (or maybe just the name, just the language?) is increasingly suspect, wherever you turn on the ideological spectrum that dominates our civic imagination. It’s dismissed as a capitulation to the liberal toleration for error, on the one hand, and dismissed as a veneer for conservative cultural imperialism and homogenization, on the other. So what do you make of this? Is ecumenism too dangerous for a society that wants to thrive on clear battle lines and uncompromising identarian certainties? Or is it not dangerous enough to make a difference in such a society?
SJ: So, to speak only for my own institutional and community context: Union was founded as a Presbyterian seminary, but has for the past hundred years been a very deeply ecumenical seminary, and now it is increasingly inter-religious – our largest group of students, if you are trying to check the box of a religious identification, are unaffiliated, and then the second largest group are Buddhists, and then there are Episcopalians, and then the rest fall into different denominational categories. In interreligious conversations, we often use the term “double belonging” to describe someone who is part of more than one religious community, or is part of one community but incorporates the practices of another, and can’t neatly slot themselves into one or the other fixed identity or framework. And that’s challenging to many ways that we’ve been accustomed to thinking about religious affiliation over the past decades, but our students take it for granted. Their understanding is that not only double belonging but multiple belonging is a coherent and meaningful way of being in the world.
What I’m saying is that, at Union at least, the ecumenical identity that was hard-won over so many years has become pervasive and presupposed – more important than ever, really, but harder to see because it names the normal reality of most of our community’s religious experience. So maybe, part of the work of ecumenism today is to facilitate an understanding of how multiple we actually are, how complex and un-contained by the tidy little boxes that we’ve assumed we need to fit into, boxes that separate us from one another. That’s the case, by the way, even if you think you are one thing only, with no ambiguity in sight – for instance, how many evangelicals, utterly committed to a view of themselves as living a strictly Bible-based identity, are going to exercise classes that include yoga stretches, or adopting meditation practices into their prayer life that derive, whether they know it or not, from Buddhist practices that have been going on for thousands of years? Ecumenism may seem to be in a period of decline, but that’s an optical illusion of sorts – the formal endeavors may in some circles seem to be out of touch or unnecessary, but that’s only because the attitudes that they engendered over the last century have become so central to our lives together.
AH: I appreciate what you’re saying – that ecumenism can come off as outdated, precisely because it seems to keep banging away at problems that many of us simply assume have already been solved. Part of that is on the ecumenists who imagine their work as a linear quest with very specific victory conditions, thereby missing the ways that much of what they have sought is already achieved, even as it may look very different from or even opposed to what they had envisioned. But another part of this impression of ecumenism as outdated, I think, relates to the way that it continues to resist being caught up in the centrifugal forces that power so much of our contemporary culture, pushing every possible endeavor and value to one “side” or the other. Ecumenism doesn’t quite polarize this way. It may seem paradoxical that ecumenism could be viewed simultaneously as unacceptably liberal and unacceptably conservative, but it’s only paradoxical within the tally sheet of the sectarian epistemology it resists and attempts to explode.
Maybe that’s wishful thinking; it could be just as likely that we have two mutually exclusive ecumenisms that have bifurcated along predictably moral-political lines. But I would hope that, if ecumenism is actually going to be more than a rearranging of ecclesiastical deck chairs, it can go beyond seeking understanding of that multiplicity and relationality in who we are, beyond celebrating diversity or bemoaning division, and really work to equip people and institutions with pragmatic tools – I’ve written about my understanding of twenty-first-century ecumenics as a “toolkit” for repairing relationships, not least by way of looking honestly and courageously at our the ideologies of opposition baked into our own sense of self.9 The history of ecumenism (whatever we might want to say about its formal enactment at one or another time and place) has been richly productive of tools for making sense of our own and others’ ways of being in the world more productively than we are otherwise capable of doing. It’s rarely pleasurable to look under the surface of all the things that we think make us who we are – particularly as participants in religious traditions – but when we are equipped and motivated to do so, we find that our ideas of what’s true, our habitual and institutionalized forms of social organization, our interlocking identities, and our power relations are all bound up with one another and with social forces that are only ever partially in our perception and control.10 But ecumenism done right should be disturbing, should require that we are both willing and able to confront honestly those elements of our cherished traditions that have failed to live up to our professed values or have succumbed to the enticements of the powers of this world.
SJ: It can be so hard to look at where we came from, and at all the ingredients of history that went into the stew that we are – especially when we are accustomed to place our heritage on a pedestal. That’s not to say we can’t take pride in who we are, or that our heritage is necessarily depraved – but looking honestly at where we came from helps us get better at identifying and embracing all the healthy intake to our spiritual selves, and also better at identifying the toxic ingredients that are killing us or corroding our relations with others. Such toxic elements run through all our traditions – they’re not something to be ashamed of or to hide away where no one will see, so long as we’re willing to take responsibility for them and their influence on the present. If ecumenical engagement is to mean anything, I think it needs not only to identify such toxins in our own and each other’s shared history, but also to try to address what it would mean to help each other clear them out and become healthier together. What are the life-giving resources in each of our traditions, different though they are and often violently opposed though they have been, that will aid us in opening our hearts to one another and collaboratively committing to healing our ways of being together?
AH: But this is where ecumenism has to be more than an ideal – what we’re talking about here is not something we’re necessarily able to do, even if we are convinced that it’s needed. Ecumenics is sterile if it doesn’t contribute practical methodology for such rehabilitation, such rectification, both on the level of individuals’ spiritual and moral formation and on the level of communities’ and denominational bodies’ public engagement and power relations.
Now that we have these headier, broader concerns in view, I’d like to conclude our conversation by returning to the legacy of Union Theological Seminary, and looking to the future. You have described Union as a seminary “responsive to the claims of the world upon the church”: how would you articulate more specifically what those claims include in the present moment, and what is something especially needed that Union is engaged in envisioning and enacting for the coming years?
SJ: This year, starting in September, we will be launching a series of fully online programs – a certificate in interreligious engagement, a certificate in social justice, a spirituality certificate, and a certificate in religion and the Black experience. My point here is not to advertise what Union is doing – it’s to look at what this development reflects and why it’s needed. At this moment in time, theological education is a changing landscape, and the resources of a place like Union – which is so committed not only to supporting vocations to religious and interreligious leadership but also to addressing the urgent needs of the world and empowering individuals and communities who thirst for justice – need to be made available to more people. These people, asking crucial questions about social and political life in their own contexts and connecting them to their spiritual formation, need structure and guidance but can’t necessarily uproot and come to New York. When we look at where we are as a nation and where we are globally, we increasingly recognize it as an institutional opportunity and obligation to extend the reach of Union’s mission and the gifts of our faculty.
That said, in terms of our hopes for the future – when I look at Union’s student body, I see that they’re enormously hopeful, but what the reality of climate change and climate catastrophe is doing to the horizon of their hope is profound. And what the pandemic has done to the horizon of hope, in light of our fragility as human beings in a fragile society, is profound. I don’t yet know how to talk about that, but I know that – to use the landscape metaphor again – the ground on which we stand is undergoing cataclysmic tremors that are directly related to how we understand what to hope for and what that hope will be worth. And that, in essence, is the work of Union: to learn how to stand firm and unafraid on that shifting ground, even when we can’t know what it will mean that we are doing so. Standing, nevertheless.
Serene Jones, Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World. NYC: Penguin Books, 2019.
See Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2001, a collaborative digital project between the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. https://uncivilreligion.org/home/uncivil-religion-january-6-2021?path=index, accessed 1 March 2022.
John Calvin, Institutes 1.11.8.
Evagrius Ponticus, On Prayer 8.
See Jones, Call It Grace, 195-198.
See Jones, Call It Grace, 198-208.
See Jones, Call It Grace, 246.
See James Loughran, SA, and Aaron Hollander, “Beyond the Open Door: Building on Fifty Years of Ecumenical Trends.” Ecumenical Trends 50.6 (2021): 1-10.
See Aaron T. Hollander, “Fundamental Ecumenics Revisited: A Near-Forgotten Intellectual Framework as a Toolkit for the Mid-Twenty-First Century.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 56.2 (2021): 161-199.
This framework in which ecumenics involves investigating the “collusion” of epistemology, sociality, identity, and power derives originally from Peter Lengsfeld and the Catholic Ecumenical Institute of Münster, whose “fundamental ecumenics” framework has been retrieved and recalibrated for the present by, especially, Maria Wernsmann and myself. See again Hollander, “Fundamental Ecumenics Revisited,” and Wernsmann, Praxis, Probleme und Perspektiven ökumenischer Prozessen: ein Beitrag zur Theoriebildung (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2016).
This interview originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Ecumenical Trends, a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.