“Professor, what does our denomination teach about homosexuality?” Her voice and the look in her eyes communicated she wanted something deeper than just a factual answer. She desired to be restored to a place of certainty. If you don’t know how to swim, wading in past the point where you can touch, can evoke fear, panic, and a need for solid ground. She had gone in to far and was looking for me to rescue her.
As an Old Testament Professor at a fundamental liberal arts college, I walked a fine line between teaching students to think critically and meeting the expectation that I would indoctrinate them into the beliefs that formed the core of our denomination. Parents were spending a significant amount of money and incurring large sums of debt for their child’s Christian education. They wanted Mary or Bob to graduate with a degree and a solid commitment to their church. I struggled to be the authority figure they desired in the classroom.
One class a student read John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” I knew what was coming. A lump emerged in my throat.
“So Professor Minear, does the Spirit lead all people into truth, and if so, why don’t other Christians believe the same way we do?”
The next morning I was summoned to the President’s office.
“So Tony, did you tell a student the Spirit does not lead us into truth?”
I replied by sharing the answer I had given the student. “In keeping in line with the Gospel you quoted, if we understand truth as more than intellectual assent to a set of propositions like Jesus did (John 14:6, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’) than yes, the Spirit leads us into truth. However, if truth is defined as list of dogmas, than no, the Spirit is not responsible for manipulating minds so all will believe the same.”
The President did not look pleased at my answer. He laid out his ultimatum. “The next time you are asked this question just simply reply, ‘Yes’. Remember your job is to make them aware of other ideas and always bring them back to the truth.”
Certainty sales. Fundamental and conservative evangelical educational institutions and churches know this. To rely upon an authoritarian religious tradition to provide you with the simple truth and to set forth moral boundaries by which you navigate life, often equates with a since of well being. You know where you stand. You know what you need to do and avoid so you can someday possess your final reward, eternal life. I get it. I used to have that certainty.
Reading widely, listening to other points of views, and simply being alive and experiencing life, opened the door for questions and doubts to appear outside my window. For a long time I tried to fight them off. They were relentless. They insistently hounded me. They were disrespectful, often rousing me from a peaceful night’s sleep. I grew weak. I gave in. I jumped out of the nest. Over time I learned how to use my new wings. I began to enjoy exploring terrain I didn’t know existed. The freedom is invigorating. I must admit, occasionally there are fleeting moments, when I miss the comfort my firm authoritarian church provided. Especially when the questions grow restless and bounce around inside my mind. I know, going back is not an option. I’ve tasted the forbidden fruit of free thinking and I’m addicted.
Today I see myself and Progressive Christianity much like an AED (Automated External Defibrillator). We hang on the wall, batteries charged, waiting for when we might be needed. A large segment of the Christian community sees no need for us. They are in no hurry to trade in a system of beliefs that frees their minds to think about how to raise their teenager or be a caregiver for an aging parent, rather than wrestle with questions that may not have a simple answer. Honestly, I don’t want to mess that up for them. However, when doubts tighten in their chest and the answers no longer have their calming effect, we are there. We are present, so that if they choose to journey down a different spiritual path, they won’t have to go alone. As fellow travelers we won’t hide the difficulties of the path. We are fully aware of them. That is why we offer support, words of encouragement, and a cold glass of water. We will walk together the path the one we follow walked, the way of Jesus.