Ted Grimsrud—November 2, 2022
I will be posting a series of short essays where I will reflect on some of the main questions I have had about the world I live in and Christian faith’s relationship to it. These questions indeed are concerned with “the faith”—that is, the Christianity I have been immersed in for my entire adult life. They reflect a great deal of the doubt and critical stance I now have toward my received Christianity. So, they are about “questioning the faith.” Ultimately, though, my reflections will be more affirmative than simply challenging things. These questions, and my reflections on them, my attempts to answer them, are expressions of a faith that sees questioning as a core component. That is, I will present the fruit of living with a “questioning faith.” The reflections are from a standpoint of a person with faith. Going back to when I was 17 years old, I have never actually questioned whether to have faith or not; it is always about the shape of that faith.
Somehow, for my entire life I have always loved to ask questions, to try to understand. My initial attraction to Christianity arose out a desire to understand life, to try to find the truth. I have come to think of “understanding” and “truth” quite differently than I did when I was a teen-ager. Still, that quest I embarked on over 50 years ago remains at the center of my life. I expect my forthcoming blog posts to be elements of the ongoing journey.
Liberated by Francis Schaeffer
A turning point in my faith—and my life—came when I was 21 years old. At that moment (Summer 1975), I started attending a new church. I still accepted most of what I had been taught in the theologically very conservative Baptist church I had joined after my conversion four years earlier. In my new church, I almost immediately joined a book study group engaging Francis Schaeffer, an American living in Europe who was becoming known as “the evangelist for intellectuals.” Like many others, I found Schaeffer to be a formative influence in moving away from fundamentalism.
In my case, I rather quickly moved past Schaeffer and have never really stopped moving. As I learned later, Schaffer had been deeply immersed in the world of fundamentalism during the heyday of the famous fundamentalist/modernist conflicts that were probably their most bitter and consequential in Schaeffer’s own Presbyterian tradition. He ultimately became a victim of the battle himself and moved to Europe in part to separate himself from the faith-traumatizing struggles. But he never actually moved much in his own theology and ended his life as a key player in the emergence of the politically focused Christian Right in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
When Schaeffer moved to Switzerland, he almost accidentally found himself in a creative ministry with young people. This ministry, L’Abri, provided a place of welcome for mostly evangelical and fundamentalist young people, mostly Americans, who found themselves wandering around Europe trying to put the pieces back together in lives disrupted by faith questions, relationship crises, and/or substance abuse. While remaining resolutely conservative in his theology, Schaeffer by necessity found himself packaging faith in a pretty user-friendly fashion. He advocated a listening stance, encouraged his mentees to be honest and self-accepting in face of their doubts and struggles. A key mantra was: “There are no inappropriate questions.”
In actuality, Schaeffer busied himself with providing clear answers to those questions—answers that were indeed persuasive to some. His emphasis on the intrinsic value of being honest about the questions, though, opened the door for some of his audience to embrace a life where the questions more than the certainty of finding answers mattered the most.
Schaeffer’s ministry began as the host in a kind of retreat center in the Swiss mountains. He took on the role of a father-like figure who did encourage questioning but also provided clear answers. His teachings were recorded, transcribed, and eventually published. As it turned out, his books (perhaps most centrally The God Who Is There [InterVarsity Press, 1968]) came out at precisely the right time. Though actually quite traditionally conservative in their theology, they presented Christian faith in a winsome way that spoke to the emerging countercultural dynamics of American 1960s culture.
With his popularity back in his home country, Schaeffer became an influential figure among North American evangelicals. He was encouraged to utilize that popularity by creating several movies that made his case for the truthfulness of Christianity and its message of social conservatism. He took clear sides on emerging conflicts over issues such as abortion and biblical inerrancy.
When I encountered Schaeffer’s writings in the summer of 1975 (a few years before his emergence as a key figure in the Christian Right in its turn toward political advocacy), I was just beginning to realize that my quest for understanding needed to move away from the very narrow version of Christianity that I had been taught. I did not have any sort of crisis of faith. Rather, I simply became ever more curious. I was beginning to feel, though, that my curiosity was not being well received among my fundamentalist friends. So, I was feeling a bit anxious.
The importance of asking questions
So, of all the ideas I got from Schaeffer, the one that energized me the most was simply that encouragement to ask questions, to not be worried that the questions would undermine my faith, that we can explore the world in all its facets with our Christian convictions intact. For about a year or so, I read everything I could find of Schaeffer’s writings as well as those of his close associates. The affirmation of asking questions, though, soon turned me against Schaeffer’s own answers—especially his political conservatism, his superficial analysis of Western culture, and his insistence on the Bible’s errorlessness.
Interestingly, even as my theology has evolved profoundly away from Schaeffer’s evangelical Calvinism, I still share his optimism about Christian convictions and the world. I expect, though, that Schaeffer would not recognize what I have come up with as “my Christian convictions” as “Christian.” Part of my “questioning faith” dynamic has been for me to become comfortable with being seen as outside the circle of Christian orthodoxy. At the same time, though, I still do think of myself as Christian—for reasons that I will explain in the posts to come.
It is now over 45 years since my Schaeffer stage ended. One way to characterize the blog posts that will follow in this series is that they will track the consequences of the ongoing process of asking questions of my faith. Schaeffer helped me open the door. About the time that I realized that his approach to faith would not be mine, I began to learn about Mennonites and their Anabaptist tradition. That perspective on faith suited my new convictions about pacifism and the Jesus way. Happily for me, among Mennonites I found a great deal of freedom to keep asking questions. With all the changes in my perspective over these years, I still very much understand myself to be Anabaptist in my general theological sensibility. Maybe I can think that way because the Anabaptist tradition is pretty open-ended and practical.
So, in the posts that follow I think what I will be doing is an Anabaptistic questioning of Christian faith and a questioning of Anabaptist faith. In the end, like with many of the first Anabaptists, I seek to embody the way of Jesus—even as the quest to understand all that that entails remains fluid and creative.