Above: The peer mentors stop to pose for a photo in front of the Press Administration Building, while taking a walk around Eden’s campus. (From left: J. Samuel Subramanian (UTS), Pamela Ayo Yetunde (UTS), Damayanthi Niles (Eden), Soe, Bo Myung (CTS), Sharon Tan (Eden) and Eleazar Fernandez (UTS))

A grant from Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion made it possible for six faculty of color, from three seminaries, in three states to meet on Sept. 27 and 28 at Eden, for the first of two meetings.

The group, “Leading from the Margins,” started by Dr. Sharon Tan, Acting Dean of the Seminary and Professor of Theological Ethics at Eden, explored the family system model to see how it can help them think through agency, power, and connections.

The group consists of Eden professors Dr. Damayanthi Niles, professor of Constructive Theology and Dr. Tan. As well as Eleazer Fernandez, J. Samuel Subramanian and Pamela Ayo Yetunde professors from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and Bo Myung Seo from Chicago Theological Seminary. They are all minority professors from United Church of Christ Seminaries and in the Midwest.

“This Wabash grant is aimed at supporting mid-career minority faculty in leadership training,” Tan said. “It’s a well-known organization that seeks to improve the quality of teaching and learning in theology.”

They do several types of workshops with different types of faculty. Tan found out about the opportunity after being involved in another Wabash workshop, which looked at issues of race and theological education. Last spring, she submitted a grant application and after working to shape what it would look like, received the grant for the 2019-2020 academic year.

“Leading from the margins” was inspired from when Tan first became dean several years ago at United Seminary and realized she needed to learn more about leadership and leading other people in a theological sense.

“I started trying to do some reading in that and there’s a ton a business leadership material out there. I realized that material was written by white people for white people,” Tan said. “Some of the advice didn’t seem to fit and didn’t address some things that I was looking for answers to.”

When this grant opportunity came up, Tan decided to extend the idea to other colleagues to think about how they might be able to add to and talk about theological leadership.

The name, “Leading from the Margins,” came from the reality that minority faculty can feel like they are not at the center when working at a majority white institution.

“They’re on the margins of the dominant culture. There have been books about doing theology from the margins, doing ethics from margins, so the term ‘from the margin’ is not totally unknown,” Tan said.

Leadership from the margins will be an opportunity for those in the group to feel like they are not on the margin, their learning and development as leaders are the purpose, not a byproduct, of the study.

“We talked about the nature of belonging and I think everybody left feeling that they belonged to each other,” Tan said.

Niles said when she got together with the group, she no longer felt like she had to explain her thought process, what she was saying just clicked with the other professors.

“It was very powerful to not be on the sidelines,” she said.

Niles said it was nice that the six of them work in different fields, areas of interest and have connected in so many cool ways.

“We could free think. We had the fun of imagining wildly,” Niles said.

They will meet again, next spring or early summer.

“In between now and the next (in person) meeting there will be Zoom meetings once a month. Doing some reading and talking,” Tan said.

The hope is to keep the group going with an outcome, in the next few years, of an edited volume.

One of the professors in attendance was Eleazar S. Fernandez, a professor at United. He is the most senior of the group that met, and the most famous, Tan said.

“For the last five or six years, he’s also been president of Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines. He doesn’t sleep,” Tan said. “He works in the daytime here (at United) and in the nighttime here, he works for the Philippines, daytime there.”

Tan said that he’s enormously productive and it was an honor to have him there.

“He doesn’t go around telling people what he knows, he asks questions,” Tan said.

“What I wanted from him, and I’ve told him, is a comparison of the power he has as a minority faculty member here (at United), he’s the most senior one but minority in a majority white institution. To being president in the Philippines where he’s not only the most powerful (as president) but also in the majority race and culture. What does he get to do there that he doesn’t get to do here, some insight into comparing those,” Tan said.

“He seemed intrigued by the question, although I’m pretty sure he’s thought about it.”

He didn’t give an answer that weekend.

“I think he wants to figure out more about what he wants to say before he says it.”

Tan said it was a productive and encouraging couple of days.

“I think diversity is a gift,” Tan said. “People who we don’t know, people from other cultures bring gifts. We want those gifts, it makes all of us better people.”

The group enjoying dinner at Tei Too.

Eden Theological Seminary will award honorary degrees at its upcoming May 17th commencement to three outstanding leaders whose accomplishments in St. Louis and around the world embody the values which are fundamental to Eden.

“These dedicated leaders demonstrate unwavering commitment to the church. Their faithful service is changing lives both within their communities and around the world,” said David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary.  “We are humbled by their accomplishments and proud to bestow these degrees upon them.”

The 2019 Eden Theological Seminary honorary degree recipients include:

Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree – Reverend Musa Kipkorir Kapkong Maina of Eldoret, Kenya, Moderator of the Reformed Church of East Africa (RCEA).  Rev. Maina is a 2005 graduate of Eden Seminary, earning a Master’s in Theological Studies (MTS) degree. His education at Eden allowed him to engage the RCEA in progressive ideas that are inclusive of women as preachers and worship leaders.  He has also been a strong and bold leader in his church for the ordination of women. Last July he helped achieve this milestone transformation when, for the first time in RCEA’s history, women were ordained as ministers in the RCEA church.  His efforts, with support from Eden and others, also resulted in the first RCEA woman, Everlyne Biboko, to attend Eden and earn a MTS degree to prepare for ordination in the RCEA church. Rev. Maina attributes this progressive church advancement, in part, to the insight he gained of women in leadership roles in many U.S. churches while studying at Eden.

Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree – Reverend Philister Tuwei Keter, of Nairobi, Kenya, the first woman ordained in the Reformed Church of East Africa (RCEA).  Her persistence and urging helped make this transformation of that church possible.  Born into a humble background, Rev. Keter has volunteered in her church since high school and then studied divinity at St. Paul’s University in Nairobi at a time when women had no hope for becoming ordained. Saying that gender equity is central to serving God, she is now a voice for the voiceless and vulnerable people in society.  Rev. Keter embodies the energy, passion and determination of all the newly-ordained RCEA women.

Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters – Mrs. Jean Dremstedt, a laywoman from Evansville, Indiana.  Jean is well-known, and many times honored, for her life-long support and commitment to charitable causes. She served Eden as a trustee for twelve years, chairing the Advancement Committee, and has been a strong financial supporter of Eden.  She is a member of Bethlehem United Church of Christ and has served with distinction on the board of the Deaconess Hospital of Evansville and the Retirement Housing Foundation of the United Church of Christ.  In 2005, she received the Samuel D. Press Service Award, named for the seventh president of Eden Theological Seminary, to recognize and honor outstanding service to Eden and its mission.

Honorary Degrees and Awards recognize ordained ministers whom Eden believes are models for ordained ministries connected with the traditions, ministries, ecumenical concerns, and values that have been central to Eden and to the United Church of Christ.  The Honorary Degrees and Awards also recognize laity who have lived out their baptismal ministry through their vocations, through their service to society or community, through their service to the church or through some particular witness that expresses commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Eden’s commencement will be held on May 17, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. at Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ, 826 Union Boulevard in St. Louis.  In addition to the honorary degree presentation, Rev. Dr. Ted A. Smith, Associate Professor of Preaching and Ethics at Candler School of Theology – Emory University, will deliver the ceremony’s commencement address.

From Carter to Comey, the legacy of “Washington’s Favorite Theologian”  endures.
Christianity Today, Elesha Coffman, May 19, 2017

Nearly 50 years since his death, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr still routinely makes headlines. A high-profile documentary, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, debuted earlier this year. Recently deposed FBI director James Comey “almost certainly” used his name for his private Twitter account. Ten years ago, TheAtlantic declared “Everybody Loves Reinhold”; last month, Religion & Politics called him “Washington’s Favorite Theologian.” He commands respect from left (Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama) and right (John McCain, David Brooks). So what’s the attraction?

Here are five aspects of Niebuhr’s work that help explain his enduring relevance.

1. He thought big.

Niebuhr titled his 1938–40 Gifford Lectures (the most illustrious theology lecture series in the world) “The Nature and Destiny of Man.” On page 1 of the published volume 1, he wrote, “Man has always been his own most vexing problem. How shall he think of himself?” By page 2, he was pondering “the admitted evils of human history,” “the question of the value of human life,” and “whether life is worth living.” These are not questions limited to a single church, era, or school of biblical interpretation. The resources Niebuhr brought to bear on them were similarly broad, encompassing Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; ancient, medieval, and modern theology and philosophy; and the social sciences.

Positively, the grand scale of Niebuhr’s work meant that he could engage almost anyone. Who hasn’t wondered about the problem of evil or the value of human life? (Scribner’s was sufficiently convinced of the appeal of The Nature and Destiny of Man to publish a two-volume, mass-market paperback edition in 1963. The Modern Library ranked it one of the top 20 non-fiction books of the 20th century.) On the other hand, big books full of big ideas are prone to divergent interpretation. It makes sense that people from different points on an ideological spectrum could look at Niebuhr and see what they’re looking for while missing what others see in the same work.

2. He acknowledged sin.

The early 1900s saw the rise of strain of liberal theology famously caricatured by Niebuhr’s brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, in the sentence: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Reinhold joined his brother in disdaining this glib gospel, especially in light of the horrors of WWI and WWII. In earlier work, such as Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), he held out hope that individuals could choose selflessness and justice motivated by love, but he cautioned that groups of people would always seek their own advantage to the detriment of others. “The larger the group,” he wrote, “the more certainly will it express itself selfishly in the total human community.”

He eventually grew more pessimistic about individuals as well, viewing them as not only prone to do bad things but as indelibly tainted by original sin. In 1954, when asked by This Week magazine to identify the key verse in the Bible, he selected Ephesians 4:32 (“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”) Andrew Finstuen explained in Original Sin and Everyday Protestants, “For Niebuhr, without an acknowledgement of the universality and inescapability of sin, Christianity—and by extension his deeply Christian criticism—had no center of gravity.” Each historical recurrence of man’s inhumanity to man affirms this insight.

3. He prized action.

Niebuhr didn’t always agree with his brother. In 1932, they exchanged articles in The Christian Century on the topic of American intervention against Japanese imperialism and, more broadly, Christian involvement in politics. H. Richard argued for “The Grace of Doing Nothing,” but Reinhold countered, “Must We Do Nothing?” Reinhold became an early, vocal advocate for American entry into WWII, a stance that accelerated a rupture with the pacifist editor of the Century and led him to launch his own magazine, Christianity and Crisis.

The United States continued to pursue activist internationalism after WWII, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, so Niebuhr’s blessing of such actions remained popular. Although Niebuhr never held political office (his 1932 run for Congress, on the Socialist party ticket, failed), he became a political figure, founding Americans for Democratic Action and serving on the Council on Foreign Relations. In this sense, politicians who claim fealty to Niebuhr aren’t so much admiring a prophetic outsider as heaping laurels on a hero of their own tribe.

4. But … irony.

The main thing that prevented Niebuhr from being a court theologian for the American political class was his rich sense of irony, most notably expounded in The Irony of American History (1952). Just as the United States was draping itself in righteousness for an epic battle against godless Communism, Niebuhr warned how easily America’s virtues could become vices, how often the nation declaimed the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the plank in its own, how many times the best-laid plans resulted in disaster.

In a Pew Forum on Niebuhr in 2009, Wilfred M. McClay highlighted a quote from the book, “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimated.” In other words, Niebuhr said to American leaders, go ahead and throw your weight around, but don’t pretend that your motives are pure, and don’t be shocked if you achieve something less than justice. The first part of that advice has been heeded more often than the latter two.

5. He really did write the Serenity Prayer.

Tracing the authorship of this famous prayer (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”) became something of a cottage industry a few years ago, but the best available evidence supports Niebuhr’s authorship. This is relevant to assessing his enduring appeal for a couple of reasons.

One, many, many people—including countless members of Alcoholics Anonymous—know something of Niebuhr’s theology even if they have never heard his name. Two, the prayer is a reminder that Niebuhr was a pastor (Evangelical and Reformed Church) before he was a celebrated theologian and foreign policy expert, and faith was not merely an intellectual exercise for him. He speaks to leaders of the free world as well as individuals trapped in addiction. For all of these reasons, he remains worth wrestling with.

Elesha Coffman is assistant professor of history at Baylor University and author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (Oxford).


Reinhold Niebuhr graduated from Eden Theological Seminary in 1913.