The Reflective Christian’s Heartache: The Pain of Finding a Theological Home

For today's Underground Baptist, here is an essay from David about
the difficulties academics and intellectuals can often have in finding
nourishment within the faith community.
david

David Caddell, Reflectively Baptist

While I was raised in a rather fundamentalist tradition, I was fortunate to be surrounded and supported by mentors who encouraged my skepticism (not cynicism). They encouraged me to ask difficult, even painful, questions.

In college, I was fortunate to serve on staff under a pastor who encouraged me to think and feel deeply about the scriptures and God’s concern for social justice. It was during this time that I first encountered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s paper entitled, “My Pilgrimage to Non-Violence.” At that time, I had no idea just how determinative King’s views would eventually become for me, nor how prophetic he would be of my own experience of the church. It was in my senior year at California Baptist University that I first read these words:

Ten years ago I was just entering my senior year in theological seminary. …Having been raised in a rather strict fundamentalistic tradition, I was occasionally shocked as my intellectual journey carried me through new and sometimes complex doctrinal lands. But despite the shock the pilgrimage was always stimulating, and it gave me a new appreciation for objective appraisal and critical analysis. My early theological training did the same for me as the reading of [David] Hume did for [Immanuel] Kant: it knocked me out of my dogmatic slumber.

At this stage of my development I was a thoroughgoing liberal. Liberalism provided me with an intellectual satisfaction that I could never find in fundamentalism. I became so enamored of the insights of liberalism that I almost fell into the trap of accepting uncritically everything that came under its name. I was absolutely convinced of the natural goodness of man and the natural power of human reason.

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Dr. King, also Reflectively Baptist

The basic change in my thinking came when I began to question some of the theories that had been associated with so-called liberal theology. Of course there is one phase of liberalism that I hope to cherish always: its devotion to the search for truth, its insistence on an open and analytical mind, its refusal to abandon the best light of reason. Liberalism’s contribution to the philological-historical criticism of biblical literature has been of immeasurable value and should be defended with religious and scientific passion.

By the time I was finished with graduate school and in a different church setting, I began to become increasingly uncomfortable with my experience on Sundays, sensing that I was expected to check my intellect at the door. I was surprised by the reception I received from many fellow Baptist Christians as someone who had lost their confidence in Christian orthodoxy as a result of brainwashing at the hands of a secular university establishment that was at odds with Christianity. I suppose I was surprised since I received far more support for my faith from graduate professors who did not share that faith than I did from most of my California Baptist University professors.

I was a young professor at a Christian university, experiencing what I thought the church should look like–not at church, however, but in my workplace. I came to feel increasingly out of place at church and unwelcome by my pastors who repeatedly suggested that a vibrant faith in Christ was inconsistent with the intellectual life. More and more tired of the intimation that reason was not a tool that could be used effectively in service to a life of faith, I began to realize that, if I were trapped on a deserted island with my pastor and Christopher Hitchens, I would find both equally annoying (although I’m sure I would find Hitchens much more entertaining).

Why was I feeling so uncomfortable? Because the intellectually reflective Christian has indeed been marginalized in the world of conservative Protestantism, being treated as if thinking too deeply about the scriptures or the world around us is an undesirable enterprise. This abandonment of reason is precisely why I will never again feel truly at home in my religious tradition. The intellectual laziness at the heart of the rejection of reason has fostered a strongly Baconian approach to studying the scriptures, where evangelicals attempt to “convince their audience that they are merely contemplating simple conclusions from the Bible, ” when they arrived at those simple conclusions because they are incapable of considering how those conclusions have been shaped by their own nineteenth century assumptions of how a text should be read (a disgraceful intellectual habit that remains to this day). My discomfort stems, not from their conclusions (although they can be strange at times), but from their confidence in the infallibility of their own understanding. This unreflective confidence in their own understanding indicates an extreme arrogance and naivete. In other words, it’s not their confidence in the scriptures that is problematic. It’s the uncritical faith in themselves that is worrisome.

In the meantime, to where am I going to retreat? Like Martin Luther King, I cannot see myself ever finding theological meaning among the liberal mainline. While I very much enjoy my discussions with my liberal Christian friends, I can never feel at home with liberalism’s failure to come to grips with the reality of human sinfulness, need of Christ’s redemption, and, as King suggested, that reason must be tempered by “the purifying power of faith” if it is to avoid human rationalizations and distortions. While I remain convinced of the invaluable partnership between faith and reason, I can never feel comfortable with theological liberalism’s lack of patience with the supernatural hocus-pocus in the scriptures that I happen to believe in. While I might find a more suitable sociological fit in that environment, I could never stop choking on the bones in liberal theology and anthropology that I find antithetical to scripture.

What Must We Do?
If conservative evangelicals, particularly Baptists, are to reclaim their historic identity, we are going to have to take the following painful steps:

  1. We must get over our inferiority complex causing us to declare war on academics and fight so hard to demonstrate our moral superiority to them.
  2. We must realized that our poor intellectual habits have changed the way we view the scriptures and taken us to strange theological places where we might not want to be.
  3. We must instill a sense of intellectual discipline in our Bible study which allows us to remain cognizant of how our own circumstances might be affecting our view of the scriptures.
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