It is a little hard to encapsulate what I thought, believed, and practiced during those years when I had moved away from being a hard-core Bible-believing conservative (as I was in college) but remained a committed Christian (as I was for years after that). The change did not come overnight so that one day I was one thing (a fundy) and the next I was something else (a liberal). It was a gradual change marked by important moments and key shifts. But let me pick a time in my life and try to explain what my faith meant to me at that time. This will take a couple of posts.
Quick biographical background: when I was doing my PhD in New Testament Studies, a lot of things happened to me personally that affected my faith. My studies, of course, were one thing. But outside of that was my daily life. I was attending the small but interesting Princeton Baptist church, which was part of the American Baptist denomination (very different, and far more diverse, than the Southern Baptists). It was very much Baptist, but hardly anyone in the church there, including the pastor, was fundamentalist. There were lots of good, mainline, Christians there, including friends of mine from seminary.
In the second year of my PhD the pastor left and the church asked me if I would serve as their interim pastor for a year, and I agreed. It was a lot to do – since I was finishing up my graduate course work, taking a full load of seminars, and preparing for my PhD exams. But still, I took it on, preached three weeks out of every four (taped for replay on the radio the following week!), and doing all the sundry things pastors do (visiting the sick, counseling, the occasional funeral or wedding, running administrative meetings, etc).
When the church found a pastor I felt it was only fair to him to move to a different church (so he wouldn’t feel me breathing down his neck as someone who had done the job before him), and started attending a very nice Lutheran church that came to mean a great deal to me. It was even more liberal than the Baptist church, but no one really thought about it that way. This was a church that was *completely* committed to the Lutheran tradition and proud of it. They didn’t go around talking about being liberal. They focused on their understanding of the faith in its historical tradition. And the Lutherans have a *lot* of history.
One of the things I liked about the church is that there were a lot of amazing people in it, including my beloved professor of church history, Karlfried Froehlich, who taught me in seminary and was (and probably still is) the single most erudite person I have ever known. He was unbelievably learned about … everything. Also in the church were a number of the high-level Lutheran administrators who ran the denomination out of their offices in New York (Princeton Junction, where the church was located, was a bit of a bedroom community for the big city). The pastors were sharp, interesting, personable, and well trained. It was a great setting for me.
So, that’s the moment I’ll pick for saying what I believed at the time. In a very small nutshell, here are some of the key points:
- On the most basic level, I continued to believe there was a personal God who in some sense was “behind it all.” I believed the universe was billions of years old, yes. And yes; I absolutely believed in evolution. And in all the findings of science (one of the people I admired in the church was actually a scientist at Princeton University). But I thought that behind it all there was, in some sense, a divine being, guiding that which happened, and always had happened, in our world.
- I thought God was involved in the world still, today, in mysterious and often difficult to discern and understand ways. I did not think that I had figured God out, or that I ever would. He and his ways and his activities were beyond my comprehension. But I could detect some of his workings – both in the world and in my own life. I did not think, though, that I could explain most things, that in fact most things could be “explained” with any confidence – including, and especially, why there is so much pain and suffering in the world if God was active in it. For me that was simply a mystery I could not understand and probably never would.
- As a Christian, I thought that Jesus reflected and proclaimed what God was like. I did not think that he was really born of a virgin. But I thought that in his life and preaching he revealed the character and nature of the supreme God. His miracles (many, most, or all of which may not actually have happened. Maybe some of them did?) showed what God is concerned about. He’s concerned that we help those in need, those who come into the world with birth defects, the disabled, the sick, the poor, the hungry, the needy. That’s what Jesus did with his miracles. That’s what we should do.
- I was deeply committed at that time (as I still am) to the idea that at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation was an apocalyptic message that the world was filled with forces of evil (how can we possibly deny that?), but that God was soon going to intervene to destroy these forces to set up a good kingdom on earth. Jesus was obviously mistaken that it was going to happen within his lifetime. He was human (even if there was an element of the divine about him). He made mistakes. That was one of them. But that wasn’t the point. The point was not whether he got the calendar right. The point was that ultimately, in the end, God has the last word. Good will triumph over evil. Ultimately God will be vindicated, as will those who are faithful to him. Suffering will be reversed. Evil does not have the last word; God has the last word. And death is not the end of the story.
I’ll pick up with more of my beliefs at the time in the next post.
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