In Memorium: Dr. James Hal Cone
“He’ll probably love me.” That was my entire opinion of him as I moved into the dorm and got ready for life at Union. “He will absolutely adore me.”
That was before classes started.
I don’t know how I didn’t see it coming about 4 days before classes started, when I intentionally brushed past him in a hallway.
“Uh, Dr. Cone? Is there anything I need to know to get, you know, a jump on ST 103?” (ST 103 is the popular systematic theology introductory course that he oversaw.) I thought he was going to say something deep like, “Come not only with an open mind, but an open heart as well.” Or that he would give me a dense riddle to chew on. Something deep.
It was 2003. I didn’t know Cone, and I didn’t know deep.
He put his hand on the side of his face and rubbed it up and down. “Read A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology by William Hordern.”
“Um, ok. Thanks a lot, sir.”
Another book to buy– not to mention read. That was his answer? Blah. And who ever heard of William Hordern?
About 70 pages into the book, I began to see how vast theology is across the centuries, and also why it’s important. I remember being particularly impressed by Friedrich Schleiermacher. His theology sounded like something I might have said. I thought my ideas were novel, but he had articulated them better, and 200 years earlier. Like Schleiermacher used to say: “Sin occurs when man tries to live by himself, isolated from the universe.”
So I spent an entire day with Hordern, Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Fosdick, and all the other “dead white guys”–(I never heard Cone use that term, but everyone else did.) Class hadn’t even started yet, and Professor Cone had showed me how to “love God with my mind.” Had Cone saved my soul? I wondered half-jokingly. I wanted to shut the world out and read all night. Only problem was, I was completely exhausted from the neck up, I was less than halfway through the book, and I had 4 other classes to deal with. #UnionSeminary.
One of the best parts of my academic journey (kindergarten through doctor) was listening to Dr. Cone’s lectures at Union. He would speak from handwritten notes on pages from a yellow legal pad. The papers looked like they were at least 10 years old. But the information was gold, and I took furious notes trying to capture it all.
“A pious feeling in the heart will crumble under rational theological questioning. That questioning is necessary for maturity of faith.”
“If you’re not smart enough to articulate it, you can’t defend it. If you aren’t strong enough to keep it, it doesn’t really belong to you.”
“The dominant group controls the dominant theology. You must understand the dominant assumptions of a particular age in order to understand its theology.”
“We are best known by the questions we don’t ask.”
“What you learn and what you believe is your decision.”
“People in power have trouble listening.”
“Every good teacher is a good writer, and every good writer is a good teacher.”
“Anyone and everyone has something to teach us about ourselves and God if we have the humility to listen.”
“Oppression is having other people’s answers to questions about God imposed upon you.”
“Nothing is more important than having a personal theology that is critical and stands the test of time.”
Not bad for notes taken 15 years ago from 10 year old legal pads….
I nearly drowned in ST 103 my first semester at Union. In any class, you could essentially earn an A, a B, or an F.
I accepted my B.
My very last semester, I only had to take 3 classes–anything I wanted. Dr. Cone was offering ST 393: Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. I felt a strong pull toward the subject matter, and I also wanted to sit under the almighty JHC one last time before graduation. At the time, Isis and I were courting, I was working at a funeral home, volunteering at a church, leading the student senate, and trying my hand at stand up comedy. With graduation securely in sight, I was admittedly on cruise control at school.
“James Cone” and “intellectual cruise control” go together about as well as Augustine and Pelagius.
So how did James Cone vs. Young Distracted Slacker end? His evaluation says it best:
I got my share of As in seminary, and many students earned them from Cone. Just not me. The truth hurts sometimes. He taught me though. Reading his evaluation in retrospect has opened a floodgate of self-reflection and new hope even today. He had no empty compliments, and very little diplomacy. But he did love me, and all of us.
About 2 years ago, I visited Union and heard him give a lecture on The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Same voice, same fire, same standing ovation, same yellow papers.
“Hi, Seth, how are you?” He met my son. He seemed pleased that I was happily leading a family and a congregation, and that I was still climbing. He indulged us with a selfie…
When a person is that fulfilled, that loving, that conscious, who needs diplomacy and empty compliments?
If Since I can inspire people like he inspired me, I will do my part to continue the journey for true liberation. Also, from this day forward, I resolve and intend to go down in history as the most outstanding B student he ever had.