Experiences of an Evangelical Theologian 4
*If you have not read the first three parts of this series, you may not understand some of what I write here.*
One of the common experiences I have not had is doubt about God. I can honestly say that I have never doubted God’s existence or God’s goodness. As far back as I can remember, and my family and friends say I have an amazing memory of my childhood and youth, I always believed in God and his goodness. I certainly had experiences, such as my mother’s death when I was two and two years in foster car with a poor family, that might have caused me to doubt God or God’s goodness. When I was ten years old I was stricken with a terrible illness and hospitalized and bedridden at home for an entire summer—from mid-May to mid-August. Later I experienced very severe disappointment in my father, but that is something for my memoirs, not here. In sum, I could have doubted God and/or God’s goodness, but I never did. I don’t know why. I struggle to understand and sympathize with “good Christians” who struggle with doubt. I have read many books about the value of doubt in religion. Of course, I have doubted many of the messages I have heard and read about God, but not God’s existence of his goodness.
Anyway, at some point during my journey of becoming a Christian theologian I came to know about Bethel College and Seminary (now Bethel University) in St. Paul, Minnesota. I don’t remember exactly how I first learned about it, but I discerned that I wanted to teach there when I got to know one of its theology professors—Al Glenn. Al flew down from St. Paul to Sioux Falls to teach one class at the seminary. Even though I had already taken Contemporary Theology I decided to audit his version of it. I volunteered to pick him up at the airport every Thursday afternoon, take him to dinner before class, and take him back to the airport after class for his late night flight back to the Twin Cities. Something (someone) nudged me to get to know him well. I suppose I imposed myself on him. I sat with him at the airport after class, before he boarded his flight, and talked theology with him. I picked his brain deeply. He knew Christian theology well even though he didn’t write very much. He gave me a copy of a book manuscript he wrote; it never was published but should have been. It was about various contemporary theologians and piqued my interest especially in the German “theologians of hope,” “eschatological theologians,” Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg. I then read some of their books and was further intrigued. It was only a pipe dream, to me at that time, but I dreamt of someday going to study with one of them—in Germany.
During my Ph.D. studies at Rice University I kept in touch with Al and let him know of my desire to teach with him at Bethel. He took me under his wing and paved the way for that eventually to happen.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I had some amazing experiences with theologians during my studies at Rice. French New Testament scholar Etienne Trocmé of the famous Trocmé family (sheltered Jews during World War 2) taught a seminar. He was on sabbatical from the University of Strasbourg. German New Testament scholar Werner Kelber was my primary New Testament professor. John Newport taught philosophy of religion and theology as did Niels Nielsen, the chairman of the Department of Religion Studies. James Sellers taught ethics. I took at least one course in the Philosophy Department—on Kant and Hegel. According to my professors, I excelled in every class. I also taught undergraduate courses on C. S. Lewis and “Deity, Mysticism, and the Occult.” While teaching that course I came into direct contact with Wiccans and other “alternative religions.”
During my three years in residence at Rice, in Houston, I served as minister to youth and director of Christian education at a United Presbyterian church in The Heights, an old neighborhood north of downtown that had recently experienced the murders of dozens of young boys. Something that caught my attention and has stayed with me—as a matter of concern—is that when the boys started disappearing and continued to disappear the police took very little interest. To this day, I am convinced, American society in general is less interested in the fates of boys than girls. When a girl goes missing, everyone, including the police, assume the worst. When a boy goes missing, most people, including the police, assume he simply ran away. In this case and many others, however, the police only got interested once the murderers were identified and the bodies recovered.
One day Niels Nielsen called me into his office and asked if I would like to go study in Europe for a year—at Rice’s expense. I was somewhat reluctant. We had just purchased our first home. But my wife was more courageous and urged me to accept the offer. Dr. Nielsen required me to help raise the funds by meeting with various wealthy women he knew and ask for their financial support. One was Jane Blaffer Owen, one of the wealthiest women in the world and a close friend of Paul Tillich’s. Tillich is buried on her property in Indiana. I met her on Easter Sunday afternoon at her mansion, on her estate, inside the city limits of Houston. She was, to say the least, eccentric. But she donated some money for my year in Europe.
To make a long story short, I and my family ended up living in Munich, Germany for a year. I took months of instruction in German (I could already read it but didn’t speak it) and then began taking classes with Pannenberg and got to know him very well. I was one of three American students studying with him that year. One of the others was Philip Clayton, now a renowned American theologian. It was a wonderful year partly because the exchange rate was extremely favorable; we lived very comfortably on the stipend Rice gave me and traveled quite a bit.
Going to Rice University to earn a Ph.D. (which I did after my dissertation was accepted in 1984) and going to Munich, Germany to study under one of the leading theologians of the world were more than dreams come true. I had never even seriously dreamed of either one—years earlier. Both seemed like miracles. As I look back on those experiences now, I see the hand of God in them—even though many of my family and friends (mostly Pentecostals) thought I was straying off the straight and narrow path and wasting my time. I should have become a missionary or evangelist or pastor. The fact that I was serving as an assistant pastor at a “mainline, liberal Protestant church” was a strike against me—to them. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I saw myself as a missionary to them, bringing some evangelical witness and doctrine into the church, especially to the young people who knew absolutely nothing about the Bible or contemporary Christian music. My wife and I took them on spiritual retreats and taught them the Bible and about Jesus and having a personal relationship with Jesus. We even took them to an Imperials concert in downtown Houston. They were absolutely amazed at that.
One experience I have not yet mentioned is my promotion of a Petra concert. Petra was a fairly new Christian rock band and they wanted to come to Sioux Falls and perform at a Youth for Christ rally—when I was there in seminary. Somehow I ended up promoting the concert on a Saturday night and the band accepted a love offering in lieu of selling tickets—that’s how new they were!
While I was in Germany studying with Pannenberg I kept in touch with Al Glenn at Bethel. He was anxious for me to join that faculty when I received my Ph.D. So was I. I believe God was at work in that process. The door was slowly creaking open. But, first, a door opened for me to teach at Oral Roberts University—not my first or second choice of a place to begin my fulltime teaching career. However, now, looking back on it, I do think God was in that as well. It was strange, unexpected, sometimes bizarre, often disappointing, but I had absolute academic freedom during my two years there because I flew under the radar. However, I knew the longer I stayed the more likely a confrontation with Oral was. Other theologians such as Charles Farah and Robert Tuttle were called on the carpet by Oral—often based on misunderstandings or on reports of criticisms of chapel speakers. I spent much of my time in classes “cleaning up” after chapels with guest speakers like Fred Price. But I also met and had lunch with one of my heroes—Southern Baptist theologian Dale Moody—just after he was fired from his tenured professorship at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. So…more about my two years at Oral Roberts University next. Stay tuned….
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