The 2008 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture
“And You Will Be My Witnesses…”
The Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture are designed to foster original scholarship pertaining to youth and the contemporary church. The lectures are delivered as a series at the Princeton Forums on Youth Ministry and are published annually. Lecturers include scholars who are not directly involved in the practice or study of youth ministry but who can bring the fruits of their respective disciplines to bear on ministry with the young.
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Acts 1:8. nrsv
The era of Christendom is over and Christians throughout North America are wrestling with what it means to be the church today. The 2008 Princeton lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture explore the implications of Acts 1:8 for the church and for youth ministry. These lectures examine what it means to bear witness to Christ beyond the walls of the traditional church today. Missional theology and Missional models of church are unpacked and our understanding of Christ and culture is examined. These lectures stretch our imagination and prepare us to walk with young people as they seek to bear witness to the activity of God in the world and in their own lives.
- In Witnessing Christ in the World
- Witnessing Christ in Tradition
- Lectures Forthcoming
- Lectures Forthcoming
YE SHALL BE MY WITNESSES †
Witnessing Christ in Tradition
In my first lecture I argued that as important as it is to have witnessed Christ before we can ourselves be witnesses, this is not sufficient for the task of witnessing. We need to take into account the fact that the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ is also at work in the world to which we go, and we are called to speak about and live out our own experience of Christ in conversation or dialogue with the revelation of Christ we see in others and in the world. So to be faithful witnesses of Jesus in the world, we need to be able to witness, or see, Jesus in the world to which we go. In this lecture I wish to add a second conversation partner in our witnessing, and that partner is the Christian tradition in all its diversity. In Acts chapter 8, when Philip began to tell the Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus, Philip did not begin with his own experiences of Jesus or the church, but with the Hebrew scriptures that the Ethiopian was reading. The scriptures, of course, are the font of Jewish tradition, and interestingly enough they seem to have also been part of the religious tradition of the Ethiopian eunuch. As before, I am going to delve into some mission history in order to show how the appropriation of Christian tradition has broadened and enriched Christian witness. I shall relate the witness of one person, an Indian Christian woman who very early in her life began to witness to Christ: her name is Pandita Ramabai. Darrell Guder has said that we need to learn from the lives and witness of Christians in the Two-Thirds World, and I hope to show how that can be done. Repeating my previous format, I shall talk about this historical person and then come back to issues for contemporary youth ministry in North America at the end.
Pandita Ramabai's Successive Appropriation of the Christian Faith
Ramabai Dongre was born into a Brahmin family, the youngest of three children who survived into adulthood (three others died in childhood), near Mangalore, India, on April 23, 1858. 1 Her father, Anant Shastri Dongre, an extremely learned priest from Maharashtra, insisted that not only his son but also his wife and daughters be educated, even though such a female education aroused great hostility from his community. So at the age of eight, which is the traditional age for Brahmin boys to begin their twelve-year education, Ramabai began to memorize and learn prodigious numbers of Sanskrit texts. Included in the works she memorized were "whole vocabularies, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries," and complete sacred texts such as the Bhagavata Purana, with its 18,000 verses, and the Bhagavata Gita. 2 Her teacher was her mother, since Ramabai's father was too old and weak to teach her. The family made its living as Puranikas, Sanskrit specialists who traveled extensively all around the country reciting and reading and expounding on the Puranas, which are one of the major collections of Hindu scriptures. 3
When Ramabai was sixteen, a severe famine devastated south India. There was no food or water even for wandering Brahmin priests and their families. First her father died of starvation, then her mother, and then finally her sister, leaving only Ramabai and her brother Srinivas barely clinging to life. For three years the two siblings wandered around the country, thoroughly destitute, "still visiting sacred places, bathing in rivers and worshipping the gods and goddesses, in order to get [their] desire." 4 However, the gods did not respond to all the rituals and pleas for help, causing Ramabai and her brother page 2 to question the efficacy of their religion, and slowly their faith in their religion grew cold, as she put it. 5 In 1878 the twenty-year-old Ramabai and her brother ended up in Calcutta, a center for great intellectual and religious activity.
There she came into contact with Hindu priests and other Sanskrit scholars, both Indian and European, who were astounded at her learning. They called her 'Pandita' and then 'Saraswati' (Goddess of Learning). "Overnight she became a national sensation." 6 It is ironic that Ramabai's fame as a Hindu scholar came just as her faith in her inherited religion was rapidly dissipating. It was in Calcutta, according to her account later in life, that she slowly came to the conclusion that Hinduism was terribly and inherently biased against women.
In Calcutta Ramabai came into contact with the Brahmo Samaj, a reform movement within Hinduism that had been started by the highly erudite Rajah Ram Mohan Roy fifty years previously. Roy was deeply influenced by both Islam and Christianity. He established his movement with the following characteristics: (1) the abolition of idolatry, to be replaced by the worship of the One True God; (2) the complete removal of superstition, and the development of rational thinking as exemplified by eighteenth and early nineteenth century Western Enlightenment; (3) the social reform of Hindu society, including the abolition of caste, the abolition of the custom of what was known as "sati" or the burning of a dead man's wife on his funeral pyre, the abolition of child marriage, and the promotion of Western education and of education for women. Roy was strongly attracted to Unitarianism, and in fact converted William Adam, a Baptist missionary, to the Unitarian faith while the two were translating the four gospels into Bengali. 7
While in Calcutta, Ramabai was strongly attracted to the Brahmo Samaj, probably because of its strong stand in support of women and its condemnation of caste. It was in Calcutta that she dedicated her life to the cause of bettering the life of Indian women. She joined the Brahmo Samaj and started to lecture across North India, particularly on women's issues. Tragedy continued to haunt Ramabai, however; her brother died of cholera in 1880. Six months later she crossed one of the rigid caste lines by marrying a good friend of her brother, a lawyer of an inferior caste who was a member of the Brahmo Samaj. 8 The two lived together happily for fifteen months before the husband also succumbed to cholera, leaving Ramabai a young widow of twenty-three with a six-month-old baby girl.
At the age of twenty-five Ramabai went to England for medical studies, having come to the conclusion that the best way to work for the advancement of Indian women was to become a doctor. While in England, it was discovered that Ramabai was hard of hearing, which disqualified her from pursuing a medical career, and so she studied to be a teacher. Her hosts were sisters of an Anglican mission, the Community of St. Mary the Virgin, headquartered in Wantage, England. Before she left home, she had stated to her sponsors that she would not convert to Christianity. Four months after her arrival in England, however, Ramabai and her daughter were baptized. The act remains controversial to this day, with questions as to whether Ramabai was coerced into the act, or was psychologically healthy at the time. 9 However, I believe that Ramabai's decision to be baptized was a sincere one. 10
Yet the controversy over Ramabai's Christianity did not end with her baptism. It soon became clear to the good sisters at Wantage that Ramabai's interpretation of Christianity was anything but orthodox. She could not believe in the Trinity, nor in the deity of Christ, whom she regarded as the Son of God; she therefore rejected parts of the Athanasian Creed. 11 She had serious doubts about the miracles related in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. 12 Moreover, she was drawn to British nonconformist and the Unitarian traditions. 13 What we see in Ramabai's understanding of her faith at this point, then, is a theology that bears a striking resemblance to the thought of the Brahmo Samaj. 14 The sisters at Wantage, especially her spiritual godmother Sister Geraldine, were horrified at Ramabai's unorthodox faith, and brought all sorts of pressure on page 3 her to conform to the tenets of the Church of England. Ramabai's response in the following letter gives us a glimpse into her mental acuity and independence:
It seems to me that you are advising me...to accept always the will of those who have authority, etc. This however I cannot accept. I have a conscience, and mind and a judgment of my own, I must myself think and do everything which GOD has given me the power of doing...Although priests and bishops may have certain authority over the church yet the church has another Master Who is Superior even to the bishops. I am, it is true, a member of the Church of Christ, but am not bound to accept every word that falls down from the lips of priests or bishops...I have just with great efforts freed myself from the yoke of the Indian priestly tribe, so I am not at present willing to place myself under another similar yoke by accepting everything which comes from the priests as authorized command of the Most High. 15
One can sense here what is explicit in other correspondence: that Ramabai was rebelling as much against a controlling, imperial, and imperialistic hierarchy as against the orthodoxy that was being propounded by that hierarchy. 16 Ramabai at this point, then, was extremely ambivalent toward Western Christians and Western Christianity. At the same time, she was also alienated from the religion of her childhood and youth: her faith is characterized by Enlightenment rationalism and logic, and not by a deep devotionalism to a personal Lord.
The standoff between Ramabai and her sponsors was broken when, three years after coming to England, Ramabai received an invitation to visit the U.S.A. In America she was immediately swept into the orbit of nineteenth-century Protestant feminists, becoming close friends of the likes of Dr. Rachel Bodley, the principal of the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia, and Frances Willard, the powerful president of the even more powerful Woman's Christian Temperance Union. These women in turn had access to a number of highly influential Protestant men. Ramabai and reforming American Protestant women developed an admiration that was mutual, instantaneous, and enormous. 17 A sojourn that was supposed to last a couple of months stretched into one of almost three years, with Ramabai touring the country and speaking to Protestant audiences, to great acclaim. Once again she was a national sensation. From a religious point of view, it is important that Ramabai found an extensive and generous network of like-minded and like-hearted Christians. Mainline American Protestant women of the time were extremely active in social reform, paying particular attention to women's and children's issues; theologically they tended to be broadly evangelical and pietistic rather than doctrinally rigorous, and they were also thoroughly ecumenical. They were quite a change from the Anglican sisters at Wantage, and a wonderful fit for Ramabai's developing Christian sensibilities. In America Ramabai's touring lectures resulted in the formation of more than 300 circles of a national Ramabai Association that pledged prayers and money to Ramabai's plan for opening a house for mistreated women in India. Just as importantly, American Protestant women provided a stream of missionaries "who worked with Ramabai over the years, the most prominent being Minnie Abrams." 18
Once back in India in 1889, at the age of thirty-one, Ramabai opened a home named Sharada Sadan (House of Learning) in Bombay for Brahmin widows, many of whom were mere children who had been given in marriage to much older men and who were shunned and abused in their families when their husbands died, because those deaths were believed to have been caused by the widows' evil deeds in a previous life. 19 The life of high-caste Hindu widows, many of them small girls, was almost without exception one of unmitigated torture and misery. The school was religiously neutral, which made it palatable to high-caste Hindu families. 20 The next year Ramabai moved the school to Poona due to the high cost of living in Bombay. Poona, however, was the bastion of conservative forces that strongly disapproved of her amelioratory activities.
Moreover, Ramabai experienced a religious awakening which led her to be more open about her own religious convictions. In 1893 she devoted her life to Jesus Christ as her Lord. This led girls at the Sharada Sadan to seek baptism. Indian national support for Ramabai plummeted over the next few years, 21 and she was never again influential on the national stage for reform page 1 and liberation, although she continued to work until her death in 1922 to change the conditions of women, especially widows, in her beloved land.
Once the break was made with strict Hindu society, the Sharada Sadan became an "avowedly and explicitly Christian" institution. 22 From 1896 a severe famine once again ravaged the country, and Ramabai "launched herself into a massive rescue and relief campaign." 23 She rescued famine orphans and brought them to Poona, but then was forced to move them to the not-too-distant village of Kedgaon where she had purchased some land. In Kedgaon she built the Mukti Mission, a large institution for girls rescued from the famine. The word mukti is a synonym for moksha, which is literally the escape from the horrible repeated cycle of life and death. Moksha is what all Hindus long for; it is salvation, freedom and liberty, and release from bondage to the misery of life. The Mukti Mission was built largely with funds derived from Ramabai's supporters in America, and American missionaries such as Minnie Abrams, Helen Dyer, and the Reverend Bruere who worked at the mission were crucial to its functioning. In other words, the Mukti Mission, though it was the child of Ramabai's vision, was a thoroughly cooperative venture between Indian and Western Christians.
In 1898, Pandita Ramabai, now forty years old, was deeply moved during a visit to a Keswick convention in England, where she asked for prayers for a revival to come upon India. 24 Keswick was known for its revivalist meetings. In 1905, a year before the famous Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, Ramabai and the girls in the Mukti Mission experienced a Pentecostal revival. 25 It had many marks of other such revivals: hours of continuous singing, clapping and dancing, continuous praying, ecstatic speech (including shouting, moaning, and glossolalia), ecstatic movements, and visions. There was also a great emphasis on confession of sins.
Ramabai's last great endeavor as a Christian witness was to be a Bible translator. She began work on producing a Marathi Bible early in 1905, the same year as the revival at Mukti Mission. 26 and as the years went on the Bible translation project became the great consuming work of her life until her death. 27 She translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek because she wanted a text that could be easily used by common, ordinary people, many of whom lived in villages. Her translation project was started to provide Bibles for "Bible-women, catechists, and preachers, who have very elementary and ordinary education." 28 One of the problems she saw with Marathi Bibles from the Bible Society was that they used the "high Marathi language full of Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian words" that were "understood by scholars only." 29 However, a Bible in the common person's language was not enough: the people needed aids for understanding the Bible. So Ramabai also produced Hebrew and Greek vocabularies and grammars, interlinear translations, a Bible commentary, and a concordance. 30 The purpose of all these lexical tools was to provide assistance to minimally educated preachers and Bible-women in their task of evangelism. "Many of the Bible-readers do not know how to explain several passages of the Bible," Ramabai explained. "The great need of ordinary Bible-readers in India must be supplied, by putting such information as will help them in their study of the Holy Scriptures, at their disposal." 31 Ramabai died at the age of sixty-three, one week after she completed the project of translating the whole Bible into Marathi.
I have briefly recounted the life of Ramabai in order to demonstrate how over the course of her life as a baptized Christian she slowly appropriated more and different strands of the Christian tradition, while she persevered in her fundamental task of witnessing to the liberating life of the Christian gospel made known to us in Jesus Christ. Ramabai started out her Christian life as a social activist, rescuing girls from the misery of widowhood, and later from famine. She then developed a Jesus-centered piety, which matured into a Pentecostal revival, and finished her life as a Bible translator. The interesting thing is that although she moved from one religious phase to another, she never completely rejected the previous phase. She always had a preferential option for women, which she actually inherited from her father; she always cared about the physical well-being of the poor. In some ways she held on to the rationalism of the Brahmo Samaj, mocking the superstitions of the villagers in her later years. And there are even elements of her Hindu upbringing that persisted to the end of her life.
Youth Witnessing Christ Today
Well, what does the story of Ramabai have to do with youth ministry in North America today? I would like to make three suggestions in answer to that question. The first is that, like Ramabai, and like many of the rest of the people in our church, many of our youth come with complicated and diverse religious histories. In my adult Sunday School class, once a month one of our group shares her faith story with the rest of the class. I can't remember anyone saying, "I was born a Methodist, grew up in the Methodist Church, was married in the Methodist Church, brought my kids to the Methodist Church, and here I am." No, the people I know have wandered from at least one Christian tradition to another; frequently they have practiced no religion for a while; and frequently they have some in-depth contact with another religious tradition: maybe they practiced (or are currently practicing) Buddhist meditation, or they have close family members who are married to people of other faiths, such as Jews. Indeed, about half the students here at Princeton Seminary are not Presbyterian: they are being profoundly influenced and shaped by a tradition that is not their own. My guess is that for most of you, the majority of your youth have experienced more than one Christian or religious tradition (or lack of tradition), either themselves personally or through their families and close friends. What do we do with all this religious baggage? My hunch is that the default move is to ask our youth to check that baggage at the door when they come to our youth groups. But of course, they don't; they can pretend to do so, but they don't. Our religious baggage is more like a backpack than a suitcase, which is more convenient to carry around than let go. Even when we move from one religious tradition to another, and think that we have dumped out everything from our backpack in order to get a clean start, there is stuff way deep down in the multiple pockets of our backpacks that stays inside. That is certainly what happened to Ramabai; she even carried around parts of her Hindu tradition to her death. So, instead of saying, "You can only truly witness to Christ if you dump all that baggage out and start fresh in my youth group or young adult group," what if we said, "That's some interesting stuff you have in that backpack. I know you hate some of the clothes that your parents bought for you, and you've dumped them; but is it possible that Christ was present in some of the other stuff in your religious background?" If I am a Catholic going to a Methodist youth group, are there parts of my Catholic tradition where I have seen Christ, where I have witnessed Christ? If I am a Presbyterian who really likes going to an Orthodox worship service once in a while, what of Christ do I see in that tradition? If my friend invited me to her A.M.E. church, how did I witness Christ in that worship service, and in the fellowship that followed? You see, what I think the story of Ramabai teaches us is that our witness to Christ is so much richer and fuller when we witness Christ in other Christian traditions. That does not mean we go and join the Presbyterian or Orthodox or Baptist church; in fact, most of the non-Presbyterian students who come out of Princeton Seminary go home praising God that they got a good (subsidized) Reformed education and also that they aren't Presbyterian! But how can our youth's witness to Jesus be enriched when they witness Jesus in other traditions that they have experienced?
The second suggestion I want to make is very closely related to the first one. That suggestion is that we do not have to limit ourselves to witnessing Christ in the traditions and cultures that are represented in our youth group; we can prepare them and lead them to witness Christ in traditions beyond their experience and knowledge. We do not have to wait for youth members to have experience with Polish Catholics or Mexican Pentecostals or high church Episcopalians or Black Baptists; with careful planning and education and teaching, and especially with close ecumenical friendships with leaders from other traditions, we can lead our youth to witness Jesus Christ in Christian traditions that are unfamiliar to them, and so their own witness to Christ will be made richer and fuller.
The third suggestion I want to offer has to do with the three locations that I have identified where we witness Christ. I have claimed that we can give witness to Christ because we have witnessed Christ ourselves. And we witness Christ in our own lives and the lives of our congregations; we witness Christ in the world around us; and we witness Christ in other Christian traditions. Let me suggest that there is a tension in these various manifestations of Christ. The Christ we know from our personal experience is not quite the same as the Christ we see at work in the world around us. The Christ we know from our own tradition does not neatly square with the Christ we witness in other traditions. There are generally two ways to deal with such tensions: one is to let go of one or more of the forces that are pulling us in different directions, and to retreat to page 6 a simplistic vision of Jesus Christ and say to ourselves and our youth, "Here, my Jesus is easy to understand—stick to him, and give witness to him." The other way to deal with tension is far more difficult, but far more faithful to what we know of God and the human condition, and that is to live into the tension. It is to say, for example, "I have witnessed Christ in the Baptist tradition in this way, and I have witnessed Christ in the Orthodox tradition this way, and I know Christ myself in this way, and all these visions of Christ don't quite line up. But I am not going to let go of them: instead I am going to struggle to give witness to Christ while holding on to these visions that are pulling in different directions." And if we want to see how this is done in scripture, a good place to start would be Romans chapters nine through eleven, where Paul is even more confusing than usual, because he refuses to let go of the knowledge of God in Christ that he has experienced in his life and his work, and the knowledge of God that he has inherited from his Jewish tradition.
I think we do our youth a disservice if we think they cannot understand that life is complex, complicated, and full of unresolved tensions. Our youth, after all, are marching off to war, to kill and be killed; our youth are living in the midst of a culture of drugs and alcohol; our youth are becoming fathers and mothers outside of marriage. Our youth are also having fun, playing sports, dating, and exploring their spiritual life. Life is extremely complex and tension-filled for them. Do we give witness to a Christ that is Immanuel, God-with-us, in the midst of these ambiguities, complexities, and tensions? Or do we give witness to a Christ who refuses to deal with the totality of life as we know it to be, a Christ who is Immanuel in only certain times and places? Pandita Ramabai, I think, would insist that we give witness to the Christ who is seen to be at work in both the familiar and the unfamiliar, in both the comfortable and the frightening. And I would agree with her.