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Mercer Center for Theology and Public Life Facilitates Tough Debates

February 26, 2013

A student asks a question of the speakers during the Center for Theology and Public Life's Common Ground on Abortion event.By Katherine Manson

Dr. David Gushee believes that sometimes the conversations that are uncomfortable are the most important. As Mercer University's Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Center for Theology and Public Life director, Dr. Gushee takes on tough topics ranging from abortion, health care, immigration and the environment, using the Center to encourage others to have the sometimes uncomfortable dialogue involving faith and public life.

"It's important for social peace in our country," Dr. Gushee said. "It's important for humanizing the adversaries and showing why they think the way they think in order to learn from each other and grow in our own view and the maturity of our own positions. It's important for our American religious communities to contribute constructively and not be destructive in conversation."

Over the past three years, the Center for Theology and Public Life has conducted civil dialogue on faith and current public issues on Mercer's campuses. Through events each semester and various co-sponsored discussions and forums, the Center has made an impact on both a national and University level.

The Center's primary goal since its launch in 2010 is to bring quality discussion of faith and policy issues to Mercer and to demonstrate civil conversations across differences, Dr. Gushee said. Approaching hot-button issues is not always easy to do.

"Talking about religion is difficult and talking about politics is difficult," Dr. Gushee said. "We talk about all the issues that are difficult to talk about politely and try to demonstrate how to do that. It's about civil dialogue and informed conversation."

The Center has previously worked alongside Mercer's Local Engagement Against Poverty Conference, where it sponsored discussions on poverty, homelessness, the politics of religion and what to do to help alleviate poverty in Macon. The Center has also co-sponsored a number of Mercer Lyceum events. The Lyceum is a four-year, campus-wide initiative to spark discussions and harness the power of thoughtful dialogue. The Lyceum's first two years are devoted to the theme "Rebuilding Democracy."

As part of the Mercer Lyceum, the Center hosted "Christian Faith, Moral Values, and Public Service: Two Views from Capitol Hill," where participants gathered to discuss the federal health care reform and the competing Christian perspectives. The dialogue of politics and religion was brought into question again in 2012 when the Center held a Lyceum event titled "Can We Find Common Ground on Abortion?"

"The capacity to learn from our differences and have a respectful treatment of the constructive contribution of religion and public life is important because religion has made a lot of positive contributions," Dr. Gushee said.

The Center's work coincides with Dr. Gushee's goals and work as an ethicist. He has written 15 books relating to the contributions of religion and public life. Three of his books were published within the last six months. Dr. Gushee said his most recent book, The Sacredness of Human Life, gives a good example of what he strives to do through his work. It involves an analysis of what it means to say that life is sacred, and Dr. Gushee argues that it involves a wide range of moral commitments.

"The general agenda of making human life more human and treating everybody as if they are infinitely valuable, to me, that is what the sacredness of human life means," Dr. Gushee said

In addition to the Center's events and Dr. Gushee's publications, he also travels to lecture at universities, seminaries and organizations around the world. His next trip will involve traveling to Romania to speak on the issues of public life and faith. Though his work is far reaching, his work has affected those at Mercer deeply as well, particularly the students he teaches.

Isaac Sharp, a third-year Master of Divinity student at Mercer, has been to practically all of the Center's events in the last three years. As part of his internship with the Contextual Ministry class, Sharp has been shadowing Dr. Gushee to gain a better insight into his work.

"The Center's events have been enormously influential on me as I hope to follow in Dr. Gushee's footsteps by one day helping to educate college and seminary students about constructive ways for people of faith to engage the 'public square,'" Sharp said.  

The Center has changed the conversation for students at Mercer through its active work to engage in conflicting dialogue, said Dr. Mary Alice Morgan, senior vice provost for service learning and professor.

"Dr. Gushee has provided us with thoughtful and dynamic leadership in encouraging students, faculty and the University as a whole to come together as a community to focus on the hard issues, to have the hard conversations, within a framework of asking what serves the common good and how faith-based values can propel us toward living out a more just, equitable, caring society," Dr. Morgan said. "The Center calls us not simply to be faithful but to act upon our values by engaging in the public square."

The Center continues its work to build a more thoughtful agenda for faith and politics. It held a film screening of "Islam in America" in Atlanta on Feb. 21. The Christian documentary focuses on an inside look into life within a Muslim American community and humanizes the people who are often the target of discrimination. The filmmaker led a discussion on Christians falling prey to Muslim hatred following the screening.

In April, the Center is organizing a reciprocal visit with the historically African-American Morehouse College as students from both Morehouse and Mercer will meet to reflect as black and white Christians about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Students from Morehouse will be traveling to Mercer's Macon campus on April 2 and on April 4 Mercer students will travel to Morehouse.

The Center's goals also advance Mercer's religious mission as a historically Baptist institution Dr. Morgan said, and it is helping define that mission for the 21st Century.

"After the break with the Georgia Baptist Convention, there was a question of how Mercer would define itself without that long-standing institutional tie," Dr. Morgan explained. "By sponsoring conferences and constructive dialogues on issues critically important to contemporary society—poverty, abortion, torture, immigration—the Center places issues of ethics and faith squarely at the heart of the University." 

Dr. Gushee noted, "I want to bring programs that continue to show the value of that heritage and how it can be a constructive part of the contemporary life at Mercer."

For more on the Center for Theology and Public Life, visit the website ctpl.mercer.edu.

Mark Vanderhoek
(478) 301-4037
vanderhoek_m@mercer.edu