When I was at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 1960’s I struggled with the tensions between the conservative and liberal branches of the church. There were wonderful people in both camps, but they seemed to irritate each other. Since my church experience was in the evangelical part of the church, I had little direct contact with people from liberal church backgrounds. Princeton Seminary was enormously helpful in introducing me to people of different faith backgrounds. I also learned much from several writers. One of these was the Episcopal priest James Fenhagen.
During seminary I purchased and read three books by Fenhagen. The titles were:
Mutual Ministry: The Ministry of the Laity and the Clergy in Church and Society
Ministry and Solitude: The Ministry of the Laity and the Clergy in Church and Society
More than Wanderers: Disciplines for Christian ministry.
These books are probably dated now, but they were formative for me as I read them in the late 1960’s. James Fenhagen described a life path that was different from mine, yet it was one that arrived at a healthy faith and spirituality. He describes his hunger for social justice and peace in the world. As a young man, Fenhagen and his companions were involved in protests and activism that brought them into conflict with the culture and the powers of government. In this journey they found peace of conscience and hope. They also found turmoil and confusion.
Several years later Fenhagen looked around and discovered that some of his companions in the struggle for social justice had drifted away from both the struggle and the church. He wondered how one could build an inner life that would endure the pressures of life. This lead him to explore spirituality and Christian spiritual disciplines as companions to the hunger for peace and justice. He concluded that a life grounded in faith was needed to wage a lifelong quest for social justice.
I was coming from another direction. I had been taught the importance of spirituality, prayer, and the study of scriptures. Yet I was learning these principles in a church that was very slow to join the struggle for social justice in the greater world. Some people whom I knew believed that the Christian faith was a personal matter, and that change in the world comes only through the renewal of many individual lives. In other words, there was no corporate and community dimension to the Christian faith. During seminary and in the following years my vision was enlarged. I came to see that God’s kingdom renews individuals and also transforms the structures and institutions of society. Faith is not a private matter.
When I worked with the church in the Congo, these convictions were reinforced and established in my life. I came to see that it is foolish to ask people to choose between personal renewal and societal transformation. Both are part of the gospel of Christ. To ask for such a choice is like asking an airline traveler whether she or he prefers the left wing or the right wing of the airplane. The proper answer is, “I like both of them.”
James Fenhagen, whose faith journey was different from mine, helped me articulate my faith in a new way. I never met Fenhagen, who died in 2012, but I consider him a friend and mentor.