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Thursday, September 11, 2014

This Minister Lost His Faith



A Presbyterian Minister Can't Go On



It was a hot day in the late spring of 1910 in Paterson, New Jersey, “when...the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot, down in the rectory of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway felt the last particles of his faith leave him. The sensation was distinct – a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.” So John Updike describes the moment of final and full de-­
John Updike
conversion of a Princeton Seminary trained Presbyterian minister in his In the Beauty of the Lilies. Later Clarence  Wilmot will say to the moderator of his presbytery, “I did not wish to lose my faith; the reasons came upon me, irresistibly, from outside. They came from above.”

In the evening at table with company that included the elder who headed the Church Building Requirements Committee he found himself hearing but not hearing the conversation as “his mind turned away and visited the new emptiness within him, marveling at its extent, grandeur, and searing persistence. There is no God.”


Everything remained the same, yet everything had gone. He looked at the dining room furniture yet...
none of these mute surfaces reflected the sudden absence of God from the universe - His legions of angels, His sacrificed Son, His ever-watchful and notoriously mysterious Providence, His ultimate mercy, the eternal Heaven hard to picture yet for which our hearts so unmistakably yearn, the eternal Hell which even calm, gentle, reasonable Calvin could not conceive as other than indispensable to God's justice. With the mystery of His freedom vanished the passionately debated distinctions of sublapsarianism, supralapsarianism, infralapsarianism, in regard to the precise moment when God imposes election...
Alexander Hall
What happened? There had been a war in his mind between Princeton with its great defenders of Calvinistic Christian faith ­- Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, W.H. Green, B.B. Warfield - ­ and the world with its underminers of that faith – Darwin, Renan, Wellhausen, Ingersoll. The hound of atheism had relentlessly pursued him. He could outrun it no longer. His faith was gone. Not only did he know there is no God; he knew that life without God is dark and meaningless. 
Life's sounds rang with a curious lightness and flatness, as if a resonating base beneath them had been removed. They told Clarence Wilmot what he had long suspected, that the universe was utterly indifferent to his states of mind and as empty of divine content as a corroded kettle. All its metaphysical content had leaked away, but for cruelty and death, which without the hypothesis of God became unmetaphysical; they simply became facts which oblivion would in time obliviously erase. Oblivion became a singular comforter...The former believer's habitual contortions decisively relaxed. And yet the depths of vacancy revealed were appalling. In the purifying sweep of atheism human beings lost all special value. The numb misery of the horse was matched by that of the farmer; the once-green ferny lives crushed into coal's fossiliferous strata were no more anonymous and obliterated than Clarence's own life would soon be, in a wink of earth's tremendous time. Without Biblical blessing the physical universe became sheerly horrible and disgusting...

When Mr. Wilmot loses his voice in the pulpit, he must explain to his wife, "My faith, my dear, seems to have fled. I not only no longer believe with  an ideal fervor, I consciously disbelieve. My voice voiced rebelled..." She is practical, angry, and scorning:
Clarence, we all have moments when life seems empty and not worthwhile. But they pass, and we push through them for the sake of the children we have brought into the world and all those others who depend on us...You have cold-heartedly decided to inflict on your family an entirely needless sacrifice...I thought I could make a man of you. Well all I have done is make a pretty mess for myself and the three harmless souls I brought into the world...
In the end her counsel is to think and read less and pray more.

When he goes to the leading ruling elder, and confesses his loss of faith, he is finds both sympathy and encouragement:
Fight on, my friend. Never give up the good fight. You will win through in the end to renewed certainty - of that I am certain - if you stay the course...Yes, still, you are too gullible. Out of your gullible nature you've let the enemy infect your thinking, my friend. Think of the state of your mind as a disease.  You need to convalesce, to rest...Under the weather, as even young men sometimes are, eh? You'll emerge from this siege of trouble strengthened, I am a hundred percent certain.
He is 100% wrong.

As a Presbyterian clergyman, Wilmot must inform the moderator of his Presbytery that he has lost his faith and must leave the ministry. The moderator believes that Mr. Wilmot's problem is theological conservatism:
I believe your seminary was Princeton, was it not?...There could be the trouble. You imbibed conservatism there, and it limits your thinking now. The two Hodges, and Benjamin Warfield - fine men in the old muscular tradition, but quite helpless when the winds of history blow. They cannot bend Mr. Wilmot , and those that cannot bend break. If you had gone to Union, as I did, you would not be afraid to let history into your understanding. Into your understanding of the Bible, into the workings of our lives, into the future of the church...the staunch liberal tradition has nothing to fear from the future; no development can upset it...not to fear admitting that the Holy Book is embedded in history - that it contains the best wisdom of its time, but that time is not our time. Relativity is the word we must live by now.
The moderator has a way of modernizing, recasting, and explaining away every tenet of Christian belief. But Clarence sees through it all: "How easy it is, Clarence thought, to use the word 'God' when the reality has been construed out of existence. The God Who confronted Moses with a terrible burning presence, unspeakable."

Miller Chapel
Mr. Wilmot is prevented from leaving the ministry by a technicality. A year of probation is required for those who wish to demit the ministry. Wilmot returns to his parish for a year, but his faith does not return. He demits the ministry. He is surprised by how his status changes as an ex-minister: "He had not fully grasped how far his resignation from the church would drop him in the social scale; he had somehow imagined proceeding by inertia along the same path of respectability, only without the encumbrance of hypocritical pretense."


His hopes of becoming a teacher are dashed, and he gets a job in a clothing store till he is laid off because of an economic downturn. He is reduced to selling encyclopedias door to door, but he is not very good at it. Eventually he finds respite in the afternoons by watching movies.
Though he still walked erect, with a touch of the Wilmot panache, his sandy mustache was so whitened as to scarcely show in his face - the drained face of an addict enduring his days for the one hour in which he could forget in a trance as infallible as opium's, his fall, his failure, his disgrace, his immediate responsibilities, his ultimate nullity. Have mercy.
Updike has a good grasp of northern Presbyterianism at beginning of the 20th century. Historic orthodoxy was undermined by skepticism, atheism, higher criticism, Darwinism, and increasing scientific knowledge. There would be those who would press on in the old Calvinistic faith or its watered down stepchild, evangelicalism, but liberalism was ascendant. A few would leave when Machen was defrocked. Others would trickle out in subsequent decades. Some would experience the frog in the kettle syndrome while others would try (and still are trying) to use gracious dismissal procedures to get out when Biblical sexual morality was decisively rejected.

Library
Wilmot is representative of those at the turn of the last century whose convictions were molded at Princeton or other bastions of conservatism but who could not withstand the intellectual assaults on the historic faith. However, it is not just challenges to conservatism that Updike so keenly discerns. He sees clearly both the bleakness of atheism and the inanity of liberalism.


It is a mistake, I think, but it is easy for some conservative Christians to scorn Wilmot. This is particularly true for those who have had distinct conversion experiences that left them without subsequent doubts and/or those whose ministerial training was in conservative schools where their experience of intellectual challenges to Christian faith occurred, not in the context of feeling the force of those challenges, but of being taught the errors of those challenges.

I remember an Old Testament seminary class in which we were assigned in twos to present conservative and liberal positions on various topics. I was assigned to present the liberal view of the book of Daniel. I familiarized myself with the views of liberal scholarship and in my oral presentation made the best argument I could against traditional views of authorship, date, etc. I recall the professor's saying something along the lines that I was not supposed to do quite that good a job. He was concerned lest I become convinced or convince others. The problem with not experiencing the force of other views is that they may come back to bite you in the butt later.

You have thought that the challenges to faith come from unbelievers who are out to destroy the faith and whose arguments are obviously silly. Then a baby is born with devastating birth defects, or you watch journalists beheaded, or you see the hopelessness of people in refugee camps, and you come face to face with the problem of evil and the goodness of God. You watch a person waste away with cancer and die hard, and you wonder about the triumph of faith and what became of dying well.  You wake up in the middle of night and are overwhelmed with the terror of the absence of God. You are reading along in the Old Testament, and it occurs to you that the way this reads it could be a case of cutting and pasting documents. You read the synoptic Gospels, and for the first time you ask, "Can these accounts be reconciled?" You are out for a walk and the thought comes, "Is there really a God?" You get to know a liberal minister or professor and you realize they don't have two heads or horns. You realize that people and thoughts are not so easily dismissed as you used to believe.

In my opinion this kind goeth not out by Van Til. You don't pull Wilmot back from the brink by telling him he
Van Til
must begin by assuming the whole Bible and every tenet of the Christian faith or he will never get his faith back. Perhaps part of his problem was with too much reliance on the evidentialist apologetics of the Hodges and Warfield, but presuppositionalism will not put solid ground under his feet. Telling him he is suppressing the truth in unrigheousness will feel to him like what he had been doing before he gave up his faith. To tell him his problem is not intellectual but moral will seem strange to him when he feels like he is finally being honest.

Nor in my opinion will it work to point out the implications and/or consequences of his new beliefs (or non-beliefs). He saw these things for himself - the meaninglessness, bleakness, and hopelessness of a world without God. But, implications or consequences are themelves not good reasons to reject beliefs. Wilmot's problem was that he became convinced of atheisim and then, rather than pretending he still believed, faced the results of not believing. You don't overturn a conviction a person believes is grounded in reality simply by showing them that the conviction has bad consquences if followed to its logical conclusion. The issue is not, "What are the consequences of this belief?" but, "Is this belief true or not?" For Paul it is not just that he should be pitied but that faith and preaching are in vain, and he is a liar, if Christ has not been raised.

I don't know the answers for a man like Wilmot. Perhaps there are none. But hope for him, if there is any, will not be found in treating him as as non-existent as he has come to be believe God is. The tendency of those who are undoubting and don't stumble is to treat the doubting and the stumbling as outcasts. The liberal moderator of Wilmot's presbytery had no sustantive faith himself, so he had no good reason to deal with Wilmot as anything other than a non-person he was glad to have off his list of problems. But conservative Christians who think they have the one true faith have no excuse, except that it is more comfortable. Many conservative Christians are better at writing off than hanging onto, at shunning than befriending, at denouncing rather than hearing, at disciplining rather than encouraging those who struggle.

Maybe Francis Schaeffer at his best (before he let the Religious Right co-opt him) gives us a hint. Schaeffer
Francis Schaeffer
who could sit with the unbelieving and immoral without scorn or fear of contamination and consider their struggles. Schaeffer who did not engage in self-righteous condemnation or give glib answers. Maybe we need a Tim Keller, who is willing to listen, to understand, to consider, to engage - to give Wilmots a reason for God.


2 comments:

Rocket Rod said...

I recently encountered a similar situation with a well trained gentleman who was struggling with maintaining an intellectual retention of the faith. He still believes but his practices seem lifeless and dry. My only counsel (and counsel I give myself as I, at times, have similar struggles) is to seek and beg God for that experiential (experimental as the old Princetonians and Puritans would say) faith that impassions the heart and brings the living Savior close to the believer's soul. The cross can so easily become a theological concept and not a deeply moving reality spawning emotion and passion. I pray for that view of the cross - it draws me near to the God whom I sometimes doubt. I believe the works of A. W. Tozer are of great assistance in this endeavor.

Rocket Rod said...
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