Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Trust Yourself: A Message from My Father

My late father, Richard Clyde Kinnaird, Sr., was born 100 years ago today. When he died in 1996, I was aware of the legacy he left. In the weeks after his death, I had a dream about trying to put on a suit that was too big for me. To me, that dream signified a life that cannot be replaced, a legacy that I am not quite up to. I could be myself, however, and soon began to think about what part of my father’s legacy I must hold on to, and what part I hoped to pass on to my daughter. Two years after my father’s death I started writing essays, and the writing began with a story I wrote about my father’s legacy as I saw it.

R. C. Kinnaird was a Baptist minister and a great advocate of “soul competency” which was once a hallmark of Southern Baptist thought. Basically, soul competency affirmed that the individual has the ability to discern for himself or herself on matters of faith. Each person has the liberty to choose based on his/her own conscience. For my father, this concept was innate. His admonition was, don’t let yourself get hoodwinked by anyone - whether it’s the Pope, a flimflam artist, a traveling evangelist, a politician, or a television personality. Think for yourself; trust your own reason; never follow blindly.

The following is that first story I wrote in 1998. I was trying to imagine myself in the future, the year 2019, and reflecting back on 2011 (I picked 2011 because that's when my daughter turns 21 - what did I want her to carry with her by age 21?). Even though the scene is imagined, the words of my father are accurate as I remember them. The conversations with former Baptists are reflective of actual conversations I have had. I thought about re-writing this as a straight forward essay, since 2011 is almost here. Instead I decided to just leave it as it is, with the caveat that this was written from an imagined perspective back in 1998.

Watching Baptists: A View from the Future
by Charles L. Kinnaird

The year was 2011. Looking back on that Sunday in June, it was a day that could have represented almost any day of my life. On the radio, the Beatles were enjoying a renewed popularity; reruns of "I Love Lucy" could be seen on television. In the news, the President of the United States was urging leaders in the Middle East to sign an agreement that would be "an unprecedented step toward the possibility of peace in the region." And in Atlanta, the Southern Baptist Convention was having its annual meeting. According to the newspaper article, the Baptists had been debating the finer points of literal biblical interpretation.

On that particular Sunday afternoon, however, I was more reflective than usual. For one thing, my 21 year-old daughter had come to Birmingham to visit on Father's Day weekend, taking a break from her college studies. She had been questioning me about the way things used to be. I found myself reflecting on a number of things. For one, I was genuinely surprised that the conservative Republican trend was still so firmly ensconced. Maybe it was just the flip side of my own father's dismay that those New Deal Democrats still held sway on into the 1970's. I was still finding it hard to believe, even then, that there continued to be no shortage of conservative radio spokespersons to take up the cause.

What really intrigued me, though, was that Southern Baptist Convention. I read in the newspaper that there had been an attempt to pass a resolution that stated that God created the world in six 24-hour days. One pastor was quoted as saying, "I believe the Bible as much as anyone, but how do we know they were 24-hour days? In II Peter 3:8 it says that to the Lord a thousand years are as a day. How do we know they weren't thousand-year days? "

"It's plain as day right there in the text," countered a loyalist spokesman. "It says there was evening and there was morning – that marks a 24-hour period. If we start allowing that God might not have created the world in six 24-hour days, then we're just going to open ourselves up again to liberals who might say that belief in the virgin birth of Christ is not necessary to the faith."

Well, it had been a long time since I had been a Baptist, but I knew better than that. I was baptized by my daddy in Lake Martin when I was nine years old, after a revival at Jackson's Gap Baptist Church. At nine years of age, I didn't know what a virgin was, and my parents certainly didn't take the time to explain it to me before I was baptized. Nevertheless, my faith was as good as that of any who could discuss the details of virgin vs. non-virgin birth. In fact, my faith was probably stronger before I learned about virgins.

At any rate, on that Sunday afternoon back in 2011, I felt some ambivalence about the Southern Baptists. On the one hand, I was glad not to be a part of that group involved in needless arguments. On the other hand, I felt sad that Baptists as I knew them had disappeared – gone away somewhere.

I remember when I was a child my father, R.C. Kinnaird, himself a Baptist minister, would say, "We as Baptists believe in the priesthood of the believer – that means that you have what is called soul competency. You are able to read the Bible and come to your own conclusions. You have soul freedom. You don't need a priest or a preacher or a theologian telling you what you have to believe to find God."

I even remember my father would sometimes get behind the pulpit on Sunday and read the latest resolutions passed by the latest Southern Baptist Convention. Then he would tell the whole congregation, "None of you has to believe any of that. You are free to disagree with any or all points. You have the liberty to think for yourself and to draw your own conclusions."

Surveying Former Baptists

Continuing my thoughts that afternoon, I suspected that there must have been a Baptist diaspora. After all, I had left and from the looks of things on Atlanta, lots of Baptists had left to go elsewhere. I decided to begin a quest – to find out where the Baptists went and what they were doing now.

Since I had gone to a Baptist college and graduated from a Baptist seminary, I had names. I had names of Baptists, many of whom I was able to eventually track down. Here are the results of my informal, unscientific survey. I found three who had become Roman Catholic, one Orthodox, several Methodists and Episcopalians, a few Presbyterians, some Charismatics and Pentecostals. I found Unitarians (indeed I learned that some New England Baptists had become Unitarian two hundred years earlier). I found some who called themselves non-denominational, and some who had given up on organized religion. I even found some who were still Baptists.

I asked one of my friends who had remained a Baptist, "What do you think about what went on at that Convention in Atlanta?" He told me, "I never pay attention to those things. I'm going to believe what I believe anyway."

I had questions for my other friends, and I did find a common thread that was encouraging. I asked one of my Baptist-turned-Catholic friends, "What about that new pope of yours – what do you think will happen?" He answered, "With a tradition as old and as large as ours, you're going to have a lot of beauty and a lot of schluck. I'm smart enough to tell the difference between beauty and shluck." In the same vein, one of my Pentecostal friends told me, "We have some beliefs and practices that are a bit on the fringe, but God gave me a mind as well as a heart and I'm free to decide what's right for me."

In talking with my former colleagues, I took heart in seeing how many of us had refused to accept any package deal on matters of faith. I don't know if you would call it a Baptist thing, an American thing, or a modern thing, but it seemed to me that the concept of soul competency, once it is grasped, becomes a liberty and a stability that one never forsakes.

Walking in Liberty

My own daughter has never been a Baptist. During my more sentimental times, I feel a tinge of regret that she and I do not have that shared experience. However, when I look at the life she has, I can see without a doubt that she understands soul competency and she has soul freedom. For that I am thankful. It is a liberty she and I share.

For Baptists of my father's day, maybe soul competency was the new wine that burst the old wineskins and sent liberated people in all directions. We now share the happy communion of liberty, secure in our humanity.

With the year 2020 now approaching, change and diversity in America are more evident. There is a rich and vibrant marketplace of ideas and customs. Even Alabama has established Hindu and Buddhist communities of faith. There is a strong Muslim community and talk of another mosque being built in Birmingham. I may do some Islamic studies myself. I want to see how many Islamic Baptists I can find.


In Memoriam: Richard Clyde Kinnaird, Sr.
September 8,1910- December 18,1996


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