Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Growing in the Faith

Is your religious faith, or lack thereof, the same now as it was, say, when you were twenty years old, or (for you mature adults) when you were forty years old? If not, how would you explain the difference? Is the difference due to growth or stagnation?
One of my church friends, who fairly recently became a Thinking Friend, is a young woman who had strong ties to Southern Baptists while growing up. Her family still has close ties with the Southern Baptist Convention: her sister, for example, is currently a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Kansas City.
My friend, who is an activist and quite “liberal” in her social views, knows that I was a Southern Baptist for most of my life but that I now largely agree with her and share most of her “liberal” social views.
A few weeks ago my friend asked, “What caused you to change?”
My answer: “I would like to think it has been the result of growing in the faith.”
Indeed, I do think that—but I realize that there are others who knew me “back then” who would have a different assessment. They would likely explain my change as being due to abandoning the faith—at least the faith as was known and practiced by most Southern Baptists in the 1950s and by many SBs still.
Two of the main areas in which I believe I have experienced change/growth in faith are (1) change from an exclusivistic view of God and God’s relationship to the people of the world to much more inclusivistic view, and (2) change from a predominantly other-worldly view of life to an equally dominant, if even not more prominent, this-worldly emphasis .
Perhaps reading J.B. Phillips’s Your God Is Too Small (1953), during my first year of college started me growing toward a view of God that was broader, more inclusive than what I had grown up thinking/believing.
Back in 2015, I ended my Oct. 15 blog article with these words:
Without question, Christianity has often held to an exclusivism that has been divisive and restrictive. But a deeper understanding moves one from exclusion to inclusion and from restriction to expansion. – Maturing in faith impels a person to move from the us/them mentality of childhood to including “others” as a part of an inclusive circle of “we.”
Then, consistent with the evangelicalism/revivalism that I was nurtured in and embraced well into my 30s, the overwhelmingly important mission of the Christian faith, I thought, was “saving souls” for life after death, for Heaven. That is an “other-worldly” emphasis that many of you readily recognize.
But gradually I came to understand that human life and well-being in this world is of great importance--and, in fact, the Kingdom of God is as much about, or even more about, God’s desired reign now rather than after the “end of the world.” 

Some of the contemporary Christians I admire the most, and by whom I have been influenced, have a story similar to mine. They also moved from a narrow, fundamentalistic type of Christianity toward a broader, socially “liberal” position on many issues.
Three good examples are Jim Wallis, Philip Yancey, and Brian McLaren—three “mature adults” in their 60s. I must write more about these three: to this point in my blog articles, I have “labeled” Wallis twice, Yancey once (here on 10/5/16), and McLaren not even once.
First, though, I plan to write about the ten Christian speakers/writers whom I admire most—and who have helped nurture my growth in the faith.


  1. Have you read N. T. Wright's new book, "The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus's Crucifixion", yet? He does an excellent job of readjusting the focus from "heaven" to "new creation." I like this book because he is expanding and deepening ideas that I've been pursuing in recent years.

    1. Thanks for being the first to respond to my new blog article--and for mentioning one of the best contemporary theologians. I have not read Wright's new book but want to at some point. It sounds as if it is similar to what he wrote about in "How God Became King" (2012)--a book about which I have wanted to write for quite some time.

  2. I would think Hugo Culpepper nudged you along in the evolution of your faith. The second sentence of the Lord's Prayer has goaded me. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven." TF Charles in Tulia TX

    1. Charles, you are right that I was positively influenced by Dr. Culpepper--but not to the extent as I was by Dr. Rust.

  3. Amazing challenge. I went back and wrote it down. Cynicism.

  4. "Growing In Faith" is a positive sounding description for what some would call, "Exorcising the Ghosts of Fundamentalism." The link in the previous sentence is to a blog posting by that title on Ted Grimsrud's blog, "Thinking Pacifism."

    1. Clif, thanks for mentioning Ted's new blog article. I am looking forward to reading what he said and will perhaps respond more later.

    2. Leroy, thanks for this conversation-inducing blog. Clif, thank you for the article to which you linked. Though my fundamentalism did not require an exorcism, leaving it behind has induced other terrors. Much of Ted's article resonated with me, and this paragraph perhaps the most:
      "The power of the House of Authority stems mainly from how it cultivates a sense of fearfulness about the consequences of not have such authority in place. Fear of chaos, of vulnerability, of not being in control. The main beneficiaries of the work of the House of Authority are religious institutions that are able to dominate their members."
      That fear is so real it's almost tangible. As Ted describes, the fear is not of hell but rather of chaos. Back in 2007-2008, when I realized I had no choice but to leave fundamentalist belief behind, I was overcome with terror for my future & wept for days that turned into weeks, months, years. Everything felt chaotic & confusing, as I'd lost both my community & the compass that had always pointed me back north - toward absolute truth & clarity.

      Recalling this time prompted me to reread some writings from that time period. A piece I entitled "Questions with(out) Answers" recalls a back-&-forth intrapersonal conversation about becoming comfortable with chaos, with unknowns, with "the hole": http://interdependence-for-all.blogspot.com/2008/09/questions.html

      The fears associated with leaving fundamentalism are so real, that psychologists have begun to research & write about it.
      One has coined it "Religious Trauma Syndrome" or RTS: http://journeyfree.org/rts/
      Another, "Shattered Faith Syndrome": http://www.icsahome.com/articles/psychological-issues-former-fundamentalists-csj-11-2

      For a long while, & perhaps still a bit now, I struggled with many symptoms the above articles describe. A total exorcism of faith, however, was neither necessary nor desirable because - by grace - I quickly "discovered" first MidAmerican Nazarene seminary students (like Diane, in 2007 & 2008), then the Catholic Worker (in 2008-2009), & in recent years (since 2010), inclusive Mennonites, Quakers & mystics. Thank goodness for friends from those traditions; without them, I definitely would have left Christianity because fundamentalist friends had labeled me a dangerous heretic. Meeting them amazed me. All my life, I'd known of other religions. But it wasn't until years 20-21 that I realized Christians with ancient traditions interpret the Bible in rich, diverse ways.

      These days, I really appreciate Walter Brueggemann's perspective. In "Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection," he writes points out the inconsistencies in each interpretive tradition & invites us to sit down at the table & learn from one another: http://covnetpres.org/2000/11/biblical-authority-a-personal-reflection/

      As a former Fundamentalist, I've noticed many "liberal" Christians eagerly seek out intERfaith dialogue (with Jews, Muslims, nones, etc.) yet seem to avoid or put little energy toward intRAfaith discussion. Has this also been your experience? When was the last time you studied a book of the Bible or shared your faith journey with someone who interprets the Bible very differently from you? What might happen if a small group of local KC Christians who each love the Bible but interpret it differently sat down, studied & lived it out together?

    3. Thanks so much, Kimberly, for your thoughtful comments and for sharing more of your faith journey. I would like to chat with you personally about some of what you wrote.

      For now let me just say that I was interested in your last paragraph. My April 5, 1916, blog article (see https://theviewfromthisseat.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-need-for-more-intrafaith-dialogue.html) is directly related to what you wrote. I definitely think we who are no longer fundamentalists need to be willing to talk with, and to listen to, those who still are. Most fundamentalists, though, are not open to hearing the views of those whom they think are wrong, so it is quite difficult to have real dialogue with them. But we, at least, should be willing to talk with and to listen to them.

  5. Thanks Leroy for sharing on this topic! I read your 10-15-2015 article again. This time I am reminded of some of my primary evoking sources on the extent of God’s love.

    J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” (pp. 178,179; Bantam edition) exposed me to this quote from “The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna”: “Sir, we ought to teach the people that they are doing wrong in worshipping the images and pictures in the temple.” Ramakrishna: “that’s the way with you Calcutta people: you want to teach and preach. You want to give millions when you are beggars yourselves. . . . Do you think God does not know that he is being worshipped in the images and pictures? If a worshipper should make a mistake, do you not think God will know his intent?”

    When I heard the phrase “Your God is too small” I loved it. I don’t remember reading the book, but my curiosity was evoked and I read Charles Francis Potter’s “The Great Religious Leaders” and Huston Smith’s “The Religions of Man”.

    By the time I got to Stetson University and took my first “World Religions” class I was ripe for confirmation of my sense of God’s inclusive love. Rollin Armour was the kind of teacher who knew how to give students room to think by “creat[ing] a space in which obedience to truth may be practiced.” I know I learned from his practice.

    But we make [God’s] love too narrow
    By false limits of our own
    And we magnify [God’s] strictness
    With a zeal [God] does not own
    [There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy: stanza 3] Frederick W. Faber (1814-1863)

    1. Dick, thanks for posting your (as usual) erudite comments--including the words from the wonderful hymn, which I read again and thought about again while I was writing the article.

  6. Here are appreciated comments by Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "Thanks for a very helpful blog. I share much of the same experience as you. I left the pastorate at Grant City, MO Baptist Church (your home church) in 1984 and entered Christian Social Ministry retiring as President of Arizona Baptist Children's Service. I had a very pleasant and enriching career working in four different states.

    "I enjoyed the pastorate for the most part and I believe God blessed that ministry but I was unhappy much of the time. I have a hard time putting into specific words my exact reason for the change except I didn't feel I fit into the traditional role of a Southern Baptist minister. When the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship movement began, I resonated with their beliefs and really enjoyed their fellowship.

    "My dissatisfaction with Southern Baptists had more to do with their mentality and attitude of exclusiveness and dogmatism than it did with their theology. However, I had, and still do, have a big problem with their exclusion of women in the pastoral ministry and the inerrancy of the Scriptures. I share the appreciation of the writers you mentioned in addition to the writings of Karen Armstrong (a former Catholic nun), Richard John Neuhaus, Walter Rauschenbusch and many other authors. I'm sure my reading has had an influence upon my thinking which is true of all of us.

    "I have had several articles published on Fundamentalism and have recently ordered your book on the same subject. Look forward to reading it."

  7. Truett, thanks for sharing important comments.

    I knew you spent most of your ministry in Christian Social Ministry activities, but I did not know that you had been unhappy as a pastor. My parents were always happy with you as their pastor, and I never heard them say a negative thing about you.

    There are many writers/theologians that I have learned much from and been influenced by. Walter Rauschenbusch was certainly one of those. I have read Karen Armstrong some, but hardly anything by Neuhaus.

    The three that I mentioned, though, are younger people (younger than me) whose faith journey has been similar to mine in several ways--as well as people that I have been influenced by.

  8. What a king-sized fundamental question. Focused on an entire life even if in stages. To be answered in a couple of paragraphs!

    At 20 (1956), I was at the end of my early life, which I would characterize as a Roman Catholic pre-Vatican II, catechetical stage. For every question, there was a clear answer, based on a faith and tradition of reasoning, based largely on a theological synthesis from the high middle ages and an anti-Reformation polemic. I had lots of questions, but I believed in an immutable personal God in heaven, the existence of spiritual beings (souls, angels) and a bi-level reality of the natural order and the supernatural (sanctifying grace, miracles). The Church, proposing these truths to be believed, also proposed its teaching authority as infallible. Questions and all, I considered myself a believing Catholic, and recognized that I lived in a very insular world

    In a more adult, transitioning period, freed from a set curriculum and seminary tests, I had the experience of being in Rome for a good part of the Second Vatican Council and was part of the pent-up, exploding world of Catholic theology in the 60s and after. I was involved in a major way in profound ecumenical encounter with Reformation and Anglican traditions, the World Council of Churches Faith and Order movement and a recognition of Christianity’s deep Jewish roots and a new era of Christian-Jewish relations.

    Fides semper querens intellectum, my faith still seeking intelligent understanding, now recognized faith as basically trust in a transcendent reality, exceeding my complete understanding, the divine Mystery. Faith was not identical with giving assent to doctrines or propositions of faith. All theological reasoning was intertwined with its historical roots, social and cultural shifts over time. My faith and beliefs encountered evolution—evolution of the cosmos and all living things, including ourselves, our language and our understandings.

    My faith today is even more experiential, bottom up rather than top down, recognizing and affirming a trust and love for the mystery that has brought me here and will reclaim me before too much longer. I think, in my senior years, I understand more about human existence, and more about the details of history, the stories and the metaphorical, symbolic language of my own religious tradition and now of several other global religious traditions. But I know less. i.e. I understand less about nature of the ultimate reality. Still I say yes to that ultimate dimension of my life for which I have no rational proof.

    1. Larry, thanks so much for sharing some of your faith journey. It is a splendid description of what growth in the faith should be, I think. While you and I started our faith journeys at much different points and would have had little commonality then, by us both growing in the faith I think we have great commonality now.

  9. I was delighted to receive the following comments (on Facebook) from FB Friend Moses Prabhakar in India.

    "Hello Dr. Leroy! I love your article and while reading it I could relate it very much with my theological understanding. However, the terms liberal and evangelical are too ambiguous and it is hard to categorize a person in any one of these...in every evangelical there is a liberal and vice versa.

    ". . . like you I too was influenced by some theologians who made a deep impact on the way I perceive this world. To name a few: Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Clodovis Boff, James Cone, Jon Sobrino, etc.

    "Earlier, I was too influenced by John Hick but now I have given up his position (guess he was a hard core evangelical in his early life but became liberal later).

    "Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that it was the liberation theologians who taught us to think differently."

    1. Moses, thank you so much for your comments; as I wrote above, I was delighted to receive your comments. I agree that "labels" are often ambiguous and cause misunderstanding--and perhaps how those terms are used/understood in India are somewhat different from the way they are here in the U.S.

      I have read, and been influenced by, all the authors whom you mentioned--and especially Gutierrez and Cone. And, like you, I read and liked John Hick's first books, but I came more and more to have a problem with his theological outlook. As I wrote about in my book "The Limits of Liberalism," I think he is a good example of a conservative Christian who went from one extreme to another.

      The examples I gave, and I did not seek to list the theologians I have been most influenced by, are more in what I have called the "radiant center."

  10. Thinking Friend (and Facebook Friend) Patrick Crews posted the following comments on FB:

    "I can't at the moment squeeze my Faith journey into something Facebook friendly. But the launching points for me were coming to understand the Unconditional Grace, the Primacy of Faith, discovering the Bible was not a simple doctrines manual, learning from the likes of Tillich and Kierkegaard, and meeting other faith traditions and realizing their depth. (This last from living in Asia where my 'missionary arrogance' was given a swift kick in the butt.)"

    1. Patrick, I don't know what to say about "missionary arrogance," but I do agree wholeheartedly with the three launching-point understandings you came to--and I also learned much from Tillich and Kierkegaard (among many others.)

  11. In 1 Corinthians 13:11-13 Paul places the mature believer between the extremes of "child" and "complete." We are seeing through that glass darkly. This follows on from what he said in verses 4-6 "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth."

    Hebrews 6:1-2 advises us "Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith towards God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment." I must admit, however, that I do not remember ever hearing a sermon about going on toward perfection, they all seemed to be using Hebrews for a convenient list for laying the foundation once again. Indeed, my church is in the midst of an extended review of the instruction about baptism! Once we get to what Hebrews actually says, to go on toward perfection, we are in the same place as Corinthians, where we were looking through the glass darkly.

    Then there is Romans 14. Paul tells us the strong in faith feel free to eat anything, while the weak in faith only eat vegetables. Now he was not quite talking about modern vegans, but close. The strong in faith could eat meat dedicated to false idols, because they knew the idols had no power. The weak in faith knew the idols were false, and wanted nothing to do with them. Even more amazing, the strong in faith consider all days the same, while the weak in faith honor the sabbath. In Star Wars terms, Yoda needs no light saber, while Luke dramatically stretches to reclaim his. Still, both were working on the same side. To drag out a term probably overloaded with baggage, this is the pilgrimage of faith. We look through a glass darkly as we strive toward perfection in our love. As Paul puts it in Romans 14:14 "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean,"

  12. I am slow in posting these comments by Norm Doeden, a Thinking Friend and personal friend from the years we lived in the same city in Japan for several years. Here are comments from an email, which he gave me permission to post here:

    "Appreciated reading your blog, as I always do. I agree that too many of us Christians only worry about being saved and after believing that we are saved, forget about the teaching of Jesus that being a Christian requires becoming a servant and loving your neighbor as yourself. It doesn't mean if they are worthy in our sight because in God's sight we are loved equally.

    "I appreciated Richard Stearn's book "A Hole in Your Gospel." I believe God intends for us to love and serve our fellow man, if they are lovable or not. That's the homework for being a Christian."