A kind, direct word can some­times make a huge dif­fer­ence in the direc­tion of an image-bearer’s life. Such was sure­ly the case with Tom Oden. By the time Tom arrived at Drew Uni­ver­si­ty to teach the­ol­o­gy he was a wide­ly pub­lished, well-known the­olo­gian. He had read wide­ly, and engaged in sig­nif­i­cant dis­cus­sions with the likes of Karl Barth, Rudolf Bult­mann, and Wolfhart Pan­nen­berg. The tra­jec­to­ry of Tom’s aca­d­e­m­ic career and min­istry in the Unit­ed Methodist Church was on tar­get. Or so it seemed to be by all appear­ances. Things were soon to change. Tom was soon to meet Will Herberg.

Will Her­berg was per­haps the best-known of the Drew Uni­ver­si­ty fac­ul­ty at the time of Tom’s arrival. Like Tom, Her­berg had devot­ed years to advo­cat­ing Marx­ist ide­ol­o­gy. Her­berg backed up his ideas with his actions and joined the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. For over thir­ty years Her­berg was a mover and shak­er in the Com­mu­nist Par­ty and the labor move­ment. And then Will took a dra­mat­ic turn in the oppo­site direc­tion, polit­i­cal­ly and reli­gious­ly. As Tom explains, Her­berg changed from a left-wing advo­cate to a pow­er­ful anti­com­mu­nist crit­ic, writer, and con­ser­v­a­tive col­lege cir­cuit lec­tur­er.” In faith, Her­berg turned to the God of Abra­ham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Her­berg was thir­ty years Tom’s senior; soon he and Tom became close friends, with many live­ly con­ver­sa­tions and debates ensu­ing as they enjoyed fre­quent lunch­es togeth­er. I found him to be intense­ly loy­al to his Jew­ish tra­di­tion,” Tom writes, while being deeply empath­ic with his Chris­t­ian stu­dents. Though Her­berg was not a Chris­t­ian, he made it pos­si­ble for me to become one.” Pos­si­ble to become a Chris­t­ian? Tom had been involved in sem­i­nary teach­ing, active in the Methodist Church, pub­lished numer­ous books on Chris­t­ian themes, and yet was not a Chris­t­ian? What led Tom to such a stark, sur­pris­ing, indeed, shock­ing con­clu­sion? A kind, direct con­ver­sa­tion with Will Herberg. 

Tom had giv­en Her­berg a copy of his newest book, Beyond Rev­o­lu­tion, and Her­berg was kind enough to read it thor­ough­ly, cov­er­ing the pages with numer­ous notes and com­ments. Tom lat­er received this anno­tat­ed copy after Herberg’s death and describes it as one of my most prized pos­ses­sions.” Herberg’s con­ver­sa­tions with Tom and read­ing of Tom’s work final­ly led to the con­ver­sa­tion that was for­ev­er to change Tom’s life. 

While engaged in con­ver­sa­tion over lunch, my iras­ci­ble, endear­ing Jew­ish friend leaned into my face and told me that I was dense­ly igno­rant of Chris­tian­i­ty, and he sim­ply couldn’t per­mit me to throw my life away.” Her­berg was only begin­ning. Hold­ing one fin­ger up, look­ing straight at me with fury in his eyes, he said, You will remain the­o­log­i­cal­ly une­d­u­cat­ed until you study care­ful­ly Athana­sius, Augus­tine, and Aquinas.’ In his usu­al gruff voice and brusque speech, he told me I had not yet met the great minds of my own reli­gious tradition.” 

Her­berg shared his own faith jour­ney with Tom. Will had gone through a long sea­son of resti­tu­tion after his errat­ic days and found it nec­es­sary to care­ful­ly read the Tal­mud and the Midrashim to dis­cov­er who he was. Like­wise, he felt that I would have to go to a qui­et place and sit at the feet of the great minds of ancient Chris­tian­i­ty to dis­cov­er who I was.” 

How strange. How iron­ic. How won­der­ful. A grumpy, wise Jew advis­ing a neo­phyte the­olo­gian to prac­tice the dis­ci­pline of silence and to read for all he was worth to save his life. Her­berg remind­ed me that I would stand under divine judg­ment on the last day. He said, If you are ever going to become a cred­i­ble the­olo­gian instead of a know-it-all pun­dit, you had best restart your life on firmer ground. You are not a the­olo­gian except in name only, even if you are paid to be one.’” 

Tom did not argue. He sim­ply lis­tened, and the lis­ten­ing made all the dif­fer­ence. In an instant of recog­ni­tion, I knew he was right. I knew he had said that because he cared deeply about me. His words burned into my con­science. That was the open­ing bell that led to a bruis­ing per­son­al dia­logue about my self-decep­tions. All of its impli­ca­tions were not real­ized instant­ly, but my rever­sal began then and there on that very day, that very moment.” 

The pow­er of a kind, direct word changed every­thing. Tom knew that Her­berg cared deeply” about him. And though the words were loud and tough, an image-bear­er was turned toward home. 

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

View Selections & Learn More >