Disciples Divinity House

of the University of Chicago

Distinguished Alumnus Address by Ian J. McCrae July 23, 2007

A native of Canada who earned his A.B. from the University of Toronto, Ian James McCrae received his B.D. in 1950 from the University of Chicago as a Disciples Divinity House Scholar. In Chicago, he met Cynthia Rice, who was a student at Chicago Theological Seminary. They married and have five children. He received his S.T.M. from Yale Divinity School in 1958; in 2006 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree by Christian Theological Seminary.

Mr. McCrae, who directed denominational efforts in human rights, economic justice, and global awareness for nearly thirty years, also served in campus ministry and as a seminary professor. Later he was the volunteer assisting minister at Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, Kansas.

The Distinguished Alumnus Award commended him "for a lifetime of service across the breadth of the church as advocate, educator, minister, and colleague, as provoker of questions and change, and as lover of God, neighbors, and strangers; for your keen mind, clear vision, and sharp wit and for vistas of mercy and justice opened because of them; for mentoring persons in ministry, amidst the priesthood of all believers; and for a life of faith that melds and models conviction, integrity, honesty, and humility."

Mr. McCrae was introduced by daughter Linda McCrae, who is Senior Minister of Central Christian Church in Indianapolis, and DDH Trustee Holly McKissick, who is Senior Minister of Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, Kansas. Ms. McCrae recounted, "Over the years my father enjoyed, and still does, posing open-ended questions about some current or indeed eternal topic to get a discussion going." He did this in formal education settings and over the family breakfast table. He never feared the questions; he knew they could lead to real growth. Ms. McKissick concluded, saying, "Ian, we honor you today for the way you have held the world, held the pain of the world, held the mystery of the world . . . with strength, humility, humor, poetry, compassion, and, finally an assurance of only one thing: The only thing greater than our cry is God's ability to listen to our cry."

William James began his Gifford Lectures, published as Varieties of Religious Experience, with this sentence: "It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place behind this desk, and face this learned audience." I can identify with that.

All of us who have received this honor have expressed our gratitude, our surprise and our recognition that there are others equally deserving. I feel this with particular potency. When I arrived in the windy city in the summer of 1947, I enrolled in Garrett Theological Seminary, as you recall a Methodist institution in Evanston. During that summer there was a regional meeting of the interseminary fellowship, a once-vigorous organization. And at the meeting, again either by accident or by divine intervention (assuming there is a difference), I found myself chatting with Bernie Loomer. He asked me what I was doing and when I reported, he replied, "Well, you have two choices, you can stay at Garrett and get an excellent training for the ministry or you can come to Chicago and learn to think!" It was an overstatement of the case, but there was some truth in that judgment.

I enrolled in the Divinity School and in due course of time, motivated not by theological reasons but because the Divinity School which was providing my scholarship wanted me in inexpensive housing, I found myself moved into the Disciples Divinity House. At that moment I had never heard of the Disciples of Christ. I had grown up in Toronto, Canada, a member of the United Church of Canada which for some reason the Canadian Disciples had chosen not to join.

What happened to me at the House was a classic example of the claim that faith is caught rather than taught. I enjoyed everything about the House. In classes I perhaps did not learn to think for the first time but I did become committed to the importance of thinking. Worship at the Chapel of the Holy Grail and at Rockefeller Chapel nourished my soul. The weekly gatherings, evening sessions that sometimes correctly could be labeled "bull," were idea-clarifying.

At the House, I met some who would become dear friends for life. Sixty years later, we still live within five minutes of Betty and Dale Miller and Myra and Walter Abel. For many a long year, we shared Thanksgiving with Barbara and Russ Fuller. And I have been grateful to know some who have received this honor in previous years. I had the privilege of preaching at the twenty-fifth anniversary of Art Azlein's ministry at Michigan Park Church in Washington D.C. Art was committed to racial diversity before most of us had heard the term. Much that I know about the tactics of social action I learned from Barton Hunter. I began my ministry almost next door to Dan Genung at All Peoples in Los Angeles. Dan was another alumnus far ahead of this time.

Here I must parenthetically say that all that DDH gave me was the second most important gift I received at Chicago. My most important teacher then and since came from down the street at CTS and is still with me today, a gift beyond my deserving.

I do not blame the House for certain positions I have come to but it is certainly partly responsible. I hold these ideas with great firmness - at least for the moment.

I am increasingly aware that there is an illness abroad in the land. Among some sectors of the population-politicians, some scientists and economists, and too many religious folk-it has reached pandemic proportions. I speak not of AIDS or diabetes. Instead I refer to EC or Excessive Certainty, sometimes referred to as DCM, Dogmatic Close-Mindedness. A title of a recently published book captures the institutional form of the disease - Imperial Hubris. While there is some truth in my friend Bill Nottingham's statement that "we must not be too immodest about what we don't know" (if you sort out all the negatives in that sentence, it is an affirmation that some conclusions are knowable), I am bothered by anything smacking of dogmatism especially with regard to faith issues.

Some years ago, Larry Rasmussen of Union Theological Seminary published what he claimed to be the results of a new Peterson-Bridgewater technique for interstellar interrogation. The Cosmic Inquiry asked several thousand galaxies beyond the Milky Way, "In your judgment, was the arrival of humankind a good thing, on balance, for the universe?" The response was "Who?"

A transcription from a particularly outspoken quasar, Cygnus X-1, was reported: "There are approximately 100 billion stars in what you call the Milky Way. The Milky Way is one of approximately 100 billion or so galaxies. So we live in a fair-sized universe with genuine seniority. And it is, I'm told, growing all the time. The elder quasar in my neighborhood-she lives 24 million miles north, by your strange measures-says she remembers when the universe was rather small, 14.5 billion years ago or so."

"Now, do you not think your question terribly inflates the significance of your species? Is it not the epitome of cosmic arrogance to ask us about the value of a few little animalcules crawling about on the merest of the motes but for a speck of time in an endless and infinitely magnificent evolution?"

I am sobered by those four chapters where God has a chat with Job. "Who is this that darkens counsels by words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" Would that more of our contemporaries might respond with Job, "I have uttered what I did not understand."

If we are seeking philosophical endorsement, we might use Whitehead's statement: "There remains the final reflection, how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths of the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to the finality of statement is an exhibition of folly." I prefer Franklin Gamwell's terse statement (I think in a talk given at DDH after I had left but printed in the DDH Bulletin). He said something like this: "There is one thing I can say for certain. I was born a human being, I became a Christian, I will die a human being."

When I am tempted to announce that my knowledge of the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of this universe is pretty complete, I try to at least to smile. I also struggle with how best to sound a note of hope in the times in which we live. Our therapist daughter tells me that the fundamental question that clients bring is: "Is there any hope?"

It is certainly easy to be discouraged either in our personal struggles or with the society in which we live. We are embroiled in a war which will surely go down as one of the worst disasters in American foreign policy. In many a classroom, the racial makeup is little different than it was before Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, and the latest report shows that 50% of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are not graduating from high school. In spite of adequate food supplies in the world, 24,000 children die of hunger-related conditions every day. And lest we have compassion fatigue, we need to remember that they die one at a time.

And what do we make of a political economics that gives vast bonuses to the already wealthy while the agencies that deal with the truly destitute are overwhelmed with the need? I naively believed that at least we could agree as a nation that torture was always wrong, but now we know that even though it is congressionally banned, it is clearly a part of government policy. Small wonder that there is suspicion of large organizations, whether public or private.

Where do we find hope? It can, of course, be stated theologically. But I think for our time, what is needed is an incarnational understanding of where hope is to be found: Peter was a four year old whom I knew very well. He was being brought home from pre-school by his mother safely tucked in the back seat of the car. As they came over a slight rise in the road, his mother Carol saw a magnificent rainbow ahead and called Peter's attention to it. Peter looked just for a moment and then announced, "Way to go, God, way to go!"

If we are open-minded and open-hearted, it is impressive what God is up to. Way to go, God, way to go! Each of you could come up with your own list. I give you just one. In 1992, two attorneys discovered a study that claimed that there were possibly 100,000 prisoners in our so-called criminal justice system that were innocent. Using students from Benjamin Cardoso School of Law at Yeshiva University and with new DNA technology, they decided to see if they could prove the innocence of some. To date, 203 "criminals" who had served an average of twelve years in incarceration have been freed-fifteen of those had been on death row. Way to go, God, way to go!

But do these little efforts on our part make any ultimate difference in the scheme of things? Is there really hope? I don't know but we are challenged to live by the words of the Quaker, Harry Bonaro Overstreet: "You say the little efforts that I make are of no avail; they never will prevail to tip the hovering scale where justice hangs in the balance. I don't think I ever thought that they would. But I am prejudiced beyond debate in favor of my right to choose which side shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight."

If we prefer a poetic statement of the case, consider these lines of W.H. Auden:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

And I continue to stew about the relationship of theology and ethics. I have long been interested in the fact that when people join our Christian communities, we ask them to make a statement of belief. Is it not time that in addition to their acceptance of Jesus as the Christ and their personal Savior, we also ask for a commitment that they will with God's help try to live a Christ-like life? It is an affirmation that ethics is as central to our faith as theology. Of course our ethics as Christians must be rooted in our theological understandings. Where else could it possibly be rooted? But that theology must result in Christian activity.

Cynthia taught for over twenty years in a preschool that met in the church where we were members. One evening, I called the home of one of her four year olds to talk to the mother about church business. The four year old answered the phone and I asked to speak to his mother. Very politely he asked who I was. I told him. He turned to his mother and said "Someone on the telephone is using Mrs. McCrae's name." I realized that I was being accepted in that home because I came in the name of someone who was respected, trusted, loved.

In a sense, every one of us has been walking in the name of DDH since we left that institution. More fundamentally we have been attempting to walk in the name of Jesus Christ. That is an awesome responsibility and a high privilege.

So be it! Amen!