Faith in Fragments (Part Two)
I went to Heritage Bible College and Seminary. There certain professors pushed me in my faith. Dr. David Barker’s hermeneutics course challenged me to take a precise look at the Scriptures in context. “Interpretation is about perspiration. Inspiration is about application not illumination,” he reminded us. Up until that point, I always assumed that the right answer in the Bible just magically popped into our heads after prayer (illumination). Dr. Barker taught that if you care about the Bible, you better be willing to put the time in to study it (perspiration).
Dr. Paul Wilson pushed me to be more academically thorough. I remember doing a history essay by correspondence course using only the books in the church’s library I was interning at. It was on how the early church grew, and in hindsight, I definitely got less historical and more preachy than I should have. I was convinced I got an A, and I confidently strolled into his office to receive my paper back at the beginning of the fall term. “So how did I do?” I asked Dr. Wilson. “Spencer, I’ll be honest. Your paper was just not very good.” He proceeded to take a few books off his shelf, saying, “You should have interacted with this book, and this book would have shown that what you said here is complete unfactual.” I think I came pretty close to crying when he told me my paper did not “even resemble a history paper.” In hindsight, that was just tough love.
The pinnacle achievement for my undergrad was receiving an A in Dr. Wilson’s Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman History major paper. Mind you, that was only after taking the course once already.
I remember taking a course on contemporary issues in theology with a professor named Mark Boughan. The course text looked at doctrinal debates in Evangelicalism, and we had to think about both sides, weighing the options. This went against my fundamentalist insistence that there was only one answer, the clear one, and everyone who thought otherwise were liberals. I remember I did my essay for that class on the inerrancy of Scripture, a essay that left me with more questions than answers. But, that is what good education sometimes does.
While I was in college, I helped pastor a small house church as I lived with that pastor and his family. I remember one night after Alpha Course, I was angry at one person because they believed in infant baptism (how dare he!). I turned to my pastor saying, “We need to stop that person from thinking that way! It’s unbiblical!”
My pastor turned to me in the car, “How do you know you aren’t the one who is wrong?”
I responded, “I can’t be wrong. I have the Holy Spirit!”
He smiled and echoed my words back to me, “You are saying you cannot be wrong?”
“That’s right,” I said again, “I cannot be wrong. I have the Holy Spirit.”
This went on for a while, and he kept repeating my words to me till the thought struck me, “Wow, I sound really arrogant. I’m human. I’m a sinner. Of course, I could be wrong!” The day I learned to ask myself “Could I be wrong?” was the day my fundamentalist theology began to rapidly unravel.
The Contemporary Theology course also studied postmodernism and the emergent church, terms I did not understand, but liked to condemn. I found myself hating one proponent of the emergent church named Brian McLaren. It struck me, however, one night that I really had not read anything by him. I had just been taught to hate what he was about. So, I thought, at any rate, if I was going to critique him, I should at least listen to him in the way he would want me to listen. That way, I would critique him accurately. Now, the choice to listen to others different form you is a dangerous choice. I found myself agreeing with many things he had to say.
My most formative influence in seminary was William Webb, whose book on redemptive-movement in many ways saved the Bible for me in the coming months and years. His notion was that the Bible, far from being a flat culture-free book, had a dynamism, moving from culture to culture. This movement was the Spirit slowly reforming our ways slowly towards the ideals of the kingdom of heaven. He showed us that there are passages of the Bible that are quite culturally regressive, but through the prophetic push of Scripture into today, we can leave those behind and work towards the kingdom of God. I originally through Webb was a liberal, since he beleived women could be pastors. So, I made sure to grill him with questions in class. To my surprise, he gentle worked through each question with more patience than I would have had for a kid like me. In the end, he satisfied my questions, and I changed positions to egalitarianism. Webb in many ways, showed many of us a hermeneutic we already intuitively presupposed. We no longer believe in slavery, polygamy, holy war, and overt patriarchy. We all read Scripture in a way them extrapolates it based on what we know today. This made a profound impact on me, as it reshaped how Scripture’s authority worked. It was now dynamic, no longer static, pushing me to be progressive rather than regresssive.
Much of my theological exploration came at the gentle guidance of Stan Fowler, a man who I am convinced our Baptist denomination would have torn itself apart years ago if not for his constant peacemaking. Of course, many saw him as fence sitting, but I came to appreciate his attempts at promoting moderation.
Under him I wrote a master’s thesis on the postmodern theological method of Stanley J. Grenz. I originally began the thesis looking at the doctrine of Scripture, but turned to issues of methodology. Also, I originally was writing against Grenz, thinking that since he was “postmodern” he was therefore “liberal.” However I slowly found myself agreeing with him against his critics. I found that the very people calling him a liberal, were actually deeply unaware of how they had filtered the Bible with their own modernism. So, I changed my thesis to a defense of his theological proposals.
The Dark Summer
My most significant personal trial occurred in the final year of Bible College, which I call “the dark summer.” My father, who was remarried and just retired, complained at Christmas time in 2006 of stomachaches. Doctors diagnosed it as inoperable, pancreatic cancer. In four months he lost over a hundred pounds, shriveling up into something you would see in holocaust pictures.
Yet, my Dad had a very strong faith. He knew that he was going to die, and told me, “Spencer, I know I am not getting out of this one.” He told me how proud he was of me, and encouraged me to continue pursuing my ministry calling. As he said that, he took off his wedding ring and his favorite Swiss Army watch and gave it to me with my step-mom’s wedding band for my future wife.
He kept telling me that the last thing he wanted to do was see me graduate, so in April, they drove him to Forward Baptist Church, and brought him in on a wheel care for the graduation ceremony. He passed away two weeks later in hospice, just over four months after being diagnosed.
He showed me a wonderful example of perseverance in suffering. One time, his meds wore off, and he clenched his fists so that his fingers dug into his palms. Bent over in the tremendous pain, he prayed, “Thank-you, God, even for this. Thank-you for every opportunity you give me to show my love for you!” While his passing was painful, his example helped me in many ways through what happened as the summer continued.
At the same time, that summer, I went to the mall. I saw my other close friend, who was a part-time supervisor there and also an associate pastor in the area. He asked if I was up for coming to his car, while he was on smoke break. I agreed. When he got there, he confessed to me that his marriage had come to a brutal end. I asked, “Why?” and he responded: “Spencer, I’m gay.” This came as a complete surprise to me. He apparently married his wife trying to suppress or change his orientation, but the result was the opposite. When he told his senior pastor, the pastor threw him under the bus, firing him, saying, “Obviously you just need more faith!”
The ensuing scandal led him, my friend, to become suicidal. He had become convinced that he was predestined not to actually have salvation because, as he thought (similar to my own earlier perfectionism), “With enough faith I can do anything, but if I am still sinning, I must not have enough faith. And if I do not have faith, God must not want me to be saved.” He concluded that he might be one of those people that think they are Christians, but in fact, they will say, “Lord, Lord,” and Jesus will say that he never knew them. So, he concluded that if he did not have God in his life, life was no longer worth living. He attempted suicide and failed, and as he told me his story, he showed me his scared, sliced hands. I was moved with tears, recalled my own experience of God meeting me. I assured him that if he was willing to take his own life in the idea that life without God is not worth living, then truly, God must be smiling at his sincerity, as he did with my own. I assured him that it was the poor in spirit that are those that God blesses. I encouraged him to look at the forsaken Christ at the cross as an answer to whether he was chosen for salvation. Christ, the rejected one, was closer to him now more than ever. He left town for several years after this, but years later we reconnected. He informed me that my words helped him come back to faith and prevented him from committing suicide again.
[Some who know this story which I have told in person will know that I am leaving out another significant event here on this online version]
My father dying and my fiend coming-out about his sexuality and attempting suicide, both happened in one summer. That summer I got a job working night shifts, which left me hours at night thinking about my faith. I recall sitting in my room one night feeling that all rational grounding for my faith was left void, all practical examples of faith in my life had failed, left the church, or, even worse, had passed away due to horrific god-forsaken illness. It was in that moment of despair, I sensed a great void of meaning confront my life: Could all this be worthless? Is life an abyss of vacuous truth? Then something happened in a similar way to when I was younger; something else manifested itself to me. I remember sensing the truth of Christ beyond all the failures of human thought and religion, a hope that prevailed over all despair, come upon me again. It simply assured me that while I can get my faith terribly wrong, Christ is still there. My “truth” could fail, but Christ will not. The result was that I committed myself to rethinking my faith with that hope and reassurance.
That summer I must have read through about 30 books. I thought to myself that if Christ is true even if my beliefs have failed, then I must give Christianity the benefit of the doubt and investigate other traditions to see what they can offer. I was drawn to theologians like Karl Barth, who taught me that the Scripture still continue to speak, beyond doubts of historicity. I was drawn to Wolfhart Pannenberg, who pointed out that truth is only final in the eschaton (and so, until that time, all truth claims cannot be dogmatic and must be tentative, fallible, and revisable). He gave me the framework to examine my convictions in hope. William J. Abraham taught me that when I turn the Bible into a book of foundational rational certainty rather than a canon to nurture one’s walk with Christ, it collapses. Alister McGrath taught me the congruence between faith and science. Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology allowed me to think about God as a person (which oddly I think I was in many ways not doing before that). Plantinga wrote that if God was a person, belief in God is as basic as believing that other people exist. I was drawn to the Open Theism of Clark Pinnock, who impressed on me a relational understanding of God. My studies became excited by a deep personal drive, not merely for a good grade, but to explore afresh faith.
Losing my father was difficult. One day, working on my homework late one night, I stopped. I had an epiphany moment that the only person I worried about making proud of was gone, and so the only person that would see these grades was me. “Why do I bother trying so hard?” I asked myself. I thought to myself that I could, possibly, just do what I could to get by. Without a father figure, like many young men, the only person you have to worry about is the person you see in the mirror, and it is scary what you could be comfortable with if you refused to hold yourself to a higher standard. So, I remember praying that night to live my life by my heavenly Father’s standard.
Through that difficult time, I depended heavily on my girlfriend, Meagan, who I would marry several years later in 2009, and now we have two wonderful children, Rowan and Emerson (and a third boy on the way). Meagan and I are partners in life, and I know that because we have weathered some pretty heavy storms. So, after Meagan and I got married, we moved so that I could begin studies at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.
A story of hope and perseverence. Now you’ve begun a new chapter with children of your own and playing an important role in the community.
I’m excited to read the next chapter in 20 years.
Spencer, I’m so glad that God met you in those key times when you were at a crossroad.