Beginning my career in theology was an eye opening move because before then I had a good view of God but like anything else in high school, it was an adolescent view. My concept of grace had really grown thanks to people like Pastor Elrod (in fact our senior class invited him to be our commencement speaker) but it was still what I would call a very legal perspective. Sin was like breaking the law and hell was the equivalent of prison, Jesus had essentially taken our place on the cross in the way that, if it were allowed, I would take the place of someone on death row.
That was until I took a class from Jean Sheldon, the only female professor of theology. Her view of sin, God and grace were more organic. Sin was more equivalent to eating poorly or smoking or consciously running into a wall over and over. Hell was more like what happens to the body due to poor nutrition, or like cancer from smoking. It was a natural growth, a consequence of sin that couldn’t be reversed and wasn’t arbitrarily assigned. God was not some judge handing out whatever sentence he wanted to place on each of us, as if upset that we had parked somewhere he had designated as a no parking area. It was not subjective but rather the only way it could work, there was no world where you could have murder, coveting, lying etc and have it work (as opposed to anyone being able to decide that you could park on the other side of the street). Salvation was not so much God paying our parking ticket but rather him sticking his hand underneath ours as we were putting it down on a fire. He was taking something that was coming to us as long as we followed that course of action.
This in retrospect does not seem that controversial or that big of a deal but it really revolutionized my view of God. Salvation was literally Jesus saving us from drowning in a way that forced him to drown because we’d jumped in without knowing how to swim, it was him sucking the poison into himself when we had drank it because we thought it’d be fun in the short term. Of course, it wasn’t that fast or simple just like smoking a cigarette doesn’t cause cancer immediately but it was him trading out his lungs for ours after a lifetime of smoking.
Having that idea presented to me reassured me of many of the doubts I was having about my faith then. It made God seem more logical, more reasonable instead of some guy throwing temper tantrums because we didn’t do it His way; His way was the only levelheaded way. Angel Hernandez, another professor at PUC, also made God seem full of grace. He was “trying to save everyone he could” looking for excuses to save people; if God could err, it would be on the side of grace. In a trail of a thousand steps, God had taken nine hundred ninety nine and we just had to take one. Originally, I argued with both of these professors at some length as well. Adventism has so many life details of what they encourage you to do, it couldn’t be quite that simple. There had to be some work into it right, God expected something from me in order to save me? Didn’t God have some merit system? Professor Hernandez presented well the idea that these things we do because we want to, not out of obligation, the same way we want to send our girl flowers because they make her happy. I am really pleased with the fact that I didn’t argue with them too much and quickly accepted that grace was the better way. Sometimes my history and personality didn’t like it and I had a hard time stomaching it but logically I had accepted it.
That year, I was assigned in one of the classes I was taking to go to a different church. Like the church I had attended in my childhood, it was a Baptist one. I attended it with one of the female theology majors, Donica Ward. We went every Sunday and learned much more than when I had been a child. The concept that stuck with me from them was their belief in that once someone was saved, they were always saved. If you had truly accepted Jesus, you were bound for heaven. I can see how that psychological padding would be helpful to many but I just didn’t think it could be true. If this entire mess of a sinful world was based on the fact that God had given us free choice to accept or reject him, it was entirely silly that once we accepted him, he would take away. Not accepting Jesus was more like marriage, a contract that you entered into for life but realistically speaking could fail at miserably. People break up with their soul mates and it was self evident that on occasion people broke up with God.
Interestingly enough, this was playing out in my personal life as well. Shannon and I broke up a couple of times that year; the first being because I was considering pursuing some college girls. I realized this was a serious mistake shortly after I did it and when I went home during the Christmas break, I drove all the way out to her house just to apologize and ask her to fix it with me. I think the gesture moved her and we were suddenly back together. A few months later, she broke up with me to get together with some other guy. At the time these things seemed very dramatic and tore us both up quite a bit, I would call her incredibly angry and I can’t imagine how we made it. Several years removed from it, it was probably just simple high school drama that could have worked itself out had we both moved on and gone our separate ways but I was so convinced that she was my Destiny and I think for her like most people, the first boyfriend you have is always special. In one of those strange twists, Shannon had left me a voicemail to call her back before she broke up with me. I wasn’t quite prepared so I called her back from a classroom inside one of the school computer labs. Apparently, the reaction on my face was not much of a poker face. I don’t know who all was in the room or if anyone else noticed but one person who did was Natalie. She, typical of the way she approached the world, encouraged me to go somewhere and cry about it; we had a Greek test the next day which I had yet to study for and she actively told me to blow it off, to call professor Hernandez and explain to him what was going on. That particular moment, overwhelmed by what had just happened, I actually did call the professor who was incredibly understanding. However, it wasn’t long before I went back to the method I usually take with life and blew off my emotions and went to studying. I took the test the next day and did very well on it.
In spite of this, all of that drama made it into my theology because I kept seeing the relationship with God as being a romantic one, a sacred one, the pains that we caused God were as deep if not more so than the human ones. Sinning was our way of failing our relationship with God, maybe forgetting to take out the trash, maybe having an affair or several points in between. I was and am surprised at how many of my fellow theology majors objected to this, wanting me to see God as more like a King, or like a parent making sure that while the relationship could be personal, there was a definite and wide hierarchy between us. I would argue that when one is in love with someone, there is already an inordinate amount of power over them. One of them vividly said that I was making God too human and was visibly annoyed when I answered that He did it first.