For much of my life, I have been defending historic and traditional Christianity against those who would mock it or who would replace it with something more timely, more in tune with the present times. When I began this journey, I was graciously given an opportunity to start off on the right foot.
Forty years ago I was a college sophomore, studying at a liberal arts college, majoring in religion. My first two semesters I had taken classes on the Old Testament and New Testament, with the rare opportunity also to study the Apocrypha during our brief January term. Now, in my second year, I finally enrolled in the course that was supposed to be an introduction to religious studies. This class happened to be taught by the Academic Dean of the college, one of his rare appearances in the classroom. His teaching style was more typical of a Masters’ level course, given the amount of reading and writing he expected from us, and the depth of material he assigned. Our textbook, The Philosophy of Religion, contained essays from all the great names in the field, ranging from Plotinus to Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Feuerbach, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Dewey, James, and Wittgenstein. Topics included the definition of religion, the existence of God, and the problem of evil. We were required to write a short paper on each topic and a longer paper on one of the seven topics, with a comprehensive final at the end of the course. The professor, in classroom lectures, informed us that anyone who still believed in the Bible and traditional Christianity must picture God as an old man with a long white beard, sitting on a chair up in the clouds. He offered his own definition of God as “an oblong blur.”
Outside of class one day, I met with the professor and informed him that I was a believer in the Bible and traditional Christianity and that God was not, to me, an old man with a long white beard sitting on a chair in the clouds. We talked for a time about religion and faith, and the professor suggested that I might appreciate some additional reading. He offered a list featuring one of his favorites, Kierkegaard, but also focusing on Karl Barth, whom he thought would appeal to me. (He also revealed his partiality toward Paul Tillich, like Barth an heir to Kierkegaard’s thought.) I found the recommended books in the library, checked them out, and read the suggested essays, about eight hundred pages added to my assignments for his classes and for the others I was taking that semester. I became, at that time, a fan of Kierkegaard, and remain his fan today. Barth, on the other hand, left me cold. Although he used traditional words, he emptied them of meaning, offering nothing worthwhile in place of the traditional and Biblical message they convey.
In the last week before the final exam, the professor began to pull the themes of the class together into one master lecture. (He distributed an outline for us to follow his thoughts.) Religion, he proposed, came from three origins: from human relationships with nature, from human understanding of history, and from human encounters inside our minds. All religious thought and expression, the professor said, came from those three sources. It took more than one class session to summarize the three sources, and then he was prepared to discuss how these three sources of religion handled the topics we had been pursuing all semester.
With his outline in front of me, I saw where the transition occurred from his summary of sources to their response to the topics, and I raised my hand during that transition. When the professor called upon me, I directed his attention to one of the assigned essays read earlier in the course, one from the textbook. Written by Rudolf Otto, from his book The Idea of the Holy, it described God as “Wholly Other,” a reality distinct and different from everything humans encounter in themselves and in the surrounding world. The professor admitted that yes, that assigned essay did take a position beyond the three sources of religion he had described. With that admission, he proceeded to complete his intended lecture.
When we met to take the final exam, we were given blue books (ask your parents or grandparents if you don’t know about exam day blue books) and a mimeographed sheet assigning our essay, due in two hours. The assignment began, “There are three sources of religion…” and told us to choose one of the three sources, describe it, and explain how it responded to one of the topics we had covered. But, following those three points, the assignment continued, “It has been suggested in class that religion can also come from the Wholly Other. Evaluate that possibility from the point of view of the source you have been describing.”
I sensed (correctly) that the professor’s preferred source of religion was human encounter within, a Freudian view that people create religion to replace our parents when they fall short of our idealized concept what parents should be. If your human father is less than perfect, well, then you have a perfect Father in heaven (but you will one day outgrow that Father as well). I described religion coming from that source and proceeded to demonstrate how a religion coming out of that source completely fails to answer the problem of evil. From there, I wrote how a God who is Wholly Other can be the center of a better religion, a religion that provides acceptable answers to the problem of evil in our lives. I knew the risk I was taking, telling the professor that he was wrong, but I had no intention of writing anything different in my blue books.
Even though I disagreed with the professor, I did so in his own language, using the vocabulary and the approaches that were modeled by his lectures and his assigned readings. In the end, I received a strong A for the final exam and earned an A in the class. Of course, I did not convert the professor to traditional Christianity, but I did demonstrate that a traditional, Biblical Christian could function effectively on his academic playing field. That, for me, was part of the joy of a liberal arts education, at least as those existed on college campuses forty years ago. Students could remain true to themselves, defend their beliefs and opinions, and—so long as they followed the academic rules about communication and mutual respect—receive full credit for being capable scholars and thinkers.
That’s how it was then. That’s how it should be today. J.