Navigating with a Compass (in Stereo)

by Tom Tredway

“Seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

Many Pietisten readers could add some names of their own to the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews. The list with Enoch or Sara or Moses on it might be expanded with the names of Karl Olsson or Barbara Hawkinson or Bruce Carlson. Pastors and Sunday School teachers; parents, siblings, roommates—all could be added to the Old Testament names in Hebrews. Most of those we would add would be people we have known personally. But some might be writers, of hymns or theologies, or perhaps church leaders, lay or clergy, whose words or acts have guided our own lives. Each of us could say with the newer RSV translation that we are “surrounded” by people of faith who have sustained and developed our own lives.

“Surrounded” and “compassed about” both imply coming from all directions, all needle points on our navigational instruments. And it is a powerful metaphor, vital to the art/science of finding our way, actual or figurative, across the landscape or through the lifescape. I want to add to it another image, perhaps only a variation of “compassed about.” I think that sometimes one can guide the life of the mind and spirit not just by watching a compass but by listening with both ears. (Bruce Carlson, my predecessor as Navigation Editor had a car with a GPS that had a visual screen; but his GPS also “talked to him,” and so he got from Saint. Paul to Bay Lake all the quicker.) What I mean here might be called “navigating in stereo.”

Sometimes, in an earlier incarnation as a college administrator, I tried to plot a course by listening with both ears—administering in stereo. When somebody told me our college was raising tuition recklessly and somebody else said in my other ear that we were pricing our programs too low to offer quality, I figured we could do worse than averaging the advice and set charges somewhere in the middle. Or when certain faculty protested their resentment at our “over-emphasis on athletics” and others worried that our lacrosse or soccer team was loosing more than winning, I might conclude we were competing in college sports at an appropriate level.

Listening with both ears—in stereo—is also a way to guide the inner life, I think. And I recall particularly two men, both of them now dead, whose friendship, guidance, and example, though coming from different directions and sounding different emphases, were powerful influences on my own stumbling efforts to make my way through life.

Last October we bade good-by to Ronald George Goetz, a theologian and writer of importance in American church life. Goetz, whom I got to know personally when we were graduate students, was Niebuhr Professor of Theology at Elmhurst College and Contributing Editor of The Christian Century. Educated at Northwestern and Harvard universities, he represented for me the finest in the tradition of evangelical theology rooted in the Protestant Reformation. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate (which trumps the use of the term by right-wingers in Colorado Springs) says “evangelical” is an adjective “emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual.” Well, that was Ron Goetz.

Goetz had had his knuckles rapped by nuns in Catholic grade school and his teen rebellion tempered by a military academy on Lake Geneva. At Harvard Divinity School, which he entered as an uncommitted seeker, Ronald fell in with neo-orthodox Protestants and through them became a convinced adherent of the Reformers, especially Luther and Calvin. But he kept company with Mennonites as well and through their influence emphasized personal discipleship, both intellectual and moral, in the manner of the Anabaptists. Among the moderns Goetz was most taken with Barth, and he eventually became a leader in the Karl Barth Society of North America. He had little patience with the philosophical theology of Paul Tillich or the exegetical studies of Rudolf Bultmann; both were too ready to adjust the Gospel to contemporary intellectual and cultural values, he felt. If being a “high churchman” means stressing liturgy and ceremony, Goetz was a low flyer. Through his teaching years he was pastor of a house church in the western suburbs of Chicago. In retirement in Southwestern Wisconsin, about an hour from Madison, he joined the congregation of a plain white country church founded by the German Wesleyans who settled and farmed those valleys in the mid-nineteenth century. He sang Methodist hymns with conviction and listened to the pastor, who usually preached in a pants suit from J. C. Penny’s, with great appreciation.

Ron read Paul’s letters over and over, and loved, on a bicycle ride (he could steer a loaded touring bicycle “no hands” for miles on a level road) or around his supper table (his jerked chicken was reputedly the best in the Elmhurst area) to explain and debate the thought patterns and excurses of the thirteenth apostle. Goetz’s intellect was bound by the New Testament, especially the epistles of Paul, but he was courageous in exploring all the possibilities which both Christian history and he himself had found there. So he moved, for example, in later years toward the idea of Christian universalism, feeling, as C. H. Dodd had, that it was implicit in the later Pauline materials. And he wrestled with the possibility that Atonement involved not only the Rechtfertigung or justification of humanity before God, but the movement of God toward us.

Goetz found in Darwin, in Freud, and in Marx an unpleasant truth—that life is competitive and cruel, both in nature and in society. Ron sought to preserve a sense of divine sovereignty, that God had created all things, which meant the world as it is. So God was ultimately the maker of a world with suffering and inequity in it as well as of “all things bright and beautiful.” Goetz came to believe that God Himself, revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, was coming to us in reconciliation, that Atonement was not simply or even primarily a legal transaction by which we are made acceptable to God. Christ is God’s Word to us about who He truly is, and that revelation of His true nature is more fundamental than the view of Him which we might deduce from natural and social life.. The final truth did not lie for Ronald with the pessimism of most modern thought, though that pessimism is often justified, as history and our own experience alike make clear. For Goetz Christian faith overcame the despair which life in this world would otherwise produce.

Dr. Goetz did not think that he found God by looking deep within himself. He was fierce in his insistence that true theology arises from the effort to grapple with the Scriptures. He thought that the theologian must ceaselessly explore every possibility ex- or implicit in the Bible but must finally move from this speculation back to the Bible itself to be controlled and corrected by it. Trained in art history as well as in religion and a life-long visitor to the churches and museums of Europe, Ronald found in the great art of the Christian West a visible confirmation that Christianity was the most powerful force in the two thousand year history of our civilization. He ranked a visit to the Louvre even above an evening in a Parisian restaurant, though he preferred not to choose. In an Easter homily I still read Goetz spoke of Rembrandt’s depiction of the moment when the disciple’s eyes were opened while eating with the risen Christ. The Dutch artist caught the “sense of awe, a deeper radically personal awakening, a subtle awareness” reflected in the disciple’s eyes. And as Ronald realized that the cancer that would finally take his life was, over the course of his last decade, growing ever stronger, he remained firm in the conviction that a better life—one promised by the mercy of God—awaited him. He knew it from Paul, but he saw it in Rembrandt’s painting as well: “this precious finite life which we presently experience as so poignantly fragile is, as the God who gives it, eternal.”

Richard Andrew Swanson received no advance notice of his demise, other than the certainty of mortality that we all share. He arose one March morning in 2005 to take his daily five mile walk around Rock Island, told his wife he felt very sick and to call 911, and suddenly died. “Swanie” knew the town he was about to walk in very well. He had come there in 1950 and stayed eight years for college (where he “committed sociology”) and seminary (where he learned Hebrew and smoking). After a pastorate in a new congregation in the western suburbs (where he gave up tobacco, pretty much forever), Swanson returned to his alma mater as Campus Pastor, a post he filled for nearly four decades. In the course of those years Richard Swanson was—at times serially, at others simultaneously—a Buddhist-, a Jewish-, a Benedictine-, a Charismatic-, and a Quaker-Lutheran. He was open to every Catholic, each Muslim, and the rare Hindu student who came to Augustana, as well as to the hordes of card-carrying Lutherans who showed up. The Quad City Jewish community awarded him their Hope for Humanity medal in recognition of his work for Jewish-Christian understanding. When he died the sisters of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Mary in Rock Island planted a tree by the lake on their lovely grounds in his memory. Roman Catholics and orthodox Jews alike saw in Swanie what generations of college students had also discovered: a truly catholic spirit open to all people, a man who took every person’s spiritual quest seriously.

If you wondered what Iron John, The Road Less Traveled, or Care of the Soul were about, you could check with Pastor Swanson. Had he lived you can be sure he would have mastered The Secret by now. Richard was always among the first to snatch new books from the Spirituality and Religion rack at Border’s, (always preferring to pay list price—clergy discounts were demeaning). But he was too Lutheran, from baptism to ordination to burial, to be characterized simply by a “new age spirituality” label. Being Lutheran was an essential part of Swanson’s history and identity, not a theological position arrived at after long reflection. Operating from his roots in the Reformation and the Swedish Church he recognized a deep thirst in students, colleagues, and townsfolk. He knew we wanted more than CNN or the New York Times could offer us. For Dick Swanson personally the Gospel stories were the heart of the quest, for they present us with a Jesus whose life and teaching give us hope for our own lives and thoughts. And he “affirmed and enabled” (his words) all spiritual searchers, often snagging tips from the journeys of others for his own trip through life.

Swanson favored liturgical worship, serving Holy Communion each service. The Lutheran liturgy, rooted in the Reformation and the ancient Church as well, was the means by which he tried to avoid forcing his own ideas and language upon other worshippers, I think. He was more comfortable with rites and words which had been practiced for centuries than he could have been with formulae of his own devising. Swanie’s sermons were short, always ending with “Amen, and thanks for listening.” He was grateful that congregants would listen to him, because he really wanted in turn to listen to them, to see what he might learn and to find out if he could show them that he cared for them by quietly sharing their troubles and hopes. He told me often over the years that truth is “what one heart in silence says to another.” And he said many times that our own last “conversation” would be one where we sat and understood each other, not needing to talk at all. For him the “Word of God” was a life, not ultimately verbal at all.

So I realized from these two long friendships that I myself have been “navigating in stereo.” In one ear I hear the strong voices of my Sunday School teachers, pastors, and Bible camp counselors. Their faith was rooted in Scripture and they turned to it always to check and correct their course through life. Most of them were wise but plain spoken, impatient with “chancel prancing,” zealous for sound teaching. They, like Ron Goetz, were in the best and historical sense “evangelical.” In the other ear I hear always the quiet words and songs of contemporary spirituality, often with Dick Swanson’s inflection. Some of this spirituality comes from other Christian traditions than mine and some from persons of depth and integrity who are in no historical or intellectual sense Christian at all. But their hunger is real and their insight vital. And at Communion sometimes I seem to hear Swanie’s voice reading the Words of Institution, inviting all who hunger and thirst to come to the table.

Dean Donald Frisk of North Park Seminary told us once in a “Systematics” class that Christian theological structures will almost invariably tilt toward an emphasis either on Jesus as Teacher and Example or on Christ as Lord and Savior. One of these emphases does not, of course, preclude the other, but to move in one or the other direction is what most theologians end up doing, Frisk thought. In Goetz and Swanson I myself saw living expressions of that remark. Hopefully one who steers with both ears does not have to stuff a plug in one and listen only to what is being said in the other. Neither Ron Goetz nor Dick Swanson believed he knew the whole of the Gospel. Both were listening for God and heard Him in the Scriptures, the world, and the lives of others. Happy the person—I am one such—with friends who are part of the cloud of witnesses which compass him about. For many years these two men have been telling me, one in one ear, one in the other, how to navigate—in stereo.

Tom Tredway is a teacher of history and president emeritus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He is the author of “Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work: A Swedish-American Lutheran, 1895-1997.”

See all articles by Tom Tredway