Faith of Our Fathers

Faith of Our Fathers

Author: Peter Leibensperger
October 13, 2020

Perhaps, one of the most regrettable parts about losing a parent when you are young is that you are robbed of those “adult” conversations—the conversations that you just aren’t capable of having at age thirteen, or eighteen, or even twenty-five. My mother is still alive, and she and I meet for lunch about every other week. During those lunches, we talk about parenting, and theology, and fears, and hopes, and all of the most meaningful things in our lives that make us who we are. I consider it a deep privilege to be able to talk like that with anyone, but what a blessing to be able to probe the depths of your origins by having those conversations with your parent! I am so grateful that she is with me and that she can offer a glimpse into where I came from.

My father was the Bishop of the Evangelical Congregational Church when he died in 2010. He was a brilliant man, who lived and breathed church and theology, and he helped many people during their darkest times. But my father’s view of Christianity was very different from mine. In his denomination, women are not allowed to become pastors, and homosexuality is considered a sin. Also, my father’s brand of Christianity made eternal salvation the number one purpose of ministry, while currently, I believe that Jesus was just as concerned with the problems of the here and now—let’s call it “Earthly Salvation”—as he was with the hereafter, or Eternal Salvation.

I’d love to grill my Dad on all these points, but I truly wish I could ask my father about this final question, because it was the thrust of his ministry. I’d like to ask him, “How can you expect someone who doesn’t have enough food to care about something abstract and distant like Eternal Salvation? Don’t you see that Jesus was concerned with injustice in this life as well as salvation in the next?”

These questions have bothered me for the last seven years, and I had no way of conversing with my father. But at our last lunch meeting, my mother gave me a book from my father’s library: Escape from Reason by Francis A. Schaeffer. She knew that I was searching for answers, and she believed that this book might offer some insight, because my father spent time with it. As I flipped through the book at Panera, I saw that it was in dialogue with some of my favorites like Hegel and Kant, but I also noticed that it talked about Reformation theology to which my father did not ascribe. This surprised me, so I decided that I would read the book and see what insights it provided into my father’s mind.

The first thing I noticed is that my father underlined many of the arguments held forth in the first part of the book. There, Schaeffer notices that thought-forms of people during the Byzantine period were largely concerned with a dichotomy introduced by their religious institutions. This dichotomy is Nature verses Grace. Schaeffer notes that during this period, the Holy/Grace was held in higher regard than the Mundane/Nature. Thus, artists painted symbolic representations of Mary and Joseph rather than natural depictions of their human forms. At that time, the cares and concerns of the Mundane/Nature were considered secondary to the realm of Grace and Holiness.

Schaeffer goes on to say that, with the teachings of Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), there came a reversal in the Nature/Grace hierarchy. Aquinas struggled to find a unity between Nature and Grace, but, in Schaeffer’s opinion, Aquinas’s efforts ultimately resulted in the elevation of Nature over Grace. Schaeffer bemoans this cultural transformation as, in his view, Grace began to disappear. He notes how an artist during the Renaissance painted Mary with the visage of the King’s mistress with one breast exposed, and Schaeffer concludes that Grace died that day. Sadly, Schaeffer links the disappearance of Grace with the concept of the modern human.

It seems as though my father agreed with Schaeffer on his condemnation of Aquinas’s Humanistic leanings. My father’s brand of theology was always concerned first with the Holy/Salvation. When people in his denomination see someone for the first time, they first see a sinner who needs to repent when others might see a displaced person who needs food and shelter. My father believed that once spiritual needs were taken care of, the rest would follow.

What I noticed immediately about the next part of the book is that, in this section, my father did not underline one word. Perhaps he did not read it, or he did not agree with it, but it’s worth noting that Schaeffer takes a different avenue in this section. Here, Schaeffer speaks of the Reformation. He remarks how Christ (a member of the Godhead) is a personal God, living among the mundane and the unholy. But Christ is also member of the “Holy, Holy, Holy” Godhead, who is infinite and certainly not mundane. In this way, Reformation thought creates a unity between Nature (through the mundane elements of Christ’s humanity and ministry) and Grace (in the deity of Christ). Schaeffer concludes, therefore, that God is a God of Nature and Grace, and therefore both are equally important.

I’ll never know whether my father did not read the second section or did not care about it, but I wish he had, and I wish we could have talked about it. Before I came to First Pres, I grew up and spent my whole life in churches that made “Christian Faith” much more important than “Christian Works/Activism.” As I imagine my conversation with my father, I can hear him say to me, “if you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” To which I respond, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (The Bible says both of those things, of course.)

The book my mother gave me has given me a little insight into my father, but it also made me think about the balance between Nature and Grace in our church. Do we, here at First Pres, believe that physical/practical/worldly needs are more important, less important, or equally important as issues of salvation? Do we believe in the premise of a conceptual divide between Nature and Grace, or do we now consider them to exist in the same philosophical space, on the same spiritual continuum? I think the answers to these questions are consequential because they determine what we spend our time and resources on as individuals and as a church family. My father and I disagree on this point. Where do you stand, I wonder?



First Presbyterian Church


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