Over the last 50 years both events in the world and experiences in my life have brought substantial changes to my mind’s general outlook, while the basic concerns and ideals that led me to YDS in the first place have proved persistent. In combination, these create a disquiet within me and constrain me to see the world with a more skeptical, questioning and, hopefully, discerning eye. In consequence, my provisional way to make sense of the world we live in is to see the proliferation of greater complexity in every direction of human knowledge, human activity and human experience.
I now perceive a metaphor in the prevailing force of entropy in the physical, thermodynamic, world and in our human world, picturing ever-increasing complexity, disorder and uncertainty outpacing even our most worthy efforts at order and coherence. From this view, there is no consensus center, no certainty possible, and human understanding is overwhelmed, except where people drastically truncate the evidence to frame some partial meaning; as of necessity we all must do.
The optimism, or naïveté, I brought with me to YDS thought that it was difficult, but not impossible, to fashion a world in which human destiny could be shaped significantly by justice, mutual respect and Christian faith and values – a hope for the Kingdom of God here East of Eden. The comfort of the Eisenhower era held sway — McCarthy had been discredited, and the big item on the national agenda was civil rights, which had been correctly addressed by the Supreme Court. But this was before Viet Nam, the protest movement, the assassinations of Jack Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Watergate, 9-11, the unconscionable adventure in Iraq, the revelation of the military-industrial hegemony, the devastating mortgage bubble, etc. So optimism is no longer the order of the day under such samples of entropic onslaughts. Regrettably, I now tend to interpret the evidence in a way that sees religion itself as manifesting the entropic drift. The views of the Religious Right, for a particular example, I see as a wholly understandable, if wholly misguided, response to the serious challenges of the entropic assault on traditional religious concepts and values.
In that respect, I now see the historic doctrines of Christianity, gifts from early Iron Age culture and cosmology, and thus pre-Enlightenment and pre-scientific times, being asked to bear more explanatory power regarding the human condition than they can realistically carry in our day. Sin, to take a core example from Romans 5, may serve theological and evangelistic purposes, but it is an overly simple, individualistic and reductionist idea unhelpful in explaining dementia, the systemic problems of capitalism, DNA mutations, famine, environmental hazards, climate change, the current national debt crises, the tragic suffering of innocents, and on and on, not to mention what can be done practically about sin, if anything , to make a better world in the face of its progressive complexity. To take another example, the Nicaea formulation of theological orthodoxy in 325 A.D. now seems to me more a historical curiosity resolving irresolvable issues about the Godhead that makes sense only in some ineffable, and, to me, unsatisfactory, way. Similarly, it seems to me, the heirs of the neo-orthodox tradition, which tradition had led me to YDS and inspired me by its attempts to address my concerns and hopes for our kind and our world, have developed what I also perceive as an understandable and parallel retreat into spirituality, as well as relative silence in addressing the moral challenges of our time and the illusionists of the Religious Right. Unfortunately for me, I suppose, the persistent concerns noted above, and my own research into cognitive processes in social psychology, have left me tone deaf to this development.
I was fortunate in college to have been led by my philosophy professor, George L. Abernethy, to various writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr rang a bell in my head resonating to his inspired vision of the practical interplay of Christian faith and the “real world” dilemmas, and paradoxes, we live with in history. His grasp of the ambiguities of life is groundwork for my sense of complexity. His case for “prophetic Christianity” and political realism, and his categories of thought, wonderfully compressed in the opening paragraphs of the Destiny of Man, have carried me and my Christian faith ever since. While I now entertain reservations about Niebuhr’s fast-paced theology that I didn’t use to have, as, admittedly, I now share regarding the possibilities of the theological enterprise generally, I continue to hope, because of Niebuhr, that some exponent of our tradition may arise and ring my dumb bell again. That, as Niebuhr might say, is “an impossible possibility” because the entropy story of increasing complexity cannot be the complete story. The evidence seems to be that out of the energy chaos of whirling electrical charges constituting all the matter of the universe, an ordering and life arose to structure and then perceive the complexity we contend with. That self-ordering can be seen in my mind as revealing another power at work throughout God’s creation.(Cf. Gen. 1:1-2 and Phil. 2:13-14.) And just so, life and history on this planet will proceed with its joys and sorrows, its triumphs and tragedies, its cycle of births and death, and its unfolding complexity competing with quests for ordering and meaning. To a completion beyond our comprehension.
The more practical changes of my mind can be summarized, briefly, in terms of expanded experiences and shifting careers and family. Following YDS, I earned a doctorate at Duke in experimental social psychology and got teaching jobs at Davidson College, Lehigh University and the University of Virginia. At Virginia I also earned a law decree and have been practicing law for 37 years in Virginia Beach. Here I dabbled in politics, served a spell as Mayor, and chaired the City’s Economic Development Authority, etc., which somehow put my name in Who’s Who. I also taught an adult Sunday School class for 23 years at the First Presbyterian Church, giving me the occasion to study church history and the Scriptures, especially the Gospels and Paul, in more detail than I ever had before (resulting, I must say, in a serious realignment of my understanding with the tutelage of writers like Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels and Karen Armstrong). The change, or challenge, or expansion of my mind in the most satisfying way came via having children – such as juggling the very practical tasks of making a home, nurturing in our family life a respect for justice, caring and the value of work, and figuring a way to make a decent living to support us. Most fortunately, Carolyn and I have two sons, and two granddaughters, all of whom have been wonderful blessings and, everything said, the source of great joy.
In retrospect of my story, I feel both tremendously thankful and somewhat guilty for having lived a more abundant life, including the impact on my mind at YDS by my teachers and fellow students – with parrticular mention of Jim Dittes and Robert Calhoun for inspiring me and taking a personal interest in me – than I could have imagined at YDS or ever deserved.