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.