Dr. Jon Pahl receives the Hagan Chair in the History of Christianity

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Hagan Professor Dr. Jon PahlDr. Jon Pahl, professor of the History of Christianity at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), was conferred the honor of the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Endowed Chair in the History of Christianity on November 27, 2012. (see photos and video here)

In receiving the Chair, Pahl, a resident of Philadelphia’s East Mt. Airy section, delivered a brief lecture that Peter Paul Hagan, a socially conscious entrepreneur in the early part of the last century, surely would have appreciated. 

In his remarks entitled “Ending the Warfare Between Business and Religion: Toward a New Social Gospel,” Pahl described a warfare between business and religion that has been waged off and on for 150 years, stemming from two historic periods and marked by what he called “the Barbarian Captivity of Business,” on the one hand, and the “Temptation to Self-Righteous Spiritual Purity,” on the other. In two periods of history, including the present, Pahl cited “a very narrow understanding of business that aligns corporations with short-term, reactive greed (evidenced by quarterly profits for shareholders and built on the backs of workers), coinciding with a failure on the part of religious leaders to attend responsibly to the material relations that constitute everyday life.” 

Pahl subsequently drew upon examples, often from American religious history, of spiritually grounded social entrepreneurs “who have shared a vision and concrete practices to foster a healthy intersection of business and religion … to build what we might call a new social gospel that will be one component in what I see, more broadly, as a coming religious peace. We can see emerging around the globe and across religious traditions a spiritually grounded practice of social business that promises to engage the unmistakable energies of entrepreneurship … on behalf of a more just, sustainable, equitable — and in fact profitable world.”

Pahl began by tracing the legacy of Peter P. and Elizabeth Hagan, “a heritage I am honored and privileged to carry (through the Chair) as part of a rich and largely unknown thread within Lutheran history that manifested itself in a distinctive understanding and application of the social gospel movement, a heritage that is very much alive and well, and being renewed … today.”

Hagan, a carpet manufacturer and resident of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, served as Vice President of the Board of LTSP; as trustee of Tabor Home for Children, now known in three sites as Tabor Children’s Services; as president of the Philadelphia Lutheran Inner Mission Society, a member of the Board of Pensions of the former United Lutheran Church in America (a predecessor to today’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America denomination); and as vice-president of the Lutheran Laymen’s Movement for Stewardship before he died in October 1959.

“If you have a pension today through the church, be thankful for the foresight of social gospel thinkers like Hagan,” Pahl noted. The stucco, Victorian estate building near the Germantown Avenue entrance of the seminary bears Hagan’s name, and a portrait of the couple hangs in its lobby.

In a segment of his presentation called “A Cloud of Witnesses of Social Entrepreneurs,” Pahl described the life work of six socially conscious entrepreneurs through the ages, Bartolome de las Casas, a Martin Luther contemporary who advocated on behalf of the rights of indigenous peoples to life, land, liberty and dignity and became known as the “father of liberation theology”; Francis Daniel Pastorius, the founder of Germantown who settled there in 1683, a Lutheran who attended Quaker meetings and “a lawyer, gardener, poet, judge, land developer” and who Pahl also described as a signatory and probably author of the first anti-slavery document in America; Sojourner Truth, born into slavery in the 1790s, later freed, and an outspoken anti-slavery activist and preacher the rest of her life — including speeches in Philadelphia and from the pulpit of Mother Bethel Church, whose entrepreneurial instincts included funding her travels through the sale of her pictures and speeches; Jane Addams, co-founder of many settlement houses dotting the American landscape; Fethullah Gulena, a Turkish Muslim teacher whose global movement called Hizmet engages adherents in the practices of education, interreligious dialogue and direct service through social enterprise; and Leymah Gbowee, one of three 2011 Nobel Laureates, who founded a Women’s Peacebuilding Network that helped to end the war in her country of Liberia.

“Things can start in churches that change the world for the better,” Pahl said. “The original social gospel movement, along with the Progressive Movement in politics, brought us antitrust laws, child labor laws, a dramatic rise in literacy and women’s suffrage … and was parochially Christian.

“A new social gospel, in contrast, can and will be pragmatic — encouraging social enterprise, organizing business energies, engaging all stakeholders in the processes of operation,” Pahl said. “A new social gospel will not arise out of some do-good idealism or revolutionary fervor … A new social gospel will engage us in solving social problems by engaging material resources in creative ways because spiritually grounded social enterprise makes business sense.

“A new social gospel can and will draw upon the deep wells of our spiritual traditions — not just Protestantism — in ways that honor the integrity of those traditions while affirming what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls ‘dignity of difference.’

“Non-violent organizing for social change has been tried, and succeeded in context after context, continent after continent, over the past century and beyond, including here in the United States,” Pahl maintained. The experiments that Las Casas, Pastorius, Truth, Addams, Gulen, and Gbowee have left us remain to be extended and developed …”

Pahl also dealt with a key question that he said often prevents understanding and appreciation of the spiritually grounded, social enterprise heritage left by the Hagans. Can a rich person be saved?

“This question has deep roots in the Christian faith,” Pahl said. “Rabbi Jesus was asked it, and gave his famous and elliptical answer (in Luke’s version): ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples then asked, ‘Who can be saved?,’ Jesus replied with words that are less well-known than his vivid image, but far more important: ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God.’ Salvation, to clarify the point, is God’s doing.

“The same point is reiterated by Jesus in teaching after teaching, such as the famous saying in Matthew 6:4 ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

“In my not-so-humble opinion, this translation from the New Revised Standard Version shares in common an error made in most previous translations. The verb translated as ‘serve’ is doulein, which if my seminary Greek still serves me is the transitive form of doulos, which is not ‘servant’ but ‘slave’. So this verse ought to read then, ‘You cannot be a slave to God and wealth.’ This makes the point that our riches can enslave us. It turns us once again to our theology: Salvation is God’s doing, and being a slave to God is the highest good, because God doesn’t keep slaves. God’s power, God’s lordship, is of a different order than the typical imperial power in the Roman world. To reiterate: God doesn’t keep slaves. Being a slave to God, in other words, FREES a person to use wealth properly on behalf of the common good, rather than being a slave to wealth, because SALVATION is God’s doing — God’s free gift to humanity.” Pahl leans on the early writings of Clement of Alexandria, who counsels: The rich person who can be saved is the one who loves God and one’s neighbor.

Seminary Dean Dr. Jayakiran Sebastian began the proceedings by tracing the history of endowed chairs at the seminary “as part of a long tradition to honor distinguished professors, who have taught for at least five years” on the faculty. The seminary has 14 chairs altogether, some of which are not currently occupied. The Hagans endowed the chair bestowed upon Pahl in November in 1952 to honor the Rev. Dr. Paul Hoh, president of the seminary, who died that year.

Pahl was introduced to the audience by Beth Stroud, a former academic advisee of the honoree. Stroud, in part, said Pahl taught her to appreciate the spiritual lives of everyday people. “He showed me how their christening gowns, church suppers, and youth group peanut hunts, their loves and losses and all the ways they experienced the divine were part of the intricate fabric of American religious life,” she said.

In expressing gratitude for being honored with the Chair, Pahl gave deep appreciation to his wife, Lisa, and two adult children in attendance, Justin and Rheanne.

The chair was conferred by Dr. Addie J. Butler, chair emerita of the LTSP board, along with President Philip D.W. Krey and Dean Sebastian.

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Watch a video of the ceremony and lecture