May 4, 2023
Dear Hyde Park Family,
The United Methodist Church rescued me from a crisis of faith. I was fresh out of high school, in my freshman year of college, when the tightly wound and insulated world of my fundamentalist faith began to unravel.
At first, it was a simple tug here and there, on various threads of the fabric of my faith. There was my biology class – required for my pre-med major – in which I studied Darwinism, evolution and the persuasive writings of people like Stephen Jay Gould. There was my Introduction to Religious Studies class, in which I read philosophers of religion like Schleiermacher, Tillich and William James. And there were encounters outside the classroom, with earnest persons of a different religious perspective – and some with no religion – whose thoughts were too compelling to casually dismiss.
One day in the library, I bumped into a fellow student named Frank, and the subject of biblical literalism came up. I insisted that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, which was the standard teaching of my religious upbringing.
“Hmm,” Frank said. “Even the part where he died?”
One by one, with each pull of a thread, my precisely woven fundamentalism started to come apart at the seams. I remember thinking, “If this one thing I believed isn’t true, then this other things must not be true, which means none of this is true.”
A SAFE PLACE FOR QUESTIONS
Fortunately, and by the grace of God, I had started attending a United Methodist Church just two years before going to college. It was Pasadena Community Church in St. Petersburg, served by the Rev. Dr. John Stroman as the senior pastor. During that first bewildering semester of college I paid Dr. Stroman a visit.
We were seated next to each other in a high school gymnasium, watching our church basketball recreational league play one of the other churches. I did not expect to sit next to him, let alone have a conversation with him about my crisis of faith. But this seemed as good a place and time as any to strike up a casual conversation about a deeply consequential matter.
“Dr. Stroman, I think I’m struggling with my faith. I’m having lots of questions in college that I don’t know how to answer.”
There in that gym, as our heads swiveled from side to side to watch the basketball game, he offered a response that was gracious and substantive. He assured me that the history of Christianity is filled with people who have asked hard questions about the faith, and that even entire Christian communities and eras of time have been marked by expanding the theology of the church. It was the kind of wider, larger perspective that brought me comfort that my struggles were neither unique nor terminal.
THE BEAUTY OF THE QUADRILATERAL
That would be the first of many conversations between me and Jack Stroman, along a journey that would bring me greater and deeper appreciation for Wesleyan theology. I came to realize that human intellect and reason was a vehicle – not a barrier – for understanding the Bible and Christian tradition. Feeling free to ask questions and use my mind enabled me to have an even greater sense of biblical authority.
He was the first person to introduce me to the concept of “liberation theology,” the subject of his doctoral dissertation. He explained views of Christianity from a Latin American context, and how people’s cultural perspective shapes their understanding of the faith. I began to see how unrealistic it was to expect all people around the world to view the Christian faith through Western, American eyes. Indeed, God so loved the world, and Jesus came to save us all. But how one understands that love and salvation is unavoidably shaped by one’s cultural conditioning, one’s experience.
This is all to say that what we commonly understand as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience – is not only a hallmark of United Methodist theology; it was also instrumental in rescuing me from my crisis of faith.
Over time, I became less anxious about asking hard questions, out of fear that my faith would unravel. Instead, just like muscles grow through exercise by tearing muscle fibers so they can regrow stronger, becoming a United Methodist enabled me to not only stay a Christian, but grow closer to Jesus in ways I could not before.
THE CONTINUING UMC
I may offer additional thoughts in next week’s Midweek Message, but for now, if you’d like to have more reasons why it is great to be part of the continuing United Methodist Church, you can watch my interview last week for a web series titled “Hope Springs Eternal: Positive Conversations about the United Methodist Church.”
You can also watch a video from our elected leadership gathering last February, in which I share reasons I am excited for us to be an ongoing part of the denomination, along with a presentation by our District Superintendent, Emily Hotho, related to church disafilliations happening in our Annual Conference.
Finally, you may choose to join me for a two-week book study at the end of this month on Bishop Ken Carter’s new book Unrelenting Grace, in which we will explore the beauty and richness of our United Methodist core values of grace, holiness and connection. To find out more and to sign up, click here.
Grace and Peace,
The Rev. Magrey deVega
Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist