Tom Oden’s lively mind and warm heart were always percolating and pumping. Whether in his younger days as a left-wing thinker and theologian, or in his later, mature years as a leading conservative voice in the world-wide church, Tom was always out ahead of folks, leading the way, seeing things other people weren’t seeing, hearing things others weren’t hearing. Sometimes Tom’s leadership was a blessing. It was Tom, for instance, who saw the need for an academic center to explore Christianity’s African roots. The Center for Early African Christianity, first at Eastern University and now affiliated with Yale, is the fruit of Tom’s vision and knowledge.
The sources and results of Tom’s leadership in his younger days were less productive. “I was so excited to help lead the way as I wanted to plan others’ lives for them and thought I could do that for them better than they could do for themselves. Looking back now, I see the ego and self-serving agenda into which I was caught up, but I didn’t see any of that back then.” The younger Oden saw human reason as the positive driving force in human history; reason itself would lead those who paid heed to “an egalitarian society shaped by radical social engineering, Marxist historical and sociological interpretation, and resource distribution.”
Tom later recognized that his younger perceptions were blurred. Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche proved to be unreliable guides. Marx, for example, on whom Tom largely depended for his understanding of economics and politics, never once visited a factory to test his theories. Though his colleague Friedrich Engels encouraged him to do so, Marx declined. Instead, Marx sat in his study in Berlin, spinning ideas out of his intelligent, active brain and vast reading, but never once empirically tested them for their validity in an actual work place. Yet millions like Tom put their faith in Marx’s ideology.
Tom’s memory of his early years in school and in ministry is quite telling. He felt called to Christian ministry, “but not to a ministry of evangelization or soul care.” Why? “Whenever I read the New Testament after 1950, I was trying to read it entirely without its crucial premises of incarnation and resurrection.” Tom admits that this approach “required a lot of circular reasoning for me to establish what the text said. I habitually assumed that truth in religion was reducible to economics (with Marx) or psychosexual motives (with Freud) or self-assertive power (with Nietzsche). It was truly a self-deceptive time for me, but I had no inkling of its insidious dangers.” Sadly, Tom relates, “Like most of the broadminded clergy I knew, I reasoned out of modern natural premises, employing biblical narratives narrowly and selectively as I found them useful politically. The saving grace of God on the cross was not in my mix of life-changing ideas.”
Take a close look at the words Tom uses to describe what was going on in his mind and heart: “I see the ego and self-serving agenda…” “I habitually assumed…” “It was truly a self-deceptive time…I had no inkling of its insidious dangers.” “ … the absence of the New Testament’s crucial promises of incarnation and resurrection.” “ … circular reasoning.” The young Oden reduced religion to “economics…psychosexual motives…or self-assertive power.” In a word, Tom eviscerated the core of the Scripture’s message and then applied his narrow and selective reading of the Bible to his political concerns. No grace. No cross. No resurrection.
As I ponder Tom’s early years, I ask myself who shaped me as I was growing up? During my teenage years, my family attended a theologically liberal church in southern New Jersey. I was later to learn that the pastor collected figurines of Satan! As time passed, I experienced the dulling effect of theological, spiritual, and ethical drift. By the time I turned eighteen I wondered whether anyone truly believed the Bible to be accurate and relevant for living. I was increasingly disillusioned, both with Christians and with myself. I deeply desired to know God and to know how to live, but my own skewed perspectives, desires, and appetites—along with the profound cultural confusion of the late 60’s—distorted my vision and crippled my behavior. I didn’t always realize it, but I was walking with an biblical, theological, and ethical limp. Perhaps you have had similar experiences.
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