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Service in Cause of Civility

Education: The man who runs Fuller Seminary has some ideas on how to cultivate public politeness.

June 08, 2002|K. CONNIE KANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, tells a story about pulling into a parking space at a Vons supermarket in La Canada, only to have another driver jam on her horn and make an obscene gesture.

Mouw was sure he hadn't done anything to earn her ire. The spot was open; he had not seen anyone going for it. Still, in deference to her fury, the 62-year-old philosopher walked over and said he was sorry to have upset her.

"You don't know what kind of day I've had," Mouw says she told him, and then she started to cry.

For Mouw, an ethicist and scholar steeped in the teachings of Reformation theologian John Calvin, the encounter was a metaphor for the times: Under the weight of life's pressures, some people are falling apart in public. And civility, which Mouw describes as "public politeness," has become a rare commodity. This subject is dear to the heart of the man who once wrote a book called "Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World" and whose personal hallmark is graciousness.

Civility, Mouw says, requires us to show tact, moderation, refinement and good manners toward people who are different from us. But civility also has an inner side--the struggle to get beyond our own perceptions, to see fellow human beings as creatures made in God's image, no matter how defaced and damaged they may appear.

"Every human being is a work of divine art," he says. "I can learn a lot about how to treat an unlikable person with reverence if I keep reminding myself of the value the person has in the eyes of God."

Civility may be in short supply in 21st century Los Angeles, where motorists get honked at for obeying the speed limit. But Mouw believes that civility, like art appreciation, can be cultivated. "The family meal is the primary workshop in civility," he says, "where [sometimes] you sit with people you're angry with, and you hang in there for 45 minutes because you can't leave the table."

Today, many Americans "graze" rather than eat at the table at a designated time because family members are busy pursuing their own interests and schedules, he observes. To Mouw, this requires people to make a point of finding ways to ask, "Is this the real story we want to be writing about our lives?" Churches, he thinks, could play a vital role by acting as "families" for people without families, by opening their doors for weekly suppers, reminiscent of simpler times.

Mouw, who has been president of Fuller for nine years, is an evangelical Presbyterian with conservative leanings on such issues as abortion, but is also a social activist committed to working with the poor and eradicating injustice. He says his activism dates to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, when he was working on his doctorate at the University of Chicago.

Later, as a professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., he and three other white professors and their families lived in a largely black urban neighborhood for 15 years. Mouw says the experience had a profound influence on his thinking. "We've got to go out there and be alongside of people who are dying of AIDS," he says, "alongside of people who are feeling terribly depressed because their marriages are breaking up, or they can't communicate with their kids, or they're wrestling with sexual temptations, or they're worrying about economic problems."

Evangelicals, motivated by a desire to spread the word, have been better at talking about the power of God to transform individuals than tackling social-justice issues, he says. "We evangelicals have been orally compulsive and behaviorally immature," and have lost credibility as a result.

Those kinds of observations win respect from political scientist Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

"I think Richard Mouw could play a major role in America by taking a public profile in demonstrating the complexities of the evangelical faith so that it isn't reduced to stereotypes," Wolfe says.

The Rev. Bill Dyrness, former dean of Fuller's School of Theology, has known Mouw more than two decades. He says Mouw has a rare ability to combine deep faith with learning and ecumenical interests. "His greatest gift is his ability to communicate.... Even though he is a very well-educated person and a scholar, he could relate just as easily to people who are very uneducated," Dyrness says.

Fuller Seminary holds an unusual place in the training of pastors, missionaries, psychologists, community leaders and Christian workers. Its student body of just under 4,000 represents 120 denominations and more than 60 countries. It is believed to be the world's largest multidenominational seminary.

At this year's June 15 commencement, 500 future Christian leaders will receive degrees ranging from master of divinity to doctorates in theology and psychology. Since the seminary was founded by evangelist Charles E. Fuller in 1947, nearly 20,000 have graduated.

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