The Schenck Inoculation


One dinner when I was doing my graduate studies in England, I sat down with an acquaintance of mine. The college was "evangelical Anglican" in its base, so I thought Will might be a Christian. Without any evangelistic purpose in mind, I asked him, "So are you a Christian, Will?"

The response was scolding, "No"--in that drawn out, pretentious sounding high English accent. "I'm an atheist--the thinking kind."

Well! He sure put me in my place :>)

Now I came to be pretty good friends with Will over the next three years, so I want you to know that I like Will. Intellectually, I don't have any problem with his position. On the other hand, I recognize this answer--it's the typical answer of an ignorant atheist. This is the type of person who has no idea just how deep some Christians think.

Now mind you, I'm not thinking of myself when I refer to deep thinking Christians. I'm talking about the people who astound me when I hear them or try to follow their thoughts. Read some Alvin Plantinga when he's at his deepest, or Richard Swinburne. I don't always agree with these guys, but it sure takes me several rereads even to understand what they're saying. I remember hearing Thomas Oden give his testimony once--I didn't have a clue what he was talking about. It was so far above my puny seminarian mind (mixed of course with a good dose of unnecessary pretension on his part, I might add--if I understand his personality rightly).

In the moment that Will made this comment I felt pretty sure that he really didn't know many "thinking" Christians. I'll be up front with you--I went through immense crises of faith in seminary and doctoral days. I basically came to the conclusion that the incarnation and the resurrection are the rock bottom core items of Christian faith. Everything else is icing on the cake.

I long ago concluded that if I ever abandoned either of these, then I would no longer be a "literal" Christian (of course I'm presuming the literal existence of God as well in all this, as well as other things like God's involvement in the universe, etc...). If I concluded these weren't true, I might call myself a Christian but I would have become a "metaphorical" Christian. Maybe you could call yourself a "Christian sentimentalist" or a "Christ-fearer" after you've left this building.

But make no mistake about it. The church owns the building, and the church believes in these things. If you decide you don't believe these things any more on intellectual grounds, that's fair enough. I deeply respect that. But you don't own the building, and you can't take it with you. Resign from your office as bishop or district superintendent.

John Dominic Crossan left the priesthood--I respect that (although I think he more left to get married). On the other hand, Sprague and Spong somehow think it's their task to make the church believe like them. I respect their intellectual positions (well, maybe Sprague's. Spong's a pseudo-intellectual who doesn't know what he's talking about). But they've forfeited their positions of authority in the Methodist and Episcopal churches. They can feel free to start their own metaphorical Christian church. I'll respect them for that.

By the way, I'm not talking about doubts here either. I could live with Crossan, Sprague, and Spong if they had genuine intellectual doubts but continued to live under the auspice of their offices.

Like I said, the incarnation and resurrection are the cake for me--everything else is icing. And there is a lot of icing to be sure. These aren't the only important things we believe, but they're the heart of what we believe.

I generally hesitate to share the full brunt of my own faith struggles because I know how much we like icing in our communities. I'd love you to believe much more than just the cake. But when you've found something that makes you think your faith world is collapsing around you, remember me.

There are some serious questions you'll come across if you pursue things long enough. Have you ever noticed that Mark says Jesus will appear to the disciples in Galilee, Paul says Jesus appeared first to Peter, John tells us first of him appearing to Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem, Luke only tells of appearances in Jerusalem. It's genuinely hard to fit the resurrection stories together if you've tried to do it on a historical basis. It can be done, if this is important to your faith.

But ultimately, my faith stands whether they can be fit together or not. "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again." This I believe. And while I believe in the "icing" of the truthfulness of Scripture--it's icing. My faith in the resurrection would stand even if you could show me a thousand errors in the Bible. "On Christ, the solid rock, I stand. All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand."

"God doesn't speak to me like He did to Moses." Sorry, who are you? You're not Moses, that's for sure. The truth doesn't care about anyone or anything. It just is. Get over it.

I'm not trying to take away any of the icing. I hope most of you will just think I'm odd or (worse) "liberal." But if one day you find yourself on the throes of a faith crisis, remember me. I concluded in my doctoral days that the reason my faith struggled so much was because no one ever clued me in on where the real stakes were. I grew up with an all or nothing kind of approach--"either every word of the Bible is true or none of it is true." I'm quite willing to believe in the truthfulness of the Bible, but its not where Christian faith ultimately collapses or stands. "On Christ, the solid rock, I stand."

So you're having questions about God? I'm genuinely sorry, and I'd love to talk. You're not having questions? Great! But I'd love you to keep me in mind if you ever do. I want you to know that there are plenty others who've had questions and have continued to believe. I want you to realize that there is no doubt you will ever have that someone else who believes hasn't had before you.

It was unfortunately not until I was in my twenties that something dawned on me. It suddenly occurred to me that my parents had already lived those same twenty years--about forty years earlier. Here so often I had thought I was teaching them something. Because it was the first time I was thinking something, I thought it must be the first time for them too. This is the arrogance of youth and of ignorance. There's not a thought any of us will ever have that a million others haven't had countless times in some similar form, even if our modern circumstances put new clothing on it.

It's the arrogant atheist that I find irritating. This is the person who acts like they've suddenly had some earthshaking thought no Christian has ever had before.

Ho hum. Been there, done that. Grow up. You having doubts about God? I respect that. And I respect the person who on intellectual grounds does not believe in God.

But don't pretend for one moment that you're any smarter than the countless Christian thinkers out there who had those same thoughts about forty years ago. No wait, try a thousand years ago for most of those doubts.