Saturday, January 15, 2005

My journey (so far) - Part 4

Earlier installments, including the ever-present warning, can be found here, here, and here.

2001-Present: My experiences at Heidelberg left my theology in a weird place. In part, the theology with which I graduated was in rebellion against some of the beliefs and practices I'd experienced in Campus Fellowship. By this time I had read Stephen Patterson's The God of Jesus, which had opened my eyes to Jesus' teachings on the kingdom of God, a kingdom where all are welcome and equal in God's eyes, a kingdom antithetical to the kingdom of Caesar which was based on power and wealth, and a kingdom of NOW rather than later. I had also heavily studied the work of Karl Barth for my senior honors project, and I had especially reasonated with his Christ-centered system of thought, complete with his version of double predestination: we are all through the cross rejected, and then we are all through the resurrection accepted. And eventually we all realize God's love for us. It was, I thought, a brilliant little argument for universal salvation.

And so with Patterson and Barth under my arm I was a believer in radical grace, the kind where God loves all over and against what was being preached in some areas of Heidelberg's campus, either in word or deed. It amounted to the 'I'm O.K., you're O.K.' theology, really. Although both Patterson and Barth's arguments ran deeper and implied more than that, it's what I clung to in order to counter any real or percieved judgmental behavior by myself or other Christians. By grace we are saved, not your list of works and certainly not by your 4-step tracts. Take THAT.

Well, I entered seminary clinging not only to this 'theology' but also to what I learned from Patterson and Barth's books. I also went in thinking two things: I was called to ministry and my Religion degree made me smarter than most of my classmates. Only one of these thoughts would make it through to graduation.

My Religion degree made things easier, but it didn't stop me from getting smacked down within the first few weeks. I quickly discovered that constructing a theological argument was much more difficult than I thought. You had to do things like identify assumptions and recognize the different sources (Bible, experience, etc.) from which you pull to construct them. I was proud of myself when I got an A on the first theology paper I turned in. I wouldn't see another A until the very end of the term. Rats.

A week into classes was 9/11. This set the tone for my entire seminary career, including my thought process regarding both faith and politics. God loved the terrorists....right? But God didn't approve of their actions....did He? Remember, this is 'I'm O.K., you're O.K. To Spite All Fundies' Jeff thinking about these things at this point. Two days later Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell would basically say God DID approve. So they helped me decide that God actually DIDN'T approve. But in the meantime I, whether naturally or because it was the general train of thought in the classroom, began to consider how people are oppressed to the point that they decide to blow up buildings. See things from their perspective. That's the key.

By the end of my first year, I'd constructed a theology based on two things: experience and community. Basically it was an alteration of the 'Wesleyan quadrangle,' only instead of the four areas of scripture, reason, tradition, and experience all sharing equal footing (in college I believed scripture was a thicker side to the quadrangle), experience actually engulfed the other three. Think about it: our experience informs how we read scripture, how we reason, and what tradition we're born into/continue to uphold, and likewise these three things influence our experience. I thought it was bloodly brilliant myself. At the same time, one must live in community to discern the credibility of one's experience, lest destructive behavior result (perhaps the reader is beginning to see that the 'I'm O.K., you're O.K.' train of thought, along with this little tidbit about experience, were actually selectively used in order to continue my rebellion against all things 'conservative.' Damn, there's one of those antiquated words again).

So....where was I? Ah yes. So the end of my first year I was under the impression that in order to truly understand the sins (a word I was boycotting at the time) of others, we must understand their experiences. They're just acting on their experiences. So what have they experienced? Experience, experience, experience, experience.

What you are about to read is something I have never shared with anyone, save for only one or two people. As far as I know, only a handful of people anywhere know of the following episode occurring. But I feel we're far enough removed from this crummy happening that I can share it with all of you now.

Between my first and second years I took a summer placement at a UCC church in Florissant, Missouri. I would start two days after my wedding (boy was I stupid), and ride out the rest of the summer, then remain at the church through the school year. One requirement for this placement was the completion of a service learning contract that stated my learning goals for the unit and some other stuff. I had the contract sitting on the counter and every day I'd glance at it and say, "Yep....gotta do that." Then I'd go to the church and do work. Fast forward to near the end of the summer. Andrea and I had returned late one night from a week-long trip to Daytona with her family. There was both a letter and a voicemail message waiting for me essentially telling me that because I never turned in my service learning contract, I had failed my summer unit. The next few days would be spent groveling in the the field education office and writing a letter of explanation to the Academic Dean. My grade was switched to a 'pass.'

This is where that whole 'I'm O.K., you're O.K., we don't have to change' crap was thrown out the window. Of COURSE you have to stop doing stupid things. You need accountability! You need to turn in your service learning contract! You need to take the implications of God's kingdom seriously! My 'experience' didn't help me that week (other than to show me that experience does not equal excuse). Grace did. "While I'm holding you accountable for this, there's also grace in the gospel, Jeff." That's what the director of field education had told me.

I don't know if I feel better for letting that story slip out or not. I include it to illustrate the point where my theology began to take a major turn. But it still really sucks even to think about. Academically, nothing like that had ever happened to me before (and never did again, believe you me). Well, anyway....

So the pendulum begins to swing back the other way away from making excuses for actions to trying to call things like they really were, and that included reclaiming words like 'accountability' and 'sin' that I had wanted to drop like bad habits after college. There were plenty of sins I was learning about through scripture and my new seeking of the kingdom of God: oppression, racism, a whole bunch of other -isms, exploiting the poor, violence, hypocrisy, and so on.

During this time I discovered two more major influences on my theology: Friedrich Schleiermacher and process theology. The former was a theologian from the 19th Century with Reformed leanings who spoke at length about one's 'God-consciousness' and a 'feeling of absolute dependence.' It played both to my belief that God is ever-present with the world and to my mystical leanings. The latter is a somewhat new movement that suggests that God reacts to and with each new happening in the world, relating to it in new ways accordingly without necessarily changing God's nature.

I graduated seminary a liberal evangelical Reformed process kingdom seeking mystic. I proudly claim all those titles, although in the case of the first two I have to majorly clarify for people. Wouldn't it be so helpful if instead of saying, 'I'm a liberal' or 'I'm a conservative,' everyone could rattle off all their theological influences like that? It'd be more confusing, but at the same time we wouldn't be able to pigeonhole each other so easily.

That's basically the story of my faith so far. As you can see, it's heavily grounded in experience, but as time has passed (especially after that learning contract debacle), I've been much more careful about bringing those other elements back into serious discernment. Not that I ever really stopped. I just wanted to battle The Fundies.

I like to think I'm a little more mature about that, trying to be ever mindful of when I'm really staying true to my faith and when I'm letting my bias do my thinking for me. Consistency, that's the key. Consistency to Jesus and the kingdom, and consistency to myself.

Well, I hope this big long story wasn't too painful. I'll get back to 'musing about life and faith' tomorrow.

2 comments:

Dave said...

Hey, what happened to Haloscan...? :)

I've enjoyed reading your story. In the second part, I particularly liked your description of how you felt after reading books (Spong etc) that shook your faith -- it brought back to mind how reading stuff like that would at one time have sent me into despair for a period of days, after which time it would be a distant enough memory that I could just shove it to the back of my mind!

I'll be mulling over your thoughts about grace and judgment in the third part. For me, the key is not mixing up the issues of God's judgment and his forgiveness and acceptance, as if his judgment precludes forgiveness. In thinking of the nature of God's judgment, I like the phrase used by the writer to the Hebrews: "The discipline of sons". (Well, actually, it originated in Proverbs, but I always think of it in its Hebrews context!)

Dave Rattigan

Jeff said...

Hi Dave,

Recently I've cast grace as judgment, a la Bonhoeffer. Let me explain.

Think back to the service learning contract. By all accounts, the failing grade should have been the end of it. But instead, steps were presented to me to rectify the situation (along with the gentlest dressing down I've ever been given). When the grade was switched to pass (something I had absolutely NO control over), it caused me to not only be incredibly thankful, but to be more vigilant about deadlines.

What I'm trying to get at is that grace is transformative. It doesn't let us remain who we are because it shows us that we can be better. And this transformation is not entirely conscious. It is, somehow, God-inspired. When we answer God's call, when our ears are finally unstopped, we can begin moving in a new direction, or, keep moving in a new direction with renewed confidence, purpose, and assurance of God's presence in the process.

Grace, in a sense, says, "there's no way you can do this by yourself. It is beyond your power, out of your control. So I'll take over." In return, our heart says, "Wow. Praise God from whom all blessings flow."