Seminary for me was a spiritual journey. It led me deeper into my faith to see what I believe and what really mattered to believe. Seminary was also a place for pious people although I saw few. There were a lot of folk talking the language but it was as much about gaining power as it was anything. The times were changing and the once proud highly regarded academic institution was being challenged by the fundamentalist takeover. Within five years after I graduated only one professor would be left standing and the institution had flipped to a fundamentalist bastion. Gone were the female professors, gone were the suspected departments of arts and theology and the social work department, gone were the conservative professors who did not toe the fundamentalists’ line.
I knew the liberals would lose the struggle when I went to the student-led evangelical forum. It was a lively meeting with singing, amening, backslapping, and fervent prayers and energy like nothing I had ever seen. They also had a big budget since they brought in the biggest names in Baptist life. When I went to the more liberal ethics forum the energy was not present. The singing was absent. The speakers talked to the heads and not the hearts. They were every bit as fervent but very low key about it.
Although it was a conservative seminary back in the good old days they taught all the views. So even though the professors were conservative for the most part I could discover and chase the more radical theologians. This was what I thought learning was about. Not to give a formula but information for you to build your own faith with fear and trembling.
I had one class called Church Planting in which the professor proclaimed that birds of a feather flocked together. Meaning you should target a group that had similarities to each other. Middle class whites would not want to do church with blacks, or lower income whites. He said he would not hear any arguments counter to this. I wrote him a note after class and said my theology and experience with church was not analogous with this way of thinking. I would continue in the class but would not do assignments that said target a group and plan the services and programming accordingly. I said I would rather fail then participate in such. During the rest of the class I would challenge him with notes on the test about questions and their validity. I would always write something challenging the mantra of the class. Most of the tests were about nomenclature and what authors said so I always made good grades. It was the final assignment, the one mentioned above, which counted for fifty percent of the grade that I refused to do. So I wrote a one page note saying why I could not entertain doing something I felt was unbiblical and even heretical. This would be one grade I did not want to see. To my surprise when I got my grade back I received an A. There was no explanation just the grade. One encounter we had may have explained the grade. I once said in class birds of a feather may flock together but immune systems are healthiest when they have contact with all species. He looked at me and smiled and said, “maybe so but this is what is required of me to teach.”
Probably the highlight of my seminary career was in a Modern Theology class, which for the fundamentalist was a subject that was questionable on the surface. All we needed was that old-time religion and no modern thought. So, of course instead of avoiding it fundamentalists flocked to the class. They were always looking for a fight. They were taking over the denomination and the seminary. They were cocky and sure of themselves. One of the class assignments was to pick a modern theologian, present the views and debate with the other three students who had their own theologian. I chose Rudolf Bultmann the most liberal of the four not because of that but no one else wanted to do him. So I made the sacrificial choice.
To my surprise I enjoyed Bultmann. He was part of the Confessing Church. The Confessing Churches were the few churches that resisted Nazism in Germany. They opposed the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and the setting up of Anglos as the master class. He in my opinion had earned the right to be heard. His controversial teachings were to declare the Bible full of myths and that to fully understand the Bible it must be demythologized. Myths had meanings but not the surface meaning too many clung to. Now this did and does create quite the stir in many churches. But he wanted the modern church to not feel removed from the church of the apostles where miracles happened. The Spirit of God was still alive and accessible to us just like the apostles of old.
The other three students and myself made our presentations and debated each other. I think I took it more seriously than they did, because I was beating them in the debate rather easily which should not have been the case. The professor then turned to the other students in the class and allowed them to ask us questions. Because Bultmann was anathema in their eyes and I was winning the debate they circled around me.
They challenged Bultmann’s demythologizing of the Bible. After a while I asked everyone if they really believed that at Jesus’ death the day went to night, an earthquake happened, the curtain that separated the tabernacle tore in half and that the dead rose and walked among the living. The dead walked around and we hear nothing about it but in this one gospel.
‘Do you not find it strange, I said, ‘The dead rising would not have been recorded anywhere else but Matthew. I personally find this hard to believe.’ Not one hand came up to say they believed this. Except for an older man who was a Church of God pastor almost reluctantly put his hand up. I felt sorry for him he was already in enemy territory because Baptists did not have a lot of respect for the Church of God.
I then proceeded, 'Isn’t it a more important message that we each can have the same spirit come to us of the man who died on the cross. We do not have to pine “Give me that old time religion” longing for something that will never be but we can belt out of tune ‘he lives within me.” The doubters who had felt uncomfortable with raising their hands to believing the dead rose and only one person talked about it were relieved. I gave them a message they could amen and move quickly away from their doubting.
After this several professors would greet me in the hall with “Good Morning Professor Bultmann.” Of course this may have been because they could not remember my name. But this experience taught me something that sometimes in the midst of life if we let our guard down and can show our doubts. And in this we all could find grace together even if we have vast theological differences. I also will always remember the brave old outcast Church of God minister who despite the feared ostracization spoke out. It was clear to me of all of us he would have been the most likely member of the Confessing Church who spoke out against Hitler.