When invited to reflect on how my mind has changed over the years, especially theologically and ethically, I recognized that I would need to depend primarily on memory instead of documents, and that this increases the peril of self-deception and distortion. With this awareness, I share these selected reflections in the hope that others may test, correct, or validate my perceptions. I understand the word
change broadly, to include such concepts as new learnings, growth, maturation, re-interpretation, renewal, and revising priorities.
My perception is that the foundations of my theological and ethical development were laid in my teen-age years. I grew up in a conservative rural General Conference Mennonite home in east Freeman, South Dakota, where daily family prayers, while kneeling, and attendance at Salem Mennonite Church, including Sunday School and worship, were practiced with seriousness and regularity. At the age of 15 I attended a catechism class taught by William S. Gottschall, our pastor, whose theology was influenced by Fundamentalism. I came to understand myself as a sinner needing to be saved by the grace of God. I affirmed my faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, and asked for and received baptism to become a member of the local congregation of believers. As part of my catechism experience I was taught to read the Bible not so much as a book of rules but rather as a kind of
love letter from God. I was told to read the Bible as a very personal document in which I was allowed to insert my own name into the biblical text. This fascinated me and helped me become an avid Bible reader at an early age. I was taught that God, not visible to human eyes, is Spirit; and is to be worshiped
in spirit and in truth. I did not understand all that meant, but it involved me very early in what I now call spiritual disciplines.
I was also taught that to be a follower of Jesus involved morality, a changed life-style, and a different way of responding to evil. Since my uncle Edward Waltner had been put in prison at Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas for refusing military service, I also learned that in the Mennonite faith tradition we renounced the use of violence and practiced nonresistant love even toward enemies, serving others rather than destroying them. In some way I was embracing fundamentalism and non-violent biblical pacifism at the same time.
A second major movement in my spiritual life came during the many years I spent in formal education, moving me into my early years of Christian ministry. The schools included Freeman Junior College (South Dakota), Bethel College (Kansas), The Biblical Seminary in New York and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Pennsylvania) as well as courses at Wheaton College (Illinois), the University of South Dakota, Temple University (Pennsylvania), Princeton Theological Seminary (New Jersey), and later Andover -Newton Theological Seminary (Massachusetts), and Westminster College as part of Cambridge University in England. In these diverse settings I had teachers with widely differing faith postures, including atheists and conservative and liberal biblical scholars of various denominations as well as Mennonite mentors.
I continued biblical study throughout these varied educational experiences and am still learning that reading the Bible involves reading it in its historical-cultural context and with high respect for its literary and rhetorical forms. I was taught the difference between reading something out of the text and reading something into it. I learned the difference between a hermeneutic of suspicion and a hermeneutic of faith. I learned that biblical documents are to be read in terms of the intention of the writers and, as we can discern it, the intention of God. I learned that when persons coming from different cultural and theological backgrounds read scripture together, listening to each other as well as to the text, wonderful insights and warm fellowship can emerge as the work of God’s Spirit. I learned also the dangers of individualistic reading of the biblical text as well as the possibility of massive and destructive abuse of what was intended as a life-giving and liberating Word. In short, Bible reading must be done with care. Misuse of the Bible may indeed be as dangerous as disuse, yet I would see the abandonment of serious Bible reading by the church as self-destructive.
In this pilgrimage, I was at one time fascinated by dispensationalism, a pattern of biblical interpretation which, among other things, sought to predict human history from reading biblical texts. I have changed to a posture of caution in attempting this. A major shift for me involves interpretation of Old Testament promises of land to the people of Israel, noting the course of Israeli-Palestinian conflict arising over the alleged implications of these biblical promises. I have come to appreciate the profoundly paradoxical dimensions of biblical truth which affirms not only order but also freedom, not only peace but also justice, not only humanity but also environment, not only individuals but also society, not only the church but also the state. In short I am learning to read biblical truth as multi-dimensional yet within biblically defined boundaries.
A third major segment of my theological/ethical journey has to do with the formative impact of the practice of Christian ministry, whether pastoral, educational, or administrative. Formal theological reflection in the classroom is one dimension of ministry. Responding to a person on her death-bed or to a parent whose child has committed suicide is another. Moving from the ecstasy of a wedding to the grief of a funeral, sometimes in a single day of ministry, yields its own fruit for theological/ethical integration. I am indebted to the concept of experience/reflection learning, seeing this as a life-long process. Instead of assuming that one learns first and then practices ministry, I have discovered that a great deal of my own theological/ethical integration happened during my practice of ministry itself, however flawed that ministry may have been. I have come to believe that it is in the very practice of ministry that one’s interpretation of the Bible and one’s theological and ethical insights are to be forged and tested. Whether we call it
supervised experience in ministry or
practice based learning, I continue to believe that the interaction of ministry and reflection, of engagement and evaluation, even of one’s work and one’s worship are to be on-going dimensions of spiritual development.
A fourth movement in my theological and ethical development arises out of my learnings in the practice of Spiritual Direction. This became very significant for me in my retirement years when I not only sought out Spiritual Direction from others but allowed others to come to me for such a ministry. Earlier nudges in this direction came as I enrolled in Clinical Pastoral Education while already serving as a seminary administrator. In this experience and training I discovered the power of face-to-face encounter, the ministry of personal presence, the imperative of learning to listen both to other human beings and to God, and the possibilities and limitations of dialogue. Through writers like Martin Buber I learned that we must learn not only to speak about God, but to speak to God and with God. It is through coming to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves that the experience of God becomes vital and transforming.
Through my involvement in Spiritual Direction I felt led into shifting some priorities in my schedules, from frequent public speaking to more contemplation and writing, including a commentary on First Peter. It has meant giving myself to more one-to-one ministries, or at least to small group ministries. This has helped me see the large possibilities in this person-to-person model of ministry. At this stage of life I felt I was changing from being
an organization man (W. H. White) to become more of a
spiritual friend (Aelred of Rievaulx). Without devaluing past roles in organizational life or those so currently engaged, this seemed to fit well into my years of aging and struggling with macular degeneration. It challenges every resource I can bring to it and yields deep satisfaction and joy.
My sense is that my mind is still changing, that I am still growing. God is God and we humans are not and that is good. Jesus Christ, as Prince of Peace, has taught us that loving God and our neighbors (including our enemies) is God’s way of life. It is in the crucified and resurrected Christ, through the Holy Spirit in the community of faith, that lies the hope and healing we are to share with the world.
Soli Deo Gloria.