If you had to sum up James Lee’s professional passions in one word, that word might be “ecumenical.” He’s helping to build bridges across divisions and denominational lines through his scholarly work and teaching.
A Roman Catholic teaching in a United Methodist seminary, Lee leads classes for adults at Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches in the Dallas area. His books and research on the history of early Christianity offer insights that he believes can foster Christian unity today. Last March, he spearheaded a conference at SMU, “Paths to Unity: Christian Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue Today,” garnering a Perkins Scholarly Outreach Award for that effort.
Underlying his work is an instinct that he sums up with a favorite Bible passage: “My heart says to Thee, ‘Thy face, LORD, do I seek.’” (Psalm 27:8)
“The idea of seeking the face of God is very moving to me,” he said. “It also captures nicely how early Christian theologians sought to understand God. They were constantly seeking the face of God. That’s what I try to do in my teaching and my spiritual life.”
Lee’s latest book, just published in February, is The Church in the Latin Fathers: Unity in Charity (Lexington Books/Fortress Academic). It’s about ecclesiology – early Christian understandings of the church – particularly among theologians who wrote in Latin: Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, Leo the Great and others.
“For these early Latin theologians, the church is a mystery with visible and invisible aspects,” he said. “The church is a visible, communal body and an invisible society united in charity. My hope is to understand how early Christian theologians sought unity in the midst of diversity so that we might consider how to pursue unity in the church today.”
His next project is a book on the spirituality of St. Augustine, with the working title Praise Without Ceasing: The Spirituality of St. Augustine. He also writes about the Korean American church; in 2017, he received another Perkins Scholarly Outreach Award for his symposium and manuscript, Reconciling Cultures and Generations among Korean American Catholics.
Lee also serves as director of the Doctor of Ministry program, a position he has held since 2018. The new curriculum, which was revised in 2017, is designed for full-time ministers who are seeking to develop leadership skills and to find new strategies for community building. “Our aim is to bridge the gap between the academy and the church,” Lee explained. “The Doctor of Ministry program enables our students to use the latest research in the fields of theology, adaptive leadership and social entrepreneurship in order to address practical problems in contemporary Christian ministry.”
Out and About
On Sunday mornings, you’re likely to find Lee teaching at a church in the North Texas area. He’s taught classes for adults being confirmed in the Catholic Church, called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), including a recent RCIA class at Holy Trinity Catholic Church on “The Mystery of the Holy Trinity.” He has also spoken to young adults at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church on topics such as The Sacred Liturgy and Mary and the Saints, and at Church of the Incarnation, an Anglican congregation.
At UT Southwestern Medical School, he’s spoken about St. Augustine and the Christian understanding of the whole person to medical students in the St. Basil Society, a group interested in connections between science and faith. He has also taught classes for adults at Highland Park United Methodist Church on topics such as Christian Art and Faith, and A History of Christian Controversies, with an eye toward divisions currently roiling the United Methodist Church.
“The church has been grappling with controversies for 2,000 years,” he said. “I don’t mean to suggest there are any easy solutions or that we can simply retrieve answers from the past. But the more we learn about history, the better equipped we are to face the challenge we have today.”
Books on his Nightstand
Edmund Campion: A Life by Evelyn Waugh, From Plato to Platonism by Lloyd Gerson, Atonement by Eleonore Stump. And yes, those are all books that relate to his day job. “I can’t really help myself,” Lee said with a laugh. “I constantly read theology.” However, he is reading a novel, The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.
Wife, Anna, a registered nurse, and daughter, Mary Margaret, age 2-1/2.
Lee loves to dance – swing, salsa and country – and also enjoys music (especially jazz), fitness activities (like kayaking and hiking) and sports (ice hockey, basketball, soccer and football).
Favorite Travel Destination
Rome. Along with Bruce Marshall, he’s taking a group on an immersion trip to Rome in March during Spring Break, focusing on the history of the church as well as what Christianity looks like there today.
Something Else Most People Don’t Know About Him
Lee worked as a personal trainer in graduate school.
Something Dlse People Don’t Know About Him
He plays jazz saxophone, and he can moonwalk!
Bulgogi (Korean barbecue) or lemon pasta
Personal Spiritual Practices
Lee prays the Liturgy of the Hours and the rosary regularly, and also meditates on mysteries of the faith with his collection of icons. Favorites include Rublev’s Trinity, the Anastasis, the Holy Family and the Holy Face of Jesus.