Quaker Theology #11 -- Spring-Summer 2005
In Search of Religious Radicalism
By Charley Earp
The Radicalization of a Preacherís Kid
A Long Strange Trip
At the very core of my being, I have undergone an earth-shaking religious transition in the past few years. Less than nine years ago, I was a passionately committed Bible-believing Christian. Not that I was a conventional evangelical by any stretch of the imagination. I had cultivated a "radical" social vision embracing pacifism and communalism that set me apart from, say, the Christian Coalition. I had intentionally selected my church-community for its perceived support of such unconventional convictions. However, a conflict was building within myself between the traditional structure of my religious thought and the non-traditional character of my social values.
My religious beliefs were strongly influenced by my father, a Pentecostal preacher. We interpreted the Bible entirely literally and embraced the normal doctrines of evangelical denominations. Pentecostalism also imprints a powerful emotional orientation upon its adherents. However, the impact of the counterculture of the 1960s and early Ď70s set in motion the conflict between tradition and radicalism that was to drive my lifeís journey for over a decade. The resolution of this conflict culminated with my leaving a church-community where I had lived for over eleven years and joining a very different kind of progressive faith community.
Born to Be Radical?
One of the earliest memories of this conflict played out when I was around five years old. This was around 1968 and I was conscious of the events on the news like the presidential election and the Vietnam War. I told my father one day that I wanted to grow up and become president and stop all the wars. My father led me through a series of "what-ifs" that were designed to show me that a world without war was not possible. At the time, I accepted his arguments with disappointment.
This childish pacifism resurfaced when I was nine years old and my family moved to Chicago. As a new kid from a small town and even a bit of a sissy, I was the object of repeated bullying. I believed that Jesus had said to turn the other cheek and so I did not fight back. My father again argued with me about what was wrong about this. He even enlisted another visiting preacher in this attempt to drive out my foolish ideas. I stood firm and for one of the first times, I trusted my own judgment over my fatherís.
This pacifism persisted into high school and college. I eventually discovered some Christian pacifist magazines and many books that enriched my commitment to the belief that one day all swords would be beaten into plowshares.
In my teens, around 1978, a radical belief in communal living emerged under the influence of a Christian Rock group, Resurrection Band, which was based in a community, Jesus People USA, in Chicago. They had come straight out of the "Jesus Movement" among the hippie and drug culture. Communal living was based on the biblical story of the first Christian church in the book of Acts. In chapter 4:32 it reads: "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common."
I talked about joining such a commune with many friends during my teens and in college this became a primary demarcation between most of my schoolmates and myself. I attended a Pentecostal college for one semester and expected that 1960s radicalism would still be alive in a conservative Christian college in 1982. But to the contrary, colleges such as this, in fact, midwifed the Reagan revolution. My radical ideas were viewed with alarm by many of my schoolmates and teachers. It was a rude awakening to learn that this select group of Pentecostal believers, leaders, and future leaders did not share and were in fact opposed to my counter-cultural values.
One person who was sympathetic to my values was Teresa, whom I would marry within the next year. I completed that semester knowing three things for sure: I would never return to that campus, I would marry Teresa, and I would devote my life to the cause of religious radicalism.
In 1985, I began a correspondence with a pastor at a community in Evanston, Illinois called Reba Place Church (RPC). RPC was a Mennonite Church that had been founded in 1957 as a fellowship of disciples who shared possessions in common.
God The "Patriarch"?
For years before my arrival, Reba Place Church had been undergoing internal conflict over the issue of womenís leadership which led me to some of the most radical doubts about Christianity to date. As a child, I remember asking my parents if boys were better than girls and being surprised when they insisted that they were equals. However, as I got older, I learned about Bible passages that said the husband was the head of the wife and that women were not permitted to teach or hold authority.
At Reba Place, egalitarian members were challenging this conservative interpretation of the Bible. Four elders, who were all men, pastored RPC. Three of them believed in male headship in family and church. The majority of the church membership in 1986 affirmed womenís equality and fitness for the office of elder. Since the church was governed by consensus, a majority could not change a major church policy, so the existing structure was left in place.
Less than six years later, the majority had shrunk to a minority as egalitarian members left the church and more conservative members were attracted to the church. Meanwhile, I had spent a lot of time reading feminist books and articles trying to think my way through the issue. While I was sympathetic to feminism, those biblical passages still held some authority simply by being in the canon. In time, I became a convinced egalitarian, and tried to reinterpret those biblical passages. This compromise didnít last and eventually my perception of a gender bias in the Bible was a key factor in my eventual departure from the Christian faith.
I returned to college in 1989, and I became almost obsessed with constructing a comprehensive theology of radical politics. In a final paper for a course on political power, I outlined seven kinds of social movements and struggles: economic, peace-building, democra-tization, gender, anti-racist, ecological, and religious. I argued that these movements were ultimately compatible components of an integrated radical strategy for social transformation. Due to financial circum-stances I was unable to stay in college and complete my degree in philosophy.
With this new appreciation for radical ideas of all kinds, I discovered secular organizations that shared my passion for a radical transformation of society. Much of Reba Place Church, though there were notable exceptions, offered muted social protest and did not think it was conducive to church growth to make activism a central value of its religious calling. Chicago had a thriving network and subculture of secular radicalism that began to look more and more attractive.
In joining RPC, I had hoped that I was stepping into a thriving counter-culture. The reality fell only somewhat short of my expectations, and I regard these years as among the most fruitful ones of my life to this point. The ministry I received while participating in that community resulted in extraordinary breakthroughs in my emotional stability and self-understanding.
The most substantive of these breakthroughs was being cured of depression. Beginning in my late teens, I began to be troubled by prolonged periods of hopelessness and emotional paralysis. Reba Place had some very capable counselors who helped me access and heal the emotional sources of my depression. I also received vital help from psychoactive medications like Prozac.
The Domino Theory
Addressing my emotional problems enabled me to focus more of my energies on the seesaw-like tension between radicalism and Christian teachings. At one point radicalism was dominant in my thinking, at others the force of tradition tried to lull me back into religious escapism. I felt an urgent need to broaden my life experience and devote real energy to developing an integrated understanding of both politics and religion.
It was with this motivation that I returned to college. I concentrated my classes in political theory and philosophy in an attempt to get a thorough grounding in radical ideas. I was exposed to Marxism, feminism, post-modernism, and other sources of new thinking. It was a few years before all this culminated in my decision to leave Reba Place.
I could liken that final transition to watching dominoes fall over, knocking each other down one by one. The first domino was the idea of creationism. I had been raised to believe that God had created the entire universe in a period of six twenty-four hour days, around 6,000 years ago. This did not jive with scientific evidence that the universe was actually billions of years old. My rejection of creationism signaled a new appreciation for scientific method.
The second domino was biblical inerrancy. My embrace of evolution had led to a problem in interpreting Genesis 1. There were two ways to resolve this, one by "symbolic" interpretation. The "days" of Genesis 1 were not 24 hours long, but rather periods of time or eras. The other was to conclude that this passage was a poetic folk-tale told by early Hebrews around campfires as they wandered the Promised Land. After much struggle, I chose the latter position. There seemed to me to be no way to reconcile the known facts of science with the sequence of events in Genesis 1.
A simple example is that in Genesis, God creates plant life on the third day, but doesnít create the sun until the fourth day. Plants cannot live for an entire evolutionary age without a sun.