ATLANTA – In the 100 years since it began, Candler School of Theology has seen such innovations as automobiles, antibiotics, cyber metrics, planes and rockets.
During that same timespan, theologians also have been confronted with evil across the world, including two world wars, genocide carried out by Hitler’s regime, harsh conditions imposed by Stalin’s Gulag labor camps and murders by Pol Pot in Cambodia, said Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, the school’s R.W. Woodruff professor of New Testament and Watch, in his keynote address last week at the seminary’s centennial celebration.
“The response by theology tended to be late,” he said. “But we seek in this conference to encourage free inquiry and passion for social justice. The challenge is more radical for us than for the founders of Candler.
“The intention here is to start a conversation that can help shape the next 100 years for this school.”
More than 600 scholars, theologians, students, alumni and clergy joined the celebration at the Emory University campus where the school is located. Florida Bishop Ken Carter and some members of the Florida Conference Cabinet were among those who attended.
At the opening session, Candler Dean Jan Love charged listeners with the tasks of debating, discussing and worshiping together and joining in the conversation about how to be faithful witnesses to the gospel in the future.
The 2 ½-day program, titled “Prophetic Voices: Confronting Theological Challenges of the Next Century,” boasted a roster of seminarians, Candler professors, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, the founder of the Interfaith Power and Light environmental movement and more.
The event focused on four topics: “Theological Imagination and Secularization,” “The Image of God in Contemporary Society,” “Creation and Care of the Earth” and “The Kingdom of God and Global Pluralism.”
Faculty and students were there to anticipate some of the major theological issues that the next century of Candler’s existence will bring.
After the keynote address, Johnson opened the floor for questions from the audience. Rev. Sue Haupert-Johnson, Candler Alumni Board chairperson and Florida’s North Central District superintendent, was among those who spoke up.
“Prophetic visions are one thing,” she said, “but how do we build prophetic communities? How can we create a prophetic community and build a critical mass to make changes that will actually promote change?”
Johnson said Christians can begin with practices, not words. He suggested practices such as keeping the Sabbath with all its traditions could remind people to take time to stop and think and perhaps lead to a conversation about problems in the world.
“Let’s do something as simple as setting aside a half-day to eat and pray and start conversations.”
Among Thursday’s speakers was Dr. Ted A. Smith, associate professor of preaching and ethics at Candler, who gave an overview of the school’s founding in 1914 with the help of the Candler brothers.
Asa Candler, the famous founder of Coca-Cola Co., gave $1 million to start a new university with a theology school. That became Emory University, with Candler as its first school. Smith joked that Asa’s brother, Methodist Bishop Warren Candler, who was named the first chancellor of the new university, “could preach so well that he could even make the Presbyterians cry.”
Panelists at the event were Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author of “Gilead,” and Dr. Janet Soskice from the University of Cambridge, England. Robinson spoke about secularism and the influence of groups who exhibit “energetic antagonism” and who also are identified as Christians.
“I find myself saying to people, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian, but I don’t hate anybody.’”
Soskice spoke from her educational background, saying, “The Bible is not a book of answers but a school for the soul.”
As for the task of Christians in moving beyond the prophetic to action, she quoted from Isaiah in the Bible: “We must say, ‘Here I am, Lord, send me.’ … We live in a secular age, but so have Christians throughout the ages.”
-- Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.