Exposing Myself to “Theological Otherness”

The following Musing presents the bulk of chapter 2 of my book “Let’s Talk” that is titled “Feeling, Thinking, and Doing.”

After I committed my life to Christ at the age of 13, I was discipled in a rather insulated, pietistic Lutheran church community. This left me with a view of personhood that was, for the most part, one-dimensional—my believing that the most important aspect of my commitment to the Christian faith was  deeply felt religious experience.

This focus on “feeling” is best understood in light of my church being a congregation of the pietistic Lutheran denomination in America known as the Church of the Lutheran Brethren (CLB).

The various CLB congregations started in America were established by immigrants from Norway who, as products of the pietistic movement in Norway, had left the State Lutheran Church in their homeland because of its perceived dead formalism and, upon arriving in America, wanted to create a Lutheran alternative with a pietistic emphasis. The main feature of this pietistic alternative was an emphasis on depth of feeling, including feeling deeply about one’s beliefs.

Peter Gomes, the former chaplain at Harvard University, captured the importance of feeling deeply with his reminder that we are not disembodied intellects—what he cleverly called “minds on a stick.”

My experience in my home church was that  many of my fellow worshippers placed little emphasis on the life of the mind. It wasn’t that they openly disparaged thinking deeply; it was more that serious intellectual pursuits were not as highly valued as deeply felt religious experience.

Having always loved studying and learning, it was the like a breath of fresh air to eventually be exposed to Christians from the Reformed Christian tradition who highly valued the life of the mind.

This exposure to “theological otherness” first came slowly among some faculty colleagues at both The King’s College and Gordon College, and then, as more of a deluge, at Northwestern College in Iowa, which is affiliated with the Reformed Church of America. I arrived at Northwestern in 1980 to assume my first administrative position at a Christian college. The call to think deeply about one’s Christian faith was front and center with my new Reformed friends.

But the Reformed tradition also had a downside, a temptation toward an arid intellectualism, a tendency on the part of some in that tradition to disparage the importance of deeply felt religious experience. (I had the impression that a number of my new Reformed friends hadn’t felt much of anything in years.)

My exposure to those embedded in the Reformed tradition also sowed the seeds for my realization of the importance of doing in following Jesus. But it was my immersion in a third Christian tradition that amplified for me the importance of this third dimension of personhood.

After eight years in the Reformed Christian tradition, I had the opportunity to immerse myself for six years in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Christian tradition at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. I learned to deeply appreciate the Anabaptist view that what you say you feel deeply and think deeply about is empty if you don’t live it every day with a particular emphasis on promoting peace.

But there was also a downside in my experience with the Anabaptist tradition: A temptation to embrace a weak, negative view of peace as only the absence of conflict that led some of my Anabaptist friends to camouflage their disagreements, neglecting to speak up when they should have to address injustice, supposedly to keep the peace.

I am extremely thankful to God for the opportunity I had to be immersed in three differing Christian traditions. In a nutshell, the lessons I learned from my participation in more inclusive conversations with those embedded in these different traditions were these:

  • All three Christian traditions taught me something important about how to be a follower of Jesus.
  • None of these three traditions has captured all of God’s truth about how to live well as a follower of Jesus.
  • It was through listening well to deeply committed Christians in all three traditions that I was able to gain a more comprehensive view of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
  • I need to embrace a comprehensive view of what it means to be a whole person following Jesus, which includes thinking deeply, feeling deeply and living out my beliefs.

The comprehensive view of being a whole person that evolved for me is a synthesis of those aspects of personhood that psychologists name as the affective, the cognitive and the volitional.

I am sure that if I had the opportunity to be immersed in a few other Christian traditions (e.g., the Wesleyan, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions), I would also learn some other lessons about how to live well as a whole person who aspires to follow Jesus.

The lessons I learned from my exposure to multiple Christian traditions lead me to offer a word of advice about the importance of exposing yourself to “theological otherness”:

Dare to step out of your comfort zone of listening only to those who share your Christian tradition. There is much to be learned by listening carefully to a diversity of deeply committed followers of Jesus whose Christians traditions can enlarge and enrich your understanding of what it means to faithfully follow Jesus.

If you take active steps to expose yourself to “theological otherness” during your Christian pilgrimage, you will put yourself in a better position to understand the positions regarding contentious issues taken by those from these other Christian traditions. This will be very helpful as you talk about the possibility of grasping a more fulsome view of the truth about the issue at hand that is informed by the best insights emerging from a number of traditions.

To date, my Musings in this series could be viewed as “theoretical” in nature, arguing for the importance of loving and respectful conversations with those who disagree with you about contentious issues. It is time now for some “practicality,” responding to the question of “how” one best orchestrates such conversations, especially in Christian church settings. I will address this question in my final two Musings.


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