Today is the 52nd anniversary of my high school graduation.
It might sound odd to remember that, but high school was formative for me because, almost impetuously, my parents and I agreed that I should go to a Christian (specifically Evangelical) boarding school. So off I went at age 14 (specifically, Labor Day 1963) to forge a life somewhat separate from my parents — an experience most of my contemporaries postponed for another four years. By that point in my life, living in dormitories was “old hat,” college “same old, same old.”
I should qualify the preceding paragraph by noting that only 40% of my school was boarding students. The other 60% was commuters from the nearby Evangelical Jerusalem: Wheaton, Illinois. I suspect that Wheaton Academy itself was “old hat” for my commuter classmates, many of whom had attended Wheaton Christian Grammar School, whereas I had attended public schools to that point in my life (with my parents requesting some exemptions to let me observe Evangelical taboos about, say, dancing — public schools were not yet required to teach fornication).
We Evangelicals, of course, were very focused on the Scriptures (which we received from the historic Church pretty much unacknowledged) because they, in theory, were our final authority. But those Scriptures are many (66 by Evangelical count, more than that historically) and varied. The inability to fully harmonize them, or to credibly discern the science of cosmic creation therein, leads some Evangelicals to the shipwreck of faith.
There is a different and much more historic way to approach Scripture, and it always amuses me when the New Atheists and their ilk presume that the Evangelical (shared closely with Fundamentalists) approach is the exclusively correct one — before using it to rip such Christian faith to shreds — a presumption betraying an ignorance so profound that they really should just shut up.
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As I write, early in the morning, I’m still re-orienting from a very intense weekend wherein my Orthodox Christian parish Church was consecrated by our Bishop with the assistance of multiple priests and with me leading the singing of unfamiliar hymns proper to a consecration. My Christian pilgrimage has taken me there, deep into the historic roots of Christianity and thus a long way from Evangelicalism, for Evangelicalism is rooted mostly in the frontier revivalist vein of the Second Great Awakening of some 200 years ago.
Over my intense weekend, I made the acquaintance of a professional who joined his son, a recent Purdue graduate who was active in our parish, for the consecration and following Liturgy and banquet. His professional specialty is the same as one of my Wheaton Academy classmates, whose practice has grown large and, by what reputation I knew, very prominent.
I asked our guest if he knew of it, and it turned out he knew it, thought very highly of it, and almost joined it after interviewing with my classmate, his son and his daughter-in-law, all professionals in that field. He confirmed the practice’s excellence, and confirmed my impression that my classmate is still “very tightly wound” (my characterization) — adding some praise of the family’s Evangelical and charitable involvement as well, for it sounds as if the large practice is still owned and controlled largely or entirely by my classmate’s family and presumably has yielded considerable wealth.
Such thoughts of my classmate, and of my different Christian path, brought back to mind our different “life verses” (an ironically extrabiblical bit of Evangelical youth piety). Any time I say “life verse” from now on, you may gloss it as “important Bible verses favored by or associated with this person.”
My classmate’s life verse at the time seemed to be II Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” That always seemed to me (though I don’t know my classmate’s mind) like the outward-looking verse of a doer, and my classmate has done a lot — enough that I felt like a slacker in comparison until I went back to school at age 30 for some graduate work of my own. He himself uttered that verse as a life verse (or close to it); the association isn’t my projection.
I’m pretty sure I never declared any “life verse,” but I believe I wrote by my signature in schoolmates’ yearbooks “Ephesians 3:17-19” which reads (in the King James Version):
That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.
That always seemed to be to contrast with my classmate’s verse — in my favor, of course, or I could have changed.
I was also quite taken by Hebrews 5:12 – 6:3:
For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do, if God permit.
This puzzled and challenged me, as “laying again (and again, and again, and again) the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God” seemed rather the whole point of our revivalist (remember: Second Great Awakening) “altar calls,” and I thought “the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment” were very deep — meaty, not milky.
Finally, although it may (though I think not) have first obsessed me somewhat later than high school, Romans 12:2: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” What makes me think it may have grabbed me later than high school is that I pretty much translated that to “thinking Christianly” (which “mind” justifies better than does the untranslatable Greek nous), and I think that “translation” came in college or even a bit later still.
All three of my passages/”life verses” seem to me introspective, or at least relatively so — “figuring stuff out” more than “doing,” and sinking roots more than (to use the modern barbarianism) “moving fast and breaking things.”
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I don’t know if the best way to characterize our different verses, mine and my classmates, is as acorns, as in “mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow.” That metaphor seems like the idea that encouraged us Evangelical lads and lasses, very wet behind the ears, presumptuously to grasp the nettle by picking a life verse anyway.
I tend to think a better organic metaphor is “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree,” or even Immanuel Kant‘s “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”
Scriptures are many and varied. There’s no scriptural reason why one should be guided primarily by II Timothy 1, another by Ephesians 3, Romans 12, and Hebrews 5 and 6. I suspect we latch onto verses because of how our twigs were bent by our DNA, our upbringing and such — even our our gut flora, as science seems to be finding. But I don’t think relativisticly that Evangelicalism is the “right” Christian tradition for my classmate, Orthodoxy for me, because of such things.
I believe there is a deeper human nature to which Orthodoxy responds fully and of which Evangelicalism at its rare best only dreams of. Orthodox Christianity is what I was dreaming of unawares as I dreamed of being rooted and grounded in love, filled with all the fullness of God, going onto perfection, renewing my nous.
That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
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