Thursday, December 14, 2006

How the Theological Grinches Stole Christmas

Before someone emails me to tell me, yes I know that J. Grant Swank is something of a crank. But this is on target. What a fascinting cast of characters at Harvard. Sometime I'll write of my brief brushes with Hawvad. (Yes, that's how they say it there.)

Harvard Divinity School Stole My Christmas. But It Didn't Work.

By J. Grant Swank Jr. (12/14/06)

Professor Krister Stendahl, New Testament, taught us in our first class that fall that the virgin birth was a myth; therefore, there was no need studying it seriously. Stendahl, ordained Lutheran pastor, eventually became Dean of HDS. He is still alive, living in Cambridge with his wife, I believe. The two became quite famous among theological liberals, he for his religious writing and speaking and she for her outstanding drama work. That was my introduction to earning a Masters of Divinity Degree from HDS.

We were in the midst of demythologizing the Bible, the latter made popular by Rudolf Bultmann. The craze was to find that mentioned in the Bible to be but legendary, that is, manufactured rather than historically accurate. Therefore, one could start with the virgin birth, obviously, since that was indeed at the New Testament start.

I learned early on at HDS to keep my mouth shut. I was, after all, a theological conservative having been reared in a conservative Christian home and attended a conservative congregation. Conservatism at HDS was and still is regarded as backwater provincialism. Therefore, those of us like myself at HDS learned how to be savvy, which was in short to be quiet most of the time.

I remember attending a seminar series in HDS chapel. The theme was the resurrection. I was anticipating learning more about the Christian hope — the detail provided by seasoned theologian speakers. However, the upshot of the seminar was that nothing was certain, mainly what there was after the last breath.

One day I walked into my Greek professor’s office. I asked: "What is your idea of God?" He answered: "She’s green." And he meant it. So that was that.

I listened to Paul Tillich for wherever he spoke the lecture halls were overflowing — actually. When it was a pleasant temperature day where Tillich spoke, the students crammed every space, including the windowsills. He was a little fellow who walked meekly about campus with his French beret tilted atop his knowledgeable head. His German accent made him a two-legged charm.

Tillich was one of the most honored gurus. When I saw his picture on the front cover of TIME I felt inwardly quite proud of myself. After all, I was going to the same seminary where Tillich held forth, where I could make an appointment to speak with him in his office.

It was not until Ticllich died that his widow, Hannah, wrote her book, "From Time to Time." It told about her husband — the facts. He enjoyed, for instance, going to Manhattan to strip clubs, particularly taking in the black strippers. He had women walk into his own Cambridge living room, then up the stairs into his bedroom — all the while his wife was seated in the chair in their living room.

Tillich defined God as "the Ground of Being." For that phrase he became quite famous. I enjoyed reading his theology books, having kept them still on my study shelves. But every time I look at them, I am reminded of his devilish hypocrisy. However, in speaking with other seminary students, I was told that there were numerous famous theology instructors who lived double lives.

Then it was that in the late 1990s I read that the then Dean of HDS, Ronald F. Thiemann, was caught with pornography all over his home computer. Actually, it was located in his lavish home across from HDS campus, but it was a computer belonging to Harvard. Therefore, when computer technicians were called in to fix the computer, they came upon the computer history — pornography to the gills. They felt obligated to report that to Harvard officials because it was a computer not owned by the Dean but owned by the college.

That resulted in the Dean being expunged from HDS. However, in the last Harvard Divinity Bulletin — the HDS posh publication — there was the former Dean’s name alongside a very extensive article about Islam. So he made his way back on HDS faculty staff as Bussey Professor of Theology.

With Stendahl wiping out the virgin birth and my Greek professor believing that deity is feminine green, I went to the then Dean — Dr. Samuel Miller. He was a most sedate American Baptist fellow who spoke all over the world as well as held forth with grandeur at Harvard Yard.

As I walked into his office on a Tuesday morning at 9 o’clock, I asked him point blank what it was that I was to believe upon graduation from HDS. His answer was especially simple, that is, for a man of eloquent verbiage. He said: "Well, Grant, you’ve got to plunk yourself down somewhere."

That was it."Somewhere" then could be atheism or agnosticism. If that were indeed the case, then I envisioned myself being a life-long clergyman for the purpose of overseeing the grandest church day care center in America. There obviously was not much to preach on Sundays, given that HDS had robbed me of my Christian faith, so I may as well plan on the best-run church day care center.

There was one professor on staff who actually was a Christian. He taught Old Testament. His name was G. Earnest Wright, now deceased, as are the Greek professor and Dr. Miller. Wright was an ambitious believer who was not afraid to speak his biblical convictions. He stood out, obviously, for he actually believed in the Bible as divine revelation.

I am forever grateful to Dr. Wright for his witness to the biblical record.During my first year at HDS my faith was gradually eroded. It had to be. Biblical faith was practically non-existent. Friends ask me what it is like there now. I can only speak from the HDS mailings I get. They speak of feminism and goddess worship having prime place at HDS. From that I can extrapolate everything liberal maximum. In other words, it must be far worse now from a biblical authority point of view.

However, during that time at HDS there was one fellow who kept my Christmas for me. His name was C. S. Lewis, Irish author and scholar. His "Mere Christianity" and the "Abolition of Man" glued my biblical faith back together, no matter what the unbelieving seminary staff was doing in the classroom.

My wife also rebutted every liberal conclusion I presented at the supper table after classes. With her faith intact and Lewis preaching to me from his extremely popular writings, my Christmas returned. And with that, it has never left me.

I prize that time at HDS as being some of the most valuable days in my life. After all, who can say they’ve lived, talked with, been tested by, and ate lunch with the enemy — every weekday? I did. In coming to live with my theological enemy, I came to know more accurately my biblical compatriots in the faith — as well as how to spar with the enemy quite ably.

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