“I’m amazed,” says, Alejandro (Alex) García-Rivera, Professor of Systematic Theology and GTU Core Doctoral Faculty Member, about receiving the 2010 Sarlo Excellence in Teaching Award. “I had very little teaching experience when I came here, and at the start, I didn’t know what I was doing. My ‘training’ came — as in an apprenticeship — mostly from colleagues and through trial and error. What I learned along the way is that teaching is about communication, and that if I pay attention to my method of teaching, it can improve and go beyond the apprentice model.” Continuous improvement has paid off. The Sarlo Award recognizes García-Rivera as a teacher who embodies the values of interreligious sensitivity and commitment, interdisciplinary approach and content in teaching, sensitivity to ethnic and cultural diversity, and creative classroom pedagogical methods and performance.
García-Rivera, a Catholic theologian, tells an interesting story about how he realized his passion for aesthetics and devotional art. As a young physicist working for Boeing in the (1970s?), García-Rivera found himself assigned to the Air Launch Cruise Missile Project and as a consequence, overwhelmed by a “vision of hell.”
“It was a vision of what is at stake when science is divorced from the spiritual and theology is divorced from the cosmic,” García-Rivera says in the preface to his latest book, The Garden of God: A Theological Cosmology.
St. Martin de Porres
García-Rivera left Boeing and physics to become a pastor ministering to poor Hispanics in a Lutheran church he created in Allentown, Pennsylvania called St. Martin de Porres. In the devotional image of St. Martin de Porres — patron of mixed race people — standing with a dog, a cat, and a mouse drinking in peace from the same bowl of soup, Garcia-Rivera saw natural enemies forming a spiritual communion. The image strongly influenced his decades-long interest and focus in the field of devotional art. He says, “Devotional art returns theology to its most profound insights and to the claim that God and beauty are one…It ties together the human ability to envision God, human artistry, and the divine artistry that created nature, and thus the human.”
García-Rivera eventually returned to his boyhood faith — Catholicism — and found his calling as a professor. Now what he most wants for his students is that they “discover and engage the intimate impetus that brought them here” because “what they find has the potential to be the ground of the rest of their academic career.”
About the GTU, García-Rivera says, “I’ve visited theological schools all over the world, some of them quite prestigious, but the variety, energy, openness of mind, and raw talent found here at the GTU cannot be matched in any of the places I’ve seen. The gathering of Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Unitarians, Scientists, Protestants, Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions affirms the hope that humanity can find the power to overcome the evil that befuddles and depersonalizes it.”
Perhaps García-Rivera sees the GTU’s promise in the image of St. Martin de Porres, the dog, the cat, and the mouse.
“Alex is an incredibly supportive teacher. He's a creative thinker, and clearly enjoys fostering a similar creativity among his students in and out of the classroom. Also, one can easily detect in his writings and teaching an underlying spirituality, even worship — something I think is an invaluable quality in a theologian and mentor.”
— Elaine Belz, PhD student, Theological Aesthetics — a field she says she didn't know existed until she took a class from Alex in her MA program at the GTU
George Sarlo, motivated by his family’s experience in the Holocaust during World War II, supports the GTU’s work to educate leaders who will promote justice and peace among people of diverse religions and cultures. Each year, students and faculty honor a faculty member for his/her creativity in guiding students to this end — with the Sarlo Excellence in Teaching Award.