Sunday, November 11, 2018
When Whittaker Chambers abandoned communism, he said to his wife “you know, I am leaving the winning side to join the losing side.” When the late Thomas Oden, under the influence of his Jewish friend and academic colleague Will Herberg, abandoned liberal or progressive Christianity to return to Christian orthodoxy, he harbored in his heart no such lament. He knew that the victory he wanted—the only victory that matters—had already been won. It had been won nearly two thousand years earlier when Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice on a Roman cross at Golgotha for the remission of our sins and was raised by his Father from the dead. Christ’s triumph over sin and death really was, as far as Tom Oden or any other orthodox Christian was or is concerned, the only victory that matters. And that means we can dispense with any thought of being on the right or wrong side of history—the thing theological progressives and, indeed, all progressives worry about—and instead focus our attention, as Tom focused his—once the scales had fallen from his eyes—on getting on the right side of truth, which is to say, getting oneself on to the side of the one who said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
But siding with Jesus for Tom Oden, or for any of us, was and is a costly form of discipleship—especially for those who aspire to professional success in the culture of the contemporary academy. This is true especially of the theologian. For in an environment of deep and bitter hostility to Christian orthodoxy, the theologian is suspect from the start—simply because of his or her academic field. The temptation for the Christian (or Jewish or other theologian) is to be “purer than the pure”—which is to say, more secular than the secular, more liberal than the liberal—lest one frighten the horses and be made an example of. And yet Tom was willing to take the risk and, if it came to it, make the sacrifice. He was willing to be scorned and rejected, to take up his cross, as it were, and follow Christ.
As an orthodox Christian, Tom possessed and richly exemplified the theological virtue of hope. That was the quality of character that helped enable him to recognize that he was in no sense “joining the losing side.” And yet, he was a realist, a man of the world. He knew that there would be costs to his discipleship, risks, sacrifices. He knew that embracing Christian orthodoxy would render him highly suspect among the very people on whose good opinion his professional standing, future, and prospects for success rested. He knew that his orthodoxy—or what came in his case to be known as paleo-orthodoxy—would cost him professional opportunities and relationships and even treasured friendships. Indeed, because he had, before his change of heart, been a theological liberal—and a well-known and highly credentialed partisan of, and activist for, theological liberalism—he knew he would be regarded not only as a "fundamentalist" but also as a turncoat, a betrayer, the very kind of person who gives theologians a bad name, and who renders them suspect, among their unbelieving academic colleagues.
Moreover, he knew he would lose the standing he had as something of a big wheel in such organizations as the World Council of Churches. These organizations, like many of the denominations associated with them, had done what Tom himself had done. They had retained the forms and institutional structures of Christianity but replaced the substance of the faith with dogmas and practices drawn from secularist ideologies, such as those developed and promoted by figures from Marx and Freud to Beauvoir and Marcuse. In the crucial domain of ethics they had, to a greater or lesser degree, embraced an essentially Benthamite utilitarian view under the label “situation ethics.” Pastoral practice became reduced to secular psychological counseling ("therapy") as Christian content was evacuated from it. Tom had been on board with all of this, but he turned against all of it when he experienced his midlife change of heart. Marx and Freud were replaced by Athanasius and Augustine. The situation ethics of Joseph Fletcher, Tom abandoned in favor of the demanding but ultimately liberating ethics of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
When it came to pastoral practice—the field in which Tom had built his reputation in his early years--Tom stopped looking to Freud and Carl Rogers and instead turned to Nemesius, Vincent of Nerins, and Gregory the Great. Truly, in the case of what Tom candidly described as his conversion from a form of neo-paganism with a merely Christian veneer to faith in Jesus Christ, his guides—the tools used by God in His providence to bring home a prodigal son--were the early ecumenical councils and the fathers of the Church. The brilliant young man whose early interests were in existential theology of the sort exemplified in the de-mythologizing program of Rudolf Bultmann, came to be shaped intellectually and spiritually by the likes of John Chrysostom and Justin Martyr.
In his moving and remarkable memoir, A Change of Heart, Tom reflected on his intellectual and spiritual odyssey.
I went into ministry,” he said, “to use the Church to elicit political change according to a soft Marxist vision of wealth distribution and proletarian empowerment.”
"I was floating on the wave of secularization. Theologians were undertaking the ironic task of deconstructing the old religion in order to create a new religion. I functioned as a movement theologian, continuously shifting from movement to movement toward whatever new idea I thought might seem to be an acceptable modernization of Christianity.”
For this, Tom would reproach himself intensely. “I had,” he said, “drifted towards a Christ without a cross and a conversion without repentance.”
"Sadly, I had participated directly in the emasculating of many vitalities of the classic religious tradition I had received. In the early 1970s, I became a political penitent, keenly aware of the destructiveness of my former political history . . . I made effort to restore what had been damaged. Conscience required that I do what I could to repair the systems I had harmed."
It is important to understand that Tom did not repudiate every cause in which he had been involved in his earlier years. Above all, he continued to believe in and support the civil rights movement and its efforts to overcome a long and deplorable history of racial prejudice and injustice. He also continued to believe in what he would call “Christian feminism,” an approach to women and relations between the sexes that fully honored the dignity and equality of women while rejecting the sexual revolution and the radical feminism of figures such as Beauvoir and Friedan. In a section of his memoir entitled “Making Reparations,” he says:
"My past visions of vast plans for social change had irreparably harmed many innocents, especially the unborn. The sexually permissive lifestyle, which I had not joined but failed to critique, led to a generation of fatherless children. The political policies I promoted were intended to increase justice by political means but ended in diminishing personal responsibility and freedom. Many of the seemingly humane psychological therapies I had supported may have made people more miserable, less able to choose wisely or to seek the virtues required for happiness."
Note the words “especially the unborn.” The increasing clarity of Tom’s perception of the inherent and equal worth and dignity of every member of the human family—irrespective of race, ethnicity, or sex, but also irrespective of age, size, stage of development, or condition of disability or dependency—was both a partial cause of his conversion and an effect. Abortion had become a central cultural and political issue in the years leading up to Tom’s change of mind and heart, and initially he supported the practice—something that he would soon regret and truly bitterly reproach himself for.
"Prior to the time of my turnaround, I had been teaching social ethics to young pastors. In classes I had been providing a rationale for their blessing convenience abortions. I had not yet considered the vast implications of its consequences for women, families, and society, but most of all for the lost generation of irretrievably aborted babies. When I tried to explain to God why I had ignored those consequences, the answer kept coming back to me: no excuse. I had been wrong, wrong, wrong. The situation ethics on which those abortion arguments were made were unprincipled and careless of human life . . . I experienced an overwhelming wave of moral revulsion against the abortion-on-demand laws I had once advocated."
Tom made no excuses for himself. He offered no extenuating circumstances, no mitigating evidence. He was, he says, “wrong, wrong, wrong.” And for his delinquency, he had “no excuses.” Given such profound and sincere repentance, no Christian can doubt that God forgave Tom, and I’m sure that Tom, as I faithful Christian, knew he was forgiven. But he never stopped reproaching himself for the role he had played as an advocate of abortion in exposing unborn children to the lethal violence of deliberate feticide. And he bravely, selflessly, and resolutely sought to rectify the wrong he had done by becoming an advocate within his own denomination (the United Methodist Church) and more broadly for the right to life of the precious child in the womb.
After his conversion from liberal to classical Christianity (a conversion Tom referred to simply as his conversion to Christianity), his scholarly work came increasingly to focus on the fathers of the Church, especially those from north Africa, such as Athanasius, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria. As far as he was concerned, the kind of “progress” in Christian theology that was worth making could best be made by recovering and developing the insights—especially pertaining to pastoral practice, or what Tom called “soul care”—of the great thinkers and teachers of the early Church. Tom also strongly believed in the importance of understanding and appreciating the contributions that Africans had made to the development of Christianity—from the very beginning. And he strongly encouraged African and African-American scholars and religious leaders to assist in the project of deepening our understanding and appreciation of African contributions to Christian theology.
I’ve referred to Thomas Oden as “Tom” throughout this little reflection because he and I were friends. I got to know him in the early 1990s thorough the good offices of our mutual friend Richard John Neuhaus. I admired him for his intelligence, his integrity, his fierce devotion to truth, and his profound Christian witness. I am grateful to him for many kindnesses. Yesterday I had the pleasure of participating in a conference honoring him at Central Presbyterian Church in New York, where I offered the substance of this reflection. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.