Truth and Service: Dr. Cain Hope Felder

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Educating African-American clergy was one of the primary concerns of the founders of Howard University. Although Howard has provided stellar theological education for clergy and laypersons since its founding in 1867, it has not developed a Ph.D. program in religious studies. Such a doctoral program would be the first of its kind at a historically Black theological school. It will be the crown jewel of the life and legacy of Dr. Cain Hope Felder.

Son of Howard
A son of Howard (class of 1966), Felder returned to his alma mater as a member of the faculty of the School of Divinity in 1981. Over those 32 years at Howard, he has established a reputation as a premier New Testament scholar and as one of the leading pioneers in African American biblical hermeneutics. He is the author and editor of numerous now-classic works, including Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class, and Family, Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, and The Original African Heritage Study Bible. Also, more recently, he co-edited True to Our Native Land: An African-American New Testament Commentary.

Felder looks every bit the scholar and gentleman. With his grey hair, neatly trimmed moustache, and half-moon reading classes, he could have been cast as a professor in The Great Debaters or Drumline. Although he wears the requisite professorial blue blazer with gold buttons, his office is a dim, swampy bog of overflowing boxes and wall-to-wall bookcases. A poster of a brown-skinned Jesus hangs next to yellowed news clippings and diplomas. Greek textbooks sit next to volumes on womanist theology and social ethics. It would take an archeologist to dig through the layers of a lifetime of teaching and scholarship.

Prolific Career
Before coming to Howard, Felder was an adjunct faculty member at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) from 1978 to 1981. According to Felder, his attempts to teach and conduct research on the importance of Africa and Arabia in biblical scholarship were discouraged and even derided by some of his PTS faculty colleagues. He bristled against the exclusive study of the Bible through a Eurocentric prism and the pervasive view that Africa and the African Diaspora offered nothing substantial to biblical studies. Increasingly uncomfortable at PTS and sensing that PTS would not provide a supportive environment for his work, Felder began to look for other opportunities. He explains, “I did not want to spend the rest of my life quoting and debating White people.” These experiences led him to develop a research trajectory that would explore the ways in which the Bible, the New Testament in particular, has special meaning and relevance for many African-American Christians.

Dean Lawrence N. Jones recruited Felder to join the faculty at Howard University’s School of Divinity. Jones gave his star recruit free reign regarding his teaching and research interests. Building on the work of earlier scholars who emphasized the importance of Africa and Africans in the Bible, Felder became a prolific scholar and developed a reputation as one of the leading voices in African-American biblical hermeneutics. He served as the editor of the Journal of Religious Thought. Also, he edited the widely adopted, Stony the Road We Trod: African-American Biblical Interpretation. Furthermore, he helped it to become a best-seller by actively marketing the book and getting it into the hands of those outside of the academy. The contributors to Stony the Road signed over their royalties to the Fund for Theological Education (now the Forum for Theological Exploration) to support doctoral fellowships. Felder’s work has paved the way for generations of biblical scholars interested in contextual hermeneutics and those seeking to move past the traditionally Eurocentric focus of biblical scholarship.

Despite the academic freedom permitted at Howard, Felder explains that over his 32 years at Howard, the relatively small School of Divinity faculty, the persistent financial difficulties, and the service and community demands leave little time for research. For Felder, two things are left unfinished. First, his magnum opus, a manuscript on the mercy of God in Luke-Acts, is still in progress. Second, the School of Divinity has not yet established a Ph.D. program. Howard has a Doctor of Ministry or D.Min. program, which is popular with those in ministerial leadership, but it does not offer the Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D., the terminal research degree required for most academic research and teaching positions.

Future Plans
Felder has taught generations of students at Howard. He is a popular professor whose legendary captivating lectures are peppered with Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin. Although some of his masters students have gone on to doctoral programs in biblical studies at other institutions, Felder himself has not had the privilege of serving as Doktorvater.

In 1984, Felder and others began conversations regarding the possibility of establishing a doctoral program in religious studies. This program has been a lifelong dream for Felder. He explains, “When you think about it, it is real peculiar that no African, Caribbean, or African-American institution has a Ph.D. program in religion. If we know anything about anything it certainly is religion.” Those conversations have had fits and starts over the years, but under the leadership of Dean Alton B. Pollard, III those plans have gained renewed momentum. Along with Dr. Gay L. Byron, Felder co-chairs the Ph.D. in Religious Studies Committee, which is completing its formal application for the establishment of a doctoral program for submission to the Howard University Graduate School and to the Association for Theological Schools. This program will have two concentrations: biblical studies and African-American religious studies.

Felder becomes increasingly animated as he discusses the plans for the Ph.D. program.  His raises his gravelly voice and argues, “For Howard to be not the Mecca but the Zion or Jerusalem of the academy, it can develop a program that offers a special competence in research that would not have to be supervised by people committed to a Eurocentric view. Anyone, regardless of race, would be eligible to apply, but the research focus would have to be somehow showing sensitivity to the African, Pan-African and African-American religious experiences.”

When asked about retirement, Felder grins boyishly. He planned to retire in 2013, but he has extended that date to 2016. He hopes to see the first applications to the new Ph.D. program in Religious Studies before he retires. Felder has created a foundation of teaching and scholarship for generations of students, and he hopes that this new doctoral program will provide the next generation of scholars in biblical and religious studies. Just as Moses saw the Promised Land of Canaan from Mount Nebo but was unable to enter it, Felder hopes to create a program in which he will never teach. Veritas et utilitas. Truth and service. The motto of Howard University is exemplified in the legacy of scholarship and teaching of Dr. Cain Hope Felder.