By every definition of my childhood religion, I was "saved for all time and eternity," and so I needed not to trouble myself about preparing for death.
I felt self-assured that hell could not threaten a teenager who could preach "salvation-faith" so convincingly. Surrounded on every side by the adulation and applause of my admirers, I could not see the shallowness and the bankruptcy of my religion, nor could I even begin to suspect its long-range victimization of my own life.
For years I would carry with me its superficial portrait of a rather inept and cruel deity who lost control of his creation. In effect Fundamentalists are unwittingly taught that after many failed Old Testament schemes to recoup his losses, God finally sent his Son to salvage the mess. (While Fundamentalists would never put it in this absurd way, the practical results of their theologies, such as they are, lead to such practical conclusions, and this is especially true of the various forms of dispensationalism.)
According to this scenario, we were all set adrift in a crazy universe where, finally and after much trial and error, Jesus came to the rescue by giving us a chance to "make a decision to accept him" by publicly "going forward to get saved." After "getting saved," the whole duty of a Christian seemed to be that of waiting around for heaven and filling in that time by memorizing a lot of Bible verses while being careful not to cuss, dance, play cards, or go to the movies.
Over the years my poorly educated mind and my famished soul would be continually deluded by what seemed to sound so right, for my allegiance, though I thought it was to Christ, was really to a false and artificial system of "the Bible says," a set of propositions derived from nothing more than rearrangements of various scriptures to suit this or that preacher's picayune ideas of what amounted to a particular brand of "fire escape religion."
During my late teens I determined that my future was settled as a popular preacher. I could quote all the right answers I had heard preached, I knew all the social and cultural taboos for Fundamentalists, and I knew how to preach them. The only real validation of my calling was that I got results when I preached. Getting results seemed to prove everything in my circle of associates, and it became self-evident that I knew everything that would ever matter, that basic reality consisted of "us and them," of the Bible-believers and the knowing or unknowing dupes of the coming Antichrist.
With all dispensationalists I was convinced that the dispensationalist system of Bible interpretation was the divine key for opening the true meaning of the Bible. (Actually there are many dispensationalist systems; I speak here only of the one our congregation had been taught.) My inflated ego was crowing loudly and often, pulpits became just so many perches for my pride, yet inwardly I struggled with the incongruities of all that I so readily believed.
Even in this dense darkness of the soul God's grace would not leave me entirely to my just deserts. This is the only explanation I can give why he blessed me with such a persistent uneasiness during those youthful years of narrow-minded bigotry. He alone can deliver souls imprisoned by the tyranny of "the Bible says."
Much like a virus, Fundamentalism can shape itself to our souls' hunger while imitating the revealed truths of Christianity. Long after its teachings are abandoned, it remains in the unconscious regions and lives on in a ghostly way.
With this seemingly innocuous existence in his soul, the victim is saddled with an elusive complex for the rest of his life. Lives torn up by what might be called a "phantom effect" generally show an indecisiveness of action or impermanency of commitment that is too easily taken by the unfeeling critic for petty church-hopping.
Prior to my renunciation of sectarianism, all of my inner conflicts over Fundamentalism's blatant inconsistencies were dismissed conveniently as coming from the Devil, "for after all," I reasoned, "I'm having a great deal of success winning souls for Jesus!" After one year at a Bible liberal arts college, these inner questionings grew from an annoying trickle into a troublesome flood of serious doubts.
I left college to restore my faith in Fundamentalism, hoping to become a full-time preacher.
Soon enough I would be profoundly disappointed to learn of the reluctance of congregations to hire a teenage pastor. Finally and as a compromise I assented to the kind invitation from the local Methodist district superintendent to serve as a student pastor.
I accepted, rationalizing that I would "get those Methodists saved" and at the same time ignore whatever the college professors might have to say contrary to my opinions and beliefs. By the time my ten years in the student pastorate were ended, I had become a beloved pastor (not a Fundamentalist preacher-boy) humbled by the precious love of these people whom I had considered to be rank modernists.
I pastored many souls during those ten years of college and seminary, and that pastoral work proved to be a medicine from heaven that healed me of much of my latent Pharisaism. Solemnizing their marriages, baptizing their babies, burying their dead, I was year after year with these parishioners in both their joys and their sorrows.
My pride, my legalistic mentality, my silly pettiness fled before the love I was showered with by these people. I had boasted that I would convert the Methodists, but years of kindness converted me in ways that could never be foreseen by the fellow I had been.
The insistence of my ecclesiastical superiors that I resume higher education was at first resisted and resented, but again that merciful providence that strives with us in our rebelliousness pulled me along. How can I say it? Once at college I began to realize just how starved my mind really was after all those early years of poor public education and Fundamentalist indoctrination.
This is generally the lethal combination which stunts the intellect and saps the spirit of any real vitality. A people deprived of an ideal in education which could inculcate high degrees of literacy and encourage critical thinking will become the grist for the mills of Fundamentalism. It should not surprise our society that its vastly undereducated masses are unthinking and gullible or that they are easy marks for the unscrupulous.
I would be telling only half my story if I failed to relate that I was not only the product of Fundamentalist teaching, but also the product of an inept school system which concerned itself more with politics than with academic quality. In only one respect were the public school systems I attended ahead of the times: They were as ineffective as today's public schools are. Had it not been for college, Fundamentalism would have doomed me.
The dimly lit shanty of my narrow existence seemed to be transformed into a vast mental cathedral where my soul could grow. Our professors and our library brought before our classes such a tremendous spectacle of cultures, political and economic thought, history, great literature, drama, and art, such wondrous panoramas of science, that I am inclined to think that if higher education in this land resembled a continent of social protest with little academic content in the 1960s, then this little Presbyterian college was an island of academic excellence.
Being A religious chap with narrow opinions, I met up with a happy catastrophe when my sectarianism collided with courses on the great world religions. During my college years I began to feel very much the universalist. Soon enough, though, the heretical extremes of this collegiate universalism would fly away from my affection as I started my theological education.
As I grew comfortable with the disciplines of the form critical exegetes predominant at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I was able to put handles on the biblical misinformation I'd inherited from Fundamentalism. I can see clearly now that the bibliolatry which had cowed me as a youngster had been given its first death blow in my thinking.
I was openly jubilant as my former bibliolatry collapsed before the onslaught of my studies in modern biblical scholarship. I admit I tended to be naive in swallowing wholeheartedly all of the radical form criticism being taught by one of my favorite professors, yet seeing this false paper deity I had spent my youth serving now exposed put me into a crusading spirit.
My sermons of that period resounded with the critical works in which I immersed myself. Yet it seemed more and more that for all this liberating effect on me there wasn't much of anything to replace "the Bible says" mentality I had now forsaken. There was no ancient Christian Tradition to turn to in Methodism, and, while the spirituality of John and Charles Wesley was there, it was not sufficient for my needs.
It was then I turned to a charismatic prayer group and desperately g.asped at the experi-ences and claims of a deeper life typically made by Pentecostalism. Everybody's belief systems were Fundamentalist in that group except for my own, but I found myself quite vulnerable to the private revelations and prophecies of its meetings. These pronouncements shaped themselves to the emptiness left by the demise of "the Bible says," and the phantom effect captured me with the new terminology of the charismatic movement.
Leaving that movement, I began to romanticize the beauty and peace found in my brief childhood fascination with Catholicism. While I now understood the anti-Catholic bilgewater I had drunk as a boy was hateful nonsense, the virus had done its job, and I declined to pursue Catholic conversion.
Joining a high-church Episcopal congregation in order to resolve my need for a more "catholic" kind of spirituality, I fell in with the rector and supported his fight to keep the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer as the only suitable and official prayer book for Episcopalians in the United States.
Soon enough I found myself in a Fundamentalist-like stance, making the 1928 prayer book the center of all things mortal and immortal. As the warfare got nastier and my rector gained national prominence as a leader of the traditionalist party of the Episcopal Church, I got nastier as well.
I did not hesitate to pour out my own venom on any Episcopalian who couldn't see it our way. I had scorned Fundamentalism's paper idolatry to become the same sort of idolater with a different book.
I left and resolved to go it alone. Soon I was studying the writings of Luther and Calvin--"faith alone" captured my imagination as well as my sermons. I was called to an exciting Baptist pastorate in the college community of California, Pennsylvania, where I enjoyed a quickly growing ministry under the twin banners of Evangelical and Reformed. I found myself battling both Pentecostalists and Fundamentalists, who besieged many members of this growing parish. With my strong Calvinistic theology, I seemed to send them scurrying as I shot my apologetic salvos in their direction.
This would be my first acquaintance with a systematic theology, and along with being thrilled with its highly reasoned symmetry, I found myself using it as much as a Fundamentalist uses his "the Bible says" tactics. Ill-prepared to come up against Calvin's overriding concern for the defense of the sovereignty of the Almighty, potentially quarrelsome souls left us alone to grow in peace.
Yet for all my debating success, I was substituting Calvin's Institutes for the Bible thumping of the past. The phantom effect had won out again and had given me a new emptiness for the old emptiness. There was an unbecoming harshness in my Calvinistic argumentation. I fell out of love with what I was again becoming, for it was making me harsh and unbending, a humorless man who liked a good argument too much.
Toward the end of my college town pastorate, I ended up in an intensive care unit because of elevated blood pressure. I was visited by the new Episcopal rector of my former parish, and I related to him the wretched mess I had made of my life. Ours was an instant friendship, and at his invitation my family resumed active membership in the parish.
At last I thought I had arrived home, as through the work of this pastor I was introduced to the world of Anglo-Catholicism. I was content to subscribe to the theory that the Catholic Church consisted of all churches which maintained the apostolic succession in their line of bishops.
The inconsistency of a wholesale acceptance of all "validly consecrated" bishops would in the end disenchant me as I learned of a few heretical men who were wearing the miter yet blatantly railing against this or that ancient dogma. More positively, I learned an appreciation of liturgics well done and of Anglicanism as it might be according to her brilliant divines. During my sojourn in that parish I gained above all else an enduring love for Mary and the saints. This love would console me during the final lonely year of my ministry at Greensboro.
The most spiritually profitable time of my life was spent during those Anglo-Catholic years, doing my intern-ship under the direction of one of the area's foremost health counselors. His superb counseling methods would equip me for the active counseling I've enjoyed up to this day. I have never failed to marvel at the similarity of symptoms and tendencies in the diverse group of people I've worked with, people coming out of Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, and various cults. Frequently I found in them the phantom effect.
When I accepted what would prove to be my last pastorate, I did so convinced Anglo-Catholicism was a beautiful ideal but impracticable within the Episcopal Church of today. I reasoned that Christianity was so splintered that all I could do was refuse to go along with its sectarian spirit and pastor the Baptist and Presbyterian churches entrusted to me as though there were a generic Christianity above the obvious sectarian denial of unity.
My whole effort these past five years was directed at satisfying both the American Baptist Convention of Churches and the Presbyterian Church (USA) with my ability to pastor in an ecumenical spirit and with gaining from them some sort of eventual joint-recognition or regularization of my credentials.
The polity of the Baptists made it possible for me to function as an ordained minister in the local congregation pending regularization from the Association, while the stricter Presbyterian polity insisted I return to the seminary before I could be considered for their full-time and ordained ministry.
The Baptist Association was told to stand by while I worked toward the completion of my seminary degree to satisfy the Presbytery people. I was back at my theological studies when I discovered John Henry Newman. I couldn't put his books down.
I had come to a crossroads when I left my Anglo-Catholic work, a crossroads which should have led to my conversion to Roman Catholicism. I was not willing to face the sacrifice of my pastoral career, so I opted for ecumenism as a substitute for Catholicism and a theology of despair in the face of Christianity's divisions as a substitute for the faith of the Catholic Church. Newman pointed me back to my missed turn at the crossroads.
"I sit now at my desk, all of the little village that lovingly calls me pastor is asleep, only the crickets' chanting and the splashing of the nearby river keep my thoughts company at this hour. What is happening to my world?
"All seems quietly normal out there in the darkness, and with tomorrow I suspect little Greensboro will awake to the same things it has these past 208 years.
"All will seem the same, safely and securely the same--all the sameness I've become accustomed to these past four years: the old houses, the retired miners gathering for the morning mail, their wives gathered at the little stores, the school bus pulling out to climb Stoney Hill.
"All the same and how I love it! I welcomed all this when, at the invitation of the Baptist and Presbyterian congregations, my wife and I moved back here to my home town. I was pleased at the prospect of serving these two churches, pleased that I might settle down at long last to a vocation of pastoring and counseling, pleased beyond words that my town wanted me as its pastor.
"Yes, there was that strange little sect up the street, where periodically they had their newest squabble, thinned out their ranks, and threw out their current preacher--but who could take them seriously? No, mine would undoubtedly be the most distinguished position in the valley, and doubly so with two respected churches. Of course, there was the big church, the Catholic church, but I must not get ahead of myself.
"Although outwardly all seems secure and content, inside the parsonage the parson and his wife are living among packed boxes, cluttered tables, empty bookshelves, and deferred plans. All is on hold now. Soon the disarray inside this once orderly study will get into the minds and opinions and debates and general gossip of the village which still calls me pastor. And soon we shall get our lives off hold, please God."
The foregoing entry from my private journal was written only after what seemed to be an interminable vocational crisis. I loved being a minister and pastoral counselor. At long last it seemed I had found a place I could fit in, for my impatience with the sectarian spirit was by now well known, and I had ruffled many ecclesiastical feathers with my outspokenness concerning the disgrace of Christians who treasured denominational distinctions over the unity Christ intended.
For the first twenty years of my ministry I tried to subscribe to the invisible church theory in which the true church is unseen except in the lives of true believers. Then, through my Anglican days, I tried to square my heart and mind with the branch theory, which says that if you can trace your bishop's lineage back to the apostles, you are in the true church. Both failed me, history for two thousand years denied them, their disunity denied them, the schismatic spirit in them denied them, and the death of Christ for a visible and united people denied them.
Mine was an on again, off again life, and had it not been for school teaching I would not have been able to offer any kind of support to my family.
I went through life always caring deeply about the flocks entrusted to me, always enjoying the confidence of my ecclesiastical superiors, but never able to resolve the conflict, always putting my career on hold, always putting off the kind offers of the people I served to regularize my credentials.
Not long after I settled into my work as a Baptist minister, the Presbyterians were given permission to hire me, and thus began the ecumenical work known as the Greensboro Circuit of Churches.
All but a few caught the enthusiasm of the new endeavor, and for five years my ministry served both congregations. The churches were able to accomplish some wonderful work. Never in all my life could I recall being happier.
When I left the Episcopal parish I convinced myself that (1) I could not give up my vocation to the pastorate, (2) I could not consider the claims of Rome and remain a pastor, (3) the Lord wanted me to continue in the ministry. I reasoned that for all of Anglo-Catholicism's claims, Episcopalians are really Protestants. Since we Protestants were not alive during the Reformation, we were not responsible for the schism from the Church, and I concluded we were all one in a common victimization by that rebellion.
I made peace with myself, saying all I could do was serve my fellow victims in the name of Christ the Wounded One. I continually counseled from the pulpit that Christ's garments were torn by our ancestors, but our love for one another even in schism could do much for our community and the world.
Returning to the seminary to complete my degree for the Presbyterians, I started to read Newman, as I mentioned earlier, and that was the beginning of the end of my peculiar kind of Protestantism.
The limitation of space and general purpose of this article will not permit me to rehearse the profound effect Newman had on my reasoning and prayer life. It is a dangerous thing to make friends with John Henry Newman and to read his sermons and writings with heart wide open. I did just that and began to face a reality so long put off since fleeing the Fundamentalist wilderness.
As Newman shared his pilgrimage, as he related his own early victimizations by the anti-Catholicism of his day, his search for Catholicism in his Anglican background, and his sorrowful leaving of the ministry, it was all downhill (or uphill, according to your perspective) for me. I began to be overwhelmed by "coincidences" that led me to dare to look again at Rome. My journal bulges with accounts of God's grace.
In the spring of 1989 I began the final step when I gave more than a thousand of my theological library books to St. Vincent Seminary, keeping only my Newman collection and a few other texts.
This was my way of determining that never again would I find myself so in love with books that I dare not follow the Lord they spoke of. (Sherry and a good theology book are such comforts as can keep a soul too tied to his love of security.)
On November 30 I resigned my pastorate at the Baptist church, thus, in effect, laicizing myself. In January I informed the Presbytery I would not be requesting a renewal of my status as stated supply preacher after the expiration of that office in March.
I have spent my life in holy vocation, and it shall take some getting used to being a layman, yet the laity is a holy vocation. Perhaps part of it will be teaching kids again or flipping burgers or counselling the troubled--God alone knows.
I have been turned about by the power of his love to face the ugliness of that wilderness I fled years ago, the ugliness that g.asps and smothers the soul, the wilderness of Fundamentalism. I must confront it over and over again for the sake of those who are lost in it and far from the love of the Church.
That wilderness is not the "fundamentals" themselves, but the anger to which "the Bible says" is harnessed. There are grotesque growths in that wilderness. I must clear away the poisonous vines so those choked by them may breathe deeply and see the sun that has always been shining above.