James Waddell’s life is an emblem of searching for and locating God’s love.
A scholar, pastor and Assistant Professor at Detroit’s Ecumenical Theological Seminary, his diverse life experiences exude an awareness of God’s care for humanity and the primacy of helping others who are feeling spiritual angst and enduring injustice.
Waddell grew up on a farm near Kansas City. His parents taught him to by honest and care for others. When he was a young adult, he moved with his family to Nebraska, where he attended high school and then the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He wanted to become a veterinarian, but he changed course and delved into the study of Greek and Latin Classics, philosophy, and history. He chose this intellectual pursuit in order to unearth life’s truths via ancient writers like Homer and Plato and Virgil and Seneca instead of memorizing facts in science texts.
“I wanted to go back to the sources in their languages and read them for myself. I wanted to be able to make a contribution to the conversation about the meaning of texts from Southern Europe, the Near East, and Northern Africa that have shaped Western culture, literature, and history for centuries,” he said. “I wanted to critique my culture with the authority that the sources could give me.”
Waddell’s nascent courage in looking for the goodness and meaning in life would become a central part of his career as a scholar and pastor. As he grew in his study of ancient texts from across the world that have something to say about God, he came to understand the importance of God’s love and justice.
Waddell’s life as a scholar, pastor and teacher has not been linear. He went to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis after his stint in Nebraska. After Concordia, he became a parish pastor and eventually attended graduate school at the University if Michigan. During his graduate studies, he was a full-time pastor and then a fill-in preacher at a number of Lutheran churches in Michigan. Today, he has a part-time ministry at Faith Church in Ypsilanti Township and is simultaneously a full-time professor at ETS. While Waddell’s life has taken a peripatetic trajectory, the truths his life has demonstrated are clear: God is inclusive, loves everyone, and works for justice and dignity for all of creation.
At the University of Michigan, Waddell studied Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins.
“I’ve always asked questions. I don’t always succeed, but I try,” he said.
His dissertation at Michigan examined thematic continuity between the Parables of Enoch (a Jewish text from the Second Temple period) and the Letters of Paul, including a wide range of Jewish and early Christian literature from the same period. It was published as “The Messiah: A Comparative Study of the Enochic Son of Man and the Pauline Kyrios.”
Waddell argues that the notion of messiah in the Parables of Enoch existed before Paul, and ideas about messiah that appears in the Parables of Enoch also appears in Paul.
“This stuff didn’t just appear out of nowhere. The (ideas) were embedded in Jewish though,” Waddell said.
“The nineteenth-century scholarly view (still held by some) was that Jesus in the Gospels represented Judaism and Paul conversely invented Christianity,” Waddell added. “One corollary of my research is that Jesus in the Gospels resembled the manner in which Paul thought about Jesus. Paul was a Jew no less than Jesus was a Jew, and the close affinities will no longer allow us to run with the earlier view. Some have even argued that Paul was anti-Semitic.”
When I asked about the consequence of anti-Semitism with the earlier view, Waddell agreed,
“The distinction between Jesus and Paul became twisted by late nineteenth-century, early twentieth-century biblical scholars into anti-Jewish interpretations that claimed a place of religious privilege of Christianity over Judaism,” he said.
Moreover, he said the result of his work coheres with the ideas of ecumenism, namely that there is common ground among diverse religions even as there is a concurrent difference.
“We can learn from each other and share things and be open about it. It’s really about dialogue and respect,” he said. “What’s problematic is when the dialogue is constrained by judgment. We live in a pluralistic world, and living together demands that we seek religious understanding across traditions.”
As a Lutheran, Waddell values the truth Jesus taught about our relationship with God. He tries to communicate this truth to his congregation at Faith Church and to his students at ETS. He likes how Jesus dealt with everyone in the same manner. In the Temple, He tried to work for inclusion. Additionally, Waddell favors how Jesus died for our sins, and how He also cared about the poor and marginalized and directly confronted issues of economic justice.
Waddell’s ministry is evolving at Faith Church where he and his parishioners are cultivating the idea of building a community garden, and possibly a small farm. He asked himself why he was called to serve in urban ministry, and he and his parishioners came up with the idea of a garden.
The garden project is meaningful for functional and spiritual reasons. Ypsilanti Township has many low income residents and access to fresh produce is scant.
“The major impetus for the garden is to give our neighbors healthy food,” Waddell said.
Working with a group called Growing Hope, Waddell is envisioning how the contours of the garden will look. He thinks the garden has the potential to be self-supporting and able to contribute to essential needs in the community.
“We’re not going to solve everybody’s problems, but (the garden) will empower our neighbors to have some measure of food independence,” he said.
Just as importantly, the garden will give residents human dignity, Waddell said. Many residents have seen their dignity eroded by low wages and scarce access to health care. Waddell sees the garden as a way to improve residents’ quality of life, albeit in a small manner.
The idea of human dignity and economic justice, which the garden will attempt to give, is woven into ideas about God’s creation. Waddell described how God intended nature to be protected and cared for. Humans were supposed to live in nature and not see nature as a detached object to be exploited. Humans, who are made in God’s image, shouldn’t exploit nature for material gain.
Waddell’s experience at ETS has been a combination of interfaith comity and immersion in themes surrounding economic justice. While in the classroom the dialogue is almost always steeped in complicated historical questions about biblical texts, his major goal is to help students understand that God loves all people the same, and he urges them to reflect this by loving Him and actively caring for each other.
“I like to call it a conversation,” he said. “I really like this place.”
Waddell also imparted his views on our fragile and damaged world. For instance, he has been to Israel twice and believes that, through dialogue and shared experiences, Israelis and Palestinians can create solutions and understanding. He rues the faltering peace process, particularly the squandered opportunity during the efforts that were made by the Clinton Administration. He sees the challenges on both sides and thinks Israelis and Palestinians can try to build education systems to live, share and learn with each other.
“I think that can go a long way toward contributing to a lasting peace in the Middle East,” he said.
And that’s a good voice in a garden.