When I was a young pastor, a colleague told me that my ministry would be more productive if I were to “get real with God.” I’m not sure what had prompted that assessment, nor did I follow up to find out what he meant. More than fifty years have elapsed since that moment and two facts about my religiosity continue almost unchanged: 1) Mystical experiences don’t come my way; 2) technical theological writing makes my head swim.
Even so, these many years I have believed in God, prayed, and talked with people about God, confident that these practices make sense and help us understand the world in a way that is truthful and life supporting.
Soon after that conversation, I did graduate studies in church history, and two of the courses pushed me into technical theology. The course on Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion helped me understand the branch of Protestantism which I affirmed. It did not, however, help me “get real” with God.
Much more influential was a course in nineteenth century German theology—Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Herrmann. As before, I found that I couldn’t stay focused on the technical detail of their systems. What inspired me was their determination to describe God in ways that made sense in the cultural and intellectual world of their time. Even though I was reading their work many years later and in a different milieu, their approach seemed right to me and I was reassured that my personal faith and pastoral practice were well founded.
My contentment with this foundation helped me avoid Karl Barth and Neo-orthodoxy and leaned me favorably toward Paul Tillich, although his abstruse prose was more than I could handle. During my years teaching Christian ritual practice, all directed toward God, of course, I responded favorably to theology often referred to as Process Thought, but the only book by Alfred North Whitehead that I read was Adventures of Ideas.
During a recent Lenten class at my church, however, I found myself wanting to revisit Friedrich Schleiermacher’s writings. Oddly enough, the class I was taking was introducing the Enneagram as a way to assist us in our prayers. One of the sessions presented the three “energy cycles” that reminded me of one of the most memorable discussions during the course on Schleiermacher I had taken so many years earlier. I checked with a friend whose doctoral studies in church history were much more recent than mine and he agreed with the connection that I had suggested.
Long ago, I gave away my books on nineteenth century, but Powell’s Bookstore in downtown Portland had a used copy of Richard Crouter’s 1988 translation of Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its cultured despisers. His one volume systematic theology, The Christian Faith, is also available. Part of my summer time reading and writing will be focused on rereading and rethinking these two books. Probably Albrecht Ritschl and Wilhelm Herrmann will follow along in due course, especially since one of my long-time theologian colleagues told me recently that many of his students who came to seminary claiming to be fundamentalists decided, after reading Ritschl, that they were liberals.
While thinking about these matters, I finally looked at a book I had borrowed long ago from a nephew, Does God Exist: An Answer for Today by Hans Küng. Counting notes and index, it’s 839 pages long, but the last section of the text, “Yes to the Christian God” (pp. 585-702), provides the kind of discussion I’m looking for. What’s disconcerting, however, is that Küng’s earlier book, On Being a Christian, is almost as long (720 pp.) A review of Küng’s work notes that he is more like Ritschl than like classic Catholic theologians. Thus, I find myself inclined toward reading enough of his work to satisfy my vague sense of need.
What other titles will I put on my shelf for summer reading about God? It’s hard to say, but right now I am inclined to make sure that Friedrich Heiler’s classic volume Prayer is there. This is another book I read many years ago, but this one I have kept through several downsizings of theological books since retirement. It too has come up for favorable mention in things I have read recently. The fact that it talks about God indirectly with liturgical language rather than by frontal attack with philosophical exactitude brings the book into the range that I can handle.
How will all of this affect keithwatkinshistorian? Other than keep me busy, I really don’t know.