Pilgrimage into Ancient Christianity Swayed Oden

News Sentinel, December 17, 2016 | Go to article overview

Pilgrimage into Ancient Christianity Swayed Oden


It was a blunt, personal comment - the kind of intellectual elbow in the ribs that scholars share in the faculty lounge.

The Jewish sociologist of religion Will Herberg asked his Drew University colleague Tom Oden how he could call himself a theologian if he kept focusing his work on modern trends - period. Herberg told Oden that "he was a parasite on the ancient Christian tradition" who had "never taken seriously the great Christian minds of the past," said theologian Stephen Seamands, who studied under Oden and uses many of his works while teaching at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

This Herberg challenge radically affected Oden's work in the 1970s, as he evolved from backing an edgy liberalism to spreading an ecumenical approach to orthodoxy in shelves of books. Oden kept publishing into the final years of his life, until his Dec. 8 death at the age of 85. "Here was a guy who - until his mid-40s - had been a success on that career track in the contemporary academy," Seamands said. Oden had a Yale University doctorate and thrived in an era "built on the idea that new is better and that you looked down on anything old. You were supposed to idealize whatever people called the latest thing. That's how you got ahead."

In the 1950s, Oden embraced Marxism, existentialism and the demythologization of Scripture. He was an early leader among Christians supporting abortion rights. In the 1960s, he plunged into transactional analysis, Gestalt therapy, parapsychology and what, in one of my first encounters with him, he called "mild forms of the occult."

As he dug into early church writings from the ancient East and West, Oden came to the conclusion that "I had been in love with heresy." In a 2012 interview with Good News magazine, Oden explained: "My basic question early on in the 1970s was, is the Resurrection really just an idea or is it a fact of history? ... Did this Jesus rise from the dead? Not symbolically, not just as a fragile memory of the earliest Christian rememberers, not just as an ever-questionable matter of fallible human remembering, but did Jesus actually rise from the dead. And finally, I did believe. And that changed my life. …

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