Thomas H. Troeger: between the life of the imagination and the life of God

By Ray Waddle

From earliest childhood, Thomas H. Troeger received a daily double theological blessing: His mother would read from the Bible to him and he’d listen with his father to Bach, Handel, or Haydn.

TroegerThat double exposure helped forge his attitude toward Christian faith and his vocational identity, too. Today, whether as a widely recognized hymn writer, preacher, homiletics professor, theologian, poet, musician, columnist, or author, Troeger keeps a lively connection between the life of the imagination and the life of God.

“Yes, my mother read the Bible to me every morning,” he recalls. “ ‘You need Jesus!’ she would say. She was a strong churchgoer, a probing woman. And with my father every night I’d sit and listen to a Bach cantata or Haydn symphony, and those would be holy moments too. So I think these account for a deep belief in Jesus, but also an openness to the numinous in different ways.”

As the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at YDS, Troeger plunges daily into the mystery and pedagogy of the preaching craft. Through his courses he guides students on how to conceive and hammer out their own sermons, find their own voice, encounter the biblical text in fresh ways, and tap into the “landscape of the heart” where their unique witness awaits. 

“New students often fear that I’m going to have them learn just one approach to preaching and make them stick to that, but that’s not the case at all,” he says. “My hope is to free them to claim the gift that is theirs. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” 

His tools at hand include the metaphors, symbols, and parables of biblical tradition—the “depth language” of faith, he says. These are building blocks of what he calls “imaginative theology,” the endeavor to create beauty that honors God’s own creativity and spirit, whether sermons, poems or other expressions. The poet Coleridge called the imagination “the recapitulation of the Great I Am in the human soul,” as Troeger points out.

“Our culture tries to get us to imagine a particular view of life—consumeristic, an attitude of looking out for number one—whereas the whole Gospel tries to get us to imagine a different kind of world,” Troeger says. “Using the imagination is one of the chief tools of the mind for understanding God.” 

Growing up in New Jersey and upstate New York, Troeger was a strong student, active churchgoer, and passionate musician. In high school he wanted to be a flutist. Then a new minister arrived at his Presbyterian church in Cooperstown, NY—Richard Weld—who brought a remarkable combination of wit, erudition, and dynamism as a preacher. Young Troeger suddenly saw new vocational possibilities for himself. 

“In high school I had wondered if I could be intellectual and a devout Christian. He showed me I could.”

Dreams of seminary would soon be born. Troeger went to Yale College and decided after graduation to attend Colgate Rochester Divinity School. He found the exposure there irresistible—the themes of social justice, the periodic African American preaching. And his life as a Presbyterian parish minister was launched.

Immersed in parish life, Troeger discovered he had gifts not only as a preacher, but also as a writer of books. Confirmation came by an unusual route.: a church member visited him one day saying the Archangel Gabriel had appeared to her in a dream with this message: “Go tell Tom Troeger to start writing his first book!”

“That’s a true story!” Troeger recalls. “She really did come to me with that dream. And sure enough I started writing. I wrote the first 20 pages of my first book that day!”

The writing—about preaching, church life, theology—came easily, springing out of his immersion in congregational work.

“The books were flowing like crazy because I was hunkered down in my parish. The writing was coming out of my experiences there.”

After seven years, Colgate Rochester took notice and offered him a teaching position in preaching and parish ministry. He was hesitant at first to leave the parish, the font of his inspiration. But a minister colleague offered him advice that would be pivotal: “Wherever you go, you’ll find new springs.”

Troeger took the new job, and it turned out to be true. The books kept coming in the new circumstances and the imaginative springs kept flowing. 

He stayed at Colgate Rochester 14 years (1977-91), then moved to Iliff School of Theology in Denver for 14 years (1991-2005). In 1999, meanwhile, he also became ordained in the Episcopal Church, making him dually aligned with both Presbyterian and Episcopal traditions.

In 2005, he came back east to join the faculty at Yale Divinity School. He was thrilled, he says.

“Coming to YDS—and associating with the Institute of Sacred Music—was a great way to do holistic theological education, where it is intellectually rigorous and where corporate prayer is honored and practiced at such a high level.”

His various course offerings suggest the range of his approaches and interests: “Principles and Practice of Preaching,” “The Theology and Practice of Church Music,” “The Round Table Pulpit,” “The New Homiletic,” “Theologies of Preaching,” “Congregational Song as a Resource for Preaching” and “Preaching to the Whole Congregation through Multiple Ways of Knowing.”

By now he’s written some 20 books – titles including Above the Moon Earth Rises: Hymn Texts, Anthems and Poems for a New Creation (Oxford, 2012), Wonder Reborn: Preaching on Hymns, Music and Poetry (Oxford, 2010), God, You Made All Things for Singing: Hymn texts, anthems, and poems for a new millennium (Oxford, 2009), So That All Might Know: Preaching that Engages the Whole Congregation, with Edward Everding (Abingdon, 2008), and Preaching While the Church Is Under Reconstruction (Abingdon, 1999).

On top of this, he is regarded as one of the world’s most prolific hymn writers, having produced nearly 400 texts for hymns or anthems that now have a place in current hymnals of most denominations.

The spirit of cultural revolutions within the last 40 years—the women’s movement, civil rights movement, environmental movement, the impact of global song on worship, breakthroughs in science, computers, cosmology—are reflected in his work. 

“I work out my theology through hymnody,” he says. 

“Over time, advances in knowledge—I think especially of cosmological and environmental arguments—help me speak of God in ways I had not before.”

One year he was commissioned to write a hymn for a Unitarian Universalist congregation. The challenge was to write a worship hymn for a theologically diverse congregational, including members who were, as the minister characterized it, “iffy about God.” Thomas Troeger’s theology of the imagination went into gear, and “Each Breath is Borrowed Air” was the result. 

“As it turned out, the hymn let them keep their scientific, rational selves,” he says, “and still pursue God.”

Each Breath Is Borrowed Air

Each breath is borrowed air,
not ours to keep and own,
and all our breaths as one declare
what wisdom long has known:

to live is to receive
and answer back with praise
to what our minds cannot conceive:
the source of all our days.

The sea flows in our veins.
The dust of stars is spun
to form the coiled, encoded skeins
by which our cells are run:

to live is to receive…

From earth and sea and dust
arise yet greater things,
the wonders born of love and trust,
a grateful heart that sings:

to live is to receive…

And when our death draws near
and tries to dim our song,
our parting breath will make it clear
to whom we still belong:

to live is to receive…

(Each Breath is Borrowed Air

Text: Thomas H. Troeger
From Above the Moon Earth Rises
copyright 2002 Oxford University Press, Inc.
Used by permission.  All rights reserved.)

March 4, 2013
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