“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” This quote by Emerson reflects the thinking of some of my favorite authors. Philip Yancey, Paul Tournier, Malcolm Muggeridge, Dallas Willard, Henri Nowen and Garry Will, Richard Rohr have an outsider point of view and often critique the evangelical subculture. Though exceedingly devout, in veering away from black and white understandings they provided theological grounding as I struggled towards moderation.
Paul Tournier was the pioneer of person-centered psychotherapy. A medical doctor, he saw the need to consider not only the physical aspects of health, but also the psychological and spiritual dimensions. In The Healing of Persons, very early in my reading Tournier quoting an early church father expressed the idea that Jesus would remain on the cross until the gates of hell were emptied. Though some have argued that Tournier was a universalist, he simply pointed to the ultimate triumph of good over evil for all of mankind.
Garry Wills is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, journalist, and historian who specializes in American political history and ideology of the Roman Catholic Church. Wills is quick to note he is not a biblical scholar. Though he is a devout Catholic, he has been a critic of the Vatican’s policies and theology. In Head and Heart: American Christianities, Wills details the long debate on the separation of church and state, affirming that that when the church and state are too close, it results in harm for both of them.
In three books on the New Testament, What Jesus Really Meant, What Paul Meant and What the Gospels Meant, Wills draws on the conservative scholarship of N. T. Wright and the late Raymond Brown. He has harsh things to say about the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, and makes the case for why Jesus’ earliest followers believed in their Lord’s physical resurrection.
Philip Yancey, who grew up in a strict, fundamentalist church, jokes today about being in recovery from its toxicity.
Though he went through a period of reacting against everything he was taught, he began his journey back mainly by encountering a world very different than he had been taught.
In addition to writing best-selling books such as Disappointment With God and Where is God When it Hurts? he edited The Student Bible. More recently, he has written The Jesus I Never Knew, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? and Soul Survivor. His books have won 13 Gold Medallion Awards from Christian publishers and booksellers, and he has more than 15 million books in print, published in 35 languages worldwide.
Soul Survivor, my favorite, is a compilation of short biographies dedicated to men who influenced Yancey’s faith– Martin Luther King Jr., G. K. Chesterton, Dr. Paul Brand, Dr. Robert Coles, Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. C. Everett Koop, John Donne, Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, Shusaku Endo, and Henri Nouwen.
Malcolm Muggeridge was born in 1903. His father was a member of the House of Commons and Muggeridge later described his upbringing as “socialist”. In 1924 Muggeridge left Cambridge University and worked as a teacher in India and Egypt He also contributed articles for various newspapers including the Evening Standard and the Daily Telegraph.
In 1932 Muggeridge became a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in the Soviet Union. Having professed to being an agnostic for most of his life, he became a Christian, publishing Jesus Rediscovered in 1969, a collection of essays, articles and sermons on faith. It became a best seller. Jesus: The Man Who Lives followed in 1976, a more substantial work describing the gospel in his own words. In this period, he also produced several important BBC documentaries with a religious theme, including In the Footsteps of St. Paul.
My favorite book, The Third Testament, describes the life seven maverick thinkers in search of God. Though not held in high regard during their day, Saint Augustine, Blaise Pascal, William Blake, Soren Kierkegaard Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are now held in high regard.
Frederick Beuchner, in memoirs, novels and sermons, writes about his faith in ways that resonate with people who are not afraid to confront their doubts. His themes focus on how God speaks to us in the everyday circumstances of our life. Contrasted to the rigid, stark thinking of many evangelicals, Beuchner’s approach reflects the muted paradoxical tones of a poet.
He strands two worlds, being too liberal for right wing conservatives yet too religious for secular readers. Amos Wilder, New Testament scholar and poet, and brother to the playwright Thornton Wilder, asked, “Can a novelist or playwright be unashamedly Christian … naively evangelical; can he deal directly with prayer, miracles, absolution without seeming preachy, without losing the secular reader or even the sophisticated Christian?” Although his nonfiction presents views on homosexuality and universalism that evangelical readers take issue with, both mainline and evangelical Christians read his books.
His 1973 title, Wishful Thinking (subtitled A Theological ABC, has been one of the best-selling of his titles, fiction or nonfiction. it defines a host of theological words with wit and whimsy. The book that came from the lectures, published in 1970, was The Alphabet of Grace. The success of these prompted him to write memoirs about his early life.
Henri Nowen showed me how an intimate communion with God could be accessed through contemplation. Born in Nijkerk, Holland, Nouwen felt called to the priesthood at a very young age. He was ordained in 1957 as a diocesan priest and studied psychology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. In 1964 he moved to the United States to study at the Menninger Clinic. He taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. During his fruitful years at Yale, he published 13 books, including The Wounded Healer, Out of Solitude, and Genesee Diary. After leaving Yale in 1981, Nouwen spent several months in Latin America where his life took on a new dimension—close association with the poor—and his spirituality took on more socially critical features.
In 1986 accepted an invitation to become pastor for the L’Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto, where those with handicaps and their assistants live together as God’s children.
Henri’s restless spirit wanted a home where his reputation would mean nothing. Through his journals, he invites the reader into intimacy with God through prayer, the Word, and social action. He calls for solitude, but never for isolation.
Near the end of his life, he shared with a small group of friends that he had for years lived as a celibate homosexual. The tortuous loneliness of his struggle caused him to see himself as a prodigal son in the deepest sense.
Though Dallas Willard graduated from conservative Tennessee Temple College, he moved far beyond his fundamentalist roots. In his book The Divine Conspiracy, As a young assistant pastor in a Southern Baptist church, Dillard, convinced that he was ignorant of God and the soul, decided to study philosophy. He claims that God spoke to him and said, “If you stay in the churches, the university will be closed to you; but if you stay in the university, the churches will be open to you.”
He rejected the infallible inspiration of Scripture, saying, “Jesus and his words have never belonged to the categories of dogma or law, and reading them as if they did is simply to miss them.” The Christian tradition certainly deals with guilt and the afterlife, but by no means does it take them to be the only issues involved in salvation.
Gary Black, in
The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Proto evangelical Faith, says Willard removes his view of Scripture from so much of what evangelicals fight about. Scriptures are an objective presence of the Logos in the world, but not an all-inclusive representation of the Logos. Also, Willard believes in a “conversational revelation”:
Willard claims that God is not concerned about doctrinal purity. God looks at our heart. We don’t become righteous by having the correct beliefs but become righteous by trusting God and living from Him.
Atonement is God giving his Son for us and our salvation. How the cross enables this new life is a mystery. The focus is on transformation and it cannot happen all at once. In The Divine Conspiracy, he writes that atonement-centered understandings of the gospel create vampire Christians who want Jesus for his blood and little else. He calls us to move beyond a gospel of sin management, forgiveness or guilt status to discipleship evangelism.
As to the destiny of Buddhists, Willard says, “I’m not sure I am ready to condemn them as wrong…..I would take [this individual] to Romans 2:6-10: God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.”
Willard believed Paul was saying that if anyone is worthy of being saved, they will be saved. Many Christians get anxious, saying that absolutely no one is worthy of being saved. The implication of that is that a person can be almost totally good, but miss the message about Jesus, and be sent to hell. It is possible for someone who does not know Jesus to be saved. But anyone who is going to be saved is going to be saved by Jesus” .
Willard’s books, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, and Renovation of the Heart deal with contemplative spirituality. He recommends the Catholic-Buddhist Thomas Merton and the Roman Catholic mystic saints such as Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Dominic, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Brother Lawrence, Francis of Assisi, Thomas à Kempis, and Henri Nouwen.
Fr. Richard Rohr is a globally recognized ecumenical teacher and a Franciscan priest. Fr. Richard’s teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodoxy–practices of contemplation and self-emptying, expressing itself in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized.
Fr. Richard is author of numerous books, including Everything Belongs, Adam’s Return, The Naked Now, Breathing Under Water, Falling Upward, Immortal Diamond, and Eager to Love. The following interview by Rohr was on PBS radio:
I believe in mystery and multiplicity. To religious believers this may sound almost pagan. But I don’t think so. My very belief and experience of a loving and endlessly creative God has led me to trust in both.
I’ve had the good fortune of teaching and preaching across much of the globe, while also struggling to make sense of my experience in my own tiny world. This life journey has led me to love mystery and not feel the need to change it or make it un- mysterious. This has put me at odds with many other believers I know who seem to need explanations for everything.
Religious belief has made me comfortable with ambiguity. “Hints and guesses,” as T.S. Eliot would say. I often spend the season of Lent in a hermitage, where I live alone for the whole 40 days. The more I am alone with the Alone, the more I surrender to ambivalence, to happy contradictions and seeming inconsistencies in myself and almost everything else, including God. Paradoxes don’t scare me anymore.
When I was young, I couldn’t tolerate such ambiguity. My education had trained me to have a lust for answers and explanations. Now, at age 63, it’s all quite different. I no longer believe this is a quid pro quo universe — I’ve counseled too many prisoners, worked with too many failed marriages, faced my own dilemmas too many times and been loved gratuitously after too many failures.
Whenever I think there’s a perfect pattern, further reading and study reveal an exception. Whenever I want to say “only” or “always,” someone or something proves me wrong. My scientist friends have come up with things like “principles of uncertainty” and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite.
People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It’s the people who don’t know who usually pretend that they do. People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind. It is a litmus test for authentic God experience, and is — quite sadly — absent from much of our religious conversation today. My belief and comfort is in the depths of Mystery, which should be the very task of religion.