4031 Starr King President's Lecture
Speaker: The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry
"Only when the deepest questions are asked," President Rebecca Parker of the Starr King School of Ministry said, "do the deepest answers become available to us. Mercy, grace, and hope are found by moving through those difficult moments of life."
Parker shared the podium at the annual Starr King President's Lecture with her former student the Rev. Robert Hardies, now the senior minister of All Souls Church in Washington, DC. Hardies is the editor of a new volume of Parker's essays Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now.
Hardies used his time to describe how the book came to be, and to provide an overview of Parker's theology. He proposed the book to Parker because he wanted a collection of her work for his own use, and in order to bring "all the work buried on her desk" to public attention.
He described Parker as "still at heart a pastor" in spite of her academic position, and characterized her theology as "filled with a pastor's sensitivity and pastoral insight, the stories of real people's lives." He observed, "Not all theology is like that."
A central premise of the book, Hardies said, is that "moments of despair can be opportunities for theological breakthrough." Three choices present themselves when our theological tradition is not responding to the facts of our lives: deny our life experience; reject our tradition; or "become theologians and come to a new understanding of our faith." In this view, "theology doesn't just take salvation as its subject, theologizing is itself a saving act."
A key concept in Parker's theology is the post-apocalyptic vision. "As we enter the new millennium," she wrote in the book's second essay "After the Apocalypse," "we need to see ourselves as people living in the aftermath of cataclysmic violence rather than as people awaiting the overthrow of the present world order and the birth of the new. ... From this place of honesty, we must discover how we can live among the ruins."
Parker's theology, Hardies said, "is strong because her house is built from the rubble of the apocalypse, from the timbers that have survived the fire."
After listening to Hardies and Starr King Professor the Rev. Alma Crawford (who introduced Hardies), Parker began her own comments by saying "It's quite an experience to listen to yourself and your work being described. ... Sometimes what people receive from your sermon is more than you knew you were putting into it."
She described the post-apocalyptic vision as a "countermove" against the apocalyptic vision that sees America as the vehicle bringing in a new age. The view that "God is going to destroy the evil empires and bring in a new creation," she said, "allows all kinds of violence to be justified."
"Our way of life is not a path of salvation we can export to the world. The reality of our nation is a history of horrible injustices and violence."
Hardies returned to the microphone and characterized Parker's thought as balancing two traditions in liberal theology, each of which is inadequate by itself. The prophetic tradition is "aware of suffering and attuned to the brokenness of the world," while the humanist tradition is "sensitive to the redemptive capacity within human beings." In isolation the prophetic tradition leads to a "nay-saying doomsday theology," while the humanist tradition becomes naively optimistic. Hardies located Parker's balance in the line of Unitarian theology that descends from William Ellery Channing and James Luther Adams.
Parker closed the lecture by reading a story from her essay "On This Shining Night" that Hardies described as his favorite part of the book. Parker told of a period of deep personal despair that culminated late one night in a decision to drown herself. As she walked down to a nearby lake, she found the water's edge barricaded by an unexpected obstacle: the Seattle Astronomy Club, their telescopes set up and trained on the clear night sky. Assuming that she, like them, had come to watch the stars, club members showed her a spiral galaxy and the planet Jupiter. "That night," she concluded, "I was saved by people who held fast to their desire to see the beauty of the universe."