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Several Years Ago I was having lunch with a leading businessman in the city of Richmond, Virginia. He was a man who had achieved success far beyond what one would expect at his age, and who was deeply involved in the church. Our conversation turned toward those things we really believed — not just the things we thought we were supposed to believe. In utter honesty he said to me: "I have no trouble believing in God. I am impressed with the wonder and order of creation and life. I have no difficulty with the Christian ethic. I try to act it out, and I think it is the only basis upon which to organize society. But I do have trouble with Jesus. I do not understand how he fits in, or why he isimportant. I can see him as a teacher and as a great man of insight, but, more than that makes no sense to me."
This man was articulating the theological anxiety of our age. He was daring to express what many would-be Christians feel. Ours is an age of doubt, confusion, and lack of certainty. The Jesus we so often hear about in church has little resemblance to the thought forms, the activities, or the mind-set of the twentieth-century world. He is overlaid with myth and superstition. He is victimized by piety and emotions. He is covered with sentimentality and the miraculous. He does not seem real. He makes no contact with our life.
I groped for words to speak to my friend, but his open honesty made it impossible to retreat into the jargon or clichés of my calling. I had to be honest, even though he was raising the most uncomfortable question aclergyperson can face. It was a question that I realized in retrospect I had always attempted to repress, for I was afraid of its consequences. If I could not deal to my own satisfaction with Jesus, the Christ figure, the most basic cornerstone of my profession would have come loose, and my life would be one huge question mark.
I was reminded of a story told about Martin Luther in the early years of the Reformation. Luther realized that the fire he had lit had ignited feelings that not even he was aware existed. The explosion that followed Luther's spark was bigger than anyone could manage or control. The life of the whole world would never again be the same. Luther awoke from his sleep in the middle of the night, and this realization overwhelmed him. He is reported to have cried, "My God, what if I am wrong!"
On a much smaller scale, but equally as existential to my life, a similar feeling came to me. My whole life, my deepest being, was and is consumed in the practice of the Christian ministry. Suppose, however, that the central foundation of that ministry collapsed. Suppose I could no longer make sense out of Jesus the Christ. Suppose everything I am was based on a superstition, a misunderstanding, an orthodoxy that could not stand the light of day. "My God, what if I am wrong!"
I do not suppose I had ever really allowed myself to search out my Christ before that day. Instead, I had avoided facing this growing anxiety of my generation. I had encapsulated myself in all sorts of religious certainties. But now, somehow, there was no escape. My own latent doubts were triggered by this open, probing question from a friend at lunch. I could not duck the issue. There began for me an intensive probe into the very roots of my faith, the reason for my being. I had to find either a new level of honest commitment or a new profession, a new meaning for my existence. It was at this moment, I suppose, that the seed for this book was germinated.
I cannot remember a time when the church was not a part of my life, yet the early religious attitudes that implanted themselves in my conscious mind were not particularly attractive. My father was an Episcopalian, though he never participated in worship except at Christmas and Easter, and he seemed to resent any financial demand the church made on him. My mother was from a very fundamentalistic Presbyterian family, rigidly moralistic; yet in her own way, she was very loving. She joined my father's church in the hope that he would attend if she went with him. It did not work in improving my father's attendance, but the three children — I being the middle child — were taken to Sunday School regularly.
I can remember winning many medals for perfect attendance, yet when I try to recall the content of those early years in my church, I draw an almost complete blank. I can honestly remember only two things from my entire Sunday School career. I remember being slapped by my fourth-grade teacher for misbehaving. What my misdeed was I have no idea. Only the embarrassment of being slapped remains vivid. My other memory was from the fifth grade, when our subject matter was the Ten Commandments. For some reason that I did not then comprehend, my teacher omitted the seventh commandment. I raised my hand, noting the omission, and said, "Mr. Darrow, what does it mean to 'commit adultery'?" There was an embarrassed silence, and then an animated and flustered response, "You'll learn about that when you get older." To the best of my ability, that is all I can recall of my Sunday School training.
At the proper time in my life I was confirmed. I remember it well, not because of its religious significance, but because it represented for me a kind of adult independence. I was confirmed at a church other than the one of which my parents were members...This Hebrew Lord copyright © by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All Rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.