Wheaton College 25th Anniversary

This weekend the Wheaton College Class of 1989 is celebrating its 25th anniversary and I am in rainy Cambridge shuffling kids to Kung Fu and trying to help with Latin homework. I am not in Wheaton Illinois. But I just heard the Homecoming Chapel address, and it was given by an old flame. A man now a Bishop of a segment of the Anglican Church in America, Stewart Ruch.

He told a narrative of sin and redemption in his still charming style.  When he and I arrived on campus twenty-five years ago we were hungry to learn and grow and we both - separately, because we didn't meet right away - recoiled at the simplistic culture and specific nature of worshipping Jesus we found on campus. In Stewart's testimony in chapel, this was his sin. See, his chapel address/life narrative wasn't the usual old-fashioned unfolding of (1) drinking/gambling/slutting it up (sin) (2) finding Jesus and repenting (3) happiness and recruiting for Jesus (4) asking for money. This was much more sophisticated, as befits a mind like Stewart's. His sin was that he did not embrace the simplistic, particular nature of Christianity.  He employed his critical faculty. He wrestled with truth, and truth was hard to find. It required great energy and great struggle and it made him raw. That was what he did wrong. And as in every good testimonial, it made him very unhappy. He used the word despair. And twice he repeated the soul-crushing, hell-inducing insight that both the church and places like Wheaton are by their very nature "utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken".

Of course the end of the story was that he was set straight by his elders, told that his insights into human institutions and quest for the truth and other such intellectual things meant nothing to Jesus, Jesus merely requires your blind faith. Stewart was seeing and now he is blind and he lives in the presence of God, well into stages three and four.

Well, over here in East Anglia I am still in that sinner stage. I am still raw. It simultaneously sucks and is more fun living in that difficult terrain of being uncomfortable and uncertain all the time. I seek truth and enlightenment, and for that I have to learn things and change, and change means I leave my comfort zone and that means I am not comfortable. But if I accept each moment with love, love of myself and acceptance instead of judgment, I can grow, I can learn through the pain of the discomfort and sometimes it is totally fun. Plus I think I'm getting smarter. Not smarter, exactly, but more capable of real love, love that is found in ourselves instead of sourced in an external God named Jesus. So if you are thinking of becoming an anti-intelllectual in the wake of Stewart's somewhat (sorry) pre-Fascist speech, I write to ask you to think again.

I believe it is preferable, if you are strong enough as a human (a human who may or may not be in service to Christ, (may we please leave that as an open question?)), to stay in that place of uncertainty. 

I want to defend the sin that Stewart repents so strongly of. That period of decadence was actually kind of fun, not that decadent, and good for our humanity.  And we were developing a critical faculty, a faculty I value and will defend. It is true that all our human institutions are "utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken" and I think responding to this truth by telling yourself to stop thinking and just submit is not good.

The more I employed my critical faculty, the less I could believe in the particular claims of Christianity. I was the student in the New Testament class raising my hand every five minutes asking what would happen to all of the Muslims under strict Christian doctrine. It took me to a terribly sad period of mourning.I think a living relationship with God is something that I have. And yes, life is still uncomfortable. But this lifetime of devotion to truth has brought me closer to it than I think Stewart is now. So I'll put my testimony out there too. (I thought it was so interesting that when Stewart was testifying about the depths of his moral depravity he said he was a fan of anarchy. I'll get to that later.)

Wheaton College in the mid-Eighties had an intellectually lively and artistically vibrant community. I loved learning there. Hanging around with Stewart was the best. It was intense. In retrospect we were tortured souls but we were really alive. Pushing through those literature and philosophy, theology and physics classes and thinking so hard about what was the core, what was the core of what we believed. And we fell in love with the greats, with Joe McClatchey, with high church action... Frederick Buechner was on campus that Fall; his subtle and intensely human Christianity and wisdom drew us both in. Funny. After Stewart's talk I recalled Leo Bebb.

Around the end of the nineties I became more and more aware of the fact that what I believed was just and true and loving in the world and Christian doctrine had drifted apart. Not completely. I still went to Episcopal churches.

When I went to law school I taught Sunday school at the church Governor Weld attended. I didn't know the Governor was at church until a series of oddly specific Prayers of the People were uttered ("and when Bill 5422 passes the Governor's desk this week, we pray oh Lord that you give him the wisdom to sign it").

I wrote my law school thesis on the verse from Luke- "Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you do not lift a finger to ease them." My thesis was that religiously motivated political involvement is an inescapable phenomenon. Evangelicals want to be in politics. There is no point telling Christians that the liberal humanist philosophy in our Constitution does not want them to pass laws in accordance with their doctrines. So a better strategy - the one that worked for me - was to look at the heart of Christianity and see whether that heart would be better served by ensuring freedom. Freedom to choose or reject Christianity. For certainly Stewart would agree that a coerced Christianity is not a true Christianity. Wouldn't you, Stewart? So the laws must find us free to fail. To not hear when Jesus stands at the door and knocks. There is nothing less than a theological justification - Jesus's own justification - for civil rights laws. The sacred space of the human heart and the human self must be autonomously given, and those choices should be honored and respected by the government (evidence on this point runs more along Antigone lines).

I make this digression because Stewart's church is somewhat famously anti-gay and I wonder what he would say about this point. One man's cloak of certainty about Jesus is another man's burden hard to bear. See, e.g., the stories of OneWheaton.

I don't write to challenge Stewart's doctrine on the point of LGBTA people particularly - I guess I wrote to challenge the whole philosophical underpinnings that got him there. I challenge the certainty. I challenge the set-up in Stewart's talk - the solipsistic assumption that those who disagree with him are denying the one truth. There are many truths that must work together.

My Christianity fell away in 2001 and I mourned. I really grieved. I missed the unfolding Christianity of the mid-Eighties -what Stewart referred to as his decadent period. (Consistently in my life there are two themes in conversations (1) I never thought of it that way before and (2) the time I was living/working/friends with you was a decadent period.) It sounds completely douchey to say this but my search for truth continued and was amplified by the birth of my children. .

That doesn't mean - well, I don't know what that means. When I was at the steps of St. Paul for Occupy it was like what I imagined the early church was like. An undeniable reality, just like when people laid hands on Stewart in his talk. But my reality makes more things sacred, our bodies and our earth, our governments. And for that I will stay raw and even listen to the anarchists. And the responsibility for revolution is something that I feel now. Because I think Jesus would want us to do something about the fact that our institutions are utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken

And that's where I am going to leave my testimony.

Comments

  1. The steady clarity of your truth-telling is beautiful, Rachel.

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  2. Prophetic words, Rachel. Always out in front. Always seeking something better.

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  3. So here it is three years later and I have only just now read this. Beautiful. Wonderful. Challenging. Thank you for writing it!

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