When I was training for ministry, as part of a course called ‘Transformative Pastoral Practice,’ we were asked to map our stories of care. The idea was to identify key moments that, or people who, had helped shape our working understandings of care. We were asked to begin our stories several years before we were born. As I spoke to my parents about what was going on for them in the years leading up to my birth, it became increasingly apparent to me, that my theological and spiritual formation actually did begin before I was even ‘a twinkle in the eye’ as they say.
My parents were energetic young Methodists, having grown up in the heyday of suburban Christianity. My Dad’s parents a few years earlier, had gone along with throngs of other Christians, to ‘give their lives’ at the Billy Graham rallies that swept the nation (they were of course already regular church-goers as was often the case at Graham’s rallies). So my parents faith had that air about it—orthodox, middle-class, suburban, protestants.
However, fatefully, my parents attended a Methodist Youth Convention in the late 60s where they were exposed (for the first time) to some of the depth and wisdom of the theological halls of the day. My dad remembers hearing for the first time, a presentation on the different theologies of the cross. For the first time, his inherited Christian beliefs presented as merely one particular strand among many ways of understanding Christianity, Jesus, God, the Bible, the church, and so on. If his understanding of the cross was one amongst many, then there was no guarantee it was the truth; or at least any more truthful than the others. A door had been opened to him. A door that had been there, but had been closed. There was so much scholarship to explore; so many people who have wrestled with God to come to know. And significantly, there were ways to maintain your Christian discipleship without needing to check your brain at the door, or suppress those niggling questions. That was revolutionary for him, and ultimately for me.
I grew up within the Christian tradition in the form of the Uniting Church in Australia (in 1977, and after decades of negotiation, the Methodist, parts of the Presbyterian, and parts of the Congregational churches in Australia, went into a formal union). I attended Sunday school, youth groups, family camps, and regular weekly worship. I’m not however, one of those people for whom all those things were profoundly influential in later life. I was a passenger. I would disavow my church connection in an instant if I thought it was socially damaging, and I can’t say that I ever really believed any of it (my parent’s example on the other hand, was and is a powerful influence on my life).
To skip ahead, by the time I was a petulant teenager, Church, and everything that went with it, was a social embarrassment that I sort to distance myself from. Curiously however, I found myself attending a Baptist youth group a few suburbs from my family home. I had been learning the guitar and a friend from school who also played guitar attended that youth group. So, we would meet at the church early to play music. By the time we finished, other people had arrived including several young women, and my attention drifted from music-making to other more earthly endeavours.
The cost of attending that youth group, was the obligatory ‘devotion’ towards the end of the night. It was classic, formulaic, penal substitutionary atonement—there was a chasm between humanity and God due to our fallenness, a fallenness that deserved the punishment of death, but instead, Jesus received our punishment on the cross, bridging the chasm and assuring any and all who believed in him as their Lord and Saviour, would secure a blessed and infinite afterlife. Nothing too out there on the Christian spectrum, but nonetheless, not a formula I had grown up hearing. Along with that neat telling of the “gospel,” came the familiar grab-bag of peculiar Christian beliefs—a literal virgin birth, literal miracles and exorcisms, a literal, physical resurrection, a literal heaven/hell, and so on.
I wouldn’t say that I was wilfully belligerent, but I certainly was a thorn in the side of the youth group leaders and pastor at the church. I couldn’t swallow any of it to be honest. I was being told that I had to believe something that I couldn’t will myself to believe. And so I asked questions. About everything. First among them, do you have to believe all this stuff to be a Christian? The immediate, uncompromising and unsophisticated response: yes. If you couldn’t believe these things than you needed to pray for faith. If you still couldn’t believe these things, you had a fiery future to look forward to.
I was however, confused. I knew my parents were Christians, and I knew the breadth and depth of their love for me and the grace they showed others. I was also pretty sure they didn’t believe in all of the things I was being told were non-negotiable. I remember having my first independent theological thought—I knew that my parents’ love was unfaltering, and that there was nothing I could do to put me outside of that love; so, if the God I was being asked to believe in was not at least that loving, than that God was not God at all.
That thought sparked in me like a match-strike in a darkened room, and on the brief journey home each week, I would quiz my dad about what he did believe; who was the God he knew? As a father, I can imagine the joy and pride it must have evoked in him to have one of his children actively searching for answers. But even then as a pimple-faced teenager, I counted those journeys as the most blessed times of our relationship. The minutes it took to drive home, turned to hours in the car sitting outside our house, not wanting to break the stride we were in, as we plumbed the depths of life, the universe and everything.
As well as these sacred journeys, my dad was feeding my new insatiable hunger with the various theological and spiritual tomes he had acquired over the years since his awakening. He started me on John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’ (in truth, it was the more teenager-friendly, and aptly named version, ‘But That I Can’t Believe’). Robinson introduced me to Tillich and Bultmann and Bonhoeffer, but more importantly, he affirmed my questions as good and right. I progressed through my dad’s library, gulping in the scholarship and the insights. I was totally hooked. When I wasn’t playing guitar, I was reading weighty theological explorations into the ground of all being.
I consider that time of my life my spiritual awakening, and it has shaped my Christian walk and ministry in fundamental ways. Chiefly, I’ve come to believe that we must take seriously, and make room for questions. We are questioning creatures. Our questions about who we are and what we are, lead to philosophy. Our questions about meaning and purpose, lead to religion. Our questions about the universe and our place in it, lead to science. Our questions about how we are to live alongside each other, lead to ethics and politics. Our questions about beauty and communication, lead to art. When we close off questions, we deny a part of what it means to be human. We needn’t fear that questions will undermine our fundamental beliefs. If our beliefs are true, they can withstand our testing them. When we make spaces for questions, we assume a posture of curiosity instead of authority, and the whole endeavour of life becomes creative. Always wondering; always searching; always encountering new expressions of truth and love.