Never judge a religion by the people who practice it
For me, Dr. Ball's requirement to be able to argue both sides of a question equally well – “Does God exist? You have 45 minutes. Go!” – was a game-changer. While watching my daughter's soccer game two years ago, I struck up a conversation with the visiting grandfather of one of her teammates, a professor on faculty at the Princeton Theological Seminary. He was just a few years younger than Dr. Ball (is there something about being in religion and teaching for a really long time?), tall and thin, and with the same gentle demeanor and ability as Dr. Ball to instantly make you feel that you were the most important person in the world. He had mentored many noted theologians, including Elaine Pagels, whose books on the early Christian church are both academically respected and read by a relatively wide lay audience.
I spoke about Dr. Ball's class and his lack of ideological rigidity, actually requiring students to earn their grade by acknowledging and even embracing for a moment ideas completely at odds with their beliefs. He contemplated this for a few moments before his face lit up and declared that the very next semester, he would do the same. I was glad that Dr. Ball could help to improve the education of Princeton students as he had Whitman's.
But it was one of the comments he made during his “Religions of the World” class that hardly a week (day?) goes by that it doesn't come to mind. We were having a typical square-off (assigned roles, pro and con of course) when someone declared the evils of religion by citing the Spanish Inquisition. He stopped the discussion and said, “Never judge a religion by the people who practice it,” meaning that by our nature we are inclined to use religion for our own purposes, giving us power, or in some cases like 9/11, a weapon. His ability to persuade a young mind to consider the shades of grey and see through the veil while seeking what is true, judging only after considering, is a lifelong gift he gave to me.
Jonathan Q. Purnell ’82