by Lisa Maguire Hess
I cannot write about James Loder without imagining his ironic smile playing across the page. As I reflect now on the impact he had on me as an M.Div. student, as his last Ph.D. graduate, and, eventually, as his colleague in ministry, I can feel him smiling. He would relish the irony of my writing an affectionate, public retrospective for a complex, private educator-theologian. Ever the Kierkegaardian, Loder attempted to avoid explicit attention to himself, opting instead for as much indirect communication as he could muster about the things that really matter: life in the Spirit of God and the cosmological implications of such life when lived passionately. Yet it remains true that my passion for faith can be traced back in part to his faith, which stretched my own. So I approach this essay with my own ironic smile, in tribute to a man who surely would have attempted to hide from the admiring gaze of the many thousands with whom he shared his calling.
Loder was many things to many people. Even in my relatively short time with him, he assumed many different roles in his one person: father figure, authority against whom to rebel, older brother in Christ, and, then, soulful colleague and shy friend. Through this journey, he shared with me two most important things. First, he showed me that as teachers who participate in God’s work of religious education, we have opportunity to witness the
ultimate purpose in the “ordinary” learning in Christian communities: the glory of God seen in the passionate creativity of the human spirit. Loder had a special talent for engaging students of all ages in this mysterious, spiritual import of Christian education. His spirit soared in finding the logic of the Spirit in the theological and natural sciences, in the larger human sciences, in the learning work of God’s people. He showed many of us how to stretch our wings in this flight of spiritual fancy through which God yet saves souls. Whatever work we shared with him had this ultimate purpose.
The February issue of the
Princeton Seminary Bulletin included addresses given at Dr. Loder’s memorial service in Miller Chapel on November 14, 2001. If you would like a copy, call 609-497-7974 or email
Second, Loder had the uncanny knack of believing in his students’ potentials so fully that new horizons appeared where none had previously been recognized. I sometimes think it was his faith in those possibilities that actually allowed them to exist.
Speaking from my own experience, I arrived at Princeton Seminary as an M.Div. student in the fall of 1993 convinced that I had little to offer intellectual discourse or imaginative scholarship. I had emerged from an undergraduate degree program in chemistry in which, as a woman and as a “late-blooming” student, I slipped through the institutional cracks. I came with the desire to study theology, but with no understanding of my own intellectual and spiritual gifts for Christian service.
“Americans continue to grow in their enthusiasm for spiritual phenomena, mystical experiences, charismatic manifestations, neopentecostalism, and spiritual renewal movements; the influence of these religious expressions is spreading throughout the country and the world….This era of spirituality requires a new way of thinking—thinking that not only is informed by theological and clinical approaches, but also interprets transforming moments in their own right.
Transforming moments need to be recognized as sources of new knowledge about God, self, and the world and as generating the quality and strength of life that can deal creatively with the sense of nothingness shrouding the extremities and pervading the mainstream of modern living.”
from the preface to The Transforming Moment
by James E. Loder
Today, I find myself in the candidacy process for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and in 2001 I earned my doctorate in practical theology from PTS. I understand myself to be a gifted theological scholar and a passionate, interdenominational Christian educator. It is the veritable chicken-and-the-egg debate: Were the gifts already there and he guided me to trust them? Or did he envision those gifts in me and I then grew into them through my trust in him? In the end, it really does not matter. I treasure the intimate, sometimes cantankerous, ultimately educational journey he and I traveled that allowed me to spread my wings and discover new horizons. Loder had the uncanny knack of “spirit-seeing,” resulting in harvests of ministers who had been made whole to serve God’s people.
On my own behalf and for those who resonate with what I write, I offer undying gratitude to God for the influence of this man in my life. James E. Loder was one of Wendell Berry’s “apostles of the living light.” As Berry writes,
Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.
Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place…*
Many of us are that timbered choir. May we serve well our “many blessings.”
* From Wendell Berry’s collection A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997.
Lisa Maguire Hess is the acting program director for congregational life at Princeton Seminary’s Center of Continuing Education. She graduated with her Ph.D. from PTS in 2001. Her dissertation was titled “Practices in a New Key: Human Knowing in Musical and Practical Theological Perspective,” and James Loder was her doctoral advisor.