It’s all in the name…

With the closure of the United Faculty of Theology at the end of 2014, the Uniting Church Theological College will seek an independent future under the new name Pilgrim Theological College, an accredited institution of the University of Divinity.

The new name emerged after several hours and rounds of discussion. While it has been accepted and approved, there have been a few expressions of disappointment, with some stating the new name is ‘old fashioned,’ ‘boring,’ not ‘catchy’ enough or not ‘appealing’.

In checking the web I discovered that there are many who have chosen the name ‘Pilgrim’ for themselves or their businesses. These include a clothing line, a church, a primary school, a care facility, a book store, a coffee shop, a lodge, a brand of jeans, a bar, a chartered luxury sailing company, a blog spot, and an individual named Tim who identifies himself as a ‘beer pilgrim’ – one who travels around the world to learn everything he can about beer!

Apart from Tim, it is hard to know why the others chose this name, but I am sure they will each have a story to tell.  But what my very cursory search does reveal is that it is a popular name, irrespective of what one is doing or what one is trying to sell; a name that is obviously well known, meaningful and appealing.

It is hard to imagine how the wider public will respond to the name, Pilgrim Theological College, and what the name conjures in the minds of individuals, especially those keen on seeking theological education.  It was not my first choice either, but the process we went through to arrive at this name and the name itself have stirred my interest and imagination and has led me to do some thinking on the significance of naming and names.

Most cultures place enormous importance in names and the rituals that accompany the naming of a child. A name in these cultures is perhaps more than an aesthetically appealing sound. A name often has a story behind it and, in fact, influences one’s future and destiny.

For example, I was told of a Tamil woman labourer in India, who is in her 30s and whose name is Venda – no, not a misspelt ‘Wenda’ or ‘Wanda’. In Tamil, the word means ‘don’t want’. She was the seventh girl born into a poor family and her parents heeded to the village belief that if the last girl child is named Venda, they would not have another girl-child.

No thought was given to the offence or the humiliation it might pose for her and to the message it sends to the rest of the community about girl children.

“She is alive but her existence is denied,” said the person narrating the story.

Her name speaks volumes about all that the culture says about the female gender, which is another issue, but you get my point. In my many teaching years, I have asked students why they have been given the name they have and many are able to narrate a story, while some are not.

Within the Old Testament, a name defines the individual, describes one’s personality and offers an interpretation of one’s qualities as is the case of the divine name YHWH in the Hebrew Bible. Enshrined in a name is also a prayer that the person bearing this name will live up to the potential expressed in the name.

And when names are changed, as in the case of the woman to Eve (mother of all living) from Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, or Saul to Paul, the individual is being conferred a new identity, or at least a changed identity, and a new set of expectations are now being laid on him/her.

A broad range of orientations can guide the selection of a name. But the name for this new college was derived from, partially at least, the statement, “that the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come” (Basis of Union, para 3). I do not seek here to dwell into what the framers of the Basis of Union had in mind when they used this term.

But a ‘pilgrim’ as defined by the Dictionary is “a religious devotee who journeys/travels to a sacred place, one who is on a quest for a sacred end” or “one who wanders”. It is a common enough word in some sense; often people do judge names that are culturally different or even spelled differently than they are used to. No danger of that happening here.

More importantly, inherent in the word ‘pilgrim,’ is a sense of movement, or dynamism. Hence, the new college will not remain static but will be one which will always be on the move, stirred by the Spirit and – in response to the changes and the challenges in the world and in the church – re-creating and re-affirming the meaning of this word and making it a reality in its life.

It is my hope that we will travel away from the center to the edges and margins of our society in our search for meaningful engagement and insight, to discover God anew in new forms and in new ways to equip us to be of service to others.

Also, it is a noun that is bereft of any particular connotations of gender, class, race, caste, religion, ethnicity, nationality or any other status. Any or all can be pilgrims irrespective of difference. The word in this context can therefore be a celebration of diversity, of individuals, cultures and ideologies, of methods of enquiry and finding meaning.

It encapsulates difference and diversity and includes all human beings in their quest for justice and for life in its wholeness; a place that will welcome all who are in search of a better understanding of the world and of God who is immanent in the world.

It is a word that also suggests faith, diligence, motivation, vulnerability, risk taking, humility, perseverance, determination, and transcendence, all derived from the experience of being a pilgrim on the way.

These qualities should define the posture of all who work in it and come here to study.

Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon
Associate Professor, Old Testament
Uniting Church Theological College

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