Facebook posts about Papa, who passed away in September 2012:
- So, I’m sitting in Hospice watching my grandfather sleep, and I’m thinking back to some of our recent conversations. For those of you who don’t know him, Walter J. Harrelson is a well-respected religious scholar, theologian, author/editor, etc. He worked a lot with Judeo-Christian relations and more accurate translations of the Bible.And he’s very wise, not only in a scholarly, academic way,but also in a philosophical, life way. He’s a forward-thinking, generous, and humane person who believes in the rights and, I think, essential goodness of human beings. He performed my wedding as well as those of several gay couples with whom I’m well-acquainted, and he is beloved of those who are fortunate to know him.There are a few things he said to me a couple months ago that I want to share in some way. Facebook seems sort of a bizarre medium, but as I don’t have a blog or anything…
Although I am not nearly as articulate as he, and although I meant to video-record some of these things and wasn’t able to, and although I’ll be paraphrasing liberally, I hope I can get across the gist.
- Some of Papa’s thoughts, as I recall them:
I asked him what his current thoughts were on heaven and the afterlife, as he is approaching the end of his journey here. He said (and these are not direct quotes, but for ease of telling, I’m writing as if he were speaking),
“I find that, more and more, I look on my life with an eye toward purposefulness. I think that perhaps, when one moves on from one’s earthly body, that is what one leaves behind… purposefulness.
“When I think about my life in particular, I feel proud in the sort of arc, the sense of purpose with which I’ve led it, and I’m not afraid to take the next step on that arc.
“I think we have a duty to live our lives in ways which contribute something to those around us. I, of course, have some regrets; I think about your father [Ron McIver, who passed away last September], and although we never quite saw eye-to-eye, I did admire his ability to really focus on his time with his children to the exclusion of ambition for his career. But overall, I think that my life has had a sense of purposefulness, and I’m leaving as a legacy not only my scholarly contributions, but also these, just, wonderful people in my children and grandchildren. And I think that’s something of which I can be proud.”
- More thoughts from Papa, filtered through me:
There was another point in the conversation when he turned his thoughts to art (again, not quoting really):
“I think there’s a certain… morality inherent in art, in artistic endeavors. We have, as a society, a duty to our art and artists, because that is where we evolve, where we move forward as humans.
“And art must be moral, must say something about how we’ve reached this point or about where we’re going. Good art, I mean, has something in it which is moral, and therefore beautiful… and human.”[I looked up the word “moral,” because I’d always thought of it as associated with religion in some way, and it didn’t seem that he was using it quite like that, so…
of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical: moral attitudes.
expressing or conveying truths or counsel as to right conduct, as a speaker or a literary work; moralizing: a moral novel.
founded on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on legalities, enactment, or custom: moral obligations.
capable of conforming to the rules of right conduct: a moral being.
- Papa passed away at 1:15 am [9/4/12], surrounded by his children. At one point, a couple months ago, he had expressed that it wasn’t without some trepidation that he approached his death, saying that he didn’t much like the idea of not existing anymore. (Since then, I believe he came to a more circumspect and accepting feeling.)I’ve already shared some of his ideas about purposefulness and the legacy of a life well-lived, and in thinking about it tonight, I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet, which ends:
“But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”I believe that Papa lives in my memory and in the hearts of those who knew him and whom he touched. Love and light to you, Papa, for the next steps on your long and beautiful journey. It is a joy and a privilege to have known you.
- I was going through Papa’s files and papers today with my family. I’d always realized that he was wise and steadfast in his beliefs about rightness and equality … but I hadn’t realized the extent to which he was an activist. I brought home some of the papers because I wanted to share some quotes, and I’ll try to get copies of some others that I left.
I’ll start with some quotes printed in a newspaper article from 1990:
“I think I live constantly with a sense of the sublimity and the glory and the horror of life. Therefore, I think I live with some recognition of the presence of God in every moment and everything, and the deep, deep abysmal sadness that the world is so far removed from what God insists it could and will become.”
“I want things to be less mean, and they can’t be that unless you contribute to the genuine goodness. I am a religious person in that I’m determined the world will be less cruel, less mean, because I have lived. To die with some sense that the world had been worse if I had not lived is a satisfying way to die.”
This strikes me as an earlier version of the conversation we’d had about purposefulness. So, that was a philosophy he’d been using as a guide his whole life, and not just a retrospective assessment.
We found something somewhere in the papers in which he was being recognized by an evangelical organization. And he WAS evangelical, I realize… he was evangelical about goodness. About love and moral rectitude and a thoughtful and ethical approach to one’s existence.
- Papa wrote a letter to the editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. I don’t know off the top of my head the ad about the Forsyth County Commissioners to which he was responding, but I think that parts of his letter are quite meaningful even without that immediate context. [I think it was something in which some citizens of Winston-Salem were taking the side of the Commissioners in a case against the ACLU in which the latter argued against the use of sectarian prayer to open governmental meetings.]:”My religious freedom does not entitle me to damage the religious freedom of others, just as my freedom to drive my automobile does not entitle me to claim the driving lane occupied by my neighbor’s automobile.”
- Same letter to the editor, Papa addresses an issue which he spent much of his scholarly life exploring: “Often we say that persons who take offense at our language, sexist or religious or grammatical, should not do so. We mean no offense, and persons should not take offense. When I worked on the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, many women told us that they did not take offense at masculine-specific pronouns or other terms. [E.g., the King James version says, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” and the translators of the NRSV chose “What are human beings that you are mindful of them…”] But some feminists, male and female, rightly reminded us that they themselves of course knew that they were included in masculine language. They just weren’t sure that those who wanted to keep the masculine-distinctive language really thought that women were included!”
- From a lecture (class?) Papa gave entitled “Learning a New Language for Communicating the Gospel in our Changing Culture: Is Tolerance a Strength or a Weakness for the Christian Community?” [I’ll leave you to guess which he advocates. 😉 ]”To be tolerant of the views and actions of others rather than quick to condemn and criticize — that surely is a good thing.
To be so accepting of the views and actions of others that we appear to stand for nothing — that surely is a bad thing.
“It’s one thing, however, to live with and be tolerant of diverse understandings of our own religious faith and its moral demands, but quite another thing to be tolerant of persons who are Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists, or perhaps agnostics or atheists. In the first instance, we want to be ready to listen to fellow believers, learn from them, offer our best teaching and understanding to them, believing all the while that the Holy Spirit is guiding the community into all truth.
“But how can we be tolerant of those whose views we cannot help but believe are faulty and perhaps entirely wrong? Can we use the slogan, ‘love the sinner but not the sin’? That is, can we say we respect every human being created in God’s image and likeness but respectfully say that we cannot respect any religion other than Christianity since in faith we know that all of them are wrong?
“But is tolerance of persons who disagree with us really tolerance if it does not include some kind of respect for their central beliefs?
“I have two general suggestions on how we can deepen and broaden our proper tolerance.
“The first is that we take up that much misunderst[oo]d doctrine of the Holy Trinity and see if it will not offer guidance for us on tolerance. The second is simply a slogan or working guideline for affirming our faith respectfully.
“The slogan is this: Christian faith is the utter truth of life. That does not mean and should not be thought to mean that there is no revealed truth elsewhere, among agnostics and atheists and among the believers in other religious traditions. Not all religions are equally true, but there is no reason to believe that there is no truth to be learned outside the confines of Christian faith. We have saving truth; we have the utter truth. Yet, we need not claim that ours is the only truth. The Triune God is at work throughout the entire universe. … Utter truth; not only truth. Might that be helpful?”
He follows this with several pages titled “The World’s Religions and their Relation to Christianity,” in which he summarizes some of the basic teachings and histories of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, then relates those teachings to Christian beliefs in order to find ground for tolerance of these sister religions.
He concludes with four points geared toward a conscientious evangelism:
“1. Spend time getting to know one’s community, its peoples, its religions. Take seriously their own efforts to make sense of life in their own way, their own language, their own culture.
“2. Help the community to understand and practice the best of its own traditions and religious faith. Help Muslims to be better Muslims even as you witness to Christ.
“3. Boldly but gently share the inner truths and experiences of the faith, those elements that claim you, that are most precious to you. Engage in teaching about Christian history, the Bible, and all that belongs to the Christian world, but be most diligent to share that inner faith that has brought you to want to be an evangelist in the first place.
“4. Never forget that Christian faith, with all its revealed truth and power, is full of mystery and wonder and beckoning promises. We see in a glass darkly; we know in part. Others may at any time illuminate that mystery.”
Many of you [if anyone read this far… I’m partially doing this for my own sort of catharsis, so I don’t fault anyone for not wanting to slog through religious philosophy on facebook, of all places] know that I don’t believe in the Christian God and that I have very little in the way of spirituality in my life. But Papa’s commitment to religious diversity and acceptance, even while maintaining a strong Christian faith, inspires me. He was what I think of as “the good kind of Christian” — the type of person who can be questioned without feeling attacked, who took to heart the idea of “love thy neighbor” and chose to interpret other, more controversial or divisive passages of the Bible in light of that sentiment.