|Dr. Georgia E. Harkness|
“Religion is perhaps its own worst enemy. For religion, masquerading under the guise of archaic creeds, and impossible literalisms, and ecclesiasticism indifferent to human needs, has brought about an inevitable and in many respects wholesome revulsion.”
I think I first heard the name of Georgia Harkness when I was in elementary Sunday School. Maybe it came up because we were singing her hymn, “Hope of the World.” Maybe we were looking at contemporary Methodism. Maybe I saw a book that my mother was reading. I knew about Georgia Harkness before I knew anything about Tillich or Barth or Bonhoeffer or the Niebuhrs.
But the truth is that her name was almost all I knew, and across the years I did not pay much attention. She was one of the lesser lights of twentieth century theology and I was focused on the stars.
She is on my mind now because I referenced her in a blog post about covenant. I listed her as a part of the church I was joining when I was ordained. In truth, I listed her because she was the only female Methodist theologian I could think of.
Just saying her name brings me a certain comfort.
In our current precipitous and disastrous tilt toward literalism, doctrinal Puritanism, and worship of the Book of Discipline, I find it comforting to remember a time when we were not like that.
Georgia Harkness reminds me of my Methodist home, a place of openness, hope and grace. She reminds me of the family, the faith, and the church in which I grew up.
In her 1957 book, “Understanding the Christian Faith,” her chapter on “Understanding the Bible” lays out the perspective I grew up with, that the Bible is a sacred book, written over a period of about a thousand years. It is “heavenly treasure in earthen vessels.” It was not written for scientific or historical accuracy, but to convey the timeless message of God’s love and care. Some of it is time bound by the culture in which it was written, but at its heart it holds timeless truths about God and humanity. It is up to us, as we read the Bible, to separate the heavenly treasure from the earthen vessels.
Writing about “Jesus Christ Our Lord,” she states, “The question as to whether Jesus was born of a virgin is one on which the opinion of Christians differ, and the biblical accounts do not throw clear light upon it.” And on the resurrection, she declares, “We cannot be sure of the details of what happened that first Easter morning, but the central fact is certain. To the disciples . . . their Leader was not dead but present with them.”
If she were alive today, we might call her a Progressive Christian. But in her own time, for a Methodist, her theology was predictably orthodox.
After forty years of relentless attacks by the IRD (Institute on Religion and Democracy) and Good News, and their allies, the United Methodist Church has become an institution that Georgia Harkness would barely recognize. We have become “our own worst enemy.” Although she passed away more than forty years ago, her description of the direction in which we are heading is prophetic in the biblical sense of that word.
"Under the guise of following archaic creeds and impossible literalisms," we have engaged in an "ecclesiasticism" that is "indifferent to human needs." And there are consequences. This has brought about “an inevitable and in many respects wholesome revulsion.”
We have replaced the hope of the world with a rigid religiosity that values creeds over human beings. And on the fundamental issue that divides us as a church, the inclusion of LGBTQ persons, we have chosen ecclesiasticism over human needs.
Though I believe that the church today needs to hear her voice, her time was hardly a golden age. It is important to recognize that she grew up in an age of intense racial and gender discrimination.
After graduating from Cornell in 1912 she was not able to attend seminary and train for the ministry. She taught high school for six years but that was not her calling. She wanted to pursue a theological education and enrolled at Boston University. She was denied entrance to the School of Theology because she was a woman, but she was accepted in the School of Religious Education and eventually in Department of Religion of the Graduate School, where she studied with Edgar Brightman and earned a Ph.D.
She taught religion and philosophy at Elmira College (which was a women’s college at the time) and then was Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Mount Holyoke. In 1940 she was appointed Professor of Applied Theology at what is now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, becoming the first woman to teach theology at any seminary in the U.S. Today Garrett honors her with the Georgia Harkness Chair of Applied Theology. She retired in 1960 from The Pacific School of Religion.
In 1948 she attended a meeting of the World Council of Churches where she had an iconic interchange with Karl Barth.
Barth, along with a few other men, participated in a section on the “Life and Work of Women in Churches.” Just before the discussion began, the chairperson surprised Harkness by asking her to state the theological basis for the work. She recalls, “I said briefly that in the Old Testament it is stated that both male and female are created in the image of God; in the New Testament Jesus assumed always that men and women were equal before God, and in our Christian faith is the chief foundation of sex equality.”
She reports that as soon as she finished, Barth addressed the group and said that she was “completely wrong, that the Old Testament conception of woman is that she was made from Adam’s rib and the New Testament that of Ephesians 5, that as Christ is the head of the Church, so man is the head of woman.”
After that they had a lively interchange in which, as she recalls, “I did little more than quote Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”) Her judgment was that “Barth convinced nobody.” And she concludes her recollection of the event this way: “A year later when a friend of mine asked him if he recalled meeting a woman theologian from America, his cryptic reply was, ‘Remember me not of that woman.’”
Barth did not want to remember her, but I do.