Remembering Littell

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Preface

The ministry of Marsh Chapel, in this decade, quickens in connection with voice, vocation and volume.

The voice of this pulpit, around the globe, is lifted and shared, in the liberality of the gospel, as it has been from the time of our first preacher, Dr. Franklin H. Littell. Our Psalm today celebrates voice.

The vocation to service, in ministry and culture, to which we invite young people every day, is our joy and hope, this day. Our lesson today celebrates vocation.

The volume, simply put, the increasing worshipping presence of the people of God, grows in ordered worship, as we lift hymns in four part harmony, enjoy choral music both historic and contemporary, and ponder the word, with head and heart, to ‘unite the two so long disjoined, learning and vital piety’, as the broken are healed. The gospel today speaks of the lost and the found.

We invite you to step alongside the ministry of Marsh Chapel in voice, vocation and volume.

Especially today we ‘Remember Littell’. Franklin Littell, who died this spring at age 91, lived and preached a faith that gives sight. An insightful faith.

The hallowed predecessors who occupied this pulpit in the cradle of liberty and the cradle of Methodist theology are names, and voices, you mostly know. Robert Cummings Neville. Robert Watts Thornburg. Richard Nesmith. Robert Hamill. Howard Thurman. And Franklin Littell.

Littell In Retrospect

Dr. Franklin Littell was the first to occupy this pulpit. President Daniel Marsh brought him here in the early 1950’s. As recently as May of 2006, Littell was able at age 88 to preach here, as he did that spring at commencement (for the School of Theology). A friend, colleague, contemporary and fly fishing partner of our dear friend Dr. Ray Hart, Littell brought a stirring sermon to that moment just three years ago.

Perhaps both his life and death are somewhat unfamiliar territory for you. In fact, I guess that such is the case for many, and so, today, I offer a moment of remembrance, in conjunction with our Boston University Alumni Weekend. Last year we were ‘Remembering Chalmers’. This year, Littell.

Remember today three features of Littell’s ministry.

First, he was the father of holocaust studies. Littell was the first to offer courses, formal study, in the area of the holocaust. Throughout his life, with passion, and as a Methodist preacher, he continuously challenged the Christian community, and particularly the Protestant Christian community, to take emotional responsibility for the horrors of the holocaust. Littell, in his time here and later in his long career, never stopped pushing, preaching, even attacking his own Christian church to look hard, deep, and long at Auschwitz. He did so from this pulpit. He did so later as a college President (Iowa Wesleyan), and he did so in scores of classrooms from Temple, to Emory, to Chicago. Remember his words: “Most gentiles, even church leaders, have not confronted the Holocaust and its lessons for the present day… It is important, especially for Jewish children, to know that in those terrible years not all the gentiles in Christendom were either perpetrators or passive spectators,” (NYT obit., 6.09).

Second, Littell gracefully and steadily combined learning and piety. His ministry embraced both head and heart, and actually could not have been conceived or developed without such a real, even radical integration of the mind and the spirit. His passion about the holocaust, for instance, began out of a revulsion he felt as a student in Germany in 1939, attending a Hitler rally. He never forgot the feeling of that early experience, and that feeling fueled his work through the years. Feelings are more than emotions, more than sentiment. They are the great steed, the great horse on which we ride. The mind is the bit and bridle, as Wesley somewhere wrote, but the great steed is faith, fed by the wellsprings of emotion in the heart. He pressed the church, our church, to remember the great Kingswood hymn of Charles Wesley: ‘to unite the two so long disjoined, learning and vital piety’. So he was a preacher who also was college president. He was a pastor, who also taught and wrote. He was a person of faith, who saw the need to combine mind and heart.

Third, in addition, Littell was a serious and lifelong scholar of the reformation. His early formation, study and teaching were devoted to this area. Most reformation scholars invest study in the New Testament, too, and Littel was no exception. He was an early supporter and even translator and commentator on the work of Rudolph Bultmann, whose own voice is still so important voice in the study of the New Testament.

First: holocaust studies. Second: head and heart united. Third: reformation studies, including interest in the critical study of the New Testament. These are three gifts of Littell to our time. His voice continues to bless us.

Our Work Today

In the lineage of Littell, we have work yet to do, both theological and liturgical.

We have theological work to do.

Judaism and Christianity share a vision of redemption in history. Yet the ongoing work of redemption, in exodus and resurrection both, demands, deserves and requires deeper reflection. (The annual Elie Wiesel lectures, which begin again tomorrow night here at Boston University, provide us an opportunity to labor together in this part of the theological vineyard). Further, the devastating, demonic disaster of the holocaust of the 1940’s stands to challenge both religious and secular affirmations of redemption in the late modern period. In particular, all claims to universality which diminish the particular in every particular stand under the challenge of the holocaust whose study Littell initiated. Our understandings of revelation stand under challenge. Our use of dialectic feels the strain of the same challenge. Our universalization of communication and to some degree of valuation lies under that shadow too. While we have remembered Wiesel and other courageous witnesses to the shoa, we have not yet finished our theological reflection. As Robert McAfee Brown used to say, theology, including Christian theology, that lies out of earshot of the holocaust, is severely diminished.

Some of our further theological work, within the Christian community, includes reading and reflection upon Jewish theological works. The books of Abraham Heschel come to mind. Articles like Irving Greenberg’s ‘Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire’, come to mind. Voices like that of Emil Fackenheim come to mind, who described his practice of faith as a way of resisting Hitler and resisting any ‘posthumous victories’ by him. Our own theological work, tracing Littell’s, may involve reading and hearing our Jewish siblings.

Our own theological work, much yet to be done, begins by tracing the work of our Jewish siblings.

We have liturgical work to do as well.

Irving Greenberg, some years ago, in the article just mentioned, outlined various forms of Jewish post-holocaust theological and liturgical models. He wrote about Job. He wrote about Isai
ah 53. He wrote about Lamentations. He wrote, most personally, about silence. He wrote about religious testimony: in life, in ‘chesed’, in rebirth, in rebirth for the state of Israel, in exploration of the imago dei, in authority and authenticity.

The tragedy of anti-Semitism predates the New Testament. But the 27 books of our canon, from 1 Thess. 2 to John 10, are shot through with this same tragedy. The church has yet to come to terms with the deadening effect of our lectionary readings and liturgical practices. We have found ways to honor the experience of women, in our liturgical phrasing. We have learned ways to honor those ‘outside’ and those ‘foreign’, in our church language. But we have not budged, when reading the passion narrative in John, with its fisted, hurtful chorus of language, ‘oi oudaioi’, ‘oi oudaioi’.

We have liturgical work yet to do.

Theological and liturgical work lies ahead of us.

I like to think of an autumn day in 1955, along Broadway in NYC. There is Reinhold Niebuhr. With him is Abraham Heschel. Together they walk for an hour around Grant’s tomb. Together they think, probe, reason together. Both are better for it.

Heschel gives our last word this morning:

There are three ways in which a man expresses his deep sorrow: the man on the lowest level cries; the man on the next level is silent; the man on the highest level knows how to turn his sorrow into a song. (Sabbath, 59).

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

One Response to “Remembering Littell”

  1. ISIS says:

    Please post text of the sermon, "Rembering Littell".

    Thank you,

    ISIS

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