By Christopher Cudworth
The Second Presbyterian church in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania was our family’s religious home from my elementary school years through middle school. Then we pulled up roots and moved to the tiny town of Elburn deep in the cornfields of Illinois. My parents landed at a Presbyterian church in Geneva, nine miles east.
I got confirmed with a group of fellow 8th graders at a congregational church run by the pastor who was our neighbor. Then our family moved once again and my church attendance dropped away with obligations in high school.
A brush with conservatism
But then a group of friends joined Campus Life, the evangelical youth ministry staffed mostly by students from nearby Wheaton College, one of the leading bastions of conservative education in the Upper Midwest.
Most of us did not recognize the conservative ideology behind Campus Life when it first arrived in our town. We attended with students from other high schools, which was pretty radical for the time. So it all felt new and exciting in its way.
As the program grew and its participants were encouraged to dig deeper into the theology behind the feelgood high school ministry, I began to ask questions about what we were being encouraged to learn. Some of these questions exasperated the head of the group, who pulled me aside with a warning and an admonition. “If you keep asking questions you’ll never be a Christian.”
I ignored his aggressive warning and finished out the year with the group. But something about the confrontation made me even more determined to ask questions about the Christian faith and its teachings.
In college I received a C grade in a New Testament course. I failed to grasp that in that particular situation the path to success was to recite what we were being taught, not to question its verity.
As a senior I fell in love with a girl with whom I watched the television program Jesus of Nazareth. It’s narrative was basically traditional, but the emotion was compelling. My curiosity about faith was kicked back into gear. My questions about some notable aspects of faith were answered. For the first time in life I recognized the liberal truth of Christ. He resisted the wrong kinds of authority. He fought back against people seeking to control religion through literal or legalistic means.
Watching that program taught me that Jesus also asked and welcomed a lot of questions. In fact he won many of his most famous arguments by asking questions in response to legalistic challenges. I’d found a hero of sorts.
The summer following my senior year in college I took turns reading all the books in the C.S. Lewis series The Chronicles of Narnia. Christian themes were evident in the metaphorically fantastic story of a band of children who travel to a different dimension where animals can talk and evil sorcery is resisted by the lion known as Aslan. Much like the parables of Jesus the Chronicles of Narnia use symbolism to convey spiritual principles. That opened my eyes even further to the fact that symbolism is one of the most powerful forces in all of scripture.
Marriage and beyond
I did not marry that girl from college but our mutual spiritual exploration did have a deep effect on my life. When I got married in 1985 my wife and I began worship at a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregation because that is the tradition in which she had been raised.
The pastor at the time was a wise former campus minister who once gave a sermon titled “Liberals, Bleeding Hearts and Do-Gooders” in which he boldly challenged the growing perception that the Bible was strictly a conservative document. His main point focused on the fact that Jesus himself was a do-gooder, a bleeding heart and yes, a liberal. Scandalous!
When that pastor retired the church brought in a fire and brimstone preacher from the St. Louis area. He wore a wickedly bad toupee and spent most Sundays railing about an angry God. But my wife and I hung in there even when the church itself became an angry place to be. This was a new and not delightful experience for both of us. We loved our fellow church members and continued our bible studies, church participation and teaching. Yet Sundays often left us sad and confused by the near hatred we kept hearing from the pulpit. We talked often of leaving. But we hung in there.
Facts and fictions
Through a succession of increasingly conservative pastors for another 12 years my wife and I served that church in many ways. She took a job in the preschool. I sang in numerous choirs and ultimately had the opportunity to sing and play guitar in Praise Band too.
Our children were confirmed at that church. But during the process they both admitted exasperation at the manner in which certain “biblical facts” were being taught. The pastor railed against evolution, for example. Both of them had learned plenty in school that taught them science was a reliable, well-founded worldview. Yet both kids dutifully recited what they were told to learn for confirmation and the pastor praised them as model students of the Lutheran faith.
As the church grew increasingly conservative, sermons attacked evolution as a godless belief and characterized homosexuality as a nearly unforgivable sin. After 25 years our family migrated up the river to an ELCA Lutheran Church with open communion and even women pastors. God Forbid.
Questions and devotions
All through this process of growing up and raising a family, the questions I had about faith did not keep me from a certain devotion to God. All the journals I kept about my running through high school, college and beyond express thankfulness to God for the opportunity to compete and sometimes win. I prayed for insight through both challenges and triumphs.
My 25 years of service to a Missouri Synod Lutheran church taught me there was no special insight gained from conservatism. As a board member several times over I saw how decisions were made, or not made, by people with ostensibly ironclad convictions. How desperately wrong they could be, and in so many ways.
That confirmed many of the suspicions I had about conservatism in the world at large. Starting with Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, It struck that conservatism was far more concerned with ideology than justice. When Reagan installed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, he openly proclaimed himself an adversary of the environmental movement on grounds of religious views. Reagan himself claimed to be a protector of moral values in America, yet the so-called Great Communicator branded ketchup a vegetable and played dishonest games through the Iran-Contra affair. The fact that people called Oliver North a hero for his illegal activities and seemed to worship his “above the law” convictions confirmed my worst suspicions about conservatism and its methodologies.
Ten full years after I had participated in the high Campus Life program where that evangelical counselor confronted me for questioning conservative ideology, I encountered the same man at a McDonald’s in my hometown. At first he avoided looking at me, but when our eyes finally met I could see tears running down his face.
Immediately I went over and invited him to sit down with me. We talked and he confessed that he was upset about what he’d said to be a decade before. I told him: “There’s no reason to be upset. What you said to me did not discourage me from a personal faith. I still ask questions. But I still believe.”
Perhaps he was surprised. We parted on friendly terms and I thanked him for his service to Campus Life. It still strikes me that so many people find it hard to believe there is salvation from a liberal perspective. As noted, Jesus often answered questions by asking questions of his own. This was particularly true when he encountered people with conservative opinions trying to impose their convictions on him. Here’s one classic example from the Book of Matthew:
That Which Defiles
15 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’[a] and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[b] 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’[c]”
And that, in a nutshell, is why I’m now a liberal and will always be a liberal believer. That liberal pastor in the conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran Church was also right when he preached the Jesus was a “Liberal, Do-Gooder and Bleeding Heart.” Salvation from a liberal perspectives comes through the very act of questioning false authority, and standing up for the social justice deeply integrated in the liberal Christian faith. That’s how it’s always been, according to Jesus at least.