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My Absent Career 2: From theolog to undergrad

Last updated on 1 Jan 2023

Since my mother worked, I would stop at the local library on my way home. I had until she got home about an hour and a half later. So I would read books in an hour and a half, since the ones I liked were adult books and I was not permitted to borrow them. Nothing salacious, of course, but things like Chaim Potok, Kurt Vonnegurt, and an enticing detection series by Harry Kemmelman, involving Rabbi David Small. I basically read through the entire library, apart from the Mills and Boons, which constituted about 30% of the entire holdings.

In the process I read some philosophy. One was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which to be fair, came out the year after I got thrown out (not expelled, mind) of high school. Also at that time I was toying with being a Christian (I was raised AA: Apathetic Agnostic), and reading the usual slew of faux intellectual books, mostly by devotees of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd, such as Francis A. Schaeffer and Oz Guinness. Eventually I found my way to Helmut Thielicke, a Lutheran modernist theologian.

Other works included the New Leftists, the Frankfurt School (especially Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man) and existentialists. Oh, the existentialists. I read Heidegger (do not ask me anything about Sein und Zeit; it’s all gone, mercifully), Sartre, Camus, and then, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (I tried to learn German to read him, and did a very bad translation of Also Sprach Zarathustra).

The ultimate outcome of this pot pourri of literature was that I decided to do a theology degree, and become a minister. Initially, I was a member of a Baptist Church (of the older British kind, without enthusiasm for much apart from tea), but I found that too shallow (and even worse, it became an American “evangelical” Baptist Church), so I joined an evangelical Anglican church. This is what motivated my doing Year 12 at night school. Once in the college (Ridley College, a surprisingly sophisticated educational institution, complete with historical critical Bible studies), I turned out, quite contrary to the things teachers told my mother and stepfather when I was tossed out, to be not stupid. I warmed to straight theology like a moth to sugar water. I did horribly in other subjects (couldn’t learn Greek to save myself, and Hebrew was worse) but I topped the five colleges that made up the Australian College of Theology that first year.

For Reasons* I lost my faith, or at least the sort of certainty of faith that one was expected to have as a “theolog”, and as I had been argued by apologetics (based mostly on C. S. Lewis’ writings like Mere Christianity) into my faith, I tried to reconstruct it again, only more subtly and informedly (by this time I learned that Schaeffer’s “history” of philosophy cherry picked and ignored major thinkers like Descartes). I couldn’t do it. Once the Hermeneutic Bubble had been pricked** it could not be reinflated.

But I liked giving talks, and I loved study. So what to do? By now I had proven myself as a scholar, sort of, so I applied to do a bachelor of arts. I was 24, and I already knew everything, so why not? It would at least keep me from getting bored. So, while I worked full-time (in print and publishing), I studied… err… full-time. I did Philosophy, history, German and logic. My progress will be covered next. It is nothing like Brideshead Revisited… not a teddy bear in sight.

Incidentally, I met Thielicke when he visited Ridley. And as a first year totally humble theology student, I gave talks at the College (on eschatology, if you can believe it). This is a theme.

* It’s personal. ** Still personal, okay?

One Comment

  1. Hemidactylus Hemidactylus

    Thanks John for the biographic background. I don’t think I’m on the spectrum but probably had an undiagnosed learning disability of some kind. I was also poorly socialized in my upbringing or terribly shy.

    I wound up doing something for 20+ years that wasn’t my assumed trajectory in university. I fell into it during personal tragedy. Not what I studied for. Didn’t go on for an advanced degree. Hope to sputter across the finishing line of retirement.

    I kinda like Camus’ notion of futile (or absurd) rock rolling. He and Sartre had a bit of falling out. I haven’t gotten into Marcuse, but after stumbling into Frankfurt School stuff several years ago found Habermas most interesting. His tiff with Popper and the whole positivism attribution weirdness is amusing. Habermas v Popper showdown?

    I’m glad to see you more active here again.

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