Samford University Photo
“It was not my parents, peers, school, or church that began to unshackle me from the chains of racism. It was the Bible. I was only a teenager in high school when the first tensions appeared between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of John Patterson and George Wallace. Somebody was wrong. And it wasn’t Jesus.”
The reason I like that quote is that it resonates very much with my own experience. When I went to Samford University in the mid 1970s, I decided on a double major in English and Religion. One of my friends said at the time, “Not only will you have religion, you will be able to talk about it.” There may have been some truth to that. There has also been a lot of truth in Garrison Keillor’s remarks about English majors on his radio program, A Prairie Home Companion – which is why I ended up making a living as a registered nurse so I could continue to enjoy the fields of English and Religion.
My experience in the two departments became very enlightening and even liberating. The professors in the Religion Department were not the fundamentalist strand of the Baptist faith. "They all," as Wayne Flynt recalls, “held to the neo-orthodox theology as espoused by Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr; they were all theistic evolutionists; none believed in the plenary inspiration of scripture [i.e. inerrant and infallible texts directly dictated by God]. Those Baptists in 1958 were more liberal than half the country is today.” I indeed found that my professors were all caring people who wanted each student to really evaluate the concepts of life and faith in order to understand how it all works in the real world. So many of us young Baptists had come to college having been steeped in folk religion, and this was our first opportunity to explore the faith more fully.
One particular professor, Karen Joines, was constantly being vilified by certain conservative students as a liberal bent on destroying faith. I found Karen Joines to be quite poetic as well as thought provoking. It occurred to me, since I was studying in both departments, that if Dr. Joines said the same things in the English Department that he was saying in the Religion Department, he would be hailed as a defender of the faith! My love of literature helped me to see my studies in theology from a different perspective, and I suppose allowed me to be more open to new ideas than some of my conservative colleagues.
For me, it took most of my college career to really get to the point of being able to think through the concepts I was being exposed to (which is why I also believe in life-long learning – so many of us aren’t really at the stage to gain the most from our education while we are in our late teens and early twenties). By the time I finished college, I decided to go on to seminary. It was while I was at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California, that I saw a need to truly change my way of thinking. Like Wayne Flynt during his high school and college days, I was reading the Bible, which I was conditioned to believe as the truth, and seeing a radical contradiction between the words of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets vs. the ethic of my Southern Christian culture.
The ironic thing was that Golden Gate Seminary, even though it was located in California, was more conservative than Samford University back in Alabama. The more I read, however, and the more I saw of society, the more I leaned toward a more liberal take on things. It is certainly possible to be just as fanatical and polemic as a liberal as are certain conservative fundamentalists. The important thing, rather, is to be open to learning. Openness to learning, openness to hearing another point of view, may lead to a conclusion seen as conservative by some. It may lead to a more liberal view. It is possible to be liberal in some things while being conservative in others. Authenticity is the key.
My personal motto has become, “Honor Wisdom wherever you find it, welcome Beauty whenever it arrives, follow Truth wherever it leads.” I can thank caring instructors who had unswerving integrity for setting me on that path. I can also thank Wayne Flynt for reminding me of my great blessing in his talk last Saturday.