Drawn with Balmer and Episcopalianism Toward That Enchanted Universe

Reading Randall Balmer’s post on why he left evangelicalism to become Episcopalian reminded me that way back when, as a young Christian committed to my Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, I was also experiencing a hunger for spiritual resources I wasn’t fully finding (perhaps partly due to my own blindnesses) in my own communities of faith and worship. Though I wouldn’t today support everything I encountered back then, it was a gift to experience a number of “Aha, there is more!” explosions caused by such resources as these:

My late and beloved professor of pastoral care at Eastern Baptist (now Palmer) Theological Seminary, Vince DeGregoris, introduced me to Carl Jung through Jung-inspired courses on “The Psychodynamics of the Gospels” and “Psychodynamics of the Old Testament” also shaped by such texts as Walter Wink’s The Bible in Human Transformation: Towards a New Paradigm for Biblical Study (Augsburg Fortress, 1980) and Transforming Bible Study: A Leader’s Guide (Abingdon, 1980). Though I didn’t entirely embrace her Gnostic-trending view of Christianity, this also took me to June Singer and her Boundaries of the Soul: The Practice of Jung’s Psychology (Knopf, 1972).

Frederick Buechner showed me in The Magnificent Defeat (Seabury, 1966), Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (Harper & Row, 1977), and many other books that there are ways to preach the heights and depths and poetry of the Bible in ways not dreamed of–at least as of my experience back then–in my tradition. Lord, Teach Us to Pray: Christian Zen and the Inner Eye of Love (HarperCollins, 1991), by William Johnston, offered fresh visions of prayer.

Amid the swirl of such influences, I found a book by Morton Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence: A Guide to Christian Meditation (Paulist, 1976). Although to my knowledge only Kelsey, an Episcopalian priest, belonged to Randall Balmer’s current tradition, Kelsey symbolizes for me the fact that such resources powerfully complemented ways I had, if only due to my own limits, experienced absences in my tradition. A form of Christianity based on if Jesus said it, then do it, can be drawn toward primarily literal, practical, ethics-focused expressions of faith.

There is considerable power in such expressions which continues to inform and inspire me. Yet humans are complicated indeed. I longed for ways better to understand my inner dynamics and the depths of the human condition, to make sense of clashes between the practicalities and disciplines my communities of faith called for and and my own lived realities.

Through the resources from traditions more oriented toward this, including those leaning “high church” and not least Episcopalian, I found some of my longings met. Rather than leaving Mennonites behind, such materials allowed me to embrace what seemed to me to work while drawing on complementary voices from beyond.

My early years were also shaped nearly as much by evangelicalism and fundamentalism as they were by my own tradition. In that sense some of the factors that led Balmer to leave evangelicalism contributed to my aches for something more than my heritage was giving me.

So my story is a variant on what Balmer reports, as he tells us of formally departing his “evangelical subculture” within which his own father had long been a pastor to become an Episcopalian and to feel “as though I had come home.” Amid differences in our journeying, I do see much to appreciate here. And I experience Balmer as yet one more voice articulating some of my own hungers as he speaks of finding at Trinity Church something he wasn’t sure of, but it “seemed sacred to me and very much unlike the cavernous and (yes, I’ll say it) soulless spaces all too typical of evangelicalism.”

And so, reports Balmer, even as he honors his father’s ministry and memory and is “on the whole . . . grateful for my upbringing,” he’s come to

love the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, the reverence of the liturgy, the soaring descants of the Anglican musical tradition and prayers that typically do not include the phrase, “Lord, we jus’ wanna.” I’ve come to regard the Episcopal Church, along with museums, symphonies and the natural world, as one of the few remaining repositories of beauty in this life.

I remain enough of an Anabaptist-Mennonite shaped by an emphasis on signs pointing beyond themselves, but not quite to the point of sacraments that might be seen as including the beyond within themselves, that I don’t feel as strong a pull toward Balmer’s sacramental view. Yet I’ve glimpsed its power in settings like his and value his descriptions of it.

Balmer’s references to the mysteries of faith intertwine with treasures I gleaned from the writers I mentioned at the outset. There is quite the appeal to his decision that “I elect to live in an enchanted universe where there are forces at play that I cannot begin to understand, much less explain—not least of which is the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”

Perhaps also due partly to my Mennonite formation with its view of the church as the community of believers rather than a reality founded on, say, Peter the Rock, I confess to smiling along with Balmer’s take that Matthew 16, with its report of a Jesus founding a church on a particularly frail human, is a rare New Testament attempt at humor or at least irony. Yet I also share with Balmer the concern to respect those, such as Roman Catholics, who might view matters quite differently.

Thank you, Randall Balmer, for helping us experience with you the pull of following “Jesus along the Canterbury Trail.”

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