When I reached high school, I discovered the liberal Christian theologians. My Methodist upbringing had been moderate, as Methodism in my area covered a broad tent from nearly charismatic to moderately theologically liberal (which, of course, is something altogether different from being politically liberal).
I believe that the first two writers I discovered in this vein were Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The two men shared some similarities, but substantial differences.
Tillich spent World War One as a German army chaplain, losing in the trenches, as many religious people did, any remaining sense of a personal "father up above" God, and then devoting his life to finding ways to reconcile faith with the asynchronies of modern life. Part of this quest involved a rejection of conventional sexual mores; lately I've been reading his wife Hannah's memoir, an impressionistic, novel-type story of what it is like to live the most unconventional life with the liberal theologian of their era. I like about her story that facts seem subordinate to impressions and feelings, because any relationship is less about what happened than about what the couple experienced.
Bonhoeffer came along later. He was an originally moderate German theologian whose found his views refined and a call to active dissent in the wake of the Nazi ascent to power. I started with "The Cost of Discipleship", which taught me a concept I treasure today--the idea of 'cheap grace'. Cheap grace is the grace one confers upon oneself, a faux substitute for the real thing, which real thing, in the book's view, requires true dedication and sacrifice. Bonhoeffer himself did not cleave to the somewhat harsh approach of this book, but I remain struck with the idea that the search for what is real requires more internal work than just telling oneself that one is okay. Despite having the opportunity to live outside Germany, Bonhoeffer elected to return to Germany to oppose the regime. Later, the Nazis imprisoned Bonhoeffer for his active resistance to the regime. In prison, he managed to smuggle out a series of letters and papers. In these, he writes to a friend of his vision for a post-war church that recognized the realities of the post-Christian era. Liberal and conservative theologians, eager to "claim" this fellow for their own, debate the ambiguities in these letters, each trying to argue to what extent Bonhoeffer was leaving behind tradtional notions of God. What is beyond debate, though, is that Bonhoeffer came by the end of his life to see the flaws in the way in which "religious people" approached the problem of faith, and tried to roadmap ways to make church matter again. The Nazis hung Bonhoeffer roughly a month before the end of World War Two, after papers surfaced implicating him among the conspirators who plotted to assasinate Hitler. He was 39 years old.
When I reached college, I had nodding acquaintances with a series of ideas which differed substantially from the "old time religion" that the church hymn assures "is good enough for me". I think, with hindsight, that my every religious impulse has been flawed and imperfect, but I also think of myself as having been deeply religious then. I think of myself as deeply religious now, for that matter, but I use the words differently.
I went to college in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the Ozark Mountains, some 260 miles and in some ways a world away from my small home town in piney-woods south Arkansas. This was 1977, in the Carter years. Economic disaster fueled by the OPEC nations' oil embargo caused economic dislocation against which the current mild recession pales. Nixon had resigned in 1974. Vietnam had ended with a rather ignominious whimper for the US a year or two prior to that. The campus, like much of the nation, was filled with a defeated, cynical, tired air. The radio airwaves spilled out disco music literally around the clock. Among the few exceptions, maudlin songs like Dan Hill's "Sometimes when we Touch", in which the narrator assured us that "the honesty's too much" and a ditty "Torn Between Two Lovers", in which the narrator describes an affair with another man, with the line "and he knows he can't possess me, and he knows he never will, there's just a litte part inside of me, that only he can fill" provided the only relief from the pounding dance beat, albeit satirical relief rather than real comfort. Among my friends and I, though, music mattered a lot. For thinking rock fans, progressive and art rock had largely shot their bolt, and the record stores were filled with albums by the early UK punk bands, the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and a myriad of other bands. None of these bands ever really sold all that many records in the US, as most US fans saw that for all its good points, UK punk was just another detour into retro, not a real transformative movement. All the cutesy/tough faux anarchy that played so well in London fell utterly flat for most of the people I knew, being all pose, no go. The NY and LA punk scenes were different things altogether, and the NY bands were quite interesting, but they, too, did not capture the public imagination. New wave was largely corporate marketing, albeit with some fun bands (I miss Stiff Records). Eventually, post-punk showed a way out, and music became more interesting.
At my campus, the word was that Playboy Magazine had claimed to end Arkansas' eligibility for "number 1 party school of the year", claiming that it was no longer fair to the other schools for such a pure party school to be permitted to compete. The dormitory was an endless reek of burning marijuana. The streets on weekends were the never ending sight of frat boys and bleach-blonde girls wearing red, driving convertibles, drunk, screaming the football team cheer, "woooo, piiiggggg, soooiiiiieeeee". The graduate assistant instructors were all late 60s/early 70s type would-be radicals, trying to retreat from earning a more mundane, different form of honest living into the honest living of academia,lecturing us all on the intrinsic nobility of marches and be-ins, in what seemed to be a parody of self-indulgent hippie sensibility. The professors seemed mostly relieved that the 60s were long over. The sexual revolution in this era before AIDs was in full and vibrant swing, though I am quite afraid that I did not personally experience it all that much as a revolutionary. As I speak with an old friend I thought a kinda of Che of the intimate, I realize that even those who seemed "in the swing" did not necessarily have the "free love" moments I imagined, but still and all, I think it was a wilder time then than now in many ways.
I take some pride in being a fish out of water, so I suppose I'm intrigued that as I recount this, I feel the pain of having been a fish out of water. I was a chaste, serious, nerdy kid who would not touch a cigarette, much less a joint. But I also was not at home at all among "religious" people who memorized Bible verses and advocated conservative social agendae (I'll post another time about my brief, failed effort to become a conservative). I remember going to the local main Methodist church, to find myself sometimes literally the only person who would be at the college youth group meetings. The only person, that is, other than the associate pastor, Kurt.
Kurt, hailed, like I did, from a small Arkansas town. His father had been a newspaper publisher. Kurt was in his early twenties, having just finished seminary school and moved, with his similarly young wife, to his first minister's appointment, assistant minister at the largest church in this college town. Methodist ministers get appointments to different churches from a central bishopric every few years, and move "up" and "down" the ladder to larger or smaller churches as their minsterial fortunes rise and fall. Kurt had landed a reasonably good first position, an assistant at a large-ish church.
Kurt proved a great deal unlike most of the "open minded but very traditional" ministers I'd met in churches and at church camp as I grew up, though. I got the first clue during a Sunday school meeting at the church. In a discussion of Heaven, Kurt put forward his view that there was no real afterlife, other than, perhaps, the remembrance of people dwelling in the memory of God. I remember being a bit shocked, perhaps even affronted, by what I considered an un-Biblical doctrine. I remember even saying as much, and watching him acknowledge that a literal belief in the Bible would not support his view. But as time went on, I found that I really liked Kurt, and learned much from him. Kurt was impressed by the liberal theologians, who made faith real to him. He was surprised that I had some reading acquaintance with some of the ideas he admired. He road-mapped for me better understandings of those ideas.
During his time, our church's Methodist college youth group grew a good deal. He found a good youth leader, a divorcee in a time when the church was still discovering that divorce should make no difference to church service (how long ago that seems). I always enjoyed learning from him, though I did not share his views. I do not mean to imply that I was any great monolith of virtue or deep thought. I was just a college kid, and about as flawed as they come. But I wanted to learn.
Kurt did not stay at the church for more than a year or two, though. He came to be concerned that ministers should not work for a church organization. Instead, he said he felt that people should just work day jobs, making their faith part of their lives, not something that they preach to others from an church institution. In essence, Kurt posited that the deep vocation of religious faith should be pursued entirely avocationally. This idea influenced much of my thinking on many things, about the nature of vocation. Kurt left the ministry, to go to work at his father's newspaper. Although Kurt has a very unique surname, when I google him, I get multiple entries for what the various Kurts of the world with his name are now doing. I rather think he is in New York doing financial analysis, but I've never hit the e mail to figure out "which Kurt is Kurt". After all, I did not know him that well, but I liked him a lot. I wonder what happened to him, and I would like to e mail him someday.
As the years went on in my college town, the same conservatism which brought Reagan to power by the end of my college days brought college kids flooding back to the "born again" churches. Authentic spiritual exprience was lost in the search for comfort and the supernatural. On Sundays at the school cafeteria in my freshman year, I was one of the very few who came in "church clothes" to Sunday lunch after church. By my last year of college, most of the cafeteria was dressed in Sunday finery.
The scent of marijuana did not exactly disappear from the dorms, but let's say perhaps the smoke cleared slightly. Our church's next associate pastor was a businessman returned to the ministry, who tried to market potential college youth group Holy Land trips, and who later left the ministry, apparently rather abruptly (and perhaps involuntarily), to return to the business of business.
But for all that it was a glancing acquaintance, I've never forgotten Kurt. My own search for what is "real" has not gone down any particularly noble pathways, and I've lived a highly imperfect life. I think a lot about the "big issues", but accept that in the main I have only little answers. My life is filled with self-conferred cheap grace and a quest for simple integrity. But if God has a memory, I like to think that Kurt is somehow embedded there.