The Religion of Love

Rev. John G. Fee, along with his wife, Matilda, founded Berea College out of convictions grounded in a particular understanding of Christian scripture. Fee believed deeply that the words “impartial love” were the most accurate to summarize the Christian gospel found in the New Testament. And so it was this idea, the gospel of impartial love, that informed the identity and values of Berea College, making it the first coeducational, interracial college in the South.

Rev. Fee was educated, trained, and ordained in the Presbyterian Church tradition. He attended the Presbyterian Church’s Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, which was at the center of the abolitionist movement at the time. There, he became active with the American Missionary Association which was instrumental in founding many of the historically black colleges and universities, including Howard University in Washington, D.C.

While Fee would later come into conflict and eventually sever ties with the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky over his view that the church should refuse fellowship to slaveholders, one may be able to draw a connection between his theological training as applied to the major social issues of the day: gender equality and slavery.

Reformed theology, the Presbyterian Church’s theological tradition, is grounded in the notion of Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, meaning Church reformed, always reforming. Or maybe a better translation would be Church always being reformed (by God). Central to the Presbyterian tradition is the idea that one must always be open to guidance from God, acknowledging both that humans are sinful and miss the mark and that God is a living and dynamic God who brings about change in our communities.

Certainly in Fee’s time, the Kentucky Presbyterian Church’s proslavery theological views[1] illustrates a major failure regarding being open to God’s guidance in identifying and correcting injustice. This failure, this egregious sinfulness of Fee’s former denomination contributed to Fee’s belief that, in order to fully live out the gospel of impartial love, Berea College must not be connected to any particular church denomination or institution. In addition to the sin of slavery, John and Matilda Fee were passionate about the issue of gender equality in education (in addition to racism, sexism was another egregious sin committed by many institutions) which inspired the creation of the utopian experiment, Berea College, to address those two major issues of their day.

While it is important to highlight how radical and revolutionary Berea College’s founders were at the time and likewise it is important to acknowledge the enormous debt the current Berea community owes to them, the Fees did not get everything right. Each generation of leaders at Berea College have had to address the major social issues of the day, and Berea College has evolved over the years and continues to do so. It’s also important to note that we still have much work to do when it comes to racism and sexism and many others areas of institutional and systemic injustice. We’ve made progress, but it’s a continual effort to fully solve those original issues, along with addressing many other important issues that have arisen.

One of the more contemporary issues Berea College has been addressing over the last several decades is how to approach the issue of religious diversity. How does a school founded as “distinctly Christian” (Fee) relate to students, faculty, staff, and community members who identify with different religious traditions or with no tradition? One can only speculate as to how John and Matilda Fee would perceive how we’ve handled the issue, but I believe we are on our way to getting it right.

As a college chaplain at Berea, one of my deepest passions is working with our students and community who come from various faith backgrounds and non-religious worldviews, supporting religious literacy education, promoting interfaith understanding and education, and equipping our students to be future leaders in a religiously diverse world.  At Berea, it’s not enough for us to merely create a climate of religious tolerance and respect (which is a good start), but we are striving to create an environment where every community member’s religious and worldview identity is celebrated and supported. And I see this as being an authentic response by our community to an important issue of our time, in line with and guided by the legacy of the gospel of impartial love.

In closing, I’ll leave you with an invocation I shared at our February staff forum meeting, where I attempted to acknowledge and celebrate the religious diversity represented in our current Berea College community.

Let us prepare our hearts and minds for this morning’s invocation,

As we are emerging from the long, dark, cold days of winter, as the spring season approaches bringing with it the warmth of the sun and the blossoming of flowers and trees, we are also approaching another season, a holy season for many faith traditions.

For Christianity, the season of lent begins on Ash Wednesday which moves through Holy Week and Easter in April. For Judaism, the festival of Purim is celebrated next month and Passover takes place in April. For Islam, the ascension of the prophet to heaven is celebrated in March and the holy month of Ramadan begins in April.

And next month, Hindus will be celebrating the festival of Holi, Buddhists will be celebrating the birth date of the historical Buddha, and in April Sikhs will be celebrating their new year and Baha’is will be celebrating their Most Great Festival honoring their founder.

Indeed, the spring season is a holy season for so many members of our Berea College community. And to honor the various faith traditions represented on campus, and as we try to live out one of our founding principles, the gospel of impartial love, I’d like to share with you a poem written by 12th century Muslim scholar, Ibn Arabi.

The Religion of Love
My heart has grown capable
of taking on all forms.
It is a pasture for gazelles,
An abbey for monks.
A table for the Torah.
Kaaba for the pilgrim.
My religion is love.
Whichever the route love’s caravan shall take,
That shall be the path of my faith.[2]

[1] For an example of proslavery theological views in central Kentucky during this time, see: Rev. John C. Young, “The Duty of Masters: A Sermon Preached in Danville, Kentucky in 1846, and then Published At the Unanimous Request of the Presbyterian Church, Danville (NY: John A. Gray, 1858), 45.

[2] Reynold Nicholson, The Tarjumán al-Ashwáq: A Collection of Mystical Odes by Muhyiddīn Ibn al-ʿArabī (London: Royal Asiatic Society, Oriental Translation Series, New Series xx, reprinted in 1981 by the Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois).

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