At the fiftieth anniversary of my conversion are there second thoughts? [Theological memoirs #13]

Ted Grimsrud—June 30, 2021

I can’t be sure, because I never made a record of it, but as near as I can figure, 50 years ago today is when I self-consciously made a decision to become a Christian. My self-conscious identity changed at that moment. Every day in my life since then has been shaped by that choice even as my understanding of what actually happened in those moments has evolved a great deal.

My question for today is whether it was a good choice. I am basically pleased with the trajectory my life has taken. Thinking of myself as a Christian has from June 30, 1971, to today given my life meaning and direction (for better or worse, but mostly better it still seems). I’m grateful for the people who have entered my life over the years due to my engagement in Christian communities. I have had meaningful educational and work experiences that I owe to this engagement.

At the same time, my sense of confidence in the intellectual validity of Christian teachings is lower than it has ever been. And this matters for me, because my entry and on-going participation in the Christian world has always been a choice based to a large extent on my convictions. I didn’t grow up in the church. Some branches of my extended family were active church people (including numerous pastors), but those never lived nearby and were never influential in my life. I’ve never had the “it’s in my bones” kind of pull to be a Christian that many of my friends do—something that keeps quite a few them within the circle of faith.

What are the main concerns?

The roots of my dis-ease go back to the very motivations that drove me to take the step of faith to begin with. My burning passion was to understand the truth. It was that simple. Through reflections on my experiences in life and through conversations with a close friend, I came to sense that the Christian message was true. That to know the truth meant to take the step of (in the language I was taught at the time) “accepting Jesus as my personal savior.” But my “need” was never to feel forgiven or to be “saved” from anything. I never feared death or condemnation. I just wanted to understand the world I lived in and to move toward the truth (whatever that might be).

It seems highly ironic now that I would have thought jumping into fundamentalist Christianity (the Bible Baptist Church) would have been a move toward the truth. I think the theological schema I was initially taught was profoundly untrue. However, I think there was always a core of something present that did point me in the right direction. The message of Jesus about love, restorative justice, and resistance to the domination system began to work on my heart from early on, even if it took several years for me to recognize it for what it was.

What is difficult for me now is to ascertain how much of this message is present in the actual religion of Christianity in its historical expression. This question, though, arises precisely from how I saw from the beginning the truthfulness of the message of Jesus. The message of Jesus leads me to wonder about the truthfulness of Christianity as a religion. So, I don’t have second thoughts about the move 50 years ago to open myself to that message. And I am grateful to the Spirit of life that seems to have honored the sincerity of my opening up to it by helping me to understand better and better how Jesus’s way is a truthful way to engage the world (an understanding that increasingly helps me to recognize with gratitude the beauty of various other life-giving ways to engage the world).

So, actually, as I write these words, I realize that my concerns are not about the choice I made 50 years ago. It not only set me on a path that has led to a life that I am happy with; it also moved me toward an intellectual and spiritual process that I do believe has helped me better and better discern where truth is in our world. That is, my step toward faith 50 years ago was the right way for me to engage in my own experiment with truth (in the Gandhian sense). My concerns, then, have to do with whether the Christian religion itself is more a help or more a hindrance for engaging this experiment. Have I moved in a direction that I find pleasing (if also at times quite stressful) ultimately because of or in spite of doing it in the context of Christianity?

One way to frame the problem

My sense of concern about Christianity gained a new focus recently following a conversation with a friend. My friend was trying to define “orthodoxy” and couldn’t accept my thought that the meaning of “orthodoxy” is best seen as descriptive, “orthodoxy” in a strictly functional sense. He wanted more, a definition of “orthodoxy” that as part of its very core included a normative sense. Without getting deeper into that discussion, I’ll just report that afterwards I wondered how someone who self-identifies as an Anabaptist could be so sanguine about some normative, true-for-all-people understanding of “orthodoxy”. After all, weren’t the “orthodox” of the 16th century the very people who oversaw the killing of hundreds of Anabaptists? And aren’t at least some of those “orthodox” leaders still revered today among “orthodox” Christians?

Then I started thinking. Isn’t it a huge problem that Christians would kill other Christians? In fact, isn’t it a huge enough problem to raise serious doubts about the religion itself when those adherents of what you could call “murderous orthodoxy” are seen as legitimate leaders and teachers and shapers of what we would still today call “orthodoxy”? And hasn’t this been a problem for a long time? At least among Protestant Christians, those who affirm “orthodoxy” usually look to the creeds and confessions formulated between the 4th and 17th centuries as providing the “orthodox” content. These happen to be the very years that Christians were killing other Christians—often in the name of enforcing their “orthodox” doctrines.

What would it be like to examine the history of Christianity through lenses shaped by a sense that it is a big deal for Christians to kill other Christians (and I would want to include other forms of punishment in the name of “orthodoxy” that stop short of literal killing)? I suspect that our understanding of the very character of Christianity as a religion might be quite a bit different were we to reconsider the entire historical record in light of this issue.  

I actually don’t see such a suggestion as being hostile to Christianity. In fact, if we think that Christianity ultimately should be oriented toward being faithful to its namesake, I would say that re-examining Christianity in light of the experience of Christians killing and otherwise inflicting serious pain on other Christians would actually be an exercise on behalf of Christianity, at least Christianity as it should be.

An example

With this set of concerns in mind, just the other day I began to read a book that has gotten a lot of acclaim as an important study of one of the core themes in Christianity. It’s called The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans, 2015). I’ve just gotten started and am quite impressed so far. She’s a fine writer, clear, accessible, but also scholarly and quite serious and engaged. Her tone is irenic, and she is deeply committed to writing theology that is relevant to life and will help empower its readers to live faithfully in service of Jesus Christ. My impression is that this book is “orthodox” Protestant theology at its very best. So, if there is something inherently problematic with that kind of theology, it will be present here—in its most winsome form, perhaps, but still present.

I expect to engage this book deeply and over an extended period of time. Already, though, I have encountered what is to me a significant problem. Rutledge makes a strong claim right away in her introduction: “The key to Jesus is now, as it has always been, his crucifixion and resurrection…. The Jesus proclaimed as Lord in the New Testament comes closer than any other figure known to human history to being universal, transcending time and historical location, belonging to all cultures and all people everywhere and forever. This is a big claim, but Christians need not be ashamed to stand by it. This proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus’ ministry, which after all can be compared to the ministry of other holy men, but out of the unique apostolic kerygma (proclamation) of the crucified and risen One” (p. 29).

I don’t want to get into unpacking all the issues that this quote touches on in this short essay. For now, I only want to note the words, “this proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus’ ministry.” I wrote an entire book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, that has at its core an argument for an opposite view: I assert that the reason the apostles proclaimed Jesus as Lord was precisely because of his ministry and the most important meaning of Jesus’s resurrection is that it vindicated his life and teaching.

The problem I have with Rutledge’s statement and the link I fear that her theology might have with “murderous orthodoxy” is the apparent sidelining of Jesus’s life and teaching. As well, such a possible link may be seen in her sense that an affirmation of Jesus’s importance is not valid if it is based on aspects of Jesus’s witness that “can be compared to the ministry of other holy men.” I believe that the healing power of Jesus as central to Christian faith lies precisely with his ministry, a ministry that led directly to his execution. When Jesus as “Lord” is separated from his ministry, as with the 4th century doctrines and then down through the ages, the phenomenon of Christians killing Christians emerges. And it is the conceit that Jesus has to be different from “other holy men” that contributes to the construction of doctrinal boundary lines that tend to be enforced with violence.

Herein, thus, lie my “second thoughts”: The very best expression of Christian “orthodoxy” remains tied in with theological moves that so often in the past have been murderous. It is due to what I believe Jesus stands for and what I believe that the Bible as a whole teaches (with its center in the gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry) that I have second thoughts about historic Christianity.

15 thoughts on “At the fiftieth anniversary of my conversion are there second thoughts? [Theological memoirs #13]

  1. For me it is 58 years and a bit since I had my conversion experience and got thoroughly indoctrinated in fundamentalism. I too have had a lot of occasion to have second thoughts about orthodoxy as developed after Constantine. I have read your book on Atonement and appreciate it very much. I graduated from EMS in 1979. Still on a journey of discovery.

    Jack Heppner

  2. Always fascinating to read your honest reflections on your life. You write well and winsomely.

    You’re right when you say this: re-examining Christianity in light of the experience of Christians killing and otherwise inflicting serious pain on other Christians would actually be an exercise on behalf of Christianity. It reminds me of something Tim Keller said in a book review last year:
    we cannot condemn the church for its failures without invoking Christian teaching and beliefs to do so.
    https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/dominion-christian-revolution-tom-holland/

    You also say, my sense of confidence in the intellectual validity of Christian teachings is lower than it has ever been.
    Do you ever read Tim Keller? He wrote The Reason for God (2008) and then Making Sense of God (2016)—plus many others. Keller has long insisted that Christianity makes more “emotional, cultural, and rational” sense of our lived experience than any alternative worldview. In Reason, he made the rational case. In Making Sense, he tackles the other two. He says it’s sort of a prequel to the first book.

    Keller planted a church of 5000 in Manhatten, so his thinking and presentation has grown out of countless conversations with the intellectual and artistic elite.
    If you want a taste of the way he approaches the subject, here’s something he gave at Google HQ; it’s cued to where he begins a 16 min summary of the main assertions in those 2 books:

    Bless you!
    Harold

    1. Thanks for still reading, Harold, and for your kind words. I am a little familiar with Tim Keller. I used a book of his on Jesus for one of my classes once. He’s definitely to my right theologically, but I appreciated his clarity of thought. In recent years, when I hear about him I am impressed with his courage in facing his imminent death and in challenging the Trumpist Christian Right.

  3. It shouldn’t be either/or but both/and. The teaching, the healing and other “signs,” the crucifixion, and the resurrection are all part of a whole. It all fits together and we shouldn’t degrade one part in order to highlight another part. The power is in all of it together.

    1. I think I agree with you, Bill. At least regarding all the things you mention. I would say that what I am calling “murderous orthodoxy” does not hold them all together. I’m not sure if you were critiquing me here or not.

      1. I’m in basic agreement with you, I think. I agree that the failure to be holistic in this respect is a problem with “murderous orthodoxy.”

  4. Thank you again for your open honest reflections on your life, they are as says about winsome, and help me to think through where I am myself , thank you

  5. So;to my understanding, you are not falling from your faith in Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven, but you are disillusioned with the orthodox “religion” that you have been following? I myself became disillusioned with “religion” until I realized “religion ” is man-made.I became happy and strong in my faith when I started following Christ, instead of men. A quote I like to use Comes from a Christian Name Joseph Shulam: Religion is the enemy of faith.

  6. What religion did you convert from and why? Thanks for posting your interesting thoughts on your journey. I enjoyed the read.

    1. I was nothing. A secular atheist. My family background was Christian. I decided I wanted to know the “truth” and thought it would have to do with believing in Jesus.

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