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Santa Barbara, California, 1980–1981
Years after I found my way back to mainstream Protestantism, someone asked what attracted me to the Episcopal Church. With only a moment's pause I replied, "The wood."
I am convinced that wood is holy. Cut from living things, it takes on new life when used as beams and columns and pews in traditional church architecture. It is as if the trees continue to grow as they absorb generations of candle smoke, incense, and prayer. The rings no longer measure age. Rather, they measure decades of spirituality and faithfulness. When colored light from stained glass windows falls across this holy patina, the wood itself seems to breathe God's spirit.
All Saints-by-the-Sea in Santa Barbara, California, was built in 1900. Although the small Arts and Crafts–style building sits two blocks from the Pacific Ocean, it appears as if it were transplanted from an English country village. Its wooden doorway is framed by an ivy-covered porch, where a sign, "Bide a Wee and Pray," invites both the curious and the faithful to enter. The sanctuary smells faintly of California redwood. Intricate carvings decorate arched beams; handcrafted millwork graces the pillars, rails, and church furniture. No matter where one looks, the eye falls upon holy wood carved more than a century ago and worn through one hundred years of prayer.
The late 1970s, when I was a college student, were not an architectural highpoint in church history. An odd mid-century devotion to functionality stripped churches down to an artistic minimalism. In the evangelical circles where I spent my high school and college years, sanctuaries were plain, often massive, multipur-pose rooms with basketball hoops overhead. For most evangelicals, such sensible simplicity is a prerequisite to holiness. Of American Protestants, we most imbibed the spirit of Puritanism — the plainer the building, the clearer God's Word. Decoration, considered a kind of spiritual crutch, distracted the faithful from the real business of hearing the sermon. Architectural beauty detracted from God's beauty — and might lead some misguided soul to worship the building instead of divine majesty.
The college I attended required daily chapel attendance, but we had no chapel building. Instead, we met this requirement in a gym, seated on plastic chairs and metal risers with a broken-down piano to accompany our hymns. A large lectern served as the chapel's focal point, backed only by a plain white movable wall. The whole thing was so dull I used to keep track of imaginary theological basketball games on the scoreboard: Arminians 72–Calvinists 60. Lots of students did homework. Although school officials insisted that the gym was a practical necessity — the entire student body could not fit elsewhere — they seemed to take pride in the fact that there was no specifically set-aside, or, to use the theological term, sanctified, worship space on campus. One even commented to me that "the college did not want to mislead students to think God could only be found in a particular building."
I would, however, find God in a building. All Saints shocked my spiritual senses. Wood and windows, icons and organ — it was as if I had stumbled into God's own house. Here was holiness, robust and physical, passed down through generations. It was the Christian tradition embodied in architecture, music, and liturgy. But it was not a "wooden tradition," stilted and moribund. Like All Saints' glowing woodwork, here, tradition was vital, a living thing, crafted in the faithfulness and vision of God's people present and past. I felt as if I had stumbled into some great secret world and found the biblical pearl of great price. Although I could scarcely name it myself, I was seeking God, incarnated in dynamic tradition, and God was there — at All Saints-by-the Sea during the autumn of my senior year in college.
It was odd that I ever found my way to All Saints. As a teenager I had embraced a particularly theologically rigid form of evangelical Protestantism with the zeal of a youthful convert. When it came time to attend college, I feared both heterodoxy and secularism and rejected offers from several fine universities. Instead, I chose to attend Westmont College in Santa Barbara, an evangelical college, a school similar to its more famous institutional cousin, Wheaton College in Illinois. I wanted to pursue my faith intellectually, but I also wanted to be safe. Evangelical Protestants extol the virtues of theological and moral purity, and they built these colleges to ensure the safety of their young people in the midst of a sinful world. Although Westmont's ethos at the time was not as narrow as its history might suggest, it still possessed a kind of spiritual certainty — the evangelical way was the surest way to God.
Evangelicals generally believe that other forms of Christian belief and practice are, at best, incomplete; some are misguided, dangerous, or wrong. Being "born again" is the litmus test for true Christianity. Denominations — and historic traditions — are all judged by this rubric. Thus, a Roman Catholic might be a "real" Christian if he or she could testify to a personal conversion experience. But if a Catholic spoke of papal authority, the saints, or the stain of original sin being removed at baptism, that person would not be regarded as a true Christian. Acceptable piety matters as well: serious evangelical young people do not smoke, drink, take drugs, go to "R"-rated movies, or engage in sexual intercourse before marriage. These things are sins, to be eschewed or repented of. To be cool as an evangelical young person, it helped if you wanted to be a preacher, a preacher's wife, a missionary, or a Bible teacher. Under the appropriately humble circumstances, you could admit to your friends that you got up at 6 A.M. for your "quiet time" and prayed for an hour for lost souls in Africa.
Westmont had a statement of faith and behavioral standards to which all members of the community were required to adhere. All of my professors and almost all of my classmates were evangelicals and accepted such restrictions with only minimal complaint. Some people, however, wanted to go to Westmont because it was so beautiful — and near the beach in Santa Barbara. Located in the hills above the ocean, we called it the Garden of Eden. A few charismatic Roman Catholics or theologically skillful agnostics fooled admissions counselors and made it through the gates of this evangelical paradise. But there were no Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or overt atheists at the school. Most of my classmates were Baptists or "nondenominational" Christians from California megachurches like Calvary Chapel. A coterie of Presbyterians provided theological ballast and a sense of the historic church — well, going back to John Calvin at least. I remember only a couple of Methodists (I worried over whether they were "really Christians") and do not think I ever met a Lutheran among the student body.
At a Christian college I figured I would date the right boys and learn right doctrine. Like other evangelical girls my age, I was more concerned with falling in love and reading the Bible than building a career. So Westmont seemed the perfect place. And it would turn out to be so — but for reasons I never expected. For as romantic and dogmatic as I was at eighteen, college would broaden both my character and my intellect. To my surprise, the school provided an environment more conducive to friendship than romance and it challenged my beliefs rather than confirmed them. When I went off to college in the fall of 1977, I expected to find a boyfriend and get all my questions answered. Instead, I got life-long friends and all my answers questioned.
During my first month on campus, I noticed one group that did not fit in and who reveled in their distinctiveness. They were Episcopalians, some of whom had grown up in the tradition and reclaimed it in college and some of whom were converts. They appeared odd and artsy, less a clique than a collection of characters from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In the dining hall they actually performed Broadway-like songs such as "I Am an Anglican" (sung to the tune of "God Bless America") and a musical take-off of "Fiddler on the Roof," entitled "Archbishop on the Cathedral." Two of the women actually made the sign of the cross when they prayed! They spoke some exotic language — they used mysterious-sounding words like "communion of saints," "eucharist," and "liturgical spirituality." They would talk about "needing" the sacraments and professed openly their belief in infant baptism. They dressed up in costume on All Saints Day (November 1) instead of on Halloween.
They said they were Protestants, but they looked Catholic to the rest of us. They were art, theater, English, and theology majors who extolled "Christian humanism" and a "sacramental world-view." Most people had no idea what they were talking about and few Westmonters could figure why they attended an evangelical college. Westmont's hardcore cared more about saving souls and studying the Bible than the humane traditions of the liberal arts. But the Anglican types took culture and learning seriously — albeit with a playful edge. Many students dismissed them; others, like myself, viewed them with curious suspicion. Some people snidely referred to them as the "Anglican Mafia." I was pretty sure they smoked and drank. I was equally sure that they were not quite theologically orthodox.
The most colorful character in this colorful group was Rich Yale, a religious studies major who felt called to the priesthood. At Westmont no one wanted to become a priest — men got calls to be preachers. My college roommate, Becca Adams, whose spiritual journey resembles my own, jokes that we all became "Rich's groupies." Rich was a "cradle Episcopalian," a person born, baptized, and raised in the Episcopal Church.
As a boy, however, he felt that the "liberal church had failed him" when his parents went through a painful divorce. "They offered nothing but platitudes," he remembered. "Certainly not the Christian community I wanted and needed." Only after joining Young Life, an evangelical high school fellowship group, did Rich find spiritual support, friendship, and theological answers to his questions. He came to Westmont to study theology and prepare for the ministry. He had only the most tenuous ties to the Episcopal Church. He was naturally attracted to the campus Episcopalians and would later remark upon the influence they had had on his own life. "At Westmont," he observed, "I found committed young Episcopalians who were in community and were intentional and serious about it." They helped him reclaim his familial faith.
Eventually Rich realized that Anglicanism was his "native language." Together, he and his friends followed the time-honored practices of Anglican spirituality. They prayed from their prayer books, followed the daily office, studied early Christian theology, held an alternative liturgical chapel, went to church regularly (more regularly, by the way, than the Baptists), kept Lent, and dabbled in medieval spirituality. As college students, they were not doing this because their parents made them. Rather, they practiced a way of faith in community that they freely chose. And they freely recruited others to join them, as well.
Rich and I met during our first week at Westmont, and somehow, despite how very different we were, we became friends. His artsy Anglican friends probably thought I was uptight; my zealously evangelical friends thought he was spiritually lax. Whatever our differences, Rich and I loved to talk about theology — about Calvin and Luther and Karl Barth, about whether or not the gift of tongues was still valid and whether God predestined people to hell, about the theology of the Lord's Supper and baptism. We talked theology into many late nights in dorm lounges, at local coffee shops, and on benches along Westmont's wooded paths.
By my junior year, our friendship served as an anchor in my own rather chaotic life. Rich took me out to celebrate my twenty-first birthday, despite my evangelical reservations, and introduced me to gin and tonic. Much to my surprise that night, he had romantic designs in mind. My response to those affections was a decidedly unsubtle rebuke, and I later fell in love with his best friend. He accepted it all with humor and grace. I was never sure how we managed to do it, but we stayed friends — almost like brother and sister.
One of the most doggedly held lines of analysis regarding contemporary religious practice is that Americans are resolutely a theological. According to researchers, historians, and sociologists, evidence of this tendency can be found everywhere — even in the churches themselves, where theology is muted in favor of spiritualized self-help and secularized leadership. Although current scholarship seems to indicate that this is a relatively new trend, this tendency runs deep in the American past. Inasmuch as the United States has been a religiously diverse nation from the outset, we Americans have often downplayed theological particularity in public discourse. Our national identity schools us to temper distinctive theology in favor of generalized faith. Thus, even fervent churchgoers will usually invoke this ideological minimalism with such statements as "Theology does not matter; being a good person is what counts" or "Theology divides, faith unites."
For whatever reasons, most scholars accept this cultural mantra as a fundamental given about American spirituality. However, my experience as both a historian and a churchgoer suggests another story. Whereas the United States has been historically shaped by public toleration of religious diversity, theological particularity has often challenged the national soul. American churches have divided and divided again on issues that seem quite petty to those outside the arguments. For example, the issue of baptism: should it be adult or infant, sprinkled or immersed, once or multiple times, in the name of the Trinity or of Jesus alone?
Many of our greatest national struggles have been shaped by underlying theological disagreements. Can a Christian rebel against a king? Does baptism make a slave equal to a master? Did God establish one race as superior to all others? Should wives submit in all cases to their husbands? Whose prayer can be officially sanctioned by the state? Where are the lines to be drawn between church and state? American theology — stretching back to the arguments between Puritans and Anglicans over whether or not to celebrate Christmas, or the Puritans and the Baptists over who constitutes the true church — is pragmatic and practical. Although we often disguise it with different names, Americans argue theology in church, at home, and in the public square. We are a deeply theological people who, tempered by the discord over our myriad divisions, fear to admit that we are.
Westmont encouraged the students in its care to address theological questions in community — essentially letting young adults loose in a theological hothouse. We were besieged daily by the kinds of theological questions with which many Americans struggle: Who is God? How can we know God? Are human beings innately good or sinful? Does God choose us or do we choose God? Is human will free? What does God require of humankind? What is our responsibility toward our neighbor? Does God speak through one religion or many? What happens after we die? What constitutes the true church?
Attempting to find answers to our questions, my friends and I read voraciously. At first we wanted answers from the Bible or popular evangelical preachers. By our junior year, however, we had developed more sophisticated theological tastes: we read the works of early church theologians like St. Augustine and St. Irenaeus, medieval mystical writers like St. Benedict, St. Francis, and Julian of Norwich, Renaissance humanists like Dante and Erasmus, the Protestant Reformers Luther and Calvin, and modern thinkers like Karl Barth, Sören Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rudolph Bultmann. For fun, we read C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and the English mystical poets John Donne and George Herbert.
In chapel, speakers challenged us — liberation theology, pacifism, feminism, racism, environmentalism, and other issues of social justice became the stuff of everyday conversation. Our reading expanded, eventually, to radicals like Gustavo Gutierrez and Rosemary Ruether. Long before most churchgoers cared, we argued about what it meant to be "global Christians," "stewards of creation," and to "live simply" in intentional community. We sponsored forums on poverty and peacemaking. With a growing global consciousness, we studied Islam and Buddhism for ourselves because the college offered no courses in world religions. We talked, argued, and debated in class, after chapel, in the dining hall, and in our dorms. I earned a certain reputation for passion in theological debate when I tearfully exhorted the student government to give money to world missions and not to waste it by funding a campus golf club.
Excerpted from "Strength for the Journey"
Copyright © 2017 Diana Butler Bass.
Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
FOREWORD TO THE 2017 EDITION,
FOREWORD BY PHYLLIS TICKLE,
INTRODUCTION TO THE 2017 EDITION,
CHAPTER ONE Coming Home,
CHAPTER TWO Competing Authorities,
CHAPTER THREE The Establishment,
CHAPTER FOUR Practicing Faith,
CHAPTER FIVE Interim,
CHAPTER SIX The Open Door,
CHAPTER SEVEN The Household of God,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,