All good theology has the weight of lived faith beneath it. This is the conviction that animates the first-person approach to theological discourse pioneered at the Collegeville Institute in the 1970s.
Robert Bilheimer, executive director of the Collegeville Institute from 1974 through 1984, had experienced close contact with veterans of the Nazi-era German Confessing Church in the immediate postwar years. Observing that faith was distilled to the core of its meaning for confessing Christians under fascism, Bilheimer sought for the Collegeville Institute to become a place where people could express their faith in a personal and powerful way—in the spirit of the Confessing Church.
Along with other leaders in the ecumenical movement, Bilheimer started a series of consultations at the Collegeville Institute in which participants were encouraged to articulate their theologies in the context of their life stories. These consultations featured an uncommon mix of participants from a wide range of Christian traditions. At the consultations, the participants, who would be unlikely to come together to talk theologically in any other setting, spoke out of their faith traditions rather than about their faith traditions. They reflected on theological questions not by summoning abstract arguments or scriptural proofs, but by looking back over their own lives.
While the Collegeville Institute has taken on new programs over the past number of years as the work of ecumenism has changed, our commitment to the first-person approach remains at the heart of all that we do. Our upcoming Lenten Bearings Online series, “First-Person Faith,” features a number of personal vignettes from participants in our programs. These autobiographical accounts, especially as they are interwoven with scholarly theological reflection, help bring to life the Christian tradition.
Krista Tippett, a past Collegeville Institute consultation participant as well as a former board member, has praised the first-person approach to religious speech as a way to “humanize doctrine.” The first-person method is a mainstay of Tippett’s widely popular radio program, On Being. In her book Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How to Talk About It, Tippett writes, “We make the discovery that when we are honest and vivid and particular in describing what is most personal and important in life, we can summon universal and redemptive places at the very edge of words.”
In the personal narratives given voice in this Lenten series, we hope you’ll glimpse the universal and redemptive as well.