The following is an excerpt from one of several posts at i-monk’s blog interviewing Bryan Cross, who is a thoughtful Catholic philosopher and apologist. My reason for posting this has nothing to do with Bryan’s Catholicism; I’m personally ambivalent about that landing place for him within the Body. But his story within the protestant church is one that I think many will resonate with. All church leaders should hear his story and be mindful of the stumbling blocks that we can so easily set before people, like the ones that were set before Bryan.
During my undergraduate education at the University of Michigan, I was exposed to Christians of all different traditions, and this raised a number of questions for me. By the end of my senior year, I was reading various books on theology, and I became convinced that Reformed covenantal theology was more biblical than the dispensational theology in which I had been raised. For the following three years my wife and I led an international student fellowship composed of students from Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan. During that time I continued to read books on Reformed theology. By the end of that three years, I came to see that if I was going to be a pastor, I needed much better theological training. So we moved to St. Louis where I studied at Covenant Theological Seminary for four years, earning an M.Div.
In my last year of seminary, I took a graduate philosophy class at Saint Louis University on the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas. Studying Aquinas raised many questions regarding the Reformed tradition. I couldn’t answer those questions at the time, but it was clear to me that there was at least a deep tension between the philosophical and theological positions and methods of the Reformers, and those of Aquinas. I had hoped that a rigorous study of the biblical languages and exegesis would provide the means to resolve interpretive disagreements between the Christian traditions. I had poured myself into exegesis with that hope, so much so that at graduation the seminary faculty honored me with the exegesis award. But I began to see the implicit role that philosophy was playing in our interpretation of Scripture. My belief as a seminarian was that other Christian traditions didn’t agree with us (Presbyterians) primarily because they didn’t know exegesis as well as we did. At the seminary we believed that exegesis was on our side, that it was exegesis that validated our position over and against that of all the other Christian traditions. But when I began to see the degree to which philosophy was playing an implicit role in our interpretation of Scripture, my beliefs that exegesis was a neutral objective science, and that it was sufficient to adjudicate interpretive disputes, began to crumble. So I decided to study philosophy, in order to get a better understanding of the relation of philosophy to theology throughout the history of the Church. If I couldn’t avoid bringing philosophy into exegesis, at least I was going to do my best to bring in true philosophy.
I completed the internship required for ordination and continued to teach Sunday school at the Presbyterian church we were attending. But at that point I decided not to pursue ordination, because for me there were too many theological questions unanswered. Two years after finishing seminary, my youngest daughter went through a very seriousness illness, and during the following year I went through what I would call an intellectual crisis concerning theology and the ecclesial practice of Christianity. It wasn’t a personal faith-crisis; my belief in Christ and love for Him was never in question. At the time, I couldn’t have explained exactly what was the problem. Anglicanism and Catholicism were not even on my conceptual horizon. I knew that I didn’t want to go to church to hear any more “man-talk,” i.e. opinions of men. If church were primarily about “man-talk,” I could go to the library and find much more erudite thinkers and writers. With what I was learning from ancient philosophers and medieval theologians, I found myself mentally refuting sermons point-by-point as they were being delivered during every service. Of course I knew we are not supposed to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, and yet existentially I couldn’t see any good reason to “go to church.” At one point I stopped going to church altogether because I was so frustrated with the whole scene, a scene that to me seemed spiritually vacuous and human-centered in its continual “man-talk.”
Eventually a friend of mine suggested that I visit an Anglican church, so I did. I went by myself. It was completely different. It was quiet and reverent before the liturgy began. The liturgy itself was beautiful, rich, and meaningful. Here for the first time I found freedom from “man-talk.” There was no personality at the front of the church with a microphone, saying whatever came into his head at that moment. There was no speculative exegesis or theological argumentation which I could critically dismantle. The liturgy is God’s speech spoken back to Him by His people or by one representing them. Of course Holy Communion is the climax of the liturgy, and it too is not “man-talk.” In this sacrament God was speaking to me not through words and propositions, but through a physical action, giving Himself to me in a very intimate way. This was not something toward which I could take a critical, disengaged stance. I could only receive it humbly and gratefully. In that respect, this sacrament almost bypassed my intellect and went straight to my heart. We received Holy Communion at the front of the church, on our knees. The very form of worship communicated something altogether different from the way of taking communion I had previously known. I found God to be present there in the beauty, reverence and silence of the liturgy. In that sacredness my heart, which had been starved under a diet of mere propositions, was drawn anew toward God.
Thankfully, Bryan eventually came back to the Body instead of staying out permanently. We need to know that there are people in the congregation more studied than we are, smarter than we are, even more mature than we are. And we need to know there are the opposite as well. For all these folks we need to exercise humility and not put forward our words as God’s. We need to know the difference, say the difference and find ways to minimize our words and maximize God’s. Lastly, we need to learn and increase our own appreciation for the many ways God speaks outside of a sermon. We should treasure these and give them appropriate space among the meetings of God’s people.