Quaker Theology -- Issue #7 -- Autumn 2002
From Reason to Truth to Mystery: An Odyssey to Orthodoxy
John W. Oliver
Some days ago an off-the-cuff reference to myself as a former Evangelical Friend caused a slight stir. Chuck Fager said, "You must do an article." Jerry Frost (retiring Director of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College) said, "We must talk." This is to respond to these kind invitations.
At first blush, Quakers and Eastern Orthodox seem to have little in common. Yet here, as in other matters, I was light years behind Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann who, placed at a conference with representatives of liturgical traditions, said "Oh no. Orthodox belong next to the Friends."
My spiritual trek includes a Presbyterian focus on reason, a Quaker emphasis on "speaking truth," and an Orthodox vision where reason and truth were wed, but not supplanted, in mystery and glory.
Growing up as a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian, I was taught the rational faith of John Calvin by mother and an aunt. Covenanters follow the Westminster Catechism and Scripture. The former is logical, internally consistent. It begins with "What is the chief end of man?" from which follows "What do the Scriptures principally teach?" It focuses on the Ten Commandments, which teach reverence for God and how to live with others.
Reason reinforced faith. With other historians in his era, my father believed in liberal arts, personal integrity, and democratic values. He did ground-breaking work at the University of Pittsburgh in the history of American technology, a field of research that confirmed his faith in progress. In addition, he affirmed motherís clear ethical standards: sexual purity, no alcohol or profanity, truth telling, and Sabbath observance. In this home, faith and reason danced together.
As a boy, important history was Western history, with a bright new world being shaped by technology, freedom, and reason: I saw Catholic oppression and superstition replaced by the recovery of Classical civilization in the Renaissance. Religious freedom, I believed, came with the Reformation, modern science, empiricism, and reason with the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, material progress with the Industrial Revolution, and democracy with the American Revolution. Education brought enlightenment. The Commandments taught how to live. With Bible reading, prayer, and the pledge of allegiance in my public school, it was a seamless whole: a simpatico relationship between faith and learning, between motherís postmillennialism and fatherís progressive, if less religious, world view.
A darker side appeared in World War II. I loved songs that mixed war, patriotism, and religion. In my imagination, I shot down planes and bombed cities. Christianity. Freedom. Democracy. Together these made a heroic, right way to live.
Worse yet, I secretly wondered why killing must stop with foreign enemies? Would it not be better if no children were born to handicapped or under-gifted parents? This was not vicious blood lust, but idealism born of good intentions, a scion of reason coupled with progress, uninformed by ancient Christian notions of the sacredness of life. It seemed to serve a higher "good": a tough-minded utilitarianism or Social Darwinism, not good as presented by the Beatitudes.
A better side of this reasonable faith encouraged compassion, the stage for which was set by the contrast between my upper middle class neighborhood and the poor district around our church. As a pre-teen, I accepted the logic of Calvinist Christianity. As a teen, I put it to the test.
The test came from wanting to bring peers into Godís kingdom. My own neighbors went to church. But the poor around our church had little contact with religion. We believed God could save them from ugly surroundings, or better yet, transform their neighborhood into a place of happiness and beauty. The solution, we believed, lay in getting youth to a summer camp where they could learn about a higher purpose for life. But we had no camp, or money to rent or buy one. The answer, it seemed, was to build one.
Impractical? Not if, as the catechism taught, God has all-power, and answers prayer. One summer in the mid-1940's a few teens met to pray for a camp. Afterwards, a girl recalled a minister with a farm who, she had heard, wanted to establish a camp. We asked to visit him. Not knowing our purpose, he agreed. When we asked permission to build a camp on his farm, he replied, "Iíve prayed for this for years."
We prayed again. Within a week, a beggar with one leg who had never been to the church slipped several hundred dollars under the door, with a note asking that it be used for a worthy purpose. The elders gave the money to our camp
Again we prayed. Within a week, a man with a saw mill stopped by the farm to ask about cutting timber. Learning of our plans, he offered us wood for the price of cutting. Father then contacted the Director of The Pittsburgh Foundation. With his help, and other donations, the camp was built. In our eyes, faith and reason were confirmed by experience. As for the camp, our church ran it for a few years before another group took charge. The neighborhood was not changed, but one minister and one seminary professor came from this neighborhood.
Later, at our church college, my faith was further grounded by a professor who required history majors to write a paper on "The Resurrection of Christ." We were to write as critical historians, not believing Christians. This research convinced me that Jesus was a historical figure, crucified and buried in Jerusalem in the first century AD. The question then became, "What happened to the body?" Try as I would, I found no alternate scenario to explain its disappearance, apart from divine intervention: something not unreasonable to one whose experience with the camp had not closed the option of transcendence.
In spite of this, my faith fell away in graduate school, where most reasonable people I knew did not embrace Christianity. Formerly, my faith had been confirmed by my study of history. Now historians I respected had no room for supernaturalism in their world view. Finally, after emotional pleas from a fundamentalist minister (I concluded I had to attend church while away from home, as mother would surely ask), I knelt one night in a dormitory at Duke University to pose four questions to God. After each, I flipped the Bible open in hope that the first verse I saw would speak to my confusion.
It did. My first question had to do with hell. The verse: "Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? He who reproves God, let him answer it" A response, it seemed, if not an answer. I was, I thought, out of my league. My second query had to do with how to reconcile the angry God of the Old Testament with Jesus. The verse: "His anger lasts a moment, His favor all our days." I remembered Christ raging in the temple. It struck me that love and wrath are not mutually exclusive, but two sides of the same coin.
The next evening I knelt at an altar to "surrender my life to Christ," perhaps the most reluctant convert in North Carolina. Yet, after leaving the church, I was, as it were, struck by a bolt of pure joy. I raced back to the campus, too overcome, or insecure, to share the news with anyone. Once again, I had encountered something coincidental, or transcendent.
Later, after reading an article in His magazine on the authority of Jesus Christ, I settled in my mind whether to regard the Bible as authoritative for faith and doctrine, or as a fallible book. While I continue to be a simple historian, not a Biblical scholar, it seemed that the Jesus of the New Testament accepted the authority of the Old Testament. It struck me that, if Christ is God, my place is to bow to his authority. Even though I then thought historical scholarship to be more a science than an art, I was prepared to recognize this scholarship could never be the sine qua non, not if Christ is Lord. At the same time, my simple faith made me vulnerable to proof-texting. I memorized verses to assure others they were saved, inviting them to trust Godís word, not emotions. I embraced a narrow logical faith, if in large part uninformed by the grand sweep of Christian theology and history.
In spite of limitations, whether from Presbyterian theology or simply from me, these roots offered glimpses of mystery: Mystery appeared in reverence for God. Never Ė never! Ė take the Creatorís "name in vain." Worship, I was told, has nothing to do with entertainment. We worship because God commands it, and because when we love we want to be with the beloved. Mystery appeared in divine imagery: the glow on Mosesís face after a faint glimpse of God on Sinai and in the tabernacle, seraphim with covered faces circling Godís throne while chanting "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory." A creation filled with glory. A world wounded by sin, perhaps more precious because of suffering. Pieces of wonder, but somehow they didnít quite fit together.
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