Distinguished Alumnus Address (Raymond B. Williams)
Raymond B. Williams October 18, 2003
Raymond Williams became a Disciples Divinity House Scholar in 1960 and earned the A.M. and Ph.D. degrees at the Divinity School. He had already earned degrees from Johnson Bible College and Phillips University. In 1965, he joined the faculty of Wabash College in Indiana as an instructor in religion. He devoted his entire teaching career to Wabash, retiring in 1999 as the Charles D. and Elizabeth S. LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities. He also founded the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion and served as its director until 2002. From 1985-96, he was a member of DDH Board of Trustees. He served as its Secretary and also chaired the Dean Search Committee.
Mr. Williams, who trained as a scholar of the New Testament, became one of the foremost interpreters of immigrants and their religious traditions. His numerous books include studies of Swaminarayan Hinduism, Indian immigrant experiences, and Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America. At the same time, he never stopped teaching his "academic first love," the New Testament.
He has given distinguished service to the American Academy of Religion. Through the AAR and the Wabash Center, he has been an advocate for excellence in teaching religion and theology. "I think that good teaching enhances the lives of teachers and students," Williams commented in a recent interview. "[S]tudents who catch a glimmer of what it means to be a truly educated and self-educating person, and the potential that opens up for them, experience a deep joy" ("A Teacher's Life: An Interview with Raymond B. Williams" in Teaching Theology and Religion 5:4, 216).
Raymond Williams was born and raised in Bluefield, West Virginia. An early mentor there was Alumnus Eugene May, who was pastor of the First Christian Church. At the church he also met his future wife, Lois. "The best and most formative decision I have made in my life was to ask her to marry me," Williams observes. Many years later, Raymond and Lois Williams honored their minister and mentor by creating the Eugene May Fund. They wanted to "commend him as a model for Scholars of Disciples House."
The Distinguished Alumnus Award honors and thanks Raymond Williams, who himself has become a "servant and model of excellence in teaching, learning, ministry, and scholarship." It commends him: "For exemplary teaching that deepens understanding of the human condition and opens onto to joy of learning; for groundbreaking scholarship that traces sacred threads among immigrant peoples and their religious traditions; for honoring a legacy of faith and understanding by preparing future generations to ministry and teach; for enhancing the vocations of undergraduate and theological teaching; and for exceptional stewardship of educational institutions and organizations."
I am enormously honored and humbled by this award, an award beyond all deserving. Thank you.
This wonderful experience toward the end of a career causes me to remember with gratitude a defining moment near the beginning. The scene is vivid, etched on my mind. It was my first Monday night gathering at the House in the fall of 1960. Lois and I were sitting in the back corner of the Chapel of the Holy Grail during the organ prelude. I had an overwhelming sense of awe and joy, "I have made it to one of the world's great universities and I am at worship with faithful Disciples at the very heart of the university." Reason and faith, church and academy linked at head and heart-the special birthright of Disciples and our holy grail at Disciples Divinity House. Today, with gratitude and hope, I want to celebrate and rejoice in that special heritage and mission of the House. Faithful reason and a reasoned faith are more needed today than ever.
First, faithful reason. "In the beginning was the word . . . ." Logos has several meanings. It refers to the word spoken from the mouth, the thought in the mind before the word is spoken, the rational structure of the universe formed in the mind of God. We are created in the image of God, and the word is central to our knowing. It enables us to communicate with one another across centuries of generations and across expanses of cultures. The word binds us together in one family of God.
Sophocles' chorus in Antigone chants praise of humanity: "Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these is man. . . . The use of language, the wind-swift motion of brain they learnt; found out the laws of living together in cities, building a shelter against the rain and winter weather. . . . For every ill they hath found its remedy, save only death."
God leads us to learn what we did not know, to find meaning and to create it, to investigate, to pursue, to think God's thoughts after God. We push to the limits of what humans have known, and with imagination to peer beyond, through the veil, with the assurance that what is beyond is not void, but God who created us and beckons us.
At the university and in the House we were challenged, with all our limitations, to do our thinking in the best of company. We learned to seek truth through study, argument, and debate-not because we possess all truth-but because as the children of God all truth of creation belongs to us. Whatever we discover to be true in the sciences, in social studies, in the arts, in theology, about ourselves and the other brings us closer to, not farther from, God's truth.
This is not hubris, false pride. Sophocles has the sentry in Antigone observe wryly regarding human affairs, "To think that thinking men should think so wrongly!" We understand that we are not God, and limits to human reason exist---and to our faithful exercise of God's gift---, but not to the wisdom of God. The hymn verse from Tennyson's poem puts it well: "Our little systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but shadows of Thee; and Thou, O Lord, art more than they." Our faith in God reaches out beyond ourselves.
The film Chariots of Fire is based on the life of Eric Ridley, a British Olympic runner in the 1920s who was also a missionary recruit for China. (Langdon Gilkey was with him in the 1940s in the Shantung Compound and wrote that he "came as close to [being a saint] as anyone I have ever known.") In the film the young man explained why he ran, "God made me to run---fast---and I run for God's good pleasure." God made us to think---clear, fast, hard, reaching---and we exercise faithful reason for God's good pleasure.
We also need a reasoned faith in the school of Christ---a special Disciples' chapel where we don't hang the hat of our reason as we enter to worship. St. Anselm gave us the phrase, "Faith seeking understanding." A reasoned faith is not a contradiction of terms. Indeed, a reasoned faith is essential to preserve us from all kinds of superstition and from the rats of unreason and irrationality that are gnawing at the foundation of the house of intellect and of the house of faith.
You may have heard about the admiration Lois and I have for Eugene May, Fellow of Disciples House and our minister as we were growing up in First Christian Church in Bluefield, West Virginia. One reason for our deep respect is that he never taught us anything by word or spirit that we later had to unlearn to be followers of Christ. He set a high standard of intelligence and reason for the pulpit and the classroom. He inspired a quest for intelligence in Christian faith that requires attention throughout life, from the smallest child who is learning the first words, "Jesus loves me," to the oldest and wisest among us who are searching for the final word, the "Alpha and Omega."
We are created in the image of God, made a little lower than the angels, suspended in the world between God and the rest of creation. Because we are suspended in the middle, we have a part in the creation of ourselves, our inner spirit, and we have a part in the creation of the world we inhabit, our social world. The slender thread that supports us in that creative space between God and the rest of creation is the word, reason, wisdom which guides our search for what is true to affirm and for what is the good to do.
That points to the work of Disciples Divinity House that I celebrate today. It has never been more needed among Disciples than today, when we seem divided into interest groups that have lost the ability to reason together faithfully in love. The whole world needs better exercise of reason and faith than my generation has provided to enable us to live together in America and the world as the free children of God. One ray of hope is the men and women who are current and future students at the House. They represent our best hope of preserving a faithful reason and a reasoned faith that may, by the grace and mercy of God, give Disciples back their birthright and contribute to a just and peaceful world. Thank you for this award, which I accept more as a testament of hope than a testament of achievement.