I spent 15 months on a fellowship in the U.S. 1965–1967. After I came home to Greenock my local Methodist minister invited me to give a talk about my experiences to his Ministers’ Fraternal in Glasgow. I came across it recently. (No, my filing system is not so wonderful but my parents had kept a copy!) I reproduce it here in case anyone is interested in some of my thoughts at that time. The style is more formal and shows more ability to write at length than is evident in the rest of this blog.
‘Diversities…but the same Spirit’
In a French railway compartment a young student was making fun of an elderly gentleman sitting in the corner who seemed to be engaged in his devotions. Nowadays, said the student, there was no need of God. Science could explain everything: science had shown that there was no God. The student offered to send the old gentleman some literature that would enlighten his poor uninformed mind and asked for his name and address. The old gentleman silently put his hand into his pocket and took out his card. With some dismay the student read ‘Louis Pasteur, Professor of Science’.
If any justification seems required for a scientist to be talking to you today perhaps that story will serve. Yet I talk not as a scientist, nor even as an amateur theologian. I have recently returned from the United States where I spent 21 months under the Harkness Fellowship scheme, engaged in theoretical physics research. I had the opportunity of visiting churches of different denominations in various parts of the country, and it is about these experiences that I would like to talk. My own interests, together with a variety of reasons of a circumstantial nature, were responsible for the choice of denominations, and my comments will reflect this fact. I can make no attempt to be exhaustive.
In order to prevent the talk from becoming a sort of ecclesiastical travelogue it seemed useful to have as a unifying theme the thought expressed in the title, that wherever men seek God, in whatever way they may seek to worship Him, there is to be found the presence of the same Holy Spirit.
A visitor from Britain is struck by the fact that churches in America are regarded as important enough for the business side to be run in an efficient manner, with an adequate staff of full time secretaries. Giving is on a higher level than in this country. This is illustrated by the fact that whereas in this country one might feel slightly embarrassed about putting notes in the collection plate, in America one might almost feel embarrassed at putting in a coin. One statistic: 44% of Americans go weekly to church.
I spent the first year of my Fellowship in Princeton, New Jersey. The pastor of the Methodist Church there preaches sermons which are quite polished and intellectually satisfying. His point of view is fundamentalist, though he himself prefers the term conservative. He is against any involvement of the Church in political and social issues and seemed to carry this rather far in condemning First Presbyterian, the Church socially in Princeton, for allowing teenagers to meet on their premises after school for the quite ‘secular’ purposes of talking, listening to music, and dancing. It seems to me that this position of non-involvement of the Church in the affairs of the world is tenable only if its ministry so imbues its members with the power of the Spirit that they become involved individually in action in the world based on Christian principles and Divine guidance.
The local Methodist bishop is a Negro and highly respected, but most Negro Methodists in Princeton belong to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a separate denomination which also has many white people in its congregation. In the Princeton Methodist Church the Asbury class met before church, during the Sunday school hour, to discuss various topics of concern and interest. Sometimes we had a visiting speaker to stimulate the discussion. The name Asbury is well known in New Jersey as that of the first Methodist Bishop, who travelled widely along the eastern seaboard.
Also in the Princeton church there were weekly meetings in small groups for fellowship and discussion. We came to feel a wonderful closeness and concern for each other and were richly blessed in these meetings.
There was also a series of ecumenical Bible studies in which Roman Catholics as well as members of most of the Protestant denominations in the town took part.
There is a full-time Methodist minister at Princeton University, and Ernest Gordon of Greenock, Dean of the University Chapel and a Presbyterian, holds weekly meetings for Bible study.
Many denominations and points of view are represented on religious radio programmes. Since these are supported by the contributions of listeners they are usually of high quality.
I spent the second year in Ames, Iowa, in the Mid West. In Ames, Collegiate Methodist Church is very well attended, with a congregation drawn largely from the University Community. Wesley Foundation provides an extensive programme of Sunday School classes and fellowship meetings for all ages, as well as facilities for activities during the week.
The pastor preaches the gospel in a direct and challenging way. He feels compelled to point out social and political questions on which Christians should take a stand even at some risk to themselves. Major political issues such as the war in Vietnam and civil rights cut across party lines, and he has made his position on these questions very clear, thereby losing friends and financial support for the church.
Collegiate Methodist Church was host to an interdenominational weekly meeting of graduate students and other young people in the area. Usually a talk was followed by discussion, then after a short devotional session to close the meeting we would just ‘visit’ for a while. This intransitive use of ‘visit’, meaning to have fellowship, or sit around and talk, came to mean quite a lot to me because of times such as these when we could meet together in an atmosphere of relaxation and spiritual concern. The group usually ate together afterwards.
One of the denominations represented in Ames is called simply ‘Christian Church’. It may be that pioneers in their westward trek, on founding a new community decided to forget their denominational differences and build a single church which they called ‘Christian Church’. Later when more people moved in, the usual denominations became established and the Christian Church became just another denomination.
I was at several meetings in First Presbyterian Church in Princeton, including one on Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity and one on the Death of God theology.
Sermons are often duplicated and distributed the following week. I would like to quote from a sermon by Ralph Chandler, the assistant minister at First Presbyterian. His title is ‘Quasars and God’ and the theme is the place of religion in a scientific age.
If there is a coincidence of word and experience, then the word is a living word. The word dwells with God, and what God is the word is. If there is not a coincidence of word and experience, if the word has to be propped up by references outside our experience, then the word is dead. It is meaningless. If God happens to be the unauthenticated word, then God is dead. … How have we killed God? We have killed him with propositions and conceptions. We have killed him with rational and speculative thought. We have come to think of the real and valuable in life as that which is logical and can he clearly expressed. We have lost our imaginations. We do not wonder any more. Our children do not pretend. We have brought God down to ourselves. …
In some ways the Greeks did the Church a great disservice. They taught the Church in the first four critical centuries of its existence that heresies were to be put down by conceptual means. We would out-think them. The fact is that none of the great heresies has been put down finally by this means. They keep cropping up every two or three centuries in some new form, with some new vocabulary. …
Ancient Israel did not conceive of God through propositions. God was known in a relationship. A theologian does not know God by formulating arguments about him. A scientist cannot know God in the same way he measures natural phenomena. Theologian, scientist, fisherman, mail carrier… all have equal access. Brain power is not a requisite. …
His grace finds us whenever and wherever we are willing to receive it. Only then can we declare that God is alive, authenticated in our own experience.
It was while I was in America that Time magazine appeared with the cover ‘Is God Dead?’
For a while it seemed to become fashionable for preachers to raise a laugh by some reference to the Death of God. Greater men than I have tried in vain to explain what the Death of God theology is all about, but I would like at least to make a few remarks about it.
God in his traditional roles as creator, provider, and overcomer of evil, no longer seems relevant or active. Revival of religion is claimed to depend on giving up God. These theologians seem sometimes to be doubting the effectiveness of prayer. Yet, even if the form is different from before, surely there is sufficient continuity to want
to keep the word ‘God’ in talking about it.
When Christian theologians declare that ‘God is dead’, those of us who believe that he is alive are bound to ask oursleves ‘In what sense is He alive for us?’ When natural scientists, psychologists, and social scientists give rational descriptions — as a scientist I don’t want to say ‘explanations’ — of more and more of our experiences, a God of the gaps becomes less and less useful. Whatever more God is, He must at least be ‘the Ground of our Being’ and the source of all good, ever active in sustaining His creation.
Even if the ‘Death of God’ theologians had an airtight logical case, they would not touch the reality of God for those who have experienced His presence and power.
Just as my comments on some great work of art are more a judgment on my own aesthetic appreciation than on the work itself, so one feels about the ‘Death of God’ theology that the lack of life is more to be associated with mortal man than with God. Yet it is so easy to miss the point of what those people are saying. They reject the idea of God as ‘an agency, a person, a presence, to whom Thou-language [is] appropriately addressed.’ Yet what about prayer? I am more sure about the importance of prayer than I am about the form it should take. Intellectually, Thou-language may be less than satisfying, yet even if one does think of God as ‘the ground of our Being’ to address Him (or It?) as such is less satisfying than to call Him ‘Father’.
97% of Americans say they believe in God; one wonders if the proportion is as high as that in the theological seminaries.
While in the United States I became interested in the so-called
‘New Thought’ movement. The best known of the various branches is Christian Science; less revolutionary in their approach are Unity, Religious Science, and Divine Science. All have in common a belief in the reality of God’s government here and now. Any inharmonious appearance in one’s experience is claimed to be due to an error of thought, and may be put right by a correct understanding of the spiritual truth about God’s omnipotence and man’s spiritual nature as God’s reflection. Basic to this is the description of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, especially ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him’, and ‘God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.’ By contrast, the more material picture of creation in the second chapter of Genesis is regarded, especially in Christian Science, as applying, not to the true man, God’s image and likeness, but to man’s false picture of himself as a mortal separated from God. Christian Science goes further than the others in its denial of any reality to matter and the triad of mortal errors, sin, disease, and death. Although there is in these systems of thought no particular emphasis on one aspect of divine action over another, healing by spiritual means alone has to some extent become recognised as their hallmark, since until comparatively recently this aspect of Christ’s commission to his followers had been little emphasised by most of the churches since the first few centuries of the Christian era.
Healing is not so much through faith as through spiritual understanding; instead of simply having faith that God can heal, if there is an understanding of the spiritual impossibility of sickness, sin, lack, or whatever, being part of one’s true identity, this leads to a harmonious outcome. Yet, to be effective, the desire must be more for a better understanding of God than for a healing or a particular improvement in material circumstances. ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.’ Yet one must seek the Kingdom rather than the added things. I have often heard speakers at a Christian Science testimony meeting express gratitude for a healing, and add that they are even more grateful for the increased understanding of God which has come to them through the experience.
While Christian Science is definitely a separate church, Religious Science and Divine Science are less so, and Unity describes itself as a ‘religious educational institution teaching the use of Christianity in everyday life.’ Unity publishes several periodicals which are read by people in many different churches, or in none.
I have heard many testimonies to healings carried out by spiritual means alone. One, in Christian Science, was the case of one of my friends in Princeton, a student in the Christian Science organisation who, after the routine X-ray examination, was told that he had tuberculosis and would have to leave the University. He was told to report to the office the next day to complete the formalities. He telephoned a Christian Science practitioner who did metaphysical work — or prayed for him in Christian Science. The next day when he reported to the University he insisted that further tests be made. These all proved negative and he was able to continue his studies.
The overcoming of sin is no less a part of the work of these churches than it is of the more orthodox ones, although the approach tends to be different. The overcoming of lack of any kind, and of any disharmony of human relationships, is also emphasised. In short, Christianity is given direct relevance and application to every aspect of day-to-day experience, as indeed we all realise it should be, though we don’t always seem to manage to practise it.
When all is given up for the sake of the pearl of great price we obtain it, and having it we find we have all good.
Several times I attended Marble Collegiate Church in New York City where Dr Norman Vincent Peale is the minister. His sermons are published in booklet form and he has written several books among which ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’. This title suggests the point of view of most of his sermons, that by directing one’s thoughts in the right channels and by meditating on some of the many scriptural passages which contain God’s promises to man, one can gain sufficient faith and power to overcome any obstacle or difficulty one may be facing. On many occasions Dr Peale’s appeal to release all to Jesus and let Him take over has won a response in people of all walks of life including many hard-headed Madison Avenue business men for whom his message seems to have a special appeal.
Dr Peale is also the founder of the American Foundation for Religion and Psychiatry, an interfaith organisation in which ministers, psychiatrists, and social workers cooperate closely in working with those in need of help.
While in Salt Lake City I visited Temple Square and talked with some of the Mormons. A further contact occurred later when two Mormon missionaries came to talk to two friends I was staying with in Illinois. I like some of their emphases, such as on tithing, high moral standards, and the importance of family life, but their distinctive theology with its very anthropomorphic God, seems very odd in these days.
After reading David Wilkerson’s book ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’, I visited the headquarters in Brooklyn of Teen Challenge, who work among the drug addicts, alcoholics, homosexuals, and prostitutes of New York City, bringing them the gospel of Jesus Christ with its promise of a new life. I was also at several of their Saturday-evening rallies on the lower East Side of Manhattan.
There is something about a state of complete hopelessness that makes repentance and turning to God peculiarly effective. Some preachers have brought people to an awareness of their own complete inadequacy by preaching about the fate awaiting unrepentant sinners in the next world. David Wilkerson and his colleagues have no need to do this: the drug addict knows he is lost, in this world. The testimonies of former addicts who have been converted and have been completely cured of the addiction are effective in showing addicts that there is hope, that in Christ there is salvation and a new life.
Many of the former addicts have received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, either at their conversion or some time later. This was found to be particularly potent in overcoming the addiction. Normally if an addict goes off heroin for a while and then succumbs to the temptation again, he will be back on drugs to a far greater extent than ever, but Teen Challenge have had cases where someone who had had the Baptism of the Holy Spirit had gone back to the drug, only to find that it had no effect, and he really was free of the habit. Let me read a short extract from ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’.
Ralph … was deep into the habit. There was only one way out, [he] thought, he had to take his … life. Ralph climbed on a roof [and was] ready to dive head first into the street. … At that moment, he heard the sound of singing. It came from one of our Gang Churches, meeting in a building directly across the street from the tenement where Ralph stood. He lifted his head and listened. ‘On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross …’ Ralph stepped down from his perch. He listened to the rest of the song, and then he walked down the stairs of the building and crossed the street. A sign outside invited him to come in and hear the story of how God was working in Brooklyn streets to help boys addicted to drugs and tied to the gangs.
He went in. And Ralph has never been the same since. He turned his life over to Christ, and later he received the baptism of the Spirit.
He went to California and later returned to New York.
And then he fell. He made contact, and went up to his room and stuck the needle in his veins.
Five times, before Ralph received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, he had tried to pull off drugs. Each time he was so disgusted with himself after falling that he started to drill more heavily than ever. Now he had been off a year and drilling again.
But a strange thing happened this time. The shot did not have its usual effect. The next day Ralph crept into the Center and asked for me. When he came into my Office, he closed the door, and I guessed that he had been drilling.
“Something funny’s happened, Davie,” Ralph said, after he finally found courage to tell me what he had done. “After I got through drilling, it was like I hadn’t had anything at all. It wasn’t anything like what I’d felt before. I felt something else, though. I suddenly had this strong urge to run to the nearest church and pray. And that’s what I did. Davie, this time I was forgiven, and I didn’t feel disgusted like before. Instead of going from bad to worse, the temptation just went away.”
Ralph’s eyes shone as he said the next words. “Do you know what I think? I think I’m trapped, all right. But not by heroin. I think I’m trapped by the Holy Spirit. He’s in me and won’t let me get away.”
Ralph came back to us humbled and fully aware of the fact that the baptism had made him Christ’s in a special way. He couldn’t get away from Him even when he tried.
Other services in which I took part were the Roman Catholic Mass, a
Lutheran Confirmation service, the Russian Orthodox Easter service. I spent a few days at a Unity retreat, and last Christmas I was at a house-party for international students run by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship at Bear Trap Ranch in the Rockies of Colorado. Inter-Varsity is quite fundamentalist in its viewpoint, and its virtual identification of Jesus and God proved a stumbling block to many, including Buddhists who could nevertheless more easily accept that a son of God could live on earth. I often found myself identifying with non-Christians, but I could see in a way they could not be expected to, that in rejecting some piece of imagery they were not rejecting Christianity. The pious dogmatism of some contrasted sharply with the loving spirit of some radiant Christians with whom I felt theological differences to be of little consequence. And this perhaps is the dominant impression which remains from my contact with so many different denominations — that transcending differences in the form of worship, or even in theological doctrine, the most important thing in worship or prayer is to make contact with God and to express His Spirit of Love.
‘There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit, And there are differences of administration, but the same Lord, And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh in all.’
[A talk given by Archie McKerrell to the Glasgow and District (Methodist) Ministers Fraternal, 8 December, 1967.]