My journey began in a small farming community in the Idaho outback.
The town of Aberdeen, which in my youth had a population of less than a thousand, contained a mix of Mormons, Mennonites, seven other denominations, and the unchurched.
I was brought up as a Mennonite. My extended family consisted of several dozen descendents of Russian Mennonites who had had the good fortune of leaving Russia before the Revolution of 1917. (I recount the stories of this migration to America in my fictionalized memoir, Christian Bride, Muslim Mosque.)
Aberdeen’s Mennonite church, which at that time had a membership of about three hundred, was the second largest church in town. It offered a choice between the theologies of two groups: traditional Mennonites, who focused on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, with special attention to pacifism; and evangelicals, who considered the teachings of Paul the very heart of Christianity. The Wiebe clan straddled this divide.
As one of the oldest males of my generation, I was expected to enter the ministry, and some time in my late teens I decided to heed the “call.” As far as many in my extended family—including a preacher uncle and two missionary aunts—were concerned, the best way to prepare for this calling would be to attend a fundamentalist Bible Institute, followed by a finishing course in a Mennonite liberal arts college. As far as I was concerned, the fundamentalists were wrong; I chose to forego the Biblical training.
And so I went to Bethel College, in Kansas. There I met and eventually married a Mennonite preacher’s daughter. I was also enchanted when I discovered the freedom of liberal learning. I majored in English and Philosophy. At that time, I considered myself a Christian humanist but had grown wary of becoming a minister.
After graduating Bethel, I entered graduate school in Philosophy at Emory University. A year there convinced me that a steady diet of reading nothing but philosophy was more than I could tolerate.
So I matriculated to the University of Chicago Divinity School, which was known for encouraging wide reading and free thought. There, for the first time, I encountered Historical Criticism—the approach to the Bible in which the inquirer, as a kind of detective, examines documents (e.g., The Gospel According to Matthew) to determine the actual author, to place the writing within its historical and cultural context, and to locate his, or perhaps her, distinctive message. But my field was not Biblical studies; it was Christian Theology—more specifically, Philosophical Theology. By the time I had passed all the field exams, I had also become interested in the thought of the then-leading scholar in Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade, a member of the UC faculty.
But I wrote my dissertation on Paul Tillich, under whom I had also studied. It was critical of Tillich; at that time I had ceased considering myself a Christian.
I considered myself fortunate, then, to be invited to join the new Religious Studies program at Wichita State University. In my years there, I was able to teach whatever I wished. With my little experience in the field of Comparative Religion, I decided to learn as much as I could about the field by teaching it. Just over a decade later, I was able to finish my first and only book on religion, The Architecture of Religion, which set forth a distinctive theory of religion. This book incorporated insights I had gained from readings in phenomenology of religion, hermeneutics, secular critiques of religion, and Sociology (during a post-doctoral year in a University of California/Berkeley seminar for college teachers, I learned much of what I know about that field.
During our time at Wichita State, my wife Elly and I were active in the Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church, which was often stigmatized by other Kansas Mennonites who called it “the Lorraine Avenue Unitarian Church.” Some of us were pleased by this designation, thinking that it contained a bushel of truth.
Some years later, our Religion program began to disintegrate. The Kansas State Board of Regents took away our ability to grant majors, and we were forced to join the Women’s Studies program in an unlikely hybrid. During this time, I began writing comic novels. Not long after, I resigned my tenured position and dedicated myself to the life of writing. Subsequently I have finished five novels, all of which are concerned, in one way or another, with religion.
But I have never forgotten my earlier interest in the theory of religion. This blog marks a return to that subject.
As for my current stance on religion, I consider myself a nonbeliever, though I'm not of the strident stripe. I judge religious people and institutions by how much they contribute to, or detract from, the common weal.
For those who might wonder, these are my credentials:
Education: B.A., Bethel College; A.M., Ph.D., The University of Chicago; Postdoctoral NEH Fellowship, University of California-Berkeley.
Teaching: Wichita State University, Bethel College, Pomona College.