272 Thomas Oden’s Reflections

 For many decades Thomas C. Oden has been one of the most prolific and significant Wesleyan theologians.  In A Change of Heart:  A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove, IL:  Inter/Varsity Press, c. 2014) he sets forth a fascinating and illuminating reflection on his life and scholarly career.  Reading his story provides not only insight into Oden—it illuminates much about recent American history as well as amplifies timeless truths regarding the Christian Faith.  In brief, he confesses:  “My life story has had two phases: going away from home as far as I could go, not knowing what I might find in an odyssey of preparation, and then at last inhabiting anew my own original home of classic Christian wisdom.  The uniting theme of the two parts of my life can only be providence” (p. 140).  

Born in 1931 and reared in Altus, Oklahoma (situated in the southwest corner of the state), Oden absorbed and still celebrates many aspects of the high plains frontier culture that nourished him.  Though most Altus residents were what we would now consider “poor,” they had a “can do” spirit and believed anyone could “make something” of himself through hard work, delayed gratification and exemplary ethics.  Joining the Cub Scouts as a boy, Oden embraced their Motto:  “Do your best,” and “memorized the Scout law, which says ‘A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.’  These ideals have never been erased from my consciousness” (p. 20).  

Oden’s father was a lawyer concerned to rightly educate his sons, and his book-filled office early inspired young Tom to live immersed in books.  His mother was a gifted musician, and music became a major part in his life.  In fact, “It was through music that I first learned to reason” (p. 22).  Devout members of the Altus Methodist church, his parents not only attended services but began each day with devotional readings from the “Upper Room” and said grace before meals.  His grandmother was an especially devout woman and significantly shaped Tom’s childhood spirituality.  Though at times he considered becoming a lawyer (as did his elder brother), he didn’t know exactly what career to follow, but he did believe God had a good plan for him to follow.  

During WWII, Oden’s father was appointed to a federal position in Oklahoma City, so the family moved and Tom adjusted to an urban environment, including a junior high school (Taft) where he learned, to his lasting satisfaction, Latin.  Religiously, both in Oklahoma City and Altus, he “became maximally involved in the youth activities of the Epworth League for Methodist young people, where I received ever-expanding doses of social justice aspirations” (p. 31).  Following the war, Oden finished high school in Altus (and also learned to appreciate the “tough, resilient, working people” with whom he worked during the summers.)  

Entering the University of Oklahoma in 1949, Oden qualified for a unique “Letters” program that enabled students to choose their course of studies in literature, history, and philosophy.  He read many of the “greats”—Shakespeare, Plato, et al.—but found himself most drawn to the Marxism and was “a Marxist utopian dreamer for a decade before I learned the vulnerabilities of Marxist theories” (p. 42).  He also met Edrita Pokorny, an unusually gifted actress, with whom he fell in love and soon married.  (His love for, and 46 year partnership with, this remarkable woman, makes for some of the more memorable sections in A Change of Heart).   He also decided, while at OU, to enter the Methodist ministry and became active in denominational activities, including summer camps more devoted to social justice than personal redemption.  “I went into the ministry to use the church to elicit political change according to a soft Marxist vision of wealth distribution and proletarian empowerment” (p. 50).   Still more:  “I found Saul Alinsky’s teaching of socialist pragmatism and political opportunism extremely useful as I made plans to co-opt religious structures as instruments for the fundamental transformation of society” (p. 53).  

From the University of Oklahoma, the Odens moved to Dallas, Texas, where Tom entered Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology (mentored by the legendary Wesley scholar Albert Outler) and served as youth minister for a nearby Congregational church.  He read voraciously and plunged energetically into ecumenical endeavors (especially promoting the World Council of Churches).  Determined to pursue a PhD subsequent to his seminary training, he was accepted by Yale University, where he profited from working with H. Richard Niebuhr, James Gustafson, Hans Frei, and George Lindbeck (all distinguished luminaries in the Protestant world).  He also embraced, without much thought, the “demythologizing” approach to Scripture personified by Rudolph Bultmann.  Finishing his PhD course work, he returned to SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, where he taught for two years while completing his dissertation (writing on the ethics of Bultmann and Barth and earning for himself a reputation as a “situation ethicist,” fully committed to a “what’s happening now” existential agenda).    

  Now a fully-certified academic, Oden joined the faculty at Phillips Graduate Seminary in Enid, Oklahoma.  Here he remained for a decade, churning out various books and championing everything from Rogerian psychology (with its novel emphasis on “unconditional love”) to existential ethics to socialist economics to radical feminism.    Traditional Christian doctrines, such as the Incarnation and Resurrection, he either ignored or “professed” with inner reservations evacuating them of substance.  His “ideological history” parallels (in its indebtedness to Saul Alinsky) that of another Methodist, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who “was reading my essays and working out of the same sources and moving in the same circles as I had been” (p. 86).  

Thanks to a generous Danforth grant, Oden and his family spent the 1965-66 year abroad, living in Heidelberg, Germany, and traveling about to visit noted theologians (including Bultmann and Barth).  He also observed the last session of Vatican II and toured Israel, where the “Bible I had learned as a child, distinguished from the Bible I had learned in historical-critical studies, was coming alive for me in a palpable way” (p. 110).  During this year many things began to change for Oden.  Reading the theological works of Wolfart Pannenberg, he discovered significant flaws in both Bultmann and Barth.  He became disillusioned with Freudian psychoanalysis (long a mainstay in his understanding of and prescriptions for pastoral psychology).  While marching behind Margaret Mead in a WCC-orchestrated march in Geneva, he suddenly realized he was in the wrong place, with the wrong crowd.  

Back in America, sitting on a Houston bench during an Earth Day march in 1969, he fully felt “a revulsion against the self-preoccupation, narcissism and anarchy” that had characterized his adult years.  Sitting on that bench, he turned to the collect for the day in the Book of Common Prayer that he had in his pocket.  “I read out loud:  ‘Almighty Father, who has given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification; Grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and through the merits of the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.’  My eyes filled with tears as I asked myself what had I been missing in all my frenzied subculture of experimental living” (p. 126).  

His “change of heart” synchronized with his 1970 move to Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey, historically the most distinguished and still perhaps the premier Methodist graduate school.  Thereby established as a tenured professor of theology, he had to learn theology!  In large part he realized this in his first month there as a result of discussions with one of his Drew colleagues, Will Herberg, a “brilliant, diminutive, forceful, bearded Russian Jew” who both accelerated Oden’s growing disillusionment with Marxism and prodded him to seriously study authentic Christian thought.  Herberg abruptly told him that he “was densely ignorant of Christianity.”  Indeed:  “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” (p. 136).  Suitably chastised—and admirably open to Herberg’s wisdom—Oden turned his life around by turning to the classic sources of the Christian tradition.  “Soon I reveled in the very premises I had set aside and rationalized away:  the preexistent Logos, the triune mystery, the radical depth of sin passing through the generations, the risen Lord and the grace of baptism” (p. 138).  

Thenceforth he devoted himself to following the rule of St Ireaneus of Lyons:  invent no new doctrines!  He realized that by endeavoring to do so during the first half of his life (promoting “vast plans for social change”) he had inadvertently but tragically “harmed many innocents, especially the unborn.  The sexually permissive lifestyle, which I had not joined but failed to critique, led to a generation of fatherless children.  The political policies I had promoted were intended to increase justice by political means but ended by diminishing personal responsibility and freedom” (p. 145).  Guilt-ridden, especially for teaching a situational “social ethics to young pastors” and providing them “a rationale for their blessing convenience abortions” while ignoring the intrinsic evil of the act, he turned to God for solace.  What God said in response was simply:  “no excuse.  I had been wrong, wrong, wrong” (p. 157).  

Oden’s “change of heart” quickly led to a change in his publications.  He worked to bring theological studies back to the classic, “consensual” position of the Church’s first five centuries.  Doing so brought him into contact with conservatives such as Richard John Neuhaus (the Lutheran thinker who eventually established and edited the influential periodical First Things and became a Catholic) and Carl F.H. Henry, the founding editor of Christianity Today who became his “mentor in evangelical theology.”  Though his liberal colleagues were dismayed by his conservative contacts, he “found the evangelicals to be more welcoming and inclusive than the liberals, largely because “Evangelical and Catholic inclusiveness” were more solidly rooted in “transcultural classic Christianity” (p. 175).  

Despite his best efforts, Oden had little influence in Methodist circles or even in his own institution.  Drew Theological Seminary continued its leftward drift during the ‘80s with each new professor.  He became “a lonely voice” for the orthodox Christian tradition “amid a chorus of indignant advocates” (p. 184) of whatever was newest and most “cutting edge” in academia.  Especially belligerent at Drew were the radical feminists who vindictively targeted him (despite his lengthy record of supporting women’s rights) for opprobrium.  To refer to Jesus as the “Son of God” was, in the feminists’ agenda, a sign of an evil patriarchy that mandated denunciation.  As feminists gained control of the seminary, they promoted a radical agenda composed of “gender language, abortion rights, reproductive rights and sexual ethics” (p. 186).  Effectively isolated from his colleagues, Oden focused his attention on mentoring those graduate students who sought him out and publishing works that clarified and defended the ancient confessions.

Thus, in addition to writing his own three volume systematic theology, he embarked on an ambitious effort to make available ancient theological sources in multivolume collections, including Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Ancient Christian Texts, and Ancient Christian Documents.  He also traveled widely, lecturing in Russia and Cuba as well as throughout the United States.  Along with his travels, he cultivated an amazing circle of eminent friends, ranging from Catholics such as Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI who encouraged him to pursue his scholarly interests) to Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, wealthy Evangelicals who greatly assisted with the expenses of publishing the ancient patristic texts.  

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In his final days as a professor at Drew Theological Seminary, Thomas Oden published Requiem:  A Lament in Three Movements (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, c. 1995) to register his “affectionate anguish” with both seminary education and the state of mainline Protestant denominations in the United States.  Having discovered and sought to make available the great resources of the classic Christian tradition, he styled himself a “young fogey” so committed to the truth of the past that he is considered “old-fashioned” by the legions of “modernists” now controlling mainline institutions.  “As a former sixties radical,” he confessed, “I am now out of the closet as an orthodox evangelical (yes, you read me right—orthodox evangelical) teaching in the PC Wordperfect (politically correct) theological school, in a resourceful faculty that has tried to live out the inclusiveness ethic as earnestly as any I know” (p. 15).  Though deeply sorrowful in many ways, this Requiem “is essentially a lament for a friend, not a diatribe against an enemy” (p. 19).  And yet he must utter words of caution:  “Christian worshipers can no longer afford to neglect what is happening to the young people they guilelessly send off to seminary, entrusting that they will be taught all that is requisite for Christian ministry” (p. 22).  

Explaining “the feast I left” (in a prelude to the first of his lament’s three movements) Oden focuses on an incident in his seminary’s chapel devoted to worshipping the goddess “Sophia.”  Presiding at the service was one of the coauthors of Wisdom’s Feast who had described Sophia as “a strong, proud, creative goddess within the biblical tradition,” a “divine saving figure” immanent “in all things, waiting to be discovered.”  Sitting in the chapel of a United Methodist seminary, listening to a feminist homily and hymn devoted to Sophia, he “felt just a little (for the first time in my life) like the apologists of the second century must have felt when confronted with the challenge of attesting the Lordship of Christ amid a pagan pantheon of Greco-Roman deities” (p. 29).  Pondering his predicament as the chapel service moved toward the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, he prayed for a wisdom quite different from Sophia; as the female homilist “offered the invitation to come to the Lord’s Table, not in the Lord’s name, but in the name of the goddess who was speaking through Jesus,” he “quietly, inconspicuously, left the service” (p. 32).  Though this kind of service is, Oden insists, quite limited to radical hyperfeminist circles, it does in fact represent powerful currents within contemporary Christianity.  But since he had read Wisdom’s Feast, he knew what the homilist was doing and he could not endorse it since she had clearly written that “‘in this [Eucharistic] service, Sophia actively replaces Jesus’” (p. 146). 

The fact that a goddess, Sophia, could be worshipped in a Methodist seminary points to the tarnished state of theological education in America.  To Oden, the culprit in the story is Secularization, an “interloper” who has stolen the doctrinal, liturgical and devotional riches of the church.  Mainline seminaries have aided and abetted this secularizing process, wedding themselves to a “modernity” (what Oden calls “mod rot”) that is already passing away.  They have provided a safe place for trendy, tenured radicals who worked closely with ecclesiastical bureaucracies to promote “change” in the church.  Self-consciously “liberated” and socially engaged, they generally considered themselves “doctrinally imaginative, liturgically experimental, disciplinarily nonjudgmental, politically correct, multiculturally tolerant, morally broad-minded, ethically situationist, and, above all, sexually lenient, permissive, uninhibited” (p. 34).  Consequently:  “It seems worth noting that the liberated seminary at its zenith has finally achieved a condition that has never before prevailed in Christian history:  Heresy simply does not exist” (p. 46).  Political Incorrectness must promptly be punished—witness the fate of Larry Summers, forced to resign as President of Harvard for untoward remarks regarding women in science.  Heresy must be tolerated andeven celebrated for its “cutting-edge” elements—witness the failure of the Episcopal Church to discipline bishops (such as John Spong) promulgating the most radical denials of orthodoxy.   

Yet for all the bad news Oden presented two decades ago, he had hope for seminary education, for there was an “emerging resistance movement” committed to rediscovering and promoting classic orthodoxy.  Despite his personal struggles with powerful “ultrafeminists” who must be heroically resisted despite their opprobrium (calling folks like Oden medieval, misogynist, puritanical), there are many women in ministry committed to preserving the ancient truths of the faith.  Despite the Marxist ideology underlying much of “liberation theology,” there are advocates of social justice still securely committed to orthodoxy.  Young Evangelicals may very well maintain (if they rightly struggle) their deep convictions while taking advantage of the enormous scholarly resources (libraries, endowments, etc.) of mainline denominations.  

In addition to the seminaries, Secularization afflicts the ecumenical organizations which once promised to unite Christians and make more effective their witness.  In his younger years, Oden invested much time and energy in ecumenical endeavors, but in time he became disillusioned with them.  In particular, they were dominated by elite planners, bureaucrats determined to save the world through political processes!  As “political idealists,” they “care far less about the classical Christianity of the grassroots church than about their ideals and programs and blueprints for reforming the denominational networks” (p. 92).    Quite apart from organizations such as the WCC, a real ecumenical movement (orchestrated by the Holy Spirit rather than bureaucrats) has brought conservative Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox together, affirming their belief in ancient creeds and uniting to oppose the “culture of death” most evident in abortion-on-demand.

Such believers illustrate the emergence and worth of what Oden terms “Postmodern Paleo-orthodox Spirituality.”  It is a spirituality deeply rooted in the Ancient Christianity best expounded by Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley.  “Christian orthodoxy in its ancient (paleo) ecumenical sense is summarily defined sacramentally by the baptismal formula (in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), liturgically the by the Eucharistic event, and doctrinally by the baptismal confession with its precisely remembered rule of faith as recalled in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, and their subsequent consensual interpretations” (p. 130).  Despite having been shunted aside by liberals and modernists during the past 200 years, it retains an abiding strength clearly evident for 20 centuries.   Modernity, Oden believes, is collapsing, though dinosaurs proclaiming its wonders still stalk the halls of academic and culturally powerful institutions.  But Paleo-orthodoxy will survive and prosper simply because it is eternally true and will provide its adherents with eternal life, now and forever.  Routinely declared dead and gone, this classic Christianity revives and flourishes again and again, for:  “Life lived in Christ does not waste time resenting the inexorable fact that each culture like each person dies.  Sanctifying grace offers beleaguered cultural pilgrims the power and means of trusting fundamentally in the One who proffers this ever-changing, forever-dying historical process” (p. 130).  

Young Evangelicals in particular seem committed to exploring and expounding this ancient tradition. Thus Oden, having begun his life within a family still rooted in orthodoxy, has returned to the basic tenets of its creeds.  With T.S. Eliot he has clearly discovered the timeless truth that “In my beginning is my end.”  Consequently:  “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost /  And found and lost again and again:  and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious” (“East Coker,” in Four Quartets).