One of the sources for my research into why and how some “lose” their orthodox faith is Edward T. Babinski, Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists. My research is not simply concerned with folks who begin as Christian and who become agnostics (like Chuck Templeton) or atheists, but what goes on inside a person who leaves a classic, orthodox form of the Christian faith. Today I want to focus on the story of Dennis Macdonald, whose story can be found in Babinski’s collection.
What are your reflections on Macdonald’s story? I will tell you that his story is not an unusual one in academic circles of religion scholars. How are you practicing the Jesus Creed with folks like Dennis Macdonald?
Dennis Macdonald is now a professor of New Testament at Claremont School of Theology who has done some significant work in connecting the NT to the classical world as well as in early Christian apocrypha.
Here’s a brief on his story: Macdonald grew up fundamentalist and he has nothing but kind things to say of his parents; he went to Bob Jones University where he had a profound experience of racism — the response to the death of ML King, Jr.; he went to Princeton for one year and then to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he became a leading voice with Jim Wallis in the founding of the Sojourner’s Community. Macdonald eventually graduated from McCormick and did his PhD at Harvard.
Dennis Macdonald synthesizes his faith journey in three stages:
1. Credulity: uncritical acceptance of his religious tradition and an uncritical reading of the Bible. The world of credulity is both safe and defensive; there is a fear of a domino impact if one area is doubted or disbelieved.
2. Deconstruction: Macdonald’s experience with racism at Bob Jones, the Vietnam war, and discovery of critical methods for the Gospels and the Bible deconstructed his orthodox faith. The problem, as he sees it, for the deconstructive stage is “critical cultural rejection” and can be as fundamentalist as fundamentalism — a new cultural ideology. He speaks of this idealism collapsing under the realism of life.
3. Awe: “we recognize how we construct our religious meanings against the backdrop of mystery” (115). Faith constructs meaning in absurdity but accepts ambiguity; it knows that the constructed faith may need further deconstruction. He thinks the NT authors were constructivists as well. Awe folks can lead to cynicism about religion. “The challenge of faith as awe is to believe in the midst of doubt” (116).
“Perhaps faith is best understood as that confidence in God that allows our fragile theological systems to collapse into new ones” (116).