“What are people for?”

Dr. Molly Marshall, formerly of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary–now, happily, the President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas, taught theology at Southern Seminary while I was there in the early 90s. She was the first female Associate Professor of Theology at Southern. I am still saddened to say that she is also, likely, the last. (If you’d like to read more about these events, take a look at Michael Westmoreland-White’s excellent posting. Michael was a grader for Molly at Southern. His tribute is well worth your time.)

Rather than rehash the evil that has commandeered the only Seminary that I ever thought I would attend, I would rather deal with a question that Dr. Marshall asked us once in her Intro to Christian Theology class. (Full disclosure: I still review my notes from those classes from time to time, and I’m still struggling to understand many of them. I’ve never worked harder in a class. For example, if someone on this Earth can explain for me what the phrase “the economy of God” means, I will be forever grateful.)

Near the end of a class one day, Dr. Marshall was talking about her experiences defending her Doctoral dissertation. As with any defense, she was nervous and frighten by what questions she might be asked. Those questions, I’m sure, covered in great detail the breath and depth of the study of God, but there was one, and frankly only one, that stuck with me. She said that she thought that she was handling the questions well until she came around to Dr. Dale Moody.

Dr. Moody was notorious for his ability to cut through bull shit, and he was old and wise enough that he was allowed to do so as he saw fit. When Dr. Moody’s opportunity came to speak, Dr. Marshall said that he looked at her and asked her one very simple question. “Ms. Marshall. Please tell me, what are people for?”

The power of a question shows up once again. Thanks Moishe. I can’t remember her answer. Somehow, I doubt that I even heard it as at the very moment that she repeated that question, I was off chasing after my own answer. (Which I’m certain was Dr. Marshall’s point.)

That’s the beauty of going to Seminary right after college. It takes a young 22 year old who just graduated from college many years to realize that he doesn’t know jack. Going to seminary hastens that realization along considerably.

So, what are people for? My first thought, as I was deep in existentialism at the time, was that people aren’t for anything at all. People exist. What we do with that existence is entirely, despairingly, our own choice. Our purpose, in short, is what we choose it to be. The crucial question then is how will I choose to live with those surrounding me?

I recall sharing with my best man and friend from seminary once that I needed to find a way of combining Existentialism and Liberation Theology. That’s my Holy Grail. It’s my Unifying theory. It’s the other question that keeps me awake at night. I think that maybe the question that Dr. Moody asked a nervous doctoral candidate is the beginning of understanding. (Questions are never endings.)

Funny that I didn’t begin to understand this until I became a parent.

I’ve never had anyone who needed me as much as Emma on the day that she came into this world. The only day that came close was when Matthew was born.

Today when I came home, they were on the trampoline together. Matthew bounces up to Emma and takes her hands. Round and round they go, until they fall down laughing in a heap. Together.

So, like the kids, we come round and round to the question, what are people for?

And like the kids, who despite all the barriers that autism throws up to separate them still find a way to laugh, to play, to dance, bounce and love, people are for each other.

When we choose to lay aside our isolation, when we choose to leap across the abyss that separates us from each other, when we choose to look out for more than our own self interests and grab the hand of our sister to go bounce, we simply know what people are for. People are for each other.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. That assumes a “first” man living alone for a while, right? I don’t assume that. Community is as much a part of being human as breathing, so, the response still applies. What do you think?

  2. Excellent. Thank you, thank you. Reading your words took me back to my days at Southern. I remember similar wrestlings, in Dr. Tupper’s class. You’re so right…I didn’t get this at 22. But, at 22, I did realize that there was much, much, much I didn’t know. Still at 22 +, there’s much, much, much that I don’t know and more that I don’t understand. Life experience, however, has taught me that people are for each other. Daily, I must choose how I’m going to live with those who surround me. Daily, I must choose what to give away, and what to hold on to dearly…and why. Marriage, and parenting…there’s nothing more difficult, and nothing more sacred. Well worth the blood, sweat, and tears.

    Once again, thank you Russell!

    1. You were clearly wiser than I was, Renee. I didn’t know anything then, and I’m fairly certain that I don’t now either! 🙂

      Do take a look at Michael’s link if you haven’t. It did much more to take me back to Southern than anything I wrote.

      And you’re right, there isn’t anything better. Thanks for reading.

  3. Just for the record, I was never a grader for Molly Marshall. I graded for Glen Stassen, Paul Simmons, and once for Dave Gushee, but never for Molly. She did officiate at my wedding and was a member of my dissertation committee.

    You might be interested in Wendell Berry’s collection of essays entitled What Are People For?.

    1. Opps. I knew you were a grader for someone . . . Must have been Simmons I was thinking of. Were you his grader for The Church and Sexuality?

      Like Paul, that was my last class and semester at Southern.

      Thanks for the suggestion about Berry’s book. I’ll look it up. (and I’ll make the correction, too.)

  4. No, not a “first man” at all. First “humanity” to relate to God ie have God’s spirit within and for me at least, became humanity/people. There is a distinction in the narrative however between the creation of A-Dam and the need of the “other”. That need supports your supposition but you have to deal with the fact that A-dam was first created without the “other”. Independent. So A-dam could not have been “created for” just the “other”. Doesn’t that indicate a purpose for God? In the surrounding cultures, humanity was created solely for the needs of the gods. People made them food, worked for the gods, did their dirty work, etc. Shouldn’t it therefore stand to reason that people were created for Yahweh?

      1. My point is this: I don’t believe there was a time when humanity amounted to a single individual. I think we have always lived in community. Thus, one answer is that people are for each other.

  5. Ahhhh. “one answer”. I can go with that. Actually, if someone had been in class Sunday evening that someone would have heard the teacher say, “We best represent the image of God when we are in community.” The teacher also made mention and gave credit to Geek Palaver’s chief geek for his thoughts on the subject.

  6. When it gets down to just you and me on this thing … we’re either to deep for others or what we’re standing is too deep. You pick.

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