Fall 2001
Volume 6 Number 1

A History of Exchange| Remembering Connections through War and Peace| Jewels in the Crown of Korea| A Wartime Connection Lasts a Lifetime| Where Edges Meet

by Richard F. Young

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman’s insightful book about Hmong refugees in California and the struggles they experienced in comprehending American medical mores, starts off with a remark that I have found enormously interesting:

Richard F. Young

 “I have always felt,” she says, “that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet.” Fadiman’s fascination with being at the edges instead of the center is one that I share. “I like shorelines,” she continues, “weather fronts, international borders.” So do I, especially the borders, having crossed a number during some twenty-two years in Asia, a portion of that time as a missionary with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Although the in-between is never an easy place to be, Fadiman would have us believe—and I concur—that the action at the edges is worth watching because, “There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.”

Edges meeting, colliding, converging—for me, as a historian of religions, the metaphor seems ideal not only for shorelines, weather fronts, and international borders but also for religions that encounter each other. It isn’t for everyone to situate themselves in-between, there to observe the energies released, constructively and destructively, when religions meet. But those who do can find a keener sense of clarity about what matters most in Christianity by learning to look at this religion from the point of tangency with another (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc.). It has been deeply gratifying to find students at Princeton Seminary so centered in their faith, so at ease with it that they are more than ready for interreligious exploration at the edges, beyond the boundaries of their respective traditions, believing that to do so would not diminish but enrich their sense of who they are as Christians.

The predisposition for being at the edges that Fadiman articulates so vividly is less new to the Seminary than might at first seem the case. In a deep-time perspective, it has exemplified the Princeton ethos from the very beginning. One finds ample evidence of this in the Society of Inquiry on Missions, a voluntary association organized and sustained largely at student initiative in the Seminary’s early years. After a busy first year of teaching, it has become a delightful summertime diversion to immerse myself in the records of this society, now kept in the Seminary’s archives. In sifting through the remnants, a certain profile emerges: of students whose quest for understanding the action on the edges led them into correspondence with people on a variety of frontiers, first in America itself (the hinterlands of New York, for instance, which were being newly settled) and then, as missionaries were being sent abroad, in virtually the whole world.

A goodly number of those who went abroad were Princeton’s own. The first, to my knowledge, was Henry Woodward (Class of 1818), who helped establish in Jaffna (the peninsula at the northern tip of Sri Lanka) a college for Tamil youth, education being quintessentially a missionary endeavor. Having myself served at this same college in the mid-1980s, I was deeply moved to find that the society kept a “missionary box” in the Alexander Oratory, out of which contributions were sent to Jaffna, underwriting the education of the first cohort of Tamil students in 1824. That collaboration, however, came at a price; poor Woodward must have burned the midnight oil responding to inquiry after inquiry from the Society of Inquiry. These were often ethnographic (Who, for instance, are the Tamilians?) and indicative of the students’ social background in American agricultural communities (What crops do the Jaffnese grow?). But religion itself was always a focal point for inquiry and, naturally enough, evangelical concern (Which gods do the “Hindoos” worship, and why?). To satisfy these inquiries, Woodward was hard-pressed, as were others. From every quarter of the globe, letters to the society poured in, along with artifacts from the field that were catalogued and kept under lock and key by the “keeper of the cabinet,” a seminarian.

Continued

A History of Exchange| Remembering Connections through War and Peace| Jewels in the Crown of Korea| A Wartime Connection Last a Lifetime| Where Edges Meet |

© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary
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Meeting at the Edge of Continents
Proclaiming the Gospel in a Wired World

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