Most of my essays in Catalyst have focused on Christian formation, catechesis, and various aspects of the catechumenate. These essays might not have been written if it had not been for one of my teachers, Thomas Oden, who catechized me and many others in the deep wells of the classical Christian tradition. I have been thinking of him a lot since he died on December 8, 2016.
There are numerous thoughtful obituaries and memorials of him that can be easily googled. I want to remember him here, in a more personal way, not only as a United Methodist teacher and catechist for the Church Catholic but as a faithful shepherd to many students, pastors, and laypeople. So, I offer the letter below, which I sent to Tom in 2004. Some memories have been added since the letter was first sent.
All Saints’ Day seems like a good one to write this letter. I’m writing to say thank you for your work as a teacher of the church, and especially for all that you have done for me as teacher, mentor, friend.
Your Retirement Colloquium was a wonderful event. Not only did it pay necessary tribute to your life’s work. It portrayed your career in a holistic way and generated many thoughts in me and those present about our own vocations. These thoughts call forth gratitude.
I can still remember standing in a religious book store in 1979 or ’80, eagerly reading your Agenda for Theology. It spoke directly to my disappointment in The United Methodist Church. Many of my fellow pastors seemed uninterested in the gospel itself. They wanted to be amateur therapists or political activists. It took me a few more years — with testing and failing and discerning — but I eventually showed up in your graduate school classes in 1984. This was an answer to prayer and one of the most significant changes of direction in my theological vocation. It was your book that kept me aiming at a “theological existence.”
You were a professor who closely listened to your students, and you were truly Socratic in an environment that was becoming more and more enamored of, and constricted by, categories of class, race, and gender. Your seminars on the doctrine of God, Kierkegaard, and Wesley were exciting intellectual conversations that required us to struggle with texts in the light of the whole of the Christian tradition.
As a real conversation partner with your students, you often shared with us drafts of the books you were writing, and would surprise us with the generous listing of our names, alongside serious senior scholars, in the acknowledgments section of your books when they went to print. Once, when we asked for writing advice, you pointed to the draft you had shared with us and said, “This is my eleventh draft,” revealing how you wrote within a community of Christian conversation.
I am also grateful for your invitation in 1994 to join you and others in the meeting that evolved into The Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church. My return to the parish after completing my doctorate was initially a great personal trial. I almost failed. But your invitation to remain theologically engaged, at whatever post the Lord had assigned me, resulted in great blessing for me and a remarkable healing in the Trinity United Methodist congregation in Lansing. I cannot thank you enough for this. It was the mark of a true theological mentor. You did not forget about my work because I did not immediately enter the academic realm; you saw it whole within the church — a sign to me of the integrity of your theological perspective.
Thank you, Tom, for the patience, persistence, and tenacity with which you pursued the retrieval of a “classical consensual tradition.” Breaking free — indeed repenting — of the chains and blinders of modernity, you pioneered a pathway for many of us. Seeing how your various projects have led to the Ancient Christian Commentary Series, even though that may not have been in your mind at the beginning — this gave me courage to keep working at my vocation when I still could not see what tapestry all the threads were actually weaving.
There was one element missing, I think, in your Retirement Colloquium. Although it was touched upon, no one really tackled your polemical, Kierkegaardian, renewalist role in mainline Christianity. Perhaps that topic is better approached in a different setting than a retirement context. Still, given the vaunted political engagement of liberal academics, it is too bad they could not engage, or describe intellectually, the polemical-irenical character of your work. For those who read your work developmentally, it is clear you had already worked out in Agenda that an irenicism that listens goes with a polemicism that confronts.
Your irenicism was especially clear to your former students when you published your memoir, A Change of Heart. Many of us had seen, close up, attempts by students and faculty to sideline or shame you in the university community for your outspoken questions about the theological reasoning of various radical theologians. Your willingness to speak frankly and pastorally about abortion and end-of-life issues had garnered visible hostility. Yet your memoir was gracious and generous to all your detractors.
For all this I am very grateful, Tom. Every year I become more aware of what a gift you, your witness, and your work have been to me as a disciple, a teacher, and a pastor.
Your student and friend in Christ,