Tipple-Vosburgh Speakers: Turn Words Into Action
Annual lectures and reunion of Drew Theological School tackle mission.
October 2015 – Scholars and theologians at the annual Tipple-Vosburgh lecture series at Drew University proposed new approaches to missionary work and urged attendees to take action individually to tackle massive global problems.
Picking up on a theme in Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, the Rev. Dr. José Duque of Colombia blamed a culture that values above all wealth, power and fame for indifference to the world’s mounting ecological issues. Duque, who delivered his address in Spanish that was simultaneously translated into English, grew louder and more animated when describing the deterioration of the planet caused by human disregard and a deep theological misunderstanding of what it means to be stewards of creation.
Extreme floods, mudslides, droughts and earthquakes all threaten the earth’s species and in particular, human beings, Duque noted. Yet much data and talk about the problem of ecological degradation has resulted in little change in behavior. The human species seems unable or unwilling to reform itself and understand its appropriate place in the order of life, he claimed.
“We need to start changing our own habits and lifestyles immediately,” Duque said. “The planet’s survival and our own depend on it.”
Addressing more than 100 professors, students, alumni and friends in Craig Chapel at Seminary Hall, the theologian and former seminary president called upon attendee to do what they can on their own, rather than wait to be led by a church unwilling to accept scientific data or to call upon the faithful to make sacrificial choices for the sake of the greater good.
“Our task is to see that the planet itself is a living being like we are. Therefore, we must care for the environment in the same way it cares for and provides for us,” Duque said. “But we need to care for it in such a way that fosters mutual thriving—both of the environment and for the human species. Our destiny is mutually interconnected and dependent. That is how God created us, that we might be in a relationship with the earth of harmony and interdependency.”
The Latin American theologian and religious leader was among 13 speakers across two days at the annual gathering, which doubles as a reunion of Drew Theological School alumni. The first day focused on the legacy of Henry Appenzeller T’1885 and his wife, Ella, on the 130th anniversary of the commencement of their missionary work in Korea. The second day, meanwhile, explored the present and future of the missionary movement.
One workshop, for example, examined the present-day African-American Baptist mission in India, while others weighed the challenge of educating the children of missionaries and the impact of American missionary work in Africa and its implications on LGBT individuals. Between sessions, faculty and alumni reconnected, exchanging thoughts about the day and memories from their years together at school.
The Classes of 1965 and 1990, in particular, were feted this year, along with Drew Trustee Dr. Hwain Lee, who received the 2015 Distinguished Service Award from the Theological Alumni Association. In addition, alumni and students performed an original musical based on the life and work of the Appenzellers. Oh Henry! was written by Laurie Zelman T’00 and Associate Professor of Church Music Mark Miller and a big highlight of the opening day.
Professor Duque spoke on day two, along with Dr. Wesley Ariarajah, professor emeritus of Ecumenical Theology at the Theological School. Ariarajah’s talk focused on the contemporary role of missionary work and how it should be redefined or re-conceived for a new era, as has been done throughout Christian history.
The scholar of global religious movements argued that lack of success is a key reason to change current missionary practices. After centuries of missionary work in Asia, for example, the outcome is underwhelming. Christians still represent only a minuscule percentage of the population throughout Asia, and he argued that this is largely due to Christian inability to translate the message in ways that make sense or are accessible to Asian cultures and mindsets.
Moreover, Ariarajah said change was necessary to remain relevant in the modern world, and traditional western missionary approaches simply weren’t accomplishing this in the Asian context. More importantly, he argued that the goal of Christian mission should not be to build up the church, but rather, to “bring fullness and wholeness to the lives of all people.”
“This is a mission in the spirit of Christ,” he added. “We can have no greater mission.”