By Christie Vogt
Upon accepting a job offer in 1993, Eleazar S. Fernandez intended to stay in Minnesota for two years before returning to his native Philippines.
This December, Fernandez, 66, will retire from United Theological Seminary in St. Anthony Park after nearly 30 years as a professor.
Q: You’re a professor of constructive theology—how would you define that subject?
A: It presupposes that the person understands what theology is. The most common definition of theology is the study of God, and I say that’s not accurate because nobody can be an expert on God.
Theology is basically faith seeking understanding. So, theologizing is trying to understand your faith based on your experience, traditions and scriptures; and informed by economics, politics, culture and context. So, how do you understand God or matters of ultimate concern?
For me, questions of ultimate concern are: What’s the end of life? What’s the purpose of life? How shall we live? You don’t have to be explicitly theistic to speak about that.
Q: Were you always interested in theology?
A: Not an iota. If there is one risk in doing theology, it is you will not be paid well. Why should you do theology if you come from a poor family? You want to be helpful to your parents and siblings.
I like to teach and I especially like to write; those things have sustained and nourished me on this path.
Q: How did Minnesota become your home of 28 years?
A: When I was pursuing a Ph.D. ( in philosophical and systematic theology)at Vanderbilt University, I said, “Maybe I’ll stay in the U.S. for a bit. I want to earn a few big bucks. So, wherever the first job is, I shall go.”
United Theological Seminary offered me a job, and I said, “Let’s try this. Maybe after two years, I will have big bucks, and then I can go back to the Philippines.” The two years became 10, the 10 became 20 . . .
When you come from a third-world country, the immigrant heart mentality is that you push yourself, you do your best . . . I told myself I should maximize everything that I can see.
When I first came, Minnesota was not as diverse as it is now. There wasn’t the University Avenue corridor or the Hmong Village or the Somali Mall. There was no global foods section at Cub Foods. So, I was lonely because I’m a child of the world.
Q: What are your thoughts on how religious communities have responded to the pandemic?
A: The word “pharmacy” comes from the Greek word “pharmakon,” which means both poison and cure. Things that can be a cure can also be a poison when not done in a proper way, just like theology and religion.
Some theologians have made God like a magician, saying things like, “Why should you be afraid of delta (the COVID-19 variant) if you have the alpha and omega?”
Theology goes along with U.S. individualism, which confuses freedom with non-responsibility. Some have co-opted the pro-choice movement by saying, “My body, my choice.” I say, yes, it is your body and it is your choice. But you belong to the wider body. When you are infected, you may infect others.
COVID-19 also has exposed the fault lines in our political, economic and health care systems. When we say that we are all in the same boat, I’m not so sure that we are. Maybe we are facing the same storm, but in different boats.
Q: How do you feel about retiring?
A: I’m ready because I feel like I need to do other things. You always say, “I’ll do this when I retire,” and push things that are important to you until the last years of your life.
I would like to help communities in the Philippines. We just solarized a school, for example. I would like to do a fish sanctuary, plant trees, water filtration. Something more tangible, not just theories and books.
For me, retirement is when you don’t have to use your alarm clock. I just want to do the things that I like at my own pace.
(Fernandez plans to split his time between the Philippines and the U.S. as he has two daughters who live in Minnesota.)
Christie Vogt is Twin Cities freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Bugle.