Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Faith and the Liberal Arts

[Note: A version of this essay first appeared on this blog in July of 2013 under the title, "A Faith of One's Own."]

Samford University's Reid Chapel
(Photo by Charles Kinnaird)

Today's essay is a variation on the theme from last week about the benefits of a liberal arts education.  Today I take a brief look at my exploration of faith within a liberal arts curriculum. 

It is important to be a part of a faith community, but it is also important to have a faith that you can buy in to – one that makes sense within your worldview and the life that you live.  An important step in helping me to find a faith that I could buy into came when I was a college student at Samford University. 

I chose to pursue a double major in English Literature and Religion & Philosophy.  As it turned out, these two branches in my liberal arts education helped me begin to forge a faith I could call my own.  There was one professor in the Religion Department, Dr. Karen Joines, who was particularly controversial. His specialty areas were Hebrew, Old Testament studies, and archaeology.  He was seen by many as a “liberal apostate” who should be removed from our Baptist institution. It was my English studies that helped me to have a different view, and a much greater appreciation for our liberal professor.

Sacred Story

In Karen Joines’ classes, it was okay to believe what you wanted to believe, but he wanted you to grapple with the questions of faith and to understand why you believe as you do. He wanted us to understand the deeper meaning of the Resurrection story, asking questions like, “If you could have set up a video camera in front Jesus’ tomb, what do you thing you might see when you played it back?” and “If there were no afterlife in Heaven, would you still live the Christian life?” us to understand the deeper meaning of the Resurrection story, asking questions lik

The single most important lecture I heard during my four years at Samford was his lecture in Archeology class on mythopoeic thought. That lecture opened up new vistas for me. It affirmed my love of poetry, nature and spirituality. It brought to me a heightened sense of wonder seldom found in the classroom.

There were other things he said in his classes that have stayed with me through the years. They were the closest things to rabbinical sayings that I have heard first-hand. He talked about Jacob, emphasizing that he went limping after his name-changing encounter with the angel. Referring to the book of Daniel, he told us that in our life we will be asked to bow the knee to Nebuchadnezzar, “and if you know what's good for you, you will bow to Nebuchadnezzar – but you better not." (It didn't take me long in the real world to know the truth of that comment, which I came to see as a kind of “Jewish koan”). On another occasion told us about Micah, in the book of Judges, who lost his silver idols and declared, "They have taken my gods away, and what am I to do now?"

Perhaps his most controversial chapel lecture was his “Funeral for a Friend,” in which he described, again in quite poetic language, the death of God, or more accurately, the loss of our concept of God as real life unfolds. Dr. Joines challenged the assumptions that we brought from our Sunday school days, but he was showing us what sacred story is about.

Finding the Connection in Literature

While many were livid with what they saw as apostasy, it occurred to me that if Karen Joines spoke the same words over in the English Department, he would be viewed as a defender of the faith. You see, while my colleagues in Religion classes were having difficulty dealing with doubt and things that might challenge their faith, I was seeing the world of literature deal with much harsher crises.  My studies in the English Department showed me how to honestly deal with the questions and challenges of life. Literary people were not confined by doctrine and did not have to restrict life to theological boxes.

I was reading Shakespeare, who wrote more on the human condition than anyone else in the English language. More important, he dramatized the conflicts and struggles common to us all. I was also watching Huck Finn wrestle with the notions of race and slavery, I saw Atticus Finch strive for justice in the segregated South. Moreover, I was beginning to understand the beauties of poetry, which I have come to see as our own “open canon of scripture,” to which we continue to add with each passing year.ish language, and who, more importa

The result of grappling with questions raised by literary writers was a larger appreciation of life. There was no condemnation for stepping out of the boundaries, no call for the firing of professors. There was just the exhilarating process of examining life, love, joy, sorrow, struggle, and friendship.

My double major in English and Religion helped to open my eyes to a wider world as I wrestled with finding the meaning of the life I am attempting to live. I carry from my studies a particular treasure in that gift that Karen Joines gave in my religious studies – that vibrant sense of the poetic along with an honesty to face struggle and doubt within the context of faith.  He inspired a freedom to live unbound by outdated notions.

*    *    *

Post script: I have attempted to carry on the idea of sacred story, as Karen Joines demonstrated to us in his classes. I have recast some of the Old Testament stories in a kind of personal midrash in “Tales of Isaac: Part I - The Altar and Part II - The Blessing,”  “Discovering Esau,” “A Blanket for an Old Man,” and “The Mark of Cain.” I also tried to follow up on Dr. Joines’ lead in “When Your Gods Are Taken Away.”


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