I wrote this a very long time ago and have debated whether I should ever put it on my blog. I don’t share a whole lot of personal material on my blog, and the following is the story of a much younger man who was in a lot of ways very immature. It might well take some patience to get through to the end. Nonetheless, it is an important part of “my story.” I am sharing it now in the hopes that some might find it helpful.
TThe following account grew out of a paper I was assigned to write when I had just began my doctoral studies at the University of Notre Dame that was supposed to have been titled “My Approach to God.” As I wrote at the time, I find it a bit misleading to write about my ‟approach to God” because I have not had an approach to God. Rather, I have approached God in a number of ways or, to be more precise, God has been chasing me all my life, and I have perhaps used a number of approaches to keep from getting caught. But that’s not right, either. God and I have been approaching each other, I think, but sometimes more like wrestling opponents than lovers. The biblical character with whom I identify most is the patriarch Jacob, who wrestled with the angel and refused to let go until he had been blessed. After many years of wrestling, God blessed me and, perhaps, like Jacob, I limp a little. Sometimes I feel like the prophet Jeremiah—‟Thou hast seduced me, and I have been seduced.” Anyway I cannot talk about how I approach God without telling how I have approached him—so this is an account of my spiritual pilgrimage, at least up until the point I became an Anglican.
Faith has not come easily for me. I have known many people who seem to have no doubts and are constantly aware of God’s presence in their lives. People like this no longer make me as uncomfortable as they once did. I am sure that many of them have a superficial faith and are masquerading—pretending an assurance which they really do not have. Probably a good many more than I would like to admit have a genuinely simple faith. They are perhaps saints and, if so, they leave me in awe. But I am not one of the simple. Faith has been a struggle for me.
On the other hand, in some sense I have never been without faith. I cannot remember a time when Jesus Christ did not play an important part in my life. I say ‟Jesus” because, for me, faith in God and faith in Jesus Christ are synonymous. I cannot conceive of one without the other. Jesus is the paradigm through which I have come to know God. Evangelical (or perhaps Fundamentalist) Christianity goes back at least three generations on both sides of my family—although the name we preferred was ‟born-again Christian” or simply ‟Christian,” since both expressions meant the same thing. You couldn’t be a ‟real Christian” if you weren’t a ‟born again Christian.” For Fundamentalists, religion means Jesus. My parents were uneducated blue-collar Southern Baptists, conservative Democrats, labor union supporters.
After wandering in sin and darkness for several years, I ‟got saved”—at the age of five! This was not nearly as dramatic as people who have seen only television evangelists might think. One day I simply asked Jesus to ‟come into my heart” and forgive my sins—hardly a long list at this point. (It should have been obvious already that I had been touched by the finger of God—for better or worse. I used to set up a toy box as a pulpit and preach to my younger sister and her dolls, who were my faithful congregation. Apparently I also once warned my Aunt that she would go to “hull” because she drank beer. This was perhaps only excess enthusiasm on my part as my parents later assured me that they had never taught me such things.)
My baptism was delayed for two years for a couple of reasons. First of all, my pastor was not sure that I was old enough to ‟make a decision for Christ.” (By the way, expressions in quotation marks are technical revivalist terminology. They are the Southern Baptist equivalent of theological Latin.) More important, perhaps, I did not yet know how to swim and was dreadfully frightened of having my head put under water. (Baptists baptize by immersion. It doesn’t count unless you go all the way under.) I finally overcame my fear of water and ‟got under conviction” at a revival meeting that I should ‟follow the Lord in baptism.” I was baptized at the age of seven years. Luther used to say, ‟Remember your baptism!” I feel fortunate that I can remember mine.
My later childhood was not all that unusual—for someone raised in a Southern Baptist home, which is much like growing up Roman Catholic or Jewish. You always know you’re different from everyone else. I used to worry that my classmates at school were not ‟saved” and were probably bound for a fiery eternity. I often felt guilty about not ‟witnessing” to them, that is, not telling them about Jesus.
My family went to church faithfully Sunday mornings and evenings and to Wednesday night prayer meetings. (I never got to see The Wizard of Oz all the way through until I was an adult because it was shown on Television every year on Sunday evening. We always left for church right around the first appearance of the “Flying Monkeys.”) There were occasional week-long revival meetings and Vacation Bible School during the summer. I was a precocious little Baptist kid who liked to read the Bible (mostly the narrative sections—the gospels and the historical books of the Old Testament).
Aside from a fair dose of guilt, what my Fundamentalist upbringing gave me was a spirituality which focused on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a feeling that Christians somehow had to be different from other folks, a knowledge of and love for the Scriptures (‟The Bible says . . . !”), and a way of responding to certain types of worship. Hymns like ‟Amazing Grace” can still sometimes move me in ways that are hardly rational. However, I had also absorbed a great deal of sectarianism and suspicion toward other Christian groups, especially Roman Catholics and main-line Protestants. I knew that we had the truth and that, for the most part, they did not. After all, as I once heard someone ask, how could anyone ever become a Christian in a church without an altar call?
There were chinks in the armor, of course. As a young adolescent, I read two books—a biography of Joan of Arc and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables—which awakened in me almost a mystical sense of the reality and goodness of God, and a conviction that whatever else might be said about him, God was against suffering and evil. But there was a problem. The main characters in both books were ‟Catholics!” How could I reconcile my distrust of Catholicism with the beauty and truth I had found in these books?
I also read Bertrand Russell’s essay ‟Why I am not a Christian” when I was thirteen. It was the first time I had ever encountered an intellectual discussion of Christianity. (Southern Baptists don’t tend to be concerned about intellectual questions, for the most part, at least they weren’t in those days.) Not only that, but the essay was an out-and-out attack on everything I believed. It made me ask questions I did not know how to answer. So I laid it aside, put it on the back burner, and let it stew for awhile.
Just before my sixteenth birthday I had what might be called a religious experience. I went on a church retreat with other high-school students. During the retreat I ‟came under conviction” (to use the revivalist vocabulary) that total obedience to Jesus Christ was demanded of me as a Christian—that Jesus could not merely occupy one more niche in my life, but that, as the revivalist preachers say, ‟if Jesus is going to be Lord at all, he must be Lord of all.” I also felt that God was ‟calling” me to be a pastor. After a bit of internal struggle, I ‟surrendered” to the ‟call for full-time Christian service.” From this point in my life, I assumed as a matter of course (and so did my family and friends) that I was going to be a ‟preacher-boy.” This decision marked a definite transition in my Christian experience. I suppose that it was the time at which I first really affirmed an adult Christian faith.
The next few years were very busy. I was actively involved in church activities. I earned a reputation in high school for being ‟religious” and a ‟Jesus Freak.” (This was at the height of the so-called ‟Jesus Movement.”) I read all the popular Evangelical books, for example, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth—a book which argued that we were living in the ‟last generation” before the second coming of Christ and that the end of the world was just around the corner. Along with thousands of other high school students, I attended a huge Evangelistic Conference in Dallas, Texas called “Explo 72” where I heard Billy Graham preach and Larry Norman, Kris Kristofferson, Andrae Crouch and Johnny Cash sing very loud amplified Christian gospel and rock and roll music. And I ‟witnessed” in the city parks of Denver. In other words, I was a bothersome high school kid who approached complete strangers in public places and invaded their privacy by asking them if he might ‟share” with them a booklet bearing the ominous title: ‟Have you heard of the four spiritual laws?” (This was an evangelistic tract.)
If I were to give a label to this period of my life it would have to be: ‟The period of religious conformity.” Up to this point, my religious tradition had done just what it was supposed to do. It had introduced me to Jesus. It provided me with a way of looking at the world which was narrow but which enabled me to make sense of my hitherto limited experience. I felt comfortable and safe. I had not yet encountered anything that was so difficult to fit into the Fundamentalist world-view as to strain its credibility at the seams. But such was not to be the case forever.
The first major challenge to my way of thinking was my friendship with Freddy. Like me, Freddy was an Evangelical, but with a difference. Freddy was a Quaker, a bit older than I, and a pacifist. Freddy had not registered for the draft on moral grounds. At first I did not understand. Why didn’t he just register as a conscientious objector? Freddy believed, however, that by registering for the draft he would be implicitly acknowledging the legitimacy of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, and of the draft, in particular. It may say something about just how isolated the Fundamentalist world was that my friendship with Freddy was the first occasion I had on which to reflect about the issues of peace and justice and civil rights which shouted even from the front pages of the newspapers in the late sixties and early seventies. In time I came to agree with Freddy, and (for a few years) became a pacifist, also. I could not see how violence in any form was compatible with the teaching and example of Jesus. Yet when my eighteenth birthday came, I registered for the draft—out of pressure from my family, and out of what I thought at the time was lack of moral courage. Fortunately, the war was almost over, the government was no longer classifying draft status and the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam before I had to decide whether to try to declare myself a Conscientious Objector. Freddy was not so lucky. The F.B.I. finally came looking for him, and he turned himself in. Freddy spent his twenty-first birthday in prison as a draft evader.
The second challenge to my Fundamentalist certainties was an intellectual crisis. I read a book called The Passover Plot by Hugh Schonfield. It was a popular expose which made Jesus out to have been a fraud. The doubts which had been planted years earlier by my reading of the Bertrand Russell essay suddenly burst into full bloom. I began to ask myself whether indeed Christianity might not be some kind of delusion. How did I know whether God existed? How could a good God allow all of the suffering and evil in the world? Was Jesus really God’s Son? (How could I be so convinced of the truth of Christianity that I had become a closet pacifist and yet at the same time doubt whether there was even a God? I don’t know. I suppose we all live with contradictions.) The revivalist tradition had no tools with which to answer such questions. The line from the hymn—‟You ask me how I know he lives; he lives within my heart!”—is not a sufficient answer to the kinds of questions I was asking.
For awhile I functioned as a Christian agnostic. I continued to believe, but only by an act of the will. Intellectually, the faith in which I had been raised seemed incredible. My search for answers finally led me to discover the apologetic writings of some Evangelical theologians—an area in which some Evangelicals have written widely. (There is a rationalist strand within Evangelicalism, which originated in Protestant Scholasticism and of which many non-Evangelicals are ignorant. Evangelicals are not stupid hay-seeds—as they are too often portrayed.) Much of what I read was rather superficial, although I didn’t know it at the time. Nevertheless, it was sufficient to refute the positivist attacks of Russell and Schonfield—who in their reductionism made superficiality a virtue. After a time I became somewhat of an expert in the area of Evangelical apologetics. I was almost arrogant in my insistence that Christianity could be rationally demonstrated to be true.
During this period I also discovered the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. It was in my senior year in high school that I somehow found time to read through Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and most of Lewis’s corpus, both fiction and non-fiction. Although I have outgrown many of the Evangelical authors who captivated my imagination at this time, I have never outgrown Lewis and Tolkien. Every time I re-read them I find, not less, but more. Lewis says in one of his essays that the marks of a classic writing are, first, that it is readable, that is, it is accessible to a reasonably intelligent person, and yet, second, one continues to discover new depth each time one reads the work. The writings of Lewis and Tolkien are like that. They spoke to me when I was in high school and they still speak to me. I have noticed that Lewis’s and Tolkien’s books often appear on the shelves of those whom I truly admire. And their books often seem to look a bit more worn and well-read than the theological tomes. This is probably one of the best-kept secrets of academic theology.
These three incidents—my conversion to pacifism, my struggle with doubt and acquaintance with Evangelical apologetics, my reading of Tolkien and Lewis—took place within the two year period after my religious experience at sixteen and taught me a valuable and dangerous lesson. Authority could be questioned. I could no longer accept the traditional Fundamentalist alliance with conservative politics. If I could question those who attacked Christianity from outside its ranks, I could also question those from within my own tradition. And I now knew of two writers at least (Lewis and Tolkien) who were not born-again Evangelicals, who were clearly Christians, and whose style of Christianity appealed to me more than that with which I had been raised.
In the fall of 1973 I began studies at a small (200 students) Evangelical liberal arts college. The first year was very exciting. There were long-haired former street people—converts of the Jesus movement. There were neo-Charismatics and old-time Pentecostals, students from the Holiness churches (Nazarene and Wesleyan). There were also black and hispanic pastors from inner-city churches, foreign students from India and Africa, children of missionaries from Pakistan, and Central and South America. There were just as many students from traditional Fundamentalist and Evangelical upbringings (mostly Baptist and Free Church), a handful of students from main-line Protestant denominations (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist), and even one or two charismatic Roman Catholics. There were no Episcopalians that I remember.
We students discussed ‟doctrine” with each other constantly (always with Bible in hand). What about infant baptism, speaking in tongues, predestination, the ‟end times”? A favorite ‟game” (although we took it with utmost seriousness) was ‟What do you do with this verse?” Someone would argue, for example, that it would be unjust for God arbitrarily to predestine some people to heaven and others to hell without any consideration of the person’s faith or lack thereof. His opponent (the women did not often enter into these debates) would retort that, since God gives faith, God can withhold it if he wants and . . . ‟What do you do with this verse?” Whereupon the objector would be confronted with something like Romans 9:18 (‟ . . . he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”) and for good measure—verse 20 (‟ . . . who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”). It was then the objector’s responsibility to show that the passage didn’t really mean what his opponent said it did and to find his own passage which supported human freedom or unlimited atonement. Little did we know that we were engaging in a less sophisticated version of the medieval disputation. It was great fun.
This first year at college I came under the influence of something called ‟deeper life” spirituality. The theology of the deeper life is a kind of radical Protestantism. I think it has roots in Lutheran or Calvinist pietism and in Evangelical ‟Holiness” traditions. It is, in some respects, quietist. The basic tenet of the ‟deeper life” is that when someone is ‟born again,” that is, at conversion, the ‟sin nature” is eradicated. In theological parlance, there is no such thing as concupiscence in the Christian. (Years later, I would encounter a different kind of “radical Protestantism” that took the oppose stance, a radical “Lutheranism” that suggested that there is no such thing as sanctification.) One merely has to recognize this. Sanctification, like justification, is by faith alone. One can no more make him or herself holy by good works and self-effort than one can justify him or herself by good works. All striving, even attempts to try to be good, are worse than useless. In fact, the attempt to be a good person, to do good works of any kind, is itself a form of sin—a case of walking after the flesh. (How one can ‟walk after the flesh” if the flesh is indeed eradicated is not really explained.) One has only to ‟reckon” oneself to be dead to sin and alive to Christ, and Christ, through the Holy Spirit, will live his life in one. Formally, there is a similarity between this position and the scholastic theologian Peter Lombard’s understanding that love simply is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer.
Like all forms of ‟enthusiasm,” deeper life spirituality tends to make the mistake identified by Ronald Knox in his book, Enthusiasm. Deeper Life spirituality substitutes grace for nature. It ignores the created world God has made and forgets that God normally acts through secondary causes. It is precisely through the natural and the normal that God usually works. As Aquinas has pointed out, ‟Grace perfects nature, it does not destroy it.” Neither does grace overwhelm nature or become a substitute for it.
And, like all forms of enthusiasm, deeper life spirituality breaks down in practice. According to the theory, the worst thing one can do is to ‟try” to be holy. ‟Trying” is a form of works-righteousness which leads to sin. One cannot try. One can only ‟trust.” This sounded great in theory, but I found it just did not work in practice. I kept finding myself ‟trying” to trust.
Still I might have been able to hang on with the ‟deeper life” for awhile longer if only I had not fallen in love. This seems to be the bane of all college freshmen. Deeper life spirituality placed a great deal of emphasis on ‟believing prayer.” I was ripe for a fall. The first time I saw this young woman I received a ‟spiritual impression” (a flash of intuition—I just knew that Jesus had told me!) that I was going to marry her—and I believed without a doubt. When she did not respond, I believed harder. After all, God can not be held back by mere circumstances.
Unfortunately, my youth pastor only encouraged me in my expectations. He had found his wife through just such believing prayer. (Sadly, he later divorced.) So had one of my college professors. I asked God for ‟signs” and ‟threw out fleeces” like Gideon and received countless ‟confirmations” that this was God’s will. (To ‟throw out a fleece” is, more or less, to make a deal with God. If I perform a certain action, God will ‟confirm” that this is what he wants me to do in some concrete way. It’s all in the book of Judges in the Old Testament.) I continued in unwavering faith for the entire school year, thanking God that, although she did not know it, this woman was going to be my wife. (In retrospect, this is embarrassing to relate.. At the time, however, given the atmosphere of my school and church, I saw nothing unusual or bizarre in what I was doing.) At the end of the school year, this young woman transferred to another college, moved to faraway California, and never returned. I found out later that at least three other male students (whom I knew personally) had been ‟told by the Lord” that they were going to marry this same young woman. Although we were all friends we had never told one another about our ‟revelations.” It must have been more difficult for her than it was for us.
I reacted with shock. I was devastated. I could not believe what had happened. I did not understand what had gone wrong. I had followed all the rules, and by all rights I should have been engaged to this young woman and telling people the wonderful ‟testimony” of how God had given me a terrific Christian wife. I was baffled. I lost my temper with God and remember yelling at him at the top of my lungs one night as I drove my car in heavy traffic. People in other cars must have wondered about me. I yelled at God a lot after that.
That summer I took a job doing menial work in a machine shop, and it was truly the worst job I have ever had. I toiled long hours doing tedious and mindless work. When I was not working, I was busy with church activities. Half-way through the summer, my grief, my job, and my lack of time caught up with me. I despaired. I could no longer find any meaning or purpose in my life. God seemed unreal. The only kind of spirituality I had ever known had failed me. The apologetics to which I had devoted so much time struck a hollow note and could no longer answer the questions I was asking. The thought came to my mind that Christianity was a farce. God did not exist. The whole thing was a sham. For the first time in my life I thought seriously about killing myself.
Looking back, it is no doubt true that I reacted in a selfish and immature way. My faith had failed, but it was an immature and childish faith. Would a mature person have concluded that life was meaningless simply because he’d had bad luck in love and he’d gotten stuck with a bad job? My attitude was also self-centered, I think. My friend Freddy had gone to prison shortly before this because he had taken a difficult stand of conscience—and yet Freddy did not abandon faith or despair. It had never occurred to me to even think of Freddy’s situation or how he had dealt with it. Freddy had taken a stand. I had simply made a fool of myself. (By the way, Freddy was released after six months.) Be that as it may, there was no question to me that at the ripe old age of nineteen, my life seemed cruel and pointless.
Somehow I survived this period of hopelessness and despair. I did not abandon faith, but my faith had changed. At school the next fall, friends remarked that I was not the same—I no longer seemed happy—and I was not. I no longer had the same presumptuous confidence in God. There was now a nagging worry in the back of my mind that perhaps God was not good after all.
The end result of this change was probably a more mature faith, but the immediate effect was a split between my intellectual and emotional selves. I resolved to reevaluate my faith. Some of my previous convictions held. Others did not. My overwhelming intellectual concern became the question of theodicy—if God is good, why is there suffering and evil? The writings of the Inklings—Lewis, Tolkien, and also George MacDonald (whom I had only recently discovered)—were particularly helpful to me at this time.
At the same time I became distrustful and skeptical of all forms of spirituality or religious experience which struck me as being overly subjective or emotional approaches to God. Revivalism, pietism, the charismatic movement, and all types of fideism became anathema to me. These things had overwhelmingly failed me. It also became easy for me to be distrustful of the emotions of happiness and joy and to take depression and unhappiness with utmost seriousness.
Nevertheless, there was also almost a mystical element in my approach to God. I hoped for some kind of experience or discovery which would enable me to enjoy the same sort of peace I once had known. I saw Franco Zefferelli’s movie about St. Francis of Assisi at this time (Brother Sun, Sister Moon) and was deeply moved by Francis’s simplicity and the beauty of his life. (It’s a pity how a film can capture an era and yet become quickly dated. Zefferelli’s St. Francis now seems more like a sixties’ flower child than the Italian saint.) Through reading the Inklings, I developed a keen interest in mythology, fairy tales, and fantasy literature—hardly a rationalistic pursuit.
My own spirituality became individualist. Personal prayer and Bible reading were the mainstays of my faith. There could be no dependence on other people, I decided, for inevitably they disappointed. Despite this conviction, I was still active in the college department of the Baptist church which I attended. I developed and maintained some good friendships at this time.
There is a tendency among ‟Catholics” and Main-line Protestants to lament the ‟individualism” of Protestant Fundamentalism. In my own experience at that time, this ‟individualism” simply did not exist. Born-again Christians talk about ‟accepting Jesus as your personal savior” but the real emphasis was on conformity to the social mores and doctrinal standards of the sect – or at least that was how I perceived things. There seemed no room for true individuality in the sense of thinking for oneself or being an original or creative person or even for just being different from the rest of the people in the group. It was precisely my individuality at that time (this is perhaps a better word than ‟individualism”) that saved me from the suffocating strangle-hold of Fundamentalism. During my entire spiritual pilgrimage, I have maintained the practice of daily private prayer and reading of Scripture. This habit enabled me to distance myself from the authoritarian mind-set of those around me. My own ‟personal relationship with Jesus” was a reality that the group could not challenge, and I think it made a major difference in my ability to survive.
The friendships that I developed with a handful of individuals were also a major factor in helping me to remain a Christian. Religious jargon about ‟Christian community” and the ‟corporate nature of Christianity” among ‟Catholic” and main-line Protestant Christians is also often a jab at ‟individualism.” I think, however, that the Christian experiences at least two kinds of ‟community”; the first is the community of the Body of Christ, the Church. The second is that of individual friendships. The second type of community has always maintained me in my Christian faith better than the first. In fact, to some extent, I have to say that I have remained a Christian not because of, but in spite of, the ‟Church.”
My last two years in college were the most exciting in that they marked my intellectual awakening. I decided to major in philosophy – originally because I thought a knowledge of philosophy would be an excellent apologetic tool. I could defeat the unbelievers on their own ground. However, I was fortunate in being able to study under a couple of excellent teachers and began to enjoy philosophy for its own sake. I liked Aristotle and Plato, but my most enjoyable discovery was that of the classic Christian tradition in philosophy. Reading St. Augustine for the first time was an eye-opening experience, but in the writings of Thomas Aquinas I believed I had found TRUTH.
A small group of us students formed something of a clique around our philosophy professor. I remember sitting around for hours with this group with our professor struggling over Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas. Those who disparage dry arid scholasticism have never studied it the way we did. There is nothing so moving (even emotionally) as discovering a great thinker like Aquinas for the first time. We students even formed our own “philosophical Academy”—a group which met from time to time and called itself ‟A Humble Attempt at Inquiry.” There was no set format. It was sort of like a Quaker meeting for philosophers. Any question was permissible and any position was allowed as long as the person speaking could defend his position rationally.
Discovering Aquinas removed my early in-built prejudices against Catholics and other prejudices also disappeared. I began to read other theologians who had been forbidden in my tradition as ‟liberal heretics”—Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Oscar Cullmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Far from being heretical, I learned more from these ‟neo-orthodox” theologians than I had ever learned from Evangelicals. Because I was somewhat naive theologically, the sudden introduction to such a variety of view-points did not result in the angst that might have been experienced, for example, by a traditionalist Roman Catholic Thomist reading Pannenberg for the first time. I did not yet know that one was not supposed to be able to learn both from Neo-Orthodox Protestants and Catholic Scholastics. What I was reading was so much broader than the narrow tradition in which I had grown up that I found the experience liberating. The Inklings, St. Thomas, and theologians like Pannenberg convinced me of the intellectual integrity of Christianity.
The expansion of my intellectual horizons was bound to lead to conflict within a small conservative Evangelical school. Our group began to use the jargon characteristic of neophytes. We spewed in the presence of our fellow students and teachers terminology like ‟Christ-event,” the ‟proleptic anticipation of the eschaton,” heilsgeschichte, and ‟linear time.” Expressions like ‟Analogy of Being,” ‟Pure Act,” the ‟Divine Simplicity,” and ipsum esse subsistens became part of our vocabulary. Our small handful of philosophy students was playing a game that the rest of the college did not understand. One day, one of my fellow students grabbed my copy of one of Frederick Copleston’s volumes of The History of Philosophy and threw it in the nearest trash-can. ‟If this man were really a Christian,” he commented, ‟he would leave the Catholic Church.” (Ironically, I met up with this student years later. Years later, He had gone on to write a doctoral dissertation on Karl Barth.) Other students told me they were praying for me. They were concerned I was losing my faith. Our philosophy professor was accused of corrupting the students. We saw the parallel to Socrates—who had faced similar accusations. One Bible instructor remarked that there were certain young men who, when they first came to the college were good Bible-believing Christians, but now carried Aristotle under their arms rather than the Bible. Our philosophy professor rejoined that perhaps we should carry toilet paper under our arms because ‟we’re always shitting on each other.” We rejoiced at this clever exposure of those we considered Philistines.
The eventual explosion was ignited by the question of the inerrancy of the Scriptures. I had been aware since high-school of various historical errors and contradictions in the Bible, and this had never bothered me. In addition, my reading of the so-called ‟neo-orthodox” theologians had convinced me that the Bible was not itself revelation but was a fallible (though trust-worthy) record of God’s revelation in the history of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ. The revelation was not in the Book, but in the “sacred history.” (This was the language of the then dominant theological school of “salvation-history” or heilsgeschichte. “Salvation-history” has since been replaced by “narrative theology,” and, more recently, “canonical” readings.) My faith was not in the Bible but in the God whose story was told in the Bible. I simply could not believe that Christianity stood or fell by the questions of whether Jonah had actually been swallowed by a big fish, whether the world had been created in seven twenty-four hour days, whether Moses had personally written the entire Pentateuch (including, one of my professors insisted, the account of his own death, which he had fore-told by prophecy), or whether Isaiah had one, two, or perhaps more authors. The college administration decided, however, that the absolute inerrancy of Scripture in all matters, including science and history, was the cornerstone of Evangelical faith. If one admitted a single error in Scripture, then Christianity collapsed. This stance was being taken by other Evangelical institutions at the time.
There was a seminar on the subject. The small group of us who had been corrupted by the ‟deceits of philosophy” attended. There was division among the faculty. Those who taught liberal arts believed that the question was at least negotiable. The Scripture faculty insisted that there was no room for compromise. In all honesty, the Bible scholars were less than charitable toward those who disagreed with them. One of them pointed out, as if this had anything to do with the issue, that ‟just because a man uses big words, that doesn’t mean he’s spiritual.” We engaged in heated debate with the Bible faculty. Unfortunately, as a group, we philosophy students had become somewhat sure of ourselves and rather cocky. And, of course, we stuck together because we perceived ourselves to be a small misunderstood and persecuted minority, defending truth against the bastions of error and intolerance. We were already only too cynical about the ‟mindless Fundamentalism” which we saw all around us and which seemed to be sweeping the country with the so-called ‟Evangelical movement.” (This was the period of Anita Bryant, Charles Colson’s conversion, and Jimmy Carter.) Although the Academic Dean, a good friend of mine, cautioned me not to become bitter, I was infuriated at what I perceived to be intellectual hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness. My last semester at the college was a period of cynicism and bitterness. At graduation, I received an award as the ‟student most likely to succeed in graduate school.” My thoughts as I walked up to the platform in academic gown to receive the award were, ‟Well, I guess I showed you bastards.” In the college year-book ,I left the following quotation from Through the Looking Glass to sum up my contempt for the irrationality of many of the college faculty and my fellow students:
Alice laughed. ‟There’s no use trying,” she said: ‟one can’t believe impossible things.”
I daresay you haven’t had much practice” said the Queen. ‟When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast . . . .”
For the past year I had also grown dissatisfied with the church that I had attended since beginning high school. I could no longer identify with its revivalist spirituality and emotivist pietism. There were things about being Baptist that began to bother me—for example, the way Baptists practiced the Lord’s Supper. Southern Baptists endorse a Zwinglian theology of Eucharistic symbolism – a position perhaps uncharitably described as the “real absence.” The Lord’s Supper was a very solemn time when we were invited to reflect on our sinfulness—not a joyful occasion. The passage always read was one from 1 Corinthians 11:30—‟many are ill and some have died.” Whether this was intended or not, I heard this theology to be teaching that the sacrament is not a sacrament and can’t do anything good for you. However, if you slip up, it can kill you! The church I attended did not believe in written prayers (The Sermon on the Mount forbids ‟vain repetition”) or liturgical worship (‟Dead ritual!”), and yet the prayers we used Sunday after Sunday were very repetitive and always sounded familiar. The structure of every Sunday morning service was identical—right down to skipping the third verse of every hymn and always having an altar call at every service. How, I wondered, was this different from ‟vain repetition” and ‟dead ritual”?
The Baptist love for giving ‟testimonies” left me out. How could I talk about the long years during which I had wandered in sin when I had been ‟saved” at the age of five? My ‟testimony” could not add up next to the thrilling stories told by former alcoholics and teen gang members.
I was also irritated by the Southern Baptist tendency to identify Christianity with Southern and rural culture. Christians had punch and cookies at their parties. They never drank or danced. Christians served iced tea with every meal. It struck me as odd that in my entire life, I had never heard anyone speak from a Baptist pulpit who did not have a Southern accent. My pastors were all from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas. Half the members of our church congregation were Southern refugees who had come to live in Colorado. I began to suspect the Baptists believed that God’s throne was either in Dallas or Nashville.
There was, among Evangelicals, a constant emphasis on being nice—on Christian fellowship. One was never allowed to be discouraged or depressed. If something went wrong, you were supposed to say ‟Praise the Lord.” I noticed that sometimes ‟Praise the Lord” was pretty much equivalent to ‟God Damn!”—‟Well, I lost my job. Praise the Lord! I got a flat tire on the way to work. Praise the Lord!” And below the surface of all this niceness and optimism could be a real nastiness and hostility toward those on the outside. The famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hare was at that time a favorite target of attack. I heard comments from pulpits more than once about how she would see things differently when she was burning in hell. Liberal Protestants were another villain. So were Godless communists, “peaceniks” and protestors, and non-Christian educators.
This under-the-surface nastiness manifested itself in several forms of paranoia. One was a constant concern with Satan and the occult. Demon possession and the fear of the demon-possessed was a persistent theme at this time. I don’t know if the movie the Exorcist had any thing to do with this, but I was repeatedly hearing stories about Christians who had supposedly had contact with demon-possessed people. I never met any possessed people, though.
Another expression of the paranoia was in the apocalyptic theology of dispensationalism that was prominent both at my college and at my church. Most people I knew believed that the world was going to come to an end in our lifetime, that the Anti-Christ was already living, that Jesus would soon return and all the non-Christians would be left behind after the ‟rapture” to suffer miserably through the ‟Great Tribulation.” After seeing a movie on this theme in our church one Sunday evening, around half a dozen college students responded at the altar call by asking to be re-baptized because they were afraid they might not be ‟real Christians” and did not want to be ‟left behind.” They were all promptly re-baptized a week later—without any discussion, without any questions.
There was also an obession with ‟persecution.” According to the Bible, good Christians were supposed to be persecuted, and the Fundamentalists I knew were convinced that they were victims. We were ‟persecuted” by the government, we were ‟persecuted” by unbelievers. As it got closer and closer to the ‟end times” we were going to be ‟persecuted” more and more. And yet, I could think of no examples of when I personally had been persecuted. I had only known a few non-Christians, but they had always been polite to me. The few examples of ‟persecution” of which I had actually heard struck me as the a preditable reaction to Fundamentalist rudeness or stupidity.
The final straw came for me when our pastor preached two sermons. In one, he warned our young people against the dangers of college education. All of those godless teachers had only one goal—to take away your faith. In the second sermon, a week later, the pastor made it clear that his solution to the problems in our prisons was to ‟strap difficult prisoners up against a wall and beat them with chains.” Disgusted, that night I left the church in which I had grown up and never returned. There was no way I could reconcile such attitudes with Christ’s demonstration of compassion and practice of non-violence. The right-wing politics which seemed to be so much a part of ‟born-again” Christianity made me ill. (I don’t know if this right-wing policitcal element was always part of Fundamentalism. My parents were blue-collar Democrats, and certainly not right-wing conservatives.)
When I graduated from college a few months later, I was thoroughly disillusioned with the Evangelical movement and hated the type of Christianity with which I had grown up. Nevertheless, although I had no use for cultural Evangelicalism, I still considered myself an Evangelical Protestant. I had not abandoned my tradition. Rather, I believed that Evangelicals had betrayed the roots of their own faith. I retained my contacts with the more progressive teachers at my college, and I retained the friendships with fellow-students which had developed through our mutual struggle at the school. We formed a small crew, maintaining our Christian identity, belonging to no church, and holding ourselves together primarily through our mutual friendship.
The next period of my life is very difficult to characterize. If my youth and adolescence could be called the Way of Religious Conformity and my college years the Period of the Search for Truth, perhaps the years immediately after college could be called the Path of Cynicism. But even this is too one-sided. There were too many things going on. Looking back, it seems that up to this period, there had been definite stages in my life, one following chronologically and perhaps logically after another. Now everything happened at once, or at least, all at the same time. What was true of one area of my life was not necessarily true of the other. Although the various facets of my life seemed different, and I wore different masks for each phase, all the phases occurred simultaneously, and all were me.
In contrast to my personal life, my education continued on a somewhat even keel. After college, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in theology. I couldn’t very well continue in my goal of becoming a pastor since I belonged to no church. Besides, despite the frustration of much of my college experience, I had undergone an intellectual awakening as an undergraduate, and thought I had gifts to be a teacher myself. I wanted to study more theology. I made up my mind quickly not to study at another Evangelical institution. On the other hand, I had no desire to study in a Liberal Protestant seminary. I finally decided to study at a Roman Catholic school because I felt that there—unlike a Liberal Protestant School—I would find a basic adherence to the central dogmas of Christianity, and unlike an Evangelical school, they would not be interpreted in a narrow Fundamentalist manner. I also hoped to find out more about Thomas Aquinas.
St. Thomas Seminary (in Denver) took some adjusting to, at first. I didn’t know what to make of professors who wore clergy shirts and chain-smoked while they talked about God. On the day of my first visit, the registrar did not realize that I was not a Roman Catholic. ‟What diocese are you from?,” he asked. I didn’t know what a diocese was. ‟I’m not studying for the priest-hood” I blurted. I was invited to come to mass. I saw quickly that I wouldn’t be able to fake my way through. ‟I’m not a Catholic,” I said, hoping to escape. It didn’t work. I was invited anyway. I stumbled through my first mass, cringed when I was told the wafer was the ‟Body of Christ” and choked on my first taste of real communion wine. (I was used to grape juice.) ‟Where did you go to college?” I was asked. After identifying the small Evangelical school from which I had graduated, I was told ‟We don’t get many from there.”
My years at St. Thomas were less eventful in many ways than my time in college had been. They principally provided a place for intellectual growth and rest as well as an opportunity to decide where to go from here. Would I become a Roman Catholic? Should I attempt to find a more moderate Evangelical church and work for change from within my tradition? Should I try to join a main-line Protestant church, or should I continue to be a friendly critic (but still Christian) of the Church from outside her ranks? I visited some Baptist churches, hoping I could find one that didn’t make me feel too uncomfortable. I remember the Conservative Baptist minister who asked me where I was going to school. ‟St. Thomas Seminary,” I answered. ‟We don’t get many from there,” he said uncomfortably. It worked both ways. One American Baptist pastor was extremely friendly, but his theology was unitarian, his congregation was composed of mostly older people, and the service in his church was as formal as a High Mass without any of the beauty of liturgy. The Congregationalist church I visited was small and appeared to be dying. I never attended any church regularly, and for a period of four years, I was one of the ‟unchurched.”
For the time being, I put the practical questions aside and immersed myself in study. In many ways I could not have made a better choice than St. Thomas Seminary. As a struggling Protestant, I think I was allowed more freedom than I would have had at either a conservative or liberal Protestant seminary. At St. Thomas, I became interested in ecumenical theology, and began wrestling with the issues that divided me from my Catholic colleagues—grace, justification, the sacraments, tradition, authority in the church. I came to see the importance of balancing the soteriologically oriented and individualistic faith of my tradition with a more Christocentric, incarnational, and sacramental approach to theology. I was introduced to the works of more contemporary Catholic theologians, e.g., Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan. During this time I also began to discover a more historical approach to doing theology and I came to understand that doctrine and dogma had developed over a period of time in the history of the church. I became interested in the pre-Reformation roots of my own faith. I read the Church Fathers, took courses on Augustine and Origen, and discovered the Medieval roots of the Reformation in late Medieval and Renaissance philosophy and theology. Reading Catholic mystics helped me to re-discover the spirituality of my own Protestant tradition in works of Protestant mystics and Pietists and I became more reconciled to the Protestant spiritual tradition. I came to realize that not all Protestant spirituality had been like the anti-intellectual revivalism with which I had grown up.
While struggling with these various theological problems, I made a very important discovery. After spending day in and day out with Catholic teachers, seminarians, priests, and nuns, I began to think like a Catholic—or at least I came to understand what it felt like to be a Catholic—and yet I retained my Protestant identity. I came to realize that the only way to understand any religious or philosophical tradition is to experience it from the inside. I think that the two most important factors in ecumenical theology are—first, to accept the basic Christian identity of the other party, and, second, to begin to make the attempt to understand why he or she thinks the way he or she does and how it feels to think that way—whether you agree with the person or not. If the church is ever to realize its unity, this mutual understanding will be necessary. By the way, I think this (at least the second point) is good advice for Christians and non-Christians in their mutual relations as well.
I did not spend all my time during seminary in study, however. My friends from college continued to be my main-stay. Unfortunately, our friendship did not always provide for happy times. The labels of cynicism and despair could perhaps most closely be tied to this area of friendship. Our get-togethers, which provided a sense of continuity with the old life, and a basis of stability in the new, often turned into occasions to mull over past injuries from our Fundamentalist experience and further our cynicism by providing time and opportunity to ridicule Fundamentalist and Evangelical hypocrisy and stupidity. There was even a period when we kept an ‟Evangelical Absurdity” file in which we collected clippings from the newspapers showing Evangelical Christians at their most hilarious and ridiculous. We loved a satirical Evangelical magazine called The Wittenberg Door.
Although we remained friends, this was a tumultous time for all of us. An acquaintance from the Evangelical college we had left—one of the original crew of ‟radical” philosophy students—committed suicide. The idea of committing suicide had been somewhat of a plaything in my mind ever since the tragedy of my freshman year in college, a thought which I morbidly entertained sometimes just for fun, but not one which I took seriously. ‟I think I’ll commit suicide tonight. No doubt I’ll feel better for it in the morning.” The funeral of my friend and former fellow student, however, made me so miserable I vowed never to consider entertaining such thoughts again—not even in jest.
Another friend went to a local Baptist seminary for a semester, dropped out in disgust, and moved to Texas. Some of my friends managed to stay within Southern Baptist circles, however. A couple became Baptist ministers. One went on to get a doctorate in Psychology. Finally, the three of us who were closest to each other somehow managed to fall in love with the same woman—an Episcopalian we’ll refer to as K. My two friends went on to study at a state university, one to finish a B.A., the other to begin an M.A. in Philosophy, where both became friends with K. and introduced her to me. The Philosophy major became so depressed over her he dropped out of school and took a job working as a supervisor on an assembly line. The other student became an Episcopalian (not because of K.).
About this time, the Episcopalians slowly began to win me over. While still in college, I had visited a large local Episcopal church. The priest struck me as a unitarian in vestments. I asked myself on leaving, ‟Don’t the liberals know that liberal theology is dead?” Nevertheless, I heard Bishop William Frey speak at this liberal priest’s church and was very impressed. I watched the bishop closely during the ecclesiastical cat-fight about the new Prayer Book and the ordination of women priests that led to the Anglican-Catholic schism at that time. I admired his compassion and Christian leader-ship. The break-away group, which claimed that the Episcopal Church was no longer Christian, seemed to me to be nothing more than high church clones of Southern Baptist Fundamentalists. For a period of about three months I attended a discussion group being led by an Episcopal priest. John was Anglo-catholic, which made me uncomfortable, but unlike those in the break-away group, he was warm and understanding and willing to listen to others’ points of view.
Then there was K. When my friend the Philosophy student dropped out of his program, the field was left open for me. I ‟went out” with K. on and off for the entire three years I was in seminary. She was a very intelligent Episcopal charismatic majoring in history. Unfortunately, there was a problem from the beginning. K. was a dissatisfied Episcopalian moving toward Evangelicalism. As she put it, ‟The Evangelicals love Jesus. I’m not so sure the Episcopalians do.” I was a dissatisfied Evangelical moving toward Anglicanism. Our paths seemed to cross, but we were moving in opposite directions.
It seems that everything climaxed at once.
First of all, I had been living for three years in an awful tension. On the one hand, I was a Christian intellectual. I was convinced of the truth and of the beauty of Christianity. I don’t mean ‟truth” in some sort of subjective sense—‟Well, that may be ‘true’ for you, but it’s not ‘true’ for me.” I mean truth in the traditional sense of correspondence between reality and intellect. I believed that Christianity was true in the sense that the Christian way of looking at things is objectively and really the way things are. There really is a God and Jesus Christ really is his Son who, as the Creed says, ‟for us and for our salvation came down from heaven . . . and was made man . . . was crucified under Pontius Pilate . . . suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again . . . ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” I believed (and believe) that this is true whether any one else believes it to be true or not. Its truth does not depend on my subjective experience of it as true. If it were not true that any human being believed it were true, it would at least be true for the God who made the world.
My knowledge of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas had convinced me that the existence of God could be proven philosophically, and my study of the writings of Wolfhart Pannenberg had convinced me that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead could be demonstrated using impartial historical method. The tomb was empty because Jesus was not in it. He had other things to do besides stay dead. This position was (and is) an epistemologically realist position, an optimistic position, and, I believed, a strictly rational one. I found the intellectual challenges of seminary exciting. I was still extremely skeptical of subjectivism, whether it went by the name of fideism or religious experience.
On the other hand, I was being pulled in two directions emotionally. There was an optimistic side to my subjective half. I was in love with K. I loved fantasy and mythology; I read it now even more than I had in college. And I was persistently drawn toward mysticism, or at least the writings of mystics. I read spiritual writers all the time—Julian of Norwich, Johann Arndt, Soren Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Dag Hammarskjold. And yet all of this seemed very subjective, without a real rational foundation (and therefore to be mistrusted on the basis of my primary theological maxim: ‟All truth is rational.”). I saw no way to bring the two halves of myself together. The intellectual side I could live with because it was objective. The subjective side I distrusted. It could always lead to deception.
Finally, there was a third segment of my personality—my shadow self of darkness, despair, and cynicism. If anything, this side had become more prominent as I finished my course work in seminary. The prevalence of idiotic television evangelists, of the electronic church swindling people out of their money, and the rise of the Fundamentalist religious right with their political support of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election made me furious and only confirmed my cynicism concerning Evangelical Christianity. I felt vindicated in that I had anticipated the direction of Fundamentalism several years before, but it made me feel no better.
I was living in a constant state of intellectual and emotional tension. Although intellectually I was convinced that God was good, or rather the Good—Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas had convinced me that this was a demonstrable philosophical truth—I was continually bothered by worries and doubts that perhaps God was not good after all. There is a dualist tradition in philosophy and theology that explains the evil in the universe by placing it within God himself. While I could not accept this position intellectually, I was continually bothered with the idea on an emotional level. Marcion’s evil god was always just over the horizon. I could not get my intellectual conviction that God was good to line up with my existential anxiety that perhaps he was not.
I often expressed this state of angst in cynical theological jokes. I devised a new argument for the existence of God. There must be a supreme being governing the world, I jested. How else could things get so fouled up? Sheer chance could not possibly have brought about so much chaos. Once I even speculated humorously that perhaps the resurrection of Christ was simply an attempt on God’s part to patch up a muffed job. While God hadn’t been paying attention, his Son had been crucified and the Good Lord had to step in somewhat belatedly to save the show.
Other things began to happen that led to more discouragement. First, was my Master’s Thesis. It became clear that what I had hoped would be a simple project was not going to be taken care of so simply. The paper got longer and longer and I got bogged down. I began to wonder if I would ever be finished. I wrestled with tons of note cards and pages and pages of writing. The subject of the paper itself caused problems. It was related to grace, predestination and free will, and had grown out of concerns I had struggled with since college. I cannot but see the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination as the theology of an arbitrary God. If Calvinism is true, then God is anything but good. I had been convinced of this since early in college and the paper presented itself as an opportunity to wrestle with this issue. It became for me a personal struggle with the problem of election and predestination (How could a God who arbitrarily chose some and damned others be good?) and was, in a sense, my own attempt to find a good God.
My prayer life dried up at this point. I continued to pray but it was as if there were no one there to hear me. When I read Scripture, I kept finding the indignant Yahweh of the Old Testament who proclaimed holy wars and swallowed people in earthquakes, whose wrath extended to generations. I asked K. if she thought I might be going through the ‟Dark night of the Soul.” She laughed this off uncomfortably. That only happened to mystics. At the same time, she expressed her concern about the well-being of our little group of three philosophical musketeers who had managed to stay together through college and beyond as she saw us sinking from an attitude of cynicism to despair and isolation.
Another incident happened at this time that shook my complacency. One of my close friends, one of my fellow ‟college rebels” who had remained extremely close to me through all of our struggles came to my door one day to confess a moral failing. Specifically, he was a homosexual, and some of his Christian friends wanted nothing more to do with him. I did not condemn him, and I did not end our friendship. But I had to re-think some things; particularly I had to reconsider my own sinfulness. I had seen the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists with whom I had fallen out as hypocritical Pharisees. I had never doubted that my friends and I had been righteous. I began to see, however, that, like those I condemned, I had been selective about the sins I noticed. If they were intolerant of ‟heresy” and sexual sin, while ignoring the sins of power politics, I myself was much more offended by intolerance than I was by intellectual snobbery. I began to see that I had been guilty of intellectual pride and vindictiveness and a desire to ‟get even.” But knowing that I too was a ‟sinner” was not reassuring.
Other events contributed to my general discouragement. For five years I had worked a job that I had come to hate. I worked outdoors in the middle of the night early Sunday mornings in all sorts of weather—which made it nearly impossible to get home in time to visit any church. I could not quit the job and find another until the paper was finished, and it looked like it never would be.
I believe that God began to tie things together for me at this point, first intellectually, and then later, emotionally and spiritually. I reached certain conclusions intellectually before they clicked in my experience. I discovered two principles at this point—which I’ll refer to as the Christocentric principle and the sacramental principle.
In writing my master’s paper ,I learned from Jacobus Arminius and from Karl Barth that election and all grace take place in and through Jesus Christ. I saw that it was only in the story of Jesus that I could find a good God, that God had fully revealed himself in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and that God was the loving God whom he had revealed himself to be in Christ. The problem of theodicy disappears when one looks at the doctrine of the Atonement. For if the one on the cross is himself the incarnate God then, as Barth points out, the problem becomes the scandal of how it is that God has not lost himself in becoming so small that he was able to take all of the evil in the world into himself as God died on a hill outside Jerusalem. Second, election and grace are corporate. It is the community of the church that is chosen in Christ, not individual believers. I realized that by cutting myself off from the church I had isolated myself from the covenant community and had separated myself from the place where grace is most easily discovered—in the sacramental life and worship of the Christian community.
I began to find a way to integrate my ‟objective” and ‟subjective” sides through the writings of the Inklings C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner and the fantasy writings of two lesser known authors, James Branch Cabell and Lord Dunsany. Through the writings of these men I came to realize that Protestant theology (especially Calvinism) and its heirs (like Fundamentalism) tends toward a dualism between grace and nature. Grace and nature are seen as opposed to each other. There is often, consequently, a distrust of the created realm in Protestant theology. Grace does not so much perfect nature as enter into competition with it, overwhelm it, conflict with it. I had been steeped in this point of view.
I needed to adopt a more biblical and thus incarnational and sacramental view of reality. The ‟sacramental principle” is nothing more than the principle that ordinary created things can become means of grace. The incarnation of Christ is the supreme instance of this sacramental nature of all created reality. In becoming a human being, the Creator has used his created humanity as the primary channel through which human beings can share in the divine life. In what Charles Williams calls the Way of Affirmation, all created things can become sacramental means of grace as long as they are recognized as finite and created goods, but not as ends to be pursued as idols. Philosophy, theology, fantasy, mythology, romantic love, music and art—like Jacob’s ladder, all of these created things can become gateways to heaven if we accept them as gifts. If we make them gods, however, they rule us as the gods always do., and they will demand horrible sacrifices As Charles Williams says, we must approach all created reality with the premise, ‟This is Thou. This neither is Thou.” Insofar as a thing is created, it contains God for us. Insofar as it is finite, it is not God and must not be confused with God., and must not be worshiped as God
The idea is expressed beautifully in a story by Lord Dunsany called ‟The Magic Window.” In this story, a young man buys a window that enables him to see into the other world of a Faery kingdom. The window serves its function well until the day the man breaks it—hoping to get beyond the window into the magical world. Once broken, however, the window, is useless. The young man is not capable of getting into the other kingdom, and now he cannot even gaze at it.
I came to realize that by insisting on an exclusively rational approach to God I had been embracing a dualist split between nature and grace. The Way of Affirmation could allow me to integrate all created reality, not just the rational. I needed to recognize the subjective, the emotional, the mystical, as legitimate channels of grace. Through the Way of Affirmation I could bring together my intellectual and emotional selves.
Of course, the primary examples of the sacramental nature of reality, (next to the incarnation, and only because of the incarnation) are the sacraments themselves, baptism and the Eucharist. In the Church, they are the chief means of grace. Liturgical writings I read at this time convinced me that the practice of frequent communion—sharing in Christ’s Body and Blood, participating in the risen humanity of Christ through Bread and Wine—was an essential practice of Christianity. The Baptist doctrine of the ‟real absence” wouldn’t cut it for me anymore. I came to believe that the Christ who revealed God was truly made present in a unique way in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Finally, the writings of Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade convinced me that it was myth and symbol that gave meaning to life. Yet it was not enough to simply read mythology and fairy tales, as I was doing. It had to be acted out, and for this a liturgical setting was necessary. I came to the conclusion that one of the things I was missing out on was community and regular liturgical worship and that I needed to return to church. After looking at various options—mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism—I came to the conclusion on theological grounds that the via media of the Anglican tradition best exemplified the sacramental, catholic, and evangelical life which I thought and felt I needed. (Typical of my overly intellectual approach, I reached this decision after attending only one Episcopal Church service – that of the “unitarian” Episcopal priest.) But for the moment I held out.
In the meantime, things began to happen quickly. In November 1980, K. made a proposal of sorts. She stated simply, ‟You may be the person I want to marry.” We began seeing each other more frequently with the intention of seeing ‟what would happen.” It was very exciting for awhile, but not in a good way. I pushed K. for a commitment she was not willing to make. I was trying to sort out my own life and my new worries about her only intensified the problems. A short release came during Advent season. She was away for Christmas break and I was invited by my closest friend to attend informal masses at the Episcopal Cathedral. I ran into Bishop Frey. I told him that I felt I was being dragged into the Episcopal Church, kicking and screaming. He looked at me somewhat quizzically.
The crash came at Epiphany 1981. K. and her parents invited me to the Episcopal Cathedral to see the consecration of the new Suffragen Bishop. It was bad timing. I had been beset over the holidays with new doubts about the goodness of God. The Eucharist was ‟smells and bells”—lots of incense and pomp, and the cathedral service, which thrilled every one else, depressed me. As we walked out of the cathedral, I told K., ‟K., the eucharist depresses me. When I read passages of Scripture that say things like, ‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,’ the whole thing seems like so much false advertising. I’ll believe it’s true when I see it for myself.”
K. could not handle this. A few weeks later, she told me she could never marry me. She just could not live for the rest of her life with someone who was so negative and cynical. As far as she could tell, I didn’t enjoy life, and I didn’t enjoy people, and I never would.
I drove home after that date and immediately re-read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling—and did a lot of thinking. (Only I would have responded to the breaking off of a possible engagement by reading Kierkegaard.) I resolved to be Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith. I saw that I had been mistaken in always insisting on rational grounds before believing. Jesus, unlike Pannenberg, had not had the advantage of being able to ground his faith on rational proof of the resurrection. He had to be crucified first. It was necessary to go through the cross before rising from the dead, and when Jesus was on the cross he had no guarantee of any resurrection beyond it. When he cried, ‟My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”, he meant it, and he still believed.
So I believed.
Next, I went to work on my Thesis with full earnestness. I finally finished it, typed it, and re-typed it, working almost non-stop. I graduated from seminary summa cum laude.
I continued to believe and I continued to see K. and, like Kierkegaard, I lost Regina. A year later, she married someone else.
All in all, the crucifixion was relatively painless, and, after such a rough and tumble pilgrimage, the resurrection almost an anti-climax. After graduating from seminary with my MA, I went into the office of an Episcopal priest whom I had heard give a talk on Dorothy Sayers, and told him that after long struggle and theological reflection I had resolved to become an Episcopalian. His response was practical in a typically Anglican sense. ‟Well, the first thing we’ve got to do is to get you eating the Body of Christ on a regular basis.” The next Sunday I attended an Episcopal Eucharist—after not attending church with any consistency for a four year period—and found that ‟eating the Body of Christ” every week made the myth real to me, just as Jung said it would.
My concern about the good God more or less took care of itself. I already believed intellectually that God was good. As my life became more whole, I began to appreciate this truth experientially. That does not mean that I never have had doubts after that. But they have never been so overwhelming as they were in my twenties. My own life-story has shown me that God is good. I discovered that the only way to experience the goodness of God in suffering is to go through the suffering and to find God on the other side. When tough times have come, I have been able able to look back to other times when I have found God on the far side of suffering.
My main form of private devotion was still private prayer and Scripture reading—although I began to supplement these practices with praying the Daily Office. I found that Episcopalians also had their share of Evangelicals and ‟huggy” charismatics, as well as ‟spiky” Anglo-catholics and non-committed Liberal Protestants. I found it more fun to love them than to argue with them. (And that worked for many years. The crisis of the Anglican communion did not come to fruition for a couple of decades.) One of the conclusions that I came to after becoming an Anglican is that ‟things are meant.” Looking back over my life, I could see a pattern forming, which brought me to where I ended up—although I had not been aware of it before then. I believe very much in providence.
I should perhaps tell of one last incident because it was, in a way, the final push that brought me over the hump to faith again.
When I was first ‟being Episcopalian” I got to be very good friends with a woman my best friend was dating—the friend who had stuck with me since college days and who had preceded me into the Episcopal church. After he had dated her for awhile, she confessed that she had spent the last three years in a mental hospital and had attempted suicide nine times. Needless to say, this was a bit of a surprise to us. Toward the end of that summer (the summer after my graduation from seminary) she was hospitalized after a psychotic break. She was released after a few days (much to our relief). We celebrated. The next day, she disappeared. We searched for her for two days. By the end of the second night after her disappearance, we assumed that she had succeeded in killing herself. Finally, in desperation, we decided to pray. I had not prayed for something specific with any expectation of getting an answer since my Freshman year in college. ‟God,” I said, ‟I don’t really expect you to hear this prayer. I don’t know that I can name one time when you have ever answered me when I prayed. But I’m asking you to please keep R. alive until someone can find her.” She was found the next day in a hotel room. She had attempted to over-dose on medication and Tylenol. When we got to the hospital, she looked like she had been through hell and back. There were tubes running into her nose and she was only semi-conscious. But she was alive. She recovered quickly, went back to college and eventually became a nurse. As far as I know, she never made another suicide attempt. I can’t forget my joy at seeing her alive after believing she was dead. Coincidence? Perhaps, but I believe that God gave her back to us as an answer to prayer. A few weeks later my friend said to me, ‟You know, Bill, I don’t think God wants us to be cynical any more.” ‟No, I don’t think he does,” I answered.
After ‟being Anglican” for about a year I was confirmed by Bishop Frey in May 1982. K. married someone else, a conservative Evangelical, that summer. I went to her wedding. That fall I went to the University of Notre Dame to work on my Ph.D in theology, and to start on a new chapter of my life. Perhaps I’ll tell that story some other time.