Henderson: Multifaith Great Awakening will unite generations


Katharine Henderson, president of the Auburn Theological Seminary, gives Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

The Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson said she considers “troublemaker” and “activist” to be honorific titles, so it only made sense that her lecture was titled “Trouble the Waters, Heal the World.”

Henderson is the president of Auburn Theological Seminary and the author of God’s Troublemakers: How Women of Faith Are Changing the World.

Her presentation at 2 p.m. on Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy was the second installment in Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture series on “The Role of Religion in Engaging Citizens for the Common Good.”

“We are on the cusp of a new Great Awakening: a multigenerational, multifaith movement committed to justice, to healing and repairing the world,” she said.

Henderson said that from a young age, she began to see the responsibility that came with a life of faith.

“My growing-up years taught me that faith calls you to tend our shared space,” she said.

She said an example was her grandfather, who ran the only school for African-American children amidst persecution from the Ku Klux Klan in his North Carolina community.

Later, she marched with her parents in civil rights protests in the 1950s and 1960s in Louisville, Ky.

“The theological message was clear — that being a Christian … meant more than sitting in a pew on Sunday morning,” she said. “It meant being active, even political, doing something.”

When Henderson’s family moved to Germany for a year, their rented apartment belonged to the twin sister of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Nazi resister and Lutheran pastor. The family grew close with Bonhoeffer’s sister, and Henderson was exposed to the horrors of the Holocaust but also to the responsibility of religion.

But religion is still known for maintaining the status quo rather than challenging it, even when the status quo is evil and oppressive, as it was in Nazi Germany, Henderson said.

“The verdict is still out whether religion can be a force for good or not,” she said. The time for a new Great Awakening, she said, is long overdue.

There are four components to the new Great Awakening, Henderson said. Each component begins with the letter “m.”

The first “m” is moral imagination, “what Christians might call the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen,” Henderson said.

She convened 19 women from different intellectual and theological paths to create a list of core values shared amongst their different philosophies.

“We think it’s important to figure out not just what you’re against, but what are we for?” Henderson said.

These characteristics span different subjects and goals and include the declaration that all lives are of equal value and all people are created in the image of God; an attitude of humility; an emphasis on pluralism beyond tolerance, interdependence and an equitable distribution of material goods.

The second “m” is multifaith engagement, an exploration in religious pluralism and of the difference between stranger and neighbor. There are two parts to multifaith engagement, Henderson said — the theological and the practical.

“I think one of the most important tasks that we as people of faith can do is craft a theology of difference within our own religious tradition,” she said. “How do our truth claims make space for those who believe differently? Are we willing to say that God reveals God’s self to others in different ways?”

She said that such a stance does not encourage relativism nor dilute belief; rather, it involves genuine appreciation and understanding.

“We’re to build bridges across lines of difference, not because it feels good but because we can’t do the work of justice and peace without them,” Henderson said.

The examples she gave included the interfaith organization Prepare New York, which reached out to residents of New York City as a response to the media frenzy surrounding Park51. Its activities include 500 coffee conversations in each of the boroughs and a media campaign.

The third “m” is the millennial generation, referring to those born in the 1980s and 1990s. Henderson places great stock in the ideas and opinions of this generation.

“They think about everything … in fresh new ways,” she said.

Henderson called the people of the millennial generation “powerful allies in working for the common good.”

In 2016, the millennial generation will constitute 33 percent of the electorate, she said.

Citing the Roosevelt Institute’s survey of this generation, she shared several characteristics with the audience: They are largely alienated from organized religion but still spiritual and tolerant of religious diversity; they are concerned with the role the United States plays in foreign affairs as an arbiter of morality; they are interested in working for the common good and for causes of social justice.

The fourth and final “m” refers to movement building. Henderson elaborated upon the Latin root of the word “religion,” which is “religare,” or “to bind up.”

“Our role as religious people is to bind up … to tend and nurture the common good, to build a movement of connection that will be lasting,” she said.

Henderson said she believes that little movements must come together to form a larger movement to make an impact.

“We are diluting our efforts in these dispersed ways,” she said. “Yet these issues are not separate. They are complex; they are global; they are systemic; they are interconnected. We can’t respond to one without responding to the other.”

But secular groups and religious groups are often suspicious of one another, she said, even though they may share some of the same values.

“The light of social justice, I submit, flickers in brave corners, but it fizzles in isolation,” she said. “So in order to achieve meaningful change in a networked society, that light has to show in bold constellation.”

Henderson touted the benefits of this approach, pointing to the organization Groundswell, a movement that will reach out to people during the approach of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Groundswell strives to harness the energy of the millennial generation, knitting together religious and secular groups to have a greater collective impact.