World So Full: My Quest for Understanding
Ted Grimsrud—Journeys With Jesus Colloquy
One advantage of growing up outside the church—at least for me—is not being taught stuff about Jesus I had to unlearn later. My parents didn’t talk much about God or faith. They left it up to their kids to decide for themselves. And our rural community in southwestern Oregon was probably about as unchurched as you could find in the entire country.
So I never had a Jesus watching over my shoulder or a Jesus who might return at any moment or a smiling Jesus with blue eyes and a carefully trimmed beard or a Jesus who would just as soon send me to hell as embrace me or a Jesus of some creed—part of the Trinity, pre-existent, fully human and full divine. I was pretty much a blank slate concerning Jesus when I met him for the first time when I was 17 years old. However, I did gain from my parents an embedded theology that did profoundly shape my sense of who Jesus is.
My embedded theology
My father grew up the youngest child of a Lutheran pastor. He fought in World War II, then set his guns aside. He had had enough to last a lifetime. He never laid a hand on me in anger. He never stated it, but I knew he loved me. The closest he came to telling me was when I left Oregon for seminary when I was in my mid-20s. My dad hugged me and said, “Take care of yourself.” He then hugged my wife, Kathleen, and said to her, “take care of Ted.”
My mom taught fourth grade and was remarkable in her ability to relate to troubled kids. She enjoyed them all. She found them interesting, worth learning to know. And they realized that, responding to her like they did none of their other teachers.
My parents taught me by their actions to be peaceable, to care for marginalized people, to be clear about my own desires and convictions, to be willing to stand against the majority, to respect myself and to respect others. Which is to say, they prepared me to understand Jesus when I finally did encounter him.
Turning toward faith
My high school years were happy without Jesus. My turn toward faith came at a funeral when I sensed God’s presence like I never had before. I didn’t have an intellectual explanation, but the feeling wouldn’t go away. So I started talking with a buddy who had himself recently had a conversion experience. This buddy understood my concerns. I was not looking for release from guilt or meaninglessness. I was not trying to find happiness in face of a traumatic life. There was only one need, really, that mattered to me: the need to understand.
I wanted thoughtful talk about how belief in Jesus made sense. I would like to have a transcript of our conversations. I can’t imagine they would be very persuasive to me today! I think I was given the standard Billy Graham line—we are all sinful but God loves us and in Jesus has provided for us a way to gain forgiveness and go to heaven to be with God. But it made sense at the time. After hours of conversation, I knelt next to my bed, June 1971. I was 17 years old, and I asked Jesus into my heart as my personal savior.
And my life did change, right at that moment. Not so much my behavior—I found the transition into the moralism of the fundamentalist Baptist community I was to join to be painless. I never did drink or smoke due to my commitment to sports. I had sworn off swearing because I didn’t like how it sounded. I was too shy to mess around with girls. So my lifestyle didn’t need to change much (I did give up rock and roll for a few years). What did change was my intellectual orientation. Now, everything had to fit with my new Christian convictions.
The church I joined, the Elkton (Oregon) Bible Baptist Church, was not set up to nurture a potential young theologian. The message, Sunday morning after Sunday morning, Sunday evening after Sunday evening, Wednesday evening after Wednesday evening, was the same. Personal salvation and personal evangelism. Jesus saves through his sacrificial death. The Bible is isolated verses that point toward salvation and the soon return of Christ.
My mind was not much engaged. My sense of concern for social justice was stifled. At Elkton Bible Baptist, Jesus was on the side of American military actions. He hated the hippies and their drugs and free sex and avoidance of the draft. When I learned that our U.S. Senator, Mark Hatfield, a Vietnam War opponent, was a Christian, I went to my pastor in disbelief. He also doubted Hatfield could be a Christian and still be against the war. As a college freshman, I proudly drove about 200 miles round trip on election day to cast my vote for Richard Nixon.
Opening to the wider world
When I went away to college, Jesus as I knew him then influenced me to repress my natural intellectual curiosity. I still wanted more than anything to understand the truth, but I had been persuaded that the truth was simple, static, and contained in the slogans I heard over and over. At the University of Oregon, I joined a non-denomination congregation. The message I heard there was similar to what I had already been taught. But there was openness to engaging the world beyond simply as a place for soul winning.
I met with a friend, a Bible school grad who enjoyed talking with me about theology. I found these talks gripping—especially when he told me that not all Christians believed the Hal Lindsey line on prophecy. This comment rocked my world. I had never imagined such a thing. I thought the rapture and soon-return-of-Christ beliefs were synonymous with Christian faith. To imagine that one could question those beliefs, that they were optional, opened my mind.
Then, I discovered a popular-level magazine devoted to theology called Present Truth. The articles were clearly written, I devoured them, and they utterly refuted futuristic eschatology on biblical grounds. I had tapped into what became the passion of my life: the study of theology.
I joined a small group studying Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer reinforced my departure from futuristic eschatology. Most importantly, he advocated openness to the intellectual life. We should never be afraid of any questions. All truth is God’s truth. Jesus was beginning to mean more to me than simply a personal savior. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship introduced me a Jesus who engages the world directly in costly love. For awhile, I quoted Bonhoeffer so much that friends called me “Tedrich.”
The U.S. finally abandoned the war effort in Vietnam about the time I turned 21 years old. After voting for Nixon in 1972, I began moving left politically. When I found evangelical “radicals” who published various fascinating magazines, I drank up whatever I could find.
The loosening from the intellectual stifling of my fundamentalism opened my mind to a new possibility. Jesus himself might have some concerns about my views of war and peace. I knew that I had no desire to be involved in the military or any other kind of violence. I now think this was my default sensibility. I had gotten in numerous minor fistfights in grade school, but after the sixth grade I realized that I hated the feelings involved in physical conflict.
All it took was realizing that Jesus, who I did—with all my heart—want to follow, indeed came preaching peace. Then I was freed to claim my true self, that’s how I see it now. It was important in my journey with Jesus, that I came to realize Jesus’ truth—the way of peace—on my own. I did not have any friends who told me about principled pacifism. I did not know of anyone who claimed conscientious objector status. I never heard a sermon rejecting warfare.
But I was thinking about these issues, even if I didn’t have a vocabulary for them. Just as my choice to embrace Christian faith came in solitude, so too did this second conversion. A sense of clarity seized me—a sense I have never once doubted since. My belief in futuristic eschatology had crashed like a house of cards as soon as I got a glimpse of another view. So also my belief in the moral legitimacy of a follower of Jesus taking up arms crashed as soon as I realized that Jesus indeed meant “love your enemies” as a norm for all Christians.
Right after this, in the summer of 1976, I discovered John Howard Yoder’s books. Yoder gave me “understanding” for what my “faith” was seeking, a clear rationale for reading the Bible as a brief for pacifism. About this time, my future wife Kathleen and I began our relationship—and it was crucial that we shared our pacifist convictions from the start.
It soon became clear that I had to go somewhere to study theology. Eager for a chance to study with Yoder, we attended Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. We only were able to spend one year there, but it certainly was one of the most important years of our lives.
While at AMBS, Kathleen and I realized that we indeed were Mennonites. We had found a spiritual home. Peace, simple living, community, international connections, service. These were our ideals, too, and here was a tradition readymade for us.
In an eventful conversation, a professor, Willard Swartley, said to me, “when you go on for your doctorate, you might want to work on New Testament ethics.” Until that moment, it had never crossed my mind to keep going in grad school. So I began planning for the Ph.D.
During those years from 1976 through 1981, I made a major change in my understanding of Jesus Christ. I moved from seeing him primarily as my personal savior whose significance had to do with being a sinless sacrifice to turn aside God’s wrath and take my place, freeing me to go to heaven when I die. I ended up seeing him primarily as a teacher and model who as God incarnate shows us how to live. Love marginalized people, love enemies, confront abusive power, challenge exclusive religion.
A peaceable Jesus
When we returned to Oregon, I served as interim pastor at Eugene Mennonite Church. Then, we ended up in Berkeley, California, at the Graduate Theological Union. One very important fruit of my Ph.D. studies there was the discovery of a strand of modern philosophy and social thought that was friendly to my pacifism. A great deal of philosophy takes a rather coercive approach—you develop careful arguments that any logical person must follow to their conclusion and either consent or have their brains explode.
Thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Dewey, MacIntrye, Rorty, Gadamer, and others, while not necessarily having a lot else in common all had serious questions about the coercive philosophy paradigm. I began to seek a pacifist epistemology, a way of knowing consistent with Jesus’ way of life.
After finishing my dissertation in ethics, I returned to part time pastoring and was ready to move to a project more overtly theological. I read a book by the just war theorist Paul Ramsey where he discussed John Howard Yoder. He agreed with Yoder that the crux of the issue that divided them was their different understandings of the meaning of Jesus Christ. I became intrigued by Ramsey’s admission and decided I would try to get behind this difference. What about Ramsey’s christology would lead him to reject pacifism?
So I started reading christology books. I soon realized that there indeed was a watershed in recent theology. The way I would say it is that you have two approaches: christology from above and christology from below. I encountered these terms in two Catholic theologians, Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx. Both centered their christologies on a close reading of the gospels rather than on interacting with the post-biblical creedal traditions of the churches. They argued that we need to start with Jesus of Nazareth and his story and build our christologies from that foundation.
Now, there are Christian pacifists who are creedal and non-pacifists who are not. However, I think in both cases such people are going against the logic of their theological approach. That is, if we start with the biblical story and keep it as central, we will logically be moved toward pacifism. If we start with the creeds of the Constantinian church, we will logically be moved away from pacifism.
I dove into that study and began to produce some writing. At this point, though, reality intervened and my project was sidetracked for some time. Up until this time. I had a pretty nice life. While not all happiness and joy all the time, things went well. Loving family, friends, some success, nice places to live. But I hit some rough waters in the late 1980s. Without going into any detail, I’ll just say that I faced some traumatic personal circumstances—brokenness, betrayal, conflict, shattered dreams.
Now that those hard times are long past, I can look back with gratitude. It was a time of testing my theology in the crucible of life. I found that the thinking I had been doing about pacifism and its application to all areas of life helped me a lot. I basically faced a choice, it seemed, about what kind of power I would seek to draw on for sustenance. Would it be anger, holding onto my grudges, defining myself in relation to how I had been hurt? Or would it somehow be love, a sense of gratitude even amidst the pain?
I tried to trust more in love than in anger. I found help from beyond myself—especially with friends, but also a sense of God’s presence, and the coherence of my theology being applied to my life. Everything I had come to believe about Jesus was being confirmed. Jesus did not save me from sorrow or intervene to fix my problems. Jesus did not lift me out of history into a place of tranquility and bliss. What Jesus did do is enter into my circumstances, remind me of the path of love as the path to sustenance, walk with me in my sorrow, loneliness, and confusion.
As the pieces grew back together, we sought a change of scenery. So Kathleen and I, with our son Johan, opened ourselves to a new place of ministry. We took a joint pastorate in the Russian Mennonite mecca of Freeman. South Dakota.
It was a rich two years. A time to learn a lot. To appreciate the farming environment, to participate deeply in marrying and burying rituals, to relate to multi-generational extended families. This was another environment to test my theology. Does the gospel of peace lend itself to thoughtful theology for non-academics who care mostly about seedtime and harvest, the passing of elders and welcoming of newborns? I was satisfied that it did. Sermons I prepared made up the core of my book, God’s Healing Strategy.
We had one more major geographical and cultural transition to make. A teaching opportunity arose, unexpected but welcomed. We moved to Harrisonburg and EMU in 1996.
I published God’s Healing Strategy in 2000. My main argument in the book is that the Bible tells a single story (with many side sub-plots and tangents). God seeks to heal human brokenness in the world through calling into being a community of those who know God’s healing and then share that with the rest of the world. Genesis 12:1-3 becomes the opening manifesto for this agenda. The story reaches its climax when we meet Jesus, the teacher, prophet, and healer who embodies God’s love spread from communities of faith to the nations.
Theology for seeing Jesus as central
Today, I would say that theological affirmations such as Jesus’ divinity, his status as the second person of the Trinity, and the reality of his resurrection all take on renewed meaning for me. God enters into history in the life of this human being born in humble circumstances in Jewish Palestine. Jesus makes clear that God is love, that God seeks healing in the face of human brokenness, that God shows a preferential option in favor of vulnerable people.
To speak of Jesus as God is a statement about God more than a statement about Jesus. Jesus’ humanity, Jesus’ passion for justice, Jesus’ offer of unconditional mercy, Jesus’ vulnerability, Jesus’ confronting abusive power, Jesus’ gathering friends around himself to share in his work, Jesus’ refusal to rely on coercion and retaliation even in the face of great suffering and eventual death—all of these show us what God is like.
As the second person of the Trinity, Jesus gives us a concrete picture of God. No one has seen God except insofar as we see God in Jesus. The Trinity is a helpful metaphor—not for a God with three distinct wills, but to remind us that God is one, each manifestation (father, son, spirit) is an expression of the one God, the one character of God, the one will of God.
We may affirm Jesus’ identity because God raised Jesus from the dead. I don’t really understand what happened in history with Jesus’ resurrection. However I am willing to affirm the reality of this event even if I can’t explain it. The point, though, is not the historicity of a one-off miracle. Rather the point is the meaning of this act of God’s. The meaning is that in Jesus’ resurrection we have the vindication of his life. The truthfulness of his way is confirmed by God’s victory over death.
So my journey with Jesus, tested through much thought, experience, striving to speak and write about him, leads me at present to believe that we should do all our theology, live our lives, as if Jesus matters. This is the title of my forthcoming book: Theology as if Jesus Matters. I think he really does!