Dear Mr. Lough:
Thank you so much for your last two letters in which you shared a thoughtful and heartfelt response to my question about how you would define the gospel. The more I have thought about what you wrote, the more I appreciate not only what you shared but also the courage it takes to change your mind about such important matters at this point in your career.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that you are old or that your ministry is over. I only mean that it is unusual to observe such dramatic change in perception in anybody, much less someone who has spent a lifetime in pursuit of a very different vision.
Oh dear, it seems that the more I write, the more I fail to say what I really mean, and the bigger hole I seem to be digging for myself. In any event, I wonder if you might have a bit more to say about how your “new way of seeing” may be affecting you personally, in terms of relationships, professional associations, emotional stress, and things like that.
I know you are probably eager to say more about the implications of life in the kingdom, and I am eager to read that. In fact, I have some specific questions in that regard. For today, however, my question has more to do with how you are faring as a person. Some, upon reading this exchange of emails (which, I understand, you are posting on your blog) might conclude that you have drifted away from “orthodoxy.” I certainly don’t believe that, but knowing some do must take its toll on your equanimity. If you are open to sharing some of your thoughts in that area, I’d be happy to read them… if only so that I can pray for you more particularly.
Grace and peace to you,
Now you’ve done it.
Once again, your sensitive and insightful question has anticipated a topic I was hoping to address at some point in this email exchange. I assumed it would be toward the end of the series, as a way of bringing things to a close. You are right, however, to introduce it at this point, since it is important to understand that a pilgrimage such as the one I am describing takes a heavy emotional toll.
It has its rewards, to be sure, but it is also costly, in some ways, and more than a little stressful. So I am happy to respond to your question. I only hope I can limit my response to elements that will be genuinely helpful. The temptation is to “open the floodgates,” as it were, and release a torrent of emotion that has been building for some years. (That’s why I opened this letter by saying, “Now you’ve done it.” 🙂 ) I’ll do my best to avoid becoming soppy or melodramatic.
In your letter, you mention my “courage” in making major changes in my thinking. I am flattered and humbled, but I also know that I don’t feel very courageous most of the time, especially by comparison with so many whose acts of courage cost them dearly.
I have not written as much or as pointedly about the direction my pilgrimage has taken in recent years as I might have liked, and the reason I have not done so is mainly fear. More than I want to admit, I’ve been afraid of the consequences that would likely result if I shared publicly all that has really been going on in the deep recesses of my mind over the past eight years.
Of course I have written about some of the ways my thinking has changed, and I have told the truth about what I believe. I just haven’t always told the whole truth. I have avoided addressing a number of subjects—theological, ethical, sociological, scientific, spiritual, and political—because, I’ve told myself, it would take too much time and effort to explain how and why my thinking has changed in those areas. The real reason I haven’t addressed those matters, however, is that I’m afraid to. I fear the consequences.
Eight years ago, as you well know, I lost my job as a Bible college instructor and was forced to vacate the office I had occupied for the previous eight years. In the process, I took the opportunity to sort through the contents of a file cabinet loaded with manila folders I had accumulated over the years. When I finished discarding material I regarded as out of date or no longer pertinent, I found that I had reduced four file drawers to barely half of one.
Now, it’s true that many of those physical files had been replaced by digital files on my computer’s hard drive, but that was not merely a transfer of data from one storage method to another. The material in the digital files was new, fresh, more timely, the product of deeper thought and increased experience.
The process of sorting through all those files provoked me to consider a wide array of topics I had not thought about, at least not carefully and analytically, for some time. As a result, I began to read more broadly than I had been able to do when I was teaching full-time. As I read, I let my thought processes follow whatever course they found intriguing and enlightening. As the scientists like to say, I simply followed the trail of evidence wherever it led.
In all of this, I was energized by a consuming passion to understand truth in relation to the values of the kingdom of God. Over the past eight years, I have reexamined virtually every category of belief and conviction I have ever embraced. I have been ruthless in requiring everything I believe to pass the test of consistency with the values of the kingdom. As you know from reading my last letter, this is precisely what I believe to be the heart of the gospel.
Today, if I can’t see Jesus teaching or modeling or advocating some truth claim, I toss it. And if I believe a truth or a concept or a course of action does reflect the values of the kingdom and the character of the King, I endorse it. In some cases, however, I haven’t written very much about it. I have been silent because I’m afraid of the consequences. I guess you could say I don’t talk about how my thinking has changed in a lot of areas because I don’t want to die alone. Here’s what I mean.
For most of my life, I was a conservative—theologically, socially, politically, fiscally. Conservatives eschew change. It threatens their sense of security. They can be gracious, generous people, but they often interpret even innocent and well-meaning questions about the verities they hold dear as challenges to both their intelligence and their integrity and an assault on orthodoxy.
I know this is true because for many years I felt that way myself. I tried not to be caustic or unkind in my rebuttal of those whose perspectives I considered corrosive to biblical faith. But I made it clear that views inconsistent with my conservative assumptions were more than just misguided or in error. They were most likely evil as well.
I don’t believe that anymore. I still consider myself an orthodox Christian, but my views of orthodoxy—both its content and its application—have changed. My personal “courage” in sharing what I believe—even the limited degree to which I have shared it so far—has not yielded positive results. I have lost friends because of it. And, so far, in terms of friendship and fellowship, I don’t feel warmly received by those whose convictions I now embrace. I think I may have scared them in my earlier role as a “defender of the true faith,” and they are not sure I have really recovered from that. They can’t fully trust me.
So, up to now, as my British friends say, I have kept myself to myself. There is so much more I would like to say because I believe I can see the kingdom far more clearly now. But to say some of these things would alienate me further from the remnant of a network which I still try to maintain. I do want to be faithful and honest, but I don’t want to die alone.
With your permission, Kathryn, I’d like to take this theme a bit further in my next letter. And so, more anon.