30 September 2010

Faith and certainty, part three

Our whole day was taken up by a wonderful Institute excursion to the beautiful Volga River port city of Yaroslavl, which is celebrating its 1000th birthday this year. (Pictures coming.) My favorite stop was the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral and its surrounding monastery/museum, but I was glad we had time to stop in at one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic museums I've ever seen, the Museum of Music and Time, on the Volga Embankment.

We spent eight hours on the bus there and back. While on the bus, I thought about a story I read recently--covered in the Associated Baptist Press with the headline, "Albert Mohler says he's embarrassed by past support of women in ministry." (ABP archives are temporarily offline, but you can see the story here, with comments, and the sermon it comes from here.) The element that intrigued me was his encounter in 1984 with the venerable Carl F. H. Henry. Al Mohler was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Henry was one of the great statesmen of American evangelicalism, a cofounder of Fuller Seminary, and the founding editor of Christianity Today.
(above) Carl F.H. Henry

(above) Ham Sok Hon. Source.

Henry was visiting the seminary, and Mohler was able to serve as a host to this great intellectual mentor. At the time, Al Mohler was strongly in favor of equal opportunity in pastoral leadership, and had participated in protests against the Southern Baptist's Convention's resolution against women pastors. Then came Henry's visit. As Mohler tells it,
At one point, it was my responsibility to get Dr. Henry from one end of this campus to the other. As I was walking him along, he brought up the issue of women in the pastorate. He asked me my position on the issue. With the insouciance of youth and the stupidity of speaking more quickly than one ought, I gave him my position. He looked at me with a look that surprised me and said to me, "One day, this will be a matter of great embarrassment to you." That’s actually all he said. When Carl Henry tells you that on the seminary lawn, the effect of that embarrassment was instantaneous.... The shock on his face was enough to arrest me. We talked more; we didn’t get close to that. We did talk about it many times thereafter.
Henry's remark led to feverish study and a complete turnaround by the next morning. One certainty was replaced by the exact opposite certainty. "I realized that indeed Carl Henry was right. One day I would be very embarrassed about this."

As you'll see if you go to the complete text, Mohler emphasizes that "...Carl Henry didn’t change my position, but he sure did arrest me. It was the Scripture that changed my position." I confess that I find it very hard to accept that as a flat statement, even though I certainly believe that Al Mohler searched the Scriptures very diligently that night. "Frankly, the urgency on me was such that I didn’t think I could eat or do anything until I found out why I was going to be so embarrassed."

I take at least two lessons from this story and others like it:

First, it's a moving demonstration of a mentor-student relationship and its power to affect belief. I'm sure Carl Henry had no intention of exerting an extra-biblical influence on Mohler; he simply wanted Mohler to take a deeper look at the biblical evidence, which the older man was (in all likelihood) sure would convince the student to change his viewpoint. But relationship has its own convincing power, equal to words and ideas, if not superior. I can't speak for either man, of course, but I can't help question Henry's assertion that Mohler's egalitarian beliefs, even if wrong, would eventually be "a matter of great embarrassment...." Why embarrassment? What social price, social punishment, was implied? Is such a cost consistent with Christian love in the academy and the church as a whole?

A second, related point: great minds are not always right. Mohler ascribed his earlier pro-equality views to the accepted orthodoxy of the seminary at the time. (See this for some brief background.) Henry's viewpoint, scripturally based as he believed it was, also was unquestioned orthodoxy for many. But not all those who believe passionately in equality are speaking "... [w]ith the insouciance of youth and the stupidity of speaking more quickly than one ought..." nor are they all simply parroting the local conventional wisdom. What social incentive did early Friends have to follow spiritual and scriptural guidance going 180 degrees against the monolithic beliefs of their day? In any case, "venerable" does not equal "infallible." I know this is logically obvious, but is it always emotionally obvious?

When I was a brand new Friend, still a college-age student, I don't know whether a similar encounter would have had the paradigm-shattering impact that Henry had on Mohler. My conversion was itself a very fresh memory--Jesus had saved my life, and had completely upset the atheistic certainties of my family background. I wanted to know God more and more, but I still carried my parents' inoculation against the religion industry, including its apparent love of hierarchies, licenses, and showmanship. I needed to see raw spiritual authenticity, unprotected by privilege and mystique. The Lord who told me to love enemies and expect miracles was, to my mind, not going to bless the world's ways of power and rank. Can you see why Friends were so attractive to me? Robert Barclay, whose Apology I gobbled up over lunch hours along with greasy sub sandwiches in the back room of Canterbury House bookstore, kept cutting through establishment pretensions with both common-sense biblical interpretation and appeals to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose confirmation I kept experiencing, to my daily joy.

And the mentors I found! First, my Quaker godmothers in Canadian Yearly Meeting--Deborah Haight, Anne Thomas, and Ruth Morris. Slightly later, I particularly remember Jim and Ann Lenhart asking for an "opportunity" with me during their visit to Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston, where I was on staff; I was all of 24 years old, and they said to me that they sensed that I had a public calling which I should not neglect. None of these Friends--nor Gordon Browne or my other later mentors--ever told me to worry about embarrassment. Instead, their function for me (as no doubt Henry's was for Mohler in the larger scale of things) could be summed up by the title of a pamphlet by Douglas Steere, which he handed me at a vulnerable point in my student years, "On Confirming the Deepest Thing in Another."

As for that indefinable quality of being "venerable," inhabiting the senior ranks of quakerly "weightiness," I'm sure Carl Henry had it in spades. He played a major role in breaking open the closed world of mid-century fundamentalism and aiding the birth of modern humane evangelicalism. He is rightly credited with helping the reunification of the social justice and doctrinal emphases in American evangelicalism. The fact that he did not break away from patriarchal captivity simply proves the incompleteness of the evangelical dialogue without the witness of Friends and others who have experienced breakthroughs that he did not. But thank God those breakthroughs did happen; otherwise I can't imagine where I would have found a spiritual home where I could cherish the Scriptures and breathe the clear air of Gospel freedom, peace, and equality.

One final note: Sometimes those we might rightly regard as venerable don't see themselves that way at all. I was at the Friends World Committee's Triennial sessions in Mexico in 1985. Among the impressive Friends in attendance there was Ham Sok Hon, the respected and beloved Korean Friend, who (aside from his thoughtful participation!) made quite an impression with his beard and flowing white robe. When a Western Friend complimented him on his attire, he replied, "Isn't polyester wonderful?"



Faith and certainty, part one

Faith and certainty, part two

Another post mentioning Al Mohler and certainty.

Al Mohler, Andy Stanley, and the Bible.



Phoebe walks around Yaroslavl.

Sarah Ruden's fresh examination of St. Paul, along with her account of joining Friends.

Save Blue Like Jazz (the film).

A teachable moment on Whidbey Island. "Yeah, that seems about right."

Micah Bales on Friends United Meeting's "emerging leaders" conference.

Bob Woodward and "the Washington gossip machine," by Andrew Bacevich. "The theme of that story is not whether Dick likes Jane, but whether the [U.S.] Constitution remains an operative document."

"That All-American urge to punish."

"FBI files on Iowa peace activists now public."

Two related open-source articles: "OpenOffice.org forsakes Oracle," and "Welcome to The Document Foundation."



A blues dessert by Bill Sims Jr. and Mark Lavoie.

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