Navigators

ShipOfFools_web_10042015Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.
For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone
when he falls and has not another to lift him up! (Eccl 4:9-10)

Navigators

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first small group consisted of three people—Jon (my best friend), my pastor, and I—who met on Wednesday afternoons in my senior year in high school for pizza and soda to discuss the Book of Romans and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book—The Cost of Discipleship (1995). While I really specifically remember only Bonhoeffer’s comments on cheap grace—

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living, and incarnate (44-45).

—those discussions have grounded my faith and theology ever since.

Part of my grounding came by way of Jon who after college went immediately into seminary and shared his seminary texts with me, which we discussed together. He was, for example, heavily influenced by Karl Barth and, at Jon’s prompting, I read some of Barth’s shorter works, such as Dogmatik im Grundriβ[1] in graduate school. Part of my grounding came more directly from my fascination with Bonhoeffer, which led my ordination committee years later (2010) to describe me both as neo-orthodox[2] and very theological.

Grounded or not, the backstory on our group was less encouraging—at the end of my junior year the church fired our youth director unexpectedly when the senior pastor retired. The assistant pastor attempted to fill the void created by her firing, but was not entertaining enough to keep the youth group together. The group collapsed until only Jon and I were left and, because the youth group was my primary social activity outside of school, I was deeply bitter about it. My bitterness continued for several years and, as a result, I did not attend church when I left home for college. At college, I cannot remember attending a single church event on or off campus at either Indiana University or the College of William and Mary.

My lack of church attendance posed no problem when I was away at school, but it was a source of friction when I returned home for holidays and summer vacation. Because my parents moved from Maryland to Virginia during my freshman year, the friction over church was compounded by a change in churches because the kids my age in Virginia were unfamiliar and hung out in high school clicks to which that I was not a part. Between the clicks and my own bitterness, I had no reason to attend church beyond the prompting of my parents. So Sunday morning we would fight, I would attend out of obligation, and not much came of it until I transferred to Iowa State.

At Iowa State University, I lived in Wilson Hall, which overlooked the dairy farm across the street, and shared a room with Dennis who introduced me to the Navigators,[3] a Christian group on campus and who took me to church on Sundays. The Navigators had picnics and other events around campus which I attended, just to get to know other students. Dennis’ church was nondenominational and, because I did not particularly like it, I began attending Collegiate Presbyterian Church [4] and became a member, not knowing that my parents had attended this same church when my Dad was at Iowa State in the 1950s.

Reflecting on why I was returning to church, I realized that the bitterness that I felt when my home church fired our youth director was directed at the leadership of the church, not God. God’s presence was real to me even when I was not part of any church. As a consequence, atheistic arguments never seemed real to me, even when I repeated them, because I knew God first hand and I knew that I had been blessed when I came to faith. Pascal’s Wager, which was directed at atheists, made perfect sense to me, even when I had turned my back on God.

An important atheistic argument starts with the observation that the existence of God can neither be logically proven or disproven. Atheists focusing on this observation prefer the term, agnostic, which in Greek means “not knowing”, suggesting that there is insufficient evidence to make a faith decision. Pascal used probability theory  to argue that the agnostic argument is logically false in that faith is a fair bet (hence the term, Pascal’s wager)—if God exists and you believe, then you win heaven, but if God does not exist and you believe, then you loose nothing. In other words, faith in God has a positive reward even if the probability of God existing cannot be established—just so long as the probability is a non-zero, positive number.[5]  Of course, if you know first hand that God exists, Pascal’s Wager is no bet at all!

Whether Pascal’s Wager seemed logical or not, I began attending church in my junior year at Iowa State both on campus and off. Unlike at Indiana University, Iowa State was close to my grandparents who frequently hosted me on weekends when they took me to Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa where I had been baptized and where I was always in the company of relatives and friends in Christ.

References

Barth, Karl. 1977. Dogmatik im Grundriβ (Orig pub 1947). Zürich: Theologischer Verlag.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[1] I read Dogmatik im Grundriβ during my year in Germany (1979).

[2] Barth, Bonhoeffer, and others started the neo-orthodox school of theological thought which was popular in the period from the 1940s to the 1960s, but since then has fallen out of fashion.

[3] http://www.Navigators.org.

[4] http://www.cpcames.org.

[5] Pascal’s Wager is mathematic proof that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

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