Saturday, January 1, 2011

Retracing the steps of my mind and heart

As I continue retracing where I have come from in my thinking, especially in my theological views, I realize that I began this process because I was recalling how much my views had changed over past 30 years. And, I wanted to be fair to viewpoints that I might have once held just as tenaciously as those I disagree with now hold such viewpoints. I didn't come from liberalism, but from conservatism, though I was raised with an ethical protest (in favor of mercy) against harsh conservatism. I was raised with a certain enlightened protest against liberalism, but I found myself in college coming to a personal, existentialist protest against liberalism and conservatism. In seminary, I was confronted with the core documents and traditions of Christianity, and began to experience different ways in which people made sense of these core documents and traditions and applied them to the living of life as individual, social and political beings.

In my next post, I want to tell a story or two to show my post-college, pre-seminary retrenchment in a neo-orthodox type of conservatism. This didn't last too long, but it was the last time I tried to be a conservative. So, maybe it is worth remembering.

Picking up where I left off two posts ago

I can't remember how I first heard about Soren Kierkegaard, and I can't remember whether I had started reading Kierkegaard before, during, or after my first semester at Wake Forest (Spring of 1981). I do know that I was reading everything by Kierkegaard that I could find by the summer of 1981: Fear and Trembling, and a Sickness unto Death, Unscientific Postscript, the Concept of Anxiety, Journals, and right at the center of it all, "Attack on Christendom."

I read these books with a great deal of identification with the author, who had written in the middle of the 19th century. I identified with Kierkegaard's intellectual protest against the liberal scientific approach of his day that left little room for subjectivity and the individual. Kierkegaard wrote and addressed others by emphasizing "the individual standing before the Eternal." He criticized the herd mentality (the crowd) and asserted the power of the individual who was authorized by the Eternal, to find his or her way. Kierkegaard was very sharp in his attack on organized Christianity in Denmark where he lived. Over against the popular view of the Christian life in Denmark, Kierkegaard set the actual text of the New Testament which described a much different version of what it meant to be a Christian. Many times in his works, he pauses to say that in light of the New Testament view of what it means to follow Christ, he can't say that he is a follower of Christ. Kierkegaard used to say that amidst all the deception of Christendom in his land, he sought to tell the truth, whether that exposed his lack or not.

I was reading the Bible very much around this time, and reading theology for the first time, and studying the Bible also from the historical-critical perspective for the first time as well. I was also in an intellectual, academic environment for the first time that was very much persuaded in the superiority of a scientific, historical critical view of all things in life. In Kierkegaard, I found a wise friend who gave voice to many tensions I was feeling in trying to find my place in all of this. First, he was a close reader of scripture who clearly was moved by its power, as something that could shake and awaken to new meaning, but also disturb the status quo. Second, he paid attention to his own experience as he tried to make sense of things, and would not allow anyone to convince him that his own experience was irrelevant to finding the truth in life. Third, he was different from the crowd, and had a peculiar way of making sense of life, and he refused to conform to what was considered normal either intellectually, religiously or personally. Fourth, he had a lot of confidence in his own intellectual ability and in his sense for what is true, and he was just as comfortable taking on the scientific, philosophical rulers of his day as he was taking on the Bishops and religious leaders of his time. And, finally, what Kierkegaard wrote had such a strong ring of truth to it, that I read and read and felt comforted by the genuineness of his search for the truth in life, and inspired by the courage with which he undertook this search.

Kierkegaard was like a priest or pastor without a parish, or with parishioners that he would never see or know. He was in a sense my pastor through college and seminary and after that to some extent. Because he could speak to me where I was, and he could encourage me in the way of faith, even as I felt repelled by the religious culture around me. And, as I felt provoked by the academic, irreligious culture as well, that thought it could understand all things from the perspective of science but didn't even know the first thing about what it meant to be human.

I was still very apolitical, very much focused on personal relationships as opposed to any commitments to social issues or organizations. I might be involved at this time or that with helping a stranger, but it was never part of some focused effort. I think I attended worship services at a local church maybe three or four times a semester, and I attended some parachurch Bible Studies or meetings a two or three times a semester as well. But, I had long and regular discussions with individuals about religion and series issues of life on a daily basis.

These thoughts describe what was going on for me in many ways during the middle of my last two years of college, however, as I moved along and read more of the later Barth, I tried to take up more of a positive view of institutional Christianity, and became more dogmatic towards the end of college and right after. I was trying to figure out my role as an adult. I looked up and realized that I was married, was going the seminary, needed to figure out how to make a living, etc. During this stage, I read the entire scripture, and all of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, and then came seminary in the summer of 1984. I remember reading the Bible and Calvin's Institutes every day during my lunchbreak when I was working as a cook at Buckhead Baptist Daycare Center in Atlanta from Sept, 1983 through June of 1984. At that time, I started Greek School at Columbia Theological Seminary. And, I loved it. To be able to read the New Testament in the original language was great, and by the end of Greek School that summer, I was beginning to do just that. My seminary education began on a very positive note.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Will to Communicate

From time to time, I get frustrated and start feeling that it is not really worth trying to put my ideas into words and print, because what does it really lead to anyway? But, something in me continues to believe in the importance of communication and something inside rekindles my will to communicate with others.

And, I get the idea that many people just don't share that desire to really communicate with people about what is most important to the heart and mind. For me, it is part of my will to live. The desire to think, understand and communicate what I am thinking and understanding or not understanding - this is a desire that is really at the heart of life for me.

I guess that's why I keep getting back up to teach another Bible Study or preach another sermon or type another email to someone or post on this blog or have another open conversation with friend or someone from my family to share my confusion or clarity and to be able to see and hear their thoughts and feelings. There is a drive inside me to engage with others in the process of seeking understanding. Even when I get tired and feel like it's not worth writing and thinking and listening and talking, I still go right on thinking of why it is I feel that way. Pretty soon, I am back to writing and listening and reading and talking, trying to make sense of things again. It is like breathing for me. It is just something I do. I do it much better sometimes than others, but seeking to understand: others, social forces, myself, and the One above all beings is what keeps me going in life.

One of the old saints (I think it was Anselm) spoke of "faith seeking understanding" as being at the heart of theological work. And, I remember the words of the spiritual: "Sometimes I get discouraged, and feel my work's in vain. But, then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again . . . " Maybe that is a lot of what faith is, a perservering movement in the heart to seek understanding, even when misunderstanding and confusion are all that you can feel.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Growing up in the Southern Presbyterian Church

I grew up going to church at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, TN. At that time, Cedar Springs Presbyterian was in the old P.C.U.S. denomination, which was known as the "Southern Presbyterian Church." Our ministers were Rev. Capel, and then Rev. Robert Ferguson, a Scottish pastor.

To be a Southern Presbyterian Church meant two things: one, that you were Presbyterian, and two, that you were not "Northern Presbyterian."

Looking back on it, there was a strong sense of being Presbyterian in a Scottish sort of way as the sermons and service were shaped by our Scottish minister, who was the pastor in the years I remember best. The best I can describe it is that it was a Presbyterianism that had a strong sense of celebration of the goodness of life, a deep sense of trust in God's goodness and sovereignty, together with a strong sense of personal, individual piety. There was also a certain intellectual character as well, though not in the rationalistic sort of way, more in a poetic sort of way.

These are just some feelings I have as I remember what it meant to grow up in the church that I did. Most of the influence when I was young came through my mother's way of being a church member, and through the Sunday School teachers I had. As I grew older, the sermons themselves were important. I remember listening quite carefully most of the time to Rev. Ferguson, who was always an interesting and meaningful speaker from the pulpit. He would tell the stories of the Bible in a way that I could identify with, and I got the sense that these stories were very important and sacred to him.

In a Southern Presbyterian Church, as I said above, it was clear that you were not one of the Northern Presbyterian churches, which meant that you didn't go in for too much politics or talk of social reform in church, though you still were reasonably open to consider social movements individually. And, I have learned through later experience, it meant that we weren't too interested in liturgical services (a lot of responsive readings) or the church calendar (emphasis on what special church holy days were being observed, other than Christmas or Easter).

I was very much influenced by the positive experience I had with communicants class as I prepared to be baptized and become a church member at age 12. I was in a class with two other children, and we were taught by Rev. Ferguson. Our pastor got along very well with us, and encouraged us to ask any questions we wanted, and he would respond very freely with his answers. I got the sense of the openness of faith and the intellectual part of it as well. And, I think I got a sense that our pastor was a genuinely good and deeply spiritual person as well.

One other influence was very strong and that was my parents teaching by word and example that deeds were most significant in religion, and that concern for those in need was the first matter of a genuine religious faith.

As I endured my high school years, I distanced myself at first from church and then came back to matters of faith with a powerful awakening to an adult faith towards the end of high school. As I came back to my roots, I did so through engagement with some very conservative movements of Christianity, much more conservative than the church I had been raised in. But, my roots in the Presybterian Church always caused me to have certain misgivings about the conservative parachurch groups I was participating in from time to time. I was deeply influenced by the broad reading of the Bible from my Presbyterian tradition, so that where one passage was over-emphasized by this group or that, I would go to my Bible myself, and figure that I would find another passage or other passages that would give a more clear picture of the issue at hand. I was also deeply influenced by my Presbyterian upbringing in that I believed in the graciousness of God, and I didn't believe in the need of an impressive religious leader or emotional appeal in preaching. Which is another way of saying that I was immune to the revivalistic techniques of many preachers. As they appealed to me to come forward and make sure I was saved, something in me rested and rejoiced and trusted in God's Word deep within me that couldn't be messed with by human beings.

These are just some of the things I went to college with. And, in college, I had an awakening to the "life of the mind." My background allowed me the freedom to really read and study religion and philosophy, no reading I did was very more important than the reading of Soren Kierkegaard's books. I will try to trace that influence next time.

As I go through this exercise in trying to remember where I came from religiously, I do so to understand better how I have come to believe as I do, and also so that i might begin to understand the deep influence that our experiences have upon us. Then, instead of assuming I have all this common ground with people, I might listen a while to where they came from, and come to understand what ground is common and what is not.