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Book review:

Eugene March, The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love

Biblical scholar sees a "wide, wide circle of divine love"

a book note by Berry Craig


I hadn't heard of W. Eugene March or The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love: A Biblical Case for Religious Diversity until I read The Layman editorial against the book and its author.

The Layman, the ultra-conservative, if not fundamentalist, Presbyterian Lay Committee's newspaper, was in especially high dudgeon. Thus, I figured The Wide, Wide Circle had to be a good read.

I was wrong. It's a great read.

The Layman lambasted March's "pluralism," which most Presbyterians share. The Layman argued that " a destructive ideology that restrains Christians from believing that Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, truly man and truly God, that there is 'no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,' as Peter proclaimed in Acts 5."

The Laymans lament sent me to my favorite bookstore for a copy of March's musings. I got the last one in stock.

We Presbyterians -- the Frozen Chosen -- don't do "amens" except at the end of hymns. The Wide, Wide Circle is eminently "amenible."

The Lay Committee is an exclusivist minority, though a noisy one, in the Presbyterian flock. March's book expresses the inclusive majority view.

"Persons with an inclusive perspective consider their own religion to offer the best but not the only possible understanding of the Divine," wrote March, a professor emeritus at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. "For Christians this means that God is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. God's work is brought to its completion in Jesus Christ. The best, the most satisfying, the most secure, the most fulfilling relationship with God is to be found in faithfully following Jesus Christ. But such a commitment to Jesus does not require a denunciation of all other religious views."


March warned against "militant religious extremism." He added that, "Those who teach or practice their religious devotion in ways that encourage disdain for others by distorting and misrepresenting their own traditions and those of others need to be challenged. Hate no longer can have a legitimate place at the table of any of our religious gatherings."


It is easy to see how March's book riled the Laymen and others of the exclusivist persuasion. Indeed, I suspect that what makes the Laymen maddest at March is knowing -- but never admitting, of course --that a lot more Presbyterians agree with him than with them.

March suggested that among exclusivists "somewhere along the way the song 'Jesus loves me' became 'Jesus loves me.'" (Similarly, though less reverently, a folk rock group called the Chicken Chokers croons a tune titled, "Jesus Loves Me But He Can't Stand You.")

Early in his book, March pops the big question. "Do you have to be a Christian to get to heaven?...Or to put it more simply, must only one religion be true?"

March explained that "this side of heaven, there is no way to answer the last question conclusively, one way or the other." Probably nothing in March's book raised Laymen hackles higher than the author's next sentence: "People may believe what they want, but there is simply no way to prove their beliefs to be correct." (Italics mine.)


Religion isn't based on empirical science or history. Religion is rooted in faith. Hence, most Presbyterians heed the Biblical admonition to "Judge not lest ye be judged." Like March, most Presbyterians are proud of their faith but freely admit there is truth and validity in other religions.

March also urged that "the resources of the major religious traditions of the marshaled to develop a basis for mutual respect and just cooperation among believers and nonbelievers alike." He concluded, "This book is a small contribution toward this goal."

I prayerfully disagree. It is a large contribution. Otherwise, the Laymen and their "Jesus loves me" soul mates wouldn't take so much umbrage at The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love and the "Jesus loves me" theology of its author.

-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at the Western Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah. He and his wife, Melinda, are members of the Witherspoon Society.



GA actions ratified (or not) by  the presbyteries   

A number of the most important actions of the 219th General Assembly have now been acted upon by the presbyteries, confirming most of them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.

We provided resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest have been:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which  removes the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.  Approved!

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.  Disapproved, because as an amendment to the Book of Confessions it needed a 2/3 vote, and did not receive that.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which  adopts the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.   Approved.

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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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