A Philosophers Way Back to the Faith
After being unchurched for a number of years, I was drawn into the Episcopal church during my first year out of graduate school, my first of twenty-two years on the faculty of the University of Michigan. Why did I come back to the church? It is easier for me to understand why I came to the Epsicopal church in particular than why I returned to the church at all. I chose Episcopalianism over Methodism, Presbyterianism, and so on, partly because I was drawn to the liturgy and partly because I found the intellectual climate of Anglican thought congenial. Moreover, I generally find myself a middle-of-the-roader in philosophy, theology, and most other things; and so I was a natural for the via media. But why get involved in any Christian church or any other? It was certainly not that I had become convinced of the truth of Christianity by philosophical, theological, or historical arguments. It was largely a matter of feeling a church-shaped hole in my life and having sufficient motivation to fill it. I believe that I went into the Episcopal church with the idea that "I'll give it a fling and see what's there" rather than "I am thoroughly convinced that this is the right story, and therefore the thing to do is to sign up. The process was inaugurated by attendance at a memorial service at the local Episcopal church for a late colleague in the philosophy department. Thus this I950 move to the church was triggered in a way similar to my I975 return, to be narrated later. In any event, I was duly confirmed in the Episcopal church in I950, and during the I950S I was rather active in St. Andrew's church, Ann Arbor — singing in the choir, for example — and also in the Episcopal Student Foundation at the University, participating in discussion groups at Canterbury House. Moreover I was making a real effort to lead a Christian life. But looking back on it from this vantage point, I can see that something was fundamentally amiss. I was seeking to use the church and the Christian faith as a refuge from life.
I was seeking a relation with God as a substitute for facing and resolving the problems in my life — problems concerning interpersonal relations, as well as various emotional tensions and conflicts. In condemning myself for this orientation, I do not mean to make a negative judgment on the institution of monasticism. Quite the contrary. To be sure, people can also enter monastic orders for the wrong reason, and they can use the religious life as an escape in the way I am deploring in my own case. But not all monastic vocations are like that. In any event, I certainly was not entering a monastic vocation. I was staying in the world and enjoying the delights thereof, or attempting to, while at the same time trying to use religious devotion as an escape from the task of working out a satisfactory relation to my work, to other people, and to myself. I want to do everything possible to avoid misunderstanding here. I am by no means suggesting that God cannot or should not be a help, a comforter, a source of consolation and strength. But I wasn't trying to get God to help me face my problems; I was trying to get Him to help me forget or evade those problems. One way of putting this is to say that I was trying to live the first and greatest commandment â€” to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind — without making any serious attempt to live the second commandment, which is like unto it — to love your neighbor as yourself. This program had predictable results: I made no progress with either. The commandments are inseparable, as St. John tells us so pithily "... if a man says 'I love God', while hating his brother, he is a liar. If he does not love the brother whom he has seen, it cannot be that he loves God whom he has not seen" (I John 4:20).
When in the late I950s I came to appreciate the situation for what it was, I jumped ship again. On looking back, I can't believe that I made the wrong decision. I realized that I was playacting, and playacting at something I really didn't have my heart in. I had no real relation to God and no real reason to believe in God, much less believe anything more specifically Christian. I have already said that I went into the church with a "I'll give it a try and see what happens" attitude, and so far it was clear to me that nothing worth mentioning was happening. And with the basic orientation I described above, I was in no position to move toward a genuine Christian faith. I needed to get away from the whole thing and gain a different perspective, just as it is often useful for students to drop out of college for a year or so and come back with a different attitude toward the educational process. God works in mysterious ways, and I believe that He is sometimes leading us to Him when we seem to be running in the opposite direction. For about fifteen years I led what seemed to be a purely secular life, though I now believe that things were going on under the surface of which I was not clearly aware at the time. Then in a year of leave, I974-75, most of which was spent in Oxford, these things began to surface. I had never been completely at ease in my attempt to live without God.
I was never an enthusiastic atheist. By the middle 70s, the sense that I was missing out on something of fundamental importance was beginning to crystallize. Furthermore, I was rather a different person from the dropout of the late I950S. For one thing, I had had a lot of psychotherapy, and with some of the internal tensions resolved, I was in a better position to make a realistic assessment of the problems. Moreover I was able to hear the gospel message straight or more nearly straight, at least in a position to hear it and not distort it into something wildly different. You may resist the idea that God should have had to wait until I had gone through a variety of life experiences and profited in various ways from psychotherapy before He could get His message across to me. Can't God deliver His message to anyone at; any time and make sure they get it right? Of course He can. But quite clearly, He doesn't do this with everyone all the time. Why He doesn't I don't presume to say. In any event, one thing He does instead is to make use of various indirect ways of preparing the ground, and I believe that my experience is a case in point. Psychotherapy, and modes of thought from that quarter, had more to do with my case than I have thus far brought out. During my years of exile the main intellectual bar to taking Christianity as a live option was not a rejection of classical proofs for the existence of God or a rejection of historical arguments for the veracity of the Scriptures.
I don't have a radically different assessment of all that in my revivified state than I did when I was wandering in the wilderness. The main bar to faith was rather the Freudian idea that religious faith is a wish fulfillment--more specifically, an attempt to cling to childish modes of relating to the world, with the omnipotent daddy there presiding over everything. A powerful case can be made for the view, which is not necessarily tied to the complete Freudian package, that the most important psychological root of religious belief is the need that everyone has for such a childish relationship with a father figure. Be that as it may, I had been psyched into feeling that I was chickening out, was betraying my adult status, if I sought God in Christ, or sought to relate myself to an ultimate source and disposer of things in any way whatever. The crucial moment in my return to the faith came quite early in that year's leave, before I had reexposed myself to the church or the Bible, or even thought seriously about the possibility of becoming a Christian. I was walking one afternoon in the country outside Oxford, wrestling with the problem, when I suddenly said to myself, "Why should I allow myself to be cribbed, cabined, and confined by these Freudian ghosts? Why should I be so afraid of not being adult? What am I trying to prove? Whom am I trying to impress?
Whose approval am I trying to secure? What is more important: to struggle to conform my life to the tenets of some highly speculative system of psychology or to recognize and come to terms with my own real needs? Why should I hold back from opening myself to a transcendent dimension of reality, if such there be, just from fear of being branded as childish in some quarters?" (Or words to that effect.) These questions answered themselves as soon as they were squarely posed. I had, by the grace of God, finally found the courage to look the specter in the face and tell him to go away. I had been given the courage to face the human situation, with its radical need for a proper relation to the source of all being. This opened things up, but it didn't point in any particular direction. Then my daughter, Ellen, showed up in Oxford for a brief visit. She had been raised an Episcopalian but had, in her turn, jumped ship in late adolescence. Now she was being drawn back, and she gave my wife, Valerie, and me the nudge we needed. (My daughter is now an Episcopal priest, corrector with her husband of a parish in Connecticut.) Valerie, thanks be to God, was groping her way back into the faith at about the same time and at about the same rate as myself, after having been out in the wilderness for about the same period. Ellen suggested that we attend services at the Anglican cathedral in Oxford, which doubles as the chapel of Christ Church College and boasts a world famous choir. This was literally the first religious service, apart from weddings and funerals, that I had attended in about fifteen years. Something happened, which I still find it difficult to put my finger on. But I had definitely made a positive response to the proclamation of the gospel and to the sacramental presence of our Lord, and we began attending services regularly. Oxford is a marvelous place for being drawn back into the church if music plays a large role in one's communication with the divine, as is true in my case.
Three of the colleges have choir schools, and to give the youngsters something to do with all that expertise, evensong is (or was at that time) sung in all three college chapels every weekday. When we returned to Princeton in the fall of I975, I was still a long way from thinking of myself as a full-blooded Christian believer. I didn't feel much more disposed to make an intellectual assent to Christian doctrines than I had before all this started. Insofar as I had any expectations of my religious future, I supposed that I would adopt some sort of watered -down Christianity in which I would participate in the services of worship, supposing the doctrinal elements to be symbolic of some ineffable supreme reality. But I had opened myself up where before I had been closed, and something was coming in through that opening and working unmistakable effects. I wasn't yet prepared to give a traditiona l Christian explanation of what was going on, but I had no doubt that something highly significant was going on. The most striking demonstration that something was happening was that now I was attuned to precisely what was fatally lacking in my earlier adult fling with Christianity--the second commandment. I found myself, incredibly, with a quite different orientation to the people around me. I began, for the first time in my life, to get a glimmer of what love means. It was a most exhilarating experience. Just to make sure that I was not imagining all this, I checked with my wife, my main contact with external reality. She assured me that I was, indeed, quite different. In the fall of I975 we had been attending services at the beautiful old Episcopal church near the center of Princeton--Trinity Church. But in January we happened to wander into a newer Episcopal church on the outskirts of town--All Saints, a fine example of -Japanese Gothic," as the rector put it. All Saints had a remarkable choir,directed by the man who was Gian Carlo Menotti's chief assistant for the Festival of Two Worlds, then held each summer in Spoleto in Italy. But the main thing we discovered at All Saints was the rector, who bore the unusual name, for an Episcopal rector, of Orley Swartzentruber.
Insofar as I have become, or am becoming, a Christian, I credit it to Orley, or to God working through Orley. I am sure that Valerie would say the same. Orley had an unusual background, as well as an unusual name, for an Episcopal rector. His father was a Mennonite missionary, from Canada, in South America. He grew up there and received his higher education in the United States. He became a Mennonite minister and had a variety of experiences, including the founding of an Alsatian Mennonite church in Paris. At a later stage he was a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he received a Ph.D. in the Old Testament. While there he became drawn into the Episcopal church and, in the fullness of time, was ordained an Episcopal priest. Perhaps partly as a result of his Mennonite background, he preached the gospel in a way I have rarely heard elsewhere among the "frozen people of God," as an exasperated Episcopalian once referred to his brothers and sisters in the faith. Indeed, I have rarely heard the gospel preached that way anywhere, under any circumstances. One not only heard the gospel being interpreted in a way that had direct application to one's situation then and there, but one could, as it were, literally see the gospel being lived out in front of one. All this without any obvious histrionics and with the aid of profound scholarship. I may be making Orley sound too good to be true, but why shouldn't God work through someone in that way? Orley is a living example of what Christian spirituality can be in late twentieth-century America. When we began attending All Saints, I discovered that there was a charismatic prayer group within the parish. At that time I didn't even know the distinctively theological meaning of the term charismat ic, and I was blissfully unaware of the recent efflorescence of the charismatic movement across Christendom. On the "I'll try anything once" principle, I decided to attend. This was a very muted and proper Anglican -style charismatic group. The singing was from the Episcopal hymnal, rather than folksy-jivy stuff, and speaking in tongues and the like was rarely heard. But clearly, something was happening there. I must confess that I was badly turned off at first, especially by people giving thanks to God for finding them a parking place. But I forced myself to persevere out of sheer doggedness, and eventually I began to get drawn in. I began to see that these people were really in touch with God as a more or less continual living presence in their lives, and that this influenced, to a greater or lesser degree, every facet of their existence.
This meant that I had a whole bevy of role models for the Christian life, and that I had the opportunity to expose myself to them once a week and to try out these roles myself under their tutelage. The Eucharist was celebrated at the end of these sessions, and I found that it took on a new meaning in that context. Unfortunately, or perhaps in God's grand design fortunately, we left Princeton for Urbana, Illinois, in August I975. We had been at All Saints for less than a year. But we were incredibly fortunate in having happened on to that parish at a time when we were just groping our way back into the faith but were still essentially on the outside looking in. By the time we left Princeton we were definitely hooked. We had, and still have, a long road to travel, but we had unequivocally embarked on the journey, and we had been pointed in the right direction. In our first year in Urbana I began attending an ecumenical charismatic prayer group at the Newman Center at the University of Illinois. This was hard-core stuff — including speaking in tongues and other such manifestations. Furthermore, the Roman Catholics, who, as usual, had things beautifully organized, had an eight-week course of preparation for baptism in the Spirit.
I signed up for this and did, at the culminating session, receive the gift of tongues, along with a new and more vivid sense of the presence of the Spirit. That sense has never really deserted me, though, of course, it waxes and wanes, as does any mode of human experience. I am rather ashamed of not having remained active in the charismatic movement. There just seems to be too much of a cultural gap between myself and most charismatics in terms of approach to the scriptures, musical taste, and general lifestyle. I am rather ashamed of my dropout status, because I feel that I have taken a great deal from the movement and given nothing in return. I will be eternally grateful for the vivid sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit that I was privileged to receive, and I honor the movement for its continuing witness to the overriding importance of the work of the Spirit in our lives. Perhaps one day I will find my way back to the movement. In the meantime I hope that I am able to give something back in other contexts. This ends the narrative of my way back. From here on I am within the faith, trying to understand it, to live it, to grow in the spiritual life. As I said earlier, I have been blessed by the fact that Valerie was drawn back into the church at about the same time, and by the fact that we have had the opportunity to find our way together, to embark on the endless task of growth in the Christian life together, and to encourage and sustain each other in that task. That is God's grace indeed. Since coming to Syracuse in I980 I have, God help me, become increasingly involved in ecclesiastical affairs in both St. Paul's Cathedral, where we are members of the congregation, and the Diocese of Central New York. Heavy church involvement can serve to deaden one's response to the Holy Spirit, just as it can be a way of contributing to the work of the kingdom.
I suppose that both have been exemplified in my case. For most of the time, at any rate, I have been trying to "give something back" in this church work, as well as to keep myself moving forward in the new life of the Spirit, so far as in me lies, with the help of that same Spirit. If there has been any point in my rehearsing these not very remarkable events from my life, it is that there are things to be learned from my experience that are of relevance to people other than myself. And given the emphasis of this volume, it is to be hoped that something can be gleaned from this case about how a philosopher might be involved in the Christian faith and the Christian life. I will organize what might be learned under three headings: (1) why I left the church, (2) how I came back, and (3) what I came back to, the shape of the faith within which I find myself at present.
Under the first heading, the simple moral is that one can be attached to Christianity for the wrong reasons, for radically wrong reasons, and that when that is the case, the best thing to do may be to get out and give yourself a chance to make a fresh start under new circumstances at some later time. I am not offering this as a general recipe. With respect to all or most of us, there is something wrong in our appropriation of the faith. I am certainly not suggesting that everyone leave the church periodically and stay away for some minimum period of time. I can only report my conviction that this was the thing to do in my case, and that when someone you know does something similar, don't forget the possibility that God may be at work there in ways you cannot see for the moment. <. As for the way back, there are points as to what was involved and, equally important, what wasn't involved. Before launching into this I want to stress that I am not presenting my case as a model of what conversion should be, or what it is when it is most authentic or most complete, or anything of the sort. I believe that there are many roads to the faith. I am describing one route out of many, one possibility that might get overlooked since it is less dramatic or less easily categorized than others. At this point I must make another confession. I chose the title of this essay in the hope that my readers would entertain false expectations. I anticipated that many of you would suppose that anything advertised as a philosopher's conversion would feature an intellectual process of coming to realize the cogency of arguments for the existence of God, for the historical accuracy of the Scriptures, or whatever. If a philosopher is to find his or her way back to the faith, he or she should do it in a manner befitting the profession. Right? Well, if that's what it takes to be a respectable combination of philosopher and Christian, I must plead guilty. My narrative has been conspicuous for the absence of any presentation of arguments, any account of trains of reasoning leading up to an intellectual assent to this or that doctrine. Before attempting a general characterization of what was in the center of the picture, let me qualify the above remarks somewhat. Although I didn't move from unbelief to belief by a process of reasoning myself into an intellectual assent to the articles of faith, I don't wish to suggest that philosophical views and philosophical reflection played no role. At a minimum, I never would have taken Christianity seriously had I firmly held a naturalistic or a materialist metaphysics. For those who have philosophical positions, a position that is open to the truth of Christian doctrine is a necessary condition of acquiring a full-blooded Christian faith. Moreover, my intellectual wrestling with Freudian and other reductive accounts of religious belief provided, as I have already made explicit, an essential preparation for an openness to the Spirit. But all of this is by way of background. It opens up the possibility of a discovery of God in Christ in the church, but it doesn't make that discovery itself. I take this to be generally true of the role of philosophy in the religious life. It has an ancillary role, a very important one, but ancillary nonetheless. Philosophical thinkin g can enable us to see through objections to Christian belief; it can exhibit the faith as something plausible and intellectually respectable; it can show the faith as something that can command the assent of an educated, intellectually sophisticated, and knowledgeable denizen of the late twentieth century. But it rarely, if ever, propels one into a condition of faith. Consider the classic arguments for the existence of God. I believe they have an important role in the religious life. They can reveal connec tions between God and various aspects of the world.
They can show Christian faith to be a not unreasonable stance. But it must be extremely rare for them to play the major role in a move from unbelief to belief. Again, philosophical thinking can play a crucial role in coming to a deeper understanding of the faith. "Faith seeking understanding" is a motto by which I try to live. Philosophy always has been, and continues to be, a primary tool in the ongoing attempt to gain a more penetrating grasp of the import of the basic articles of faith: the nature of God, creation, sin, the Incarnation, the atonement, the work of the Spirit, and so on it But when faith is seeking understanding, the faith is already there, and philosophy comes on the scene too late to produce it. To be sure, one who is still on the outside might seek a better understanding of what's on the inside, and that understanding might remove blocks to faith or otherwise move one in that direction. That would be analogous to the other preparatory roles I have mentioned. The general upshot of all this is that although philosophical reasoning has very important roles to play in the religious life, producing faith where it had been absent is not one of them. Certainly it was not in my case.
Returning from this digression, I will try to give a general characterization of what was most centrally involved in my movement from unbelief to belief. So far as I am aware, it was primarily a process of responding to a call, of being drawn into a community, into a way of life. That can sound as if I had embraced one of the well known naturalistic or humanistic substitutes for Christianity, in which one adopts a certain stance or orientation or commitment without seriously believing that one is thereby related to an infinite source of all things that has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. And, as I have already made explicit, at an early stage of the process that would have been a not wholly inaccurate characterization. But that is certainly not what the process led to in the fullness of time. In saying that what was most centrally involved was my being drawn into a community, into a way of life, I do not mean to imply that the Horizontal" was substituted for the "vertical" dimension of the Christian life. I am saying, rather, that I found the vertical dimension through the horizontal. I found God as a reality in my life through finding a community of faith and being drawn into it. That's where the message was being proclaimed, and if I had not been able to see, eventually, that He Who was being proclaimed was Himself at work in those proclamations and in those proclaimers, I would, no doubt, have continued to turn a deaf ear.It should be clear from what I have just been saying that I take the church very seriously.
I am as keenly aware as anyone of the many failings of institutionalized Christianity, and I cannot sincerely claim that everyone (or most people) who regularly attends an Episcopal church, or any other Christian church, displays the love of God in every word and deed. Nevertheless, the new life of the Spirit is being lived there, and my experience, for what it is worth, confirms the New Testament picture of the new life as essentially a life lived in the community of the faithful. One of the significant milestones in my way back came when the words of the postcommunion prayer took hold of me one day. I am thinking particularly of the passage in which, after thanking God for feeding us with the "spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ," the congregation goes on to thank God "that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people." In concluding this point, I cannot do better than to quote G. K. Chesterton: "In the last analysis, the reason I am a Christian is that the church is a living and not a dead teacher." So, to descend to slogans, my way back was not by abstract philosophical reasoning but by experience--experienc e of the love of God and the presence of the Spirit, as found within the community of the faithful. I didn't reason myself into the faith. Rather, my entrance into the faith gave me new materials, new data, new premises for my reasoning, and, of course, new problems as well. It was more like having one's eyes opened to an aspect of the environment to which one had previously been blind; more like learning to hear things in music that one had been missing; more like that than coming to realize that certain premises have an unexpected implication. But though mine was an experiential way into the faith, it did not follow the evangelical pattern of an overwhelming conviction of sin, followed by an equally overwhelming sense of release when one commits oneself to Christ and accepts the forgiveness of that sin offered in Christ's atoning act.
I hope that all of us will eventually attain a balanced, inclusive, well-rounded faith, one that has room for all the main elements of Christianity. But most of us don't start with that. Each of us approaches the infinite complexity of the faith through one or another of its aspects. Mine was as just indicated. And perhaps as a result of my experience of gradually getting drawn in, rather than undergoing the one-shot ZAP after which one's life is completely changed, I think of the Christian life more on the Catholic model of a gradual progress--a gradual sanctification of the person, a process that will presumably be continued after death as well as throughout this life--rather than as a once-and-for-all being saved, after which one is with the sheep rather than the goats, and that's that. Finally, a word about the shape of the faith to which I found my way back. Let's get at this by asking the perennial question, "What is it to be a Christian?". Here too my attitude is that there is much room for legitimate diversity in the emphasis we place on particular facets of the infinitely rich totality of the Christian faith. Different persons and different groups will seize on different aspects as the one that is most central in their experience. At least this is legitimate so long as it does not lead to ostracizing those with other emphases. To oversimplify greatly, we could say that the Catholic story on what it is to be a Christian is "to have been baptized, to have been received into the church, the body of Christ," while the evangelical Protestant answer is "to have accepted Jesus Christ as one's savior." My answer, in a nutshell, is this: To be a Christian is to be open to the revel ation of God in Jesus Christ; to stand within the community that is bound together by the fact that it derives its ultimate commitment from that revelation; to take that revelation as the supreme guide for one's life; to seek to relate oneself to God and to one's fellows as indicated by that revelation. Needless to say, the openness and commitment of which I am speaking is a matter of degree, and I don't want to get into legalistic arguments as to where one has to be along this continuum in order to count as a Christian.
I merely want to suggest that what is distinctive about being a Christian is such openness and such commitment. I also seek to be as inclusive as possible in my conception of the Christian life. It involves the attempt to grow in one's understanding of the faith through study of the Scriptures and the theological tradition and through thinking about the issues they raise. It involves prayer and contemplation. It involves the reception of the sacraments. It involves joining with one's fellow Christians in the worship of God, in study and prayer, in helping each other to lead the Christian life. It involves trying to carry out the law of love in all one's relationships. It involves witnessing to such light as one has received. And so on. I also want to mention one thing I do not take to be required for being a Christian. I do not accept the idea that in order to be a Christian one must adopt a certain view as to the way in which God has revealed Himself in the Scriptures, nor do I accept the idea that a certain set of theological propositions must be assented to. I think there is room for honest differences of opinion on such matters within the Christian community. To be sure, there are limits. I am far from suggesting that anyone who thinks that love is very important in human life is properly called a Christian just on those grounds. If one does not believe that the universe depends for its existence on a transcendent source of being that can be thought of in personalistic terms, or if one does take Jesus Christ to be a supreme revelation of God, one is not a Christian in the proper sense of the term. But just how all the fine print is set up is, for my money, an internal family matter, a problem to be discussed, worked out, quarreled about if necessary, within the family, and discussed, one hopes, without rupturing the bonds of the family. I think of theology as related to the basic Christian faith somewhat as high level scientific theories are related to our basic commonsense awareness of the physical environment. In both cases we can share the same picture of the major outlines of the environment while disagreeing on the fine structure and the ultimate explanation of that common reality.
To sum up: My way back to the faith was not primarily through philosophical reasoning, or any other form of argumentation, but through an experience of God at work in the Christian community. Naturally, as a philosopher who carries out philosophical reflection on religion, including his own religion, I believe that philosophy has important roles to play in the Christian life. I have already briefly set out what I take some of those roles to be. But I don't feel that philosophy's job description includes bringing us to faith. That job, on the human side of the interaction, is reserved for more intuitive, less discursive activities. Philosophy has a crucially important role in clarifying, systematizing, and defending the faith, but that role presupposes that there is a faith there on which to exercise it. For a recent application of contemporary philosophy to the understanding of these issues, see Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. T. V. Morris (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, I988.).