Convocation for the Induction of Principal Richard Topping

Convocation for Induction of Principal

Students, staff, Alumni, Friends and Faculty, Board of Governors, Madam Chair and esteemed Chancellor.

What an honour to be inducted as the 7th Principal of the Vancouver School of Theology today. My time as Principal, I am sure, will not be like the 7th day of creation – that is a day of rest – from what I can see so far.

However, to be seventh, at pretty much anything, is a reminder that others have preceded you in the work you do. In the most immediate history of the school I follow Wendy Fletcher and Stephen Farris, and I am glad. Because of their courageous and diligent work my efforts have tracks in which to run. In the short three months of my own time as Principal, I have blessed their names for the good things I have inherited due to them. Thank you both for your faithful legacy and for your ongoing kindness and support to VST and to me.

I am also especially grateful to those who planned this service and the liturgy – David McMillan, Shannon Lythgoe, Richard Leggett, Margaret Trim and Anita Fast. I am also so very grateful to Our Chancellor Peter Elliot, the Chair of the Board, Heather Clarke and to our preacher for today, Darrell Guder, who have made this occasion so memorable, inspiring and deeply moving. And I am grateful to my family whose love and support, too often taken for granted, sustains me.

One of my favorite authors, Northrop Fyre, a Canadian literary scholar, gave the Massey Lectures on CBC in 1963. The Educated Imagination, is now in its twenty-fifth printing. In this book Frye asks a simple question: why study literature? His answer is rich with possibility. He says that the study of literature, what he calls – ‘man’s revelation to man’ – is for the sake of funding imagination. Literary studies are hard work. They require critical finesse and directed attention, but the goal is to beef-up imagination.

Frye claims that if imagination is stoked (educated) with ideas from other times and places, you quickly realize that what’s served up by your culture right now is only one way of doing things. There are better worlds than the one around us right now; there are worlds we want to live in. And imagination could lead to action. When you compare what is with what might be, it could make us so restless with the dead-ends and stale leftovers of the present that whole communities could start living toward a better arrangement, a more humane option, a possible world.

Now I wonder, if Frye’s way of putting it, might be jazzed into a theological frame. What about a theologically educated imagination? What about theological education as focused critical attention on ‘God’s revelation to people’ in Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. After all Frye was a United Church Minister, he’s always talking about the power of scripture.

Could whole communities dare (by faith) to envision what might be because the Triune God has stoked their imaginations through prophets and poets, scripture and saints testifying to the Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. A theologically educated imagination may envision a reconciled world, fueled as it is with visions of lions and lambs lying down together, with visions of swords beat into plowshares, of a detoxified heaven and earth through the Lamb that was slain. A people could become so enamoured with these solicitous visions that they grow discontent with what is, and start living toward more humane arrangements, where justice and peace embrace. And they do it not because they have to but because they may.

Subject yourself to theological education as imaginative transformation and priorities could get reversed, altered, changed. Fund an imagination with the Gospel of reconciliation and the next thing you know someone says, “I have a dream . . . ” and then audacious people – like Martin Luther King Jr. move non-violently toward a more humane arrangement. They just start to believe that history bends toward justice! Talk about grasped by a vision!

If UBC is “A place of Mind;” What about VST as ‘A place of Imagination.’

There is a difference between imaginative and imaginary thinking. One is funded with critical care, engaged with the world and works with partners; imaginary thinking can be naive utopian thinking that hovers at 50,000 feet. Imaginary thinking gives us claustrophobic individualistic visions.

The imaginative theological formation that we do and will do at VST is thoughtful, engaged and generous in its work. In our theological education we are thoughtful. We interrogate naive visions that are thin and reactionary and leave most people out of view.

What’s more our work is way too important to do in a single week-end. We’re looking for a quality of leadership that best serves the gospel and world. And so we take the time to lay down the rudiments of the theological keyboard so that our students can eventually play doxological jazz in a whole variety of circumstances.
We’re thoughtful because the world is full of instances of thoughtless faith, of mean and stupid faith, of dangerous and superstitious faith. And if there is one thing we have in common with atheists, it is this – we know the danger of bad ideas about God.

Great harm comes to the world through superstition and hatred and so we linger and contemplate and attend to the details. We are not interested in promoting ignorance and fear in the place of piety. At VST we work hard at seeking understanding so that we’ve got a thick description of a profound faith for deep engagement with the world.

Michael Jinkins, one of the bright lights in theological education says, “There have been few moments in Christianity’s history when more was at stake than at this moment. There have been few moments in Christianity’s history when we have needed a thinking faith, a theologically reflective faith, a generous and critical, imaginative and deeply engaged faith more than we do today.” (The Church Transforming, 92).

In the formation of theological imagination, we also want to engage the world and the big issues of our time. I think Karl Barth was right that theology ought to be done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other (although I am pretty sure he didn’t mean we give equal weight to the National Post and Romans in our thinking about God).

Why engage with the world? because God is engaged with the world, because God so loves the world. God is at work in the world, God is always already active making and keeping human life human – there are little lights and parables of the love of God scattered all over the place if we will attend to the world. If we really believe that, and if we are imaginatively attentive to the world in which the suffering God is at work, we will discern what our work needs to be. If God got downwardly mobile to touch the world in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s people need to follow God into the world; ours is no arm chair religion – endlessly spinning our wheels in analysis paralysis.
Doug Hall in his new book, What Christianity is Not, says that the important question is not what are we the church doing but what is God doing and how do we get with God’s mission.

‘The question the church (and theological colleges) ought to be asking and seeking to answer in and for a particular time and place (context) is not what should we do, but rather where is God now at work making and keeping life human? The extent to which [we] determine an answer or answers to that question will determine the nature and relevance of our own activity’ (Douglas John Hall, What Christianity is Not, 122).

Finally in our theological education, we are generous. And here I mean generous as the opposite of narrow and sectarian. While we love the church and actually believe the church to be an agent of God’s love in the world, we keep our eyes open for partners in our mission – including other Christians.

And the truth in our multi-religious, multi-cultural context is that we have a whole range of partners. Jesus taught us to love, not to fear or compete with our neighbours. It is a wonderful thing: to go deep in Christian faith is to go wide in the neighbourhood. I have yet to read the story in the gospels where Jesus says, “go out there and prove other religions wrong.” Instead when the disciples object to someone who heals outside the official card carrying Jesus movement, Jesus says, ‘if they aren’t against us, they are for us.’ It was Jesus’ disciples, not Jesus, who got all proprietary about healing.

Miroslav Volf in his book, A Public Faith, How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (p. 129) says that each dynamic faith tradition overlaps with others, and so there’s hope of profound cooperation for the good of the world – on issues like violence and ecology.

(‘The dynamic character of each religion and the overlaps between them give some reason to hope that the perspectives of various people of faith need not always clash, or need not always clash fruitlessly, and that when the perspectives do clash, the people who hold them need not be mired in endless violence.’)

I know that religions aren’t all the same – a Muslim friend helped me understand that. However there is often ‘overlapping consensus’ on the issues of our time that we can address for the good of the world with other folks of good will. We can learn from our first nations and neighbours of other faiths, but we will need to know each other well enough to do so for the sake of more humane arrangements in the world; that’s why ISC and IP are important petals on the VST flower – the logo of our school. Christians reach out to the world for the love of the God revealed in Jesus Christ, others have their own particular reasons, but we can be generous – not narrow and exclusionary – in our work in and for the mending of God’s world.

Friends, at VST we want to cultivate a community where hospitality and generosity of spirit are the norm. The root of this generosity is our baptismal identity in Christ, who calls us to love our neighbours unconditionally, without fear; to learn from our neighbours without anxiety and to act with and for our neighbours with integrity.

I think VST is uniquely positioned to form theological imagination in the lives of our students for this our time. And we do it so that they can give voice to thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian faith for the love of God and for the sake of the world.