The Gift of Thinking & A Skeptic Finds the Answer

John C. Rankin (December 5, 2009)

In the summer of 2008, I was reading a manuscript to my ninety-year old father, Dr. Emmett Clair Rankin. He has failing eyesight. At one point he interjected, and said, “You know John, as a little boy, you were always thinking.”

And I have been thinking about that ever since.

What a remarkable gift – the freedom as a child to think, to wonder, to dream. And it was fully possible in my case, because of the blessing of growing up in a loving and stable home – where my childhood was an uninterrupted childhood. No intrusions of poverty, illness, death, war, divorce, fratricide etc.

This is not the case, nor has been the case, in the majority of households across the millennia, across the globe. And here in the United States, as marriage and faithful fatherhood continues on the decline, this absence of the freedom to think is increasingly the case for too many children.

My Dad grew up in a believing Presbyterian home in Nebraska, and his godly mother was a tremendous influence. But too, his father lost his job on the railroad at the beginning of the Great Depression, and his mother died young in the middle of it from rheumatic heart fever. My father worked his way through the University of Nebraska, undergraduate, then medical school. He would not have made it through medical school save the intervention of a professor, who literally paid his full tuition for one year when my father could not do so.

Dad met my mother in Los Angeles during World War II as a Navy physician, married after the war, and then moved to West Hartford, Connecticut. He started the Connecticut Blood Bank for the American Red Cross in 1950, and served as chief of hematology at the Hartford Hospital until the verge of his retirement, while also being a family doctor. I was the son of a man who made house calls.

Not too many years ago, Dad called me on the phone and chatted as we often do, and at one point inquired as to my health – I have had some serious times of dangerous physical exhaustion. I said fine. And he said, “What about your emotional health?” And I said fine. Then he said, “You know, my emotional health has always been great. I loved what I was doing.” Dad simply loved caring for people, and his reputation among his peers and the community gave me and my four siblings a great sense of healthy pride.

And thus I was given the gift of the freedom to think, without practical or relational hindrance. And my father has always been a thinking man. When he came to Connecticut, he first joined a Presbyterian church, but left it because of a deeply judgmental spirit he found there. He moved across to a Congregational church, but had to leave that too. The minister had committed adultery, it became public, and a national scandal as well. So my father left. He then went to the Unitarian Universalist church, where a) he found the minister to be intellectually stimulating, and b) faithful to his wife. The latter mattered deeply.

So Dad moved from theoretically orthodox churches to a heterodox one, based on some solid biblical ethics. What would I have done as an adult in a similar situation?

As it turned out, my Sunday School teachers were far more than just heterodox – they were agnostic and very skeptical about the Bible. In the 1990s, while having lunch with Dad and the minister at his church, I stated that I grew up as “an agnostic Unitarian.” This did not make sense to my father, who was more drawn to the Universalist side of the church. But to the minister it did. The influence of my third grade Sunday School teacher proved pivotal.

In the fall of 1961, the teacher was teaching from the Gospels, and we read the text of Jesus feeding the five thousand (plus the women and children). She immediately said, “And of course, we know that miracles do not occur.” In my mind, I remember so clearly thinking, “Why not?” She continued by explaining how Jesus had inspired a little boy with some fish and bread to share it with others, and as a result, all the adults then became inspired to unstuff their tunics with an abundant supply of fish and bread that they had been holding back until that moment.

Never mind that her idea had nothing to do with the text, but was an imposition of a modern myopia concerning selfish individualism upon a Hebrew culture that knew nothing of such a possibility, ignoring the situation of the people being far from town spontaneously, and with hungry children in tow. No, even without knowing these variables at the time, I knew that she was explaining too much. I was skeptical of her skepticism. When I shared this with my father, he laughed heartedly and quoted the clause “skeptical of skepticism” from the Latin.

Skepticism is good if used in pursuit of the truth, which means good thinking and tough questions being posed of all ideas, people and institutions. But skepticism can also become an idol if used as an excuse to flee the truth in any capacity. I was given the gift of good skeptical thinking, which is intrinsically biblical, where the love of hard questions is a central reality.

In the winter of 1962, my Sunday School teacher started the Old Testament section of the school year with Genesis. I remember her spending much time explaining to us how Genesis was a myth written by a primitive people, living in a hostile universe, seeking to make sense of it all. We were taught that we had to separate out all the fiction so as to glean the kernels of moral truth. In my mind, I said, “Then why bother?” I was skeptical of skepticism, and that is part of the gift of thinking.

So whereas my Sunday School teacher sought to instill agnosticism, the health of my family life triumphed. I remember that year, or the year before, with my next oldest sister, Dayna, looking one very hot June day at the clear blue sky. As we stood side by side on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford, just up the road from the Beth Israel synagogue, and stared at the sky – we began to feel dizzy, beginning to think that we might fall off the planet if we were not careful. We wondered – where is the end of the universe?

So I decided to find out. I hitched a ride with Flash Gordon (that will date some of us), and we flew to the end of the universe. There we found an imposing brick wall, with a sign on it in large English block letters: END OF UNIVERSE. Now I guess it was somewhat consoling that the sign was not in Russian during the age of Sputnik, but still, my next question: “What is on the other side?”

And this is where my thinking reaches its apex, and as a child. And I know of no human being who can think higher. None of us can wrap our minds around the concept of space that ends or never ends.

And what about time? My second oldest son, Stuart, when six years old, asked me, “Daddy, when we die, we will live with Jesus forever, right?” I said yes, so he then said, “But forever is a long time. What will we be doing?” After all, there are only so many Lego castles that can be built. Stuart (now with two graduate degrees in theology and church history) and I agree that eternal life will be an eternity of exploring the infinity of God’s library and putting it into action. And if we think about it, since the universe is finite, and since we can never exhaust the creativity of exploring and understanding it, how very great is our God who is infinite?

And what about number? My daughter, Brittney, when eight or nine, was thrilled with numbers, and asked me one day, “Daddy, what’s the biggest number in the world?” So I said, “Infinity, but that is not a real number, it is a philosophical construct.” Now, I did not really say the last part of this to a young girl. I did try to explain that “infinity” is an abstract concept that means no end. But young girls want concrete answers, so infinity was a concrete number to her. Thus, she asked me, “Daddy, what is infinity plus one?”

“Well, sweetheart, infinity plus one equals infinity, the same but different philosophical construct.” Now, I did not really say that, but we get the point. None of us can grasp space without limit, time without end, and numbers unending. Yet, we live in finite worlds where space, time and number define and measure our existence – and this is all good. Here is a universally true statement: None of us can imagine space, time and number ending (there must be more …) and none of us can imagine it not ending (we cannot gain such perspective …).

Search the world over – in every religious, philosophical, literary or scientific idea ever spoken or published – and you cannot find any idea or deity that is not also limited by the boundaries of space, time and number. Except for Yahweh Elohim, the LORD God of Genesis 1-2, whose very name in the Hebrew means the One who is greater than space, time and number, whose power is unlimited, whose nature is good and whose purpose in making man and woman in his image was to bless us; who in the person of Jesus, the ego emi (Greek rendering of the Hebrew essence of Yahweh) is the eternal  I AM who has come into our finite world to love and save us, and who gives the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives, and the lives of nations.

I did not know this theology as an eight-year old, but with the freedom to think in the sight of an awesome universe, I asked the questions. Indeed, when Jesus speaks of becoming “like little children” to enter the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 18:1-4), this freedom to think is part of the reality of the power of childlikeness — trust and wonder and questions rolled into one.

In the summer of 1967, at age fourteen, I was in Boy Scout camp. I was there all summer, earning merit badges, and most other Scouts were there for only one or two weeks. Chapel was required every Sunday, and I found it less than exciting. One Sunday in August, as I was getting dressed for chapel, one Scout, a one-weeker whom I did not otherwise know, was not getting out of his bunk, so I asked him why. He said he did not have to go to chapel, and all I had to do to get out of chapel was tell the Scoutmaster that I was an atheist. So I asked him, “What is an atheist?” He said, “Someone who does not believe there is a God.”

I thought about it a second, and said, “But I don’t know.” So off to chapel I went, a positive agnostic before I knew what the word meant, someone skeptical of skepticism, someone not fleeing the truth but seeking it, someone given an unsullied gift of thinking from my earliest childhood, someone who thus ran into the very Presence of the Creator some ten or twelve weeks later in prep school. Of that, I write elsewhere.


A Skeptic Finds the Answer

John C. Rankin

[excerpt from The Six Pillars of Biblical Power, 2008)

In the face of this trajectory, I was nonetheless a self-conscious agnostic by age 14. An “agnostic” is usually a term for someone who does not know if there is a God (from the Greek roots a + gnosis, “to be without knowledge”). But it was an open-ended and positive agnosticism, which is to say I was always impressed by the beauty of the universe and amazed by my own existence and self-awareness. I was open to whatever truth proved to be, open to the idea of God. But I did not know one way or the other in the summer of 1967.

I was in Boy Scout camp, and each Sunday we were required to attend chapel service. One Sunday morning, as I was getting dressed, one of my tent mates was resting on his bunk bed. I asked him why he was not getting ready. He answered, “I am an atheist.” So I asked him, “What is an atheist?” He said that it meant he does not believe in God, and all I had to do to get out of chapel was to tell the scoutmaster that I was an atheist. I said, “But I don’t know.” So I went to chapel.

That September, I began ninth grade (“third form”) at South Kent School, a small prep boarding school for boys in the Housatonic highlands of western Connecticut. South Kent had a daily chapel schedule rooted in the Episcopal liturgy.

It was required, but I determined not to participate, saying to myself, I don’t believe this stuff. So I did not sing, recite, pray, genuflect or take communion. But that proved a “dangerous” thing to do. For while other students were participating at one level or another, I ended up occupying my mind reading the words of the liturgy and hymns, as they were recited and sung. I was interested in the possible existence of God.

On November 1, I was standing outside the chapel in the interlude before walking down the hill to dinner. As the air pricked my spine, I felt alive. It was delightfully cold, and in those rural hills the Milky Way was exceptionally clear that evening – like a white paint stroke against a black canvas. I considered its awesome grandeur and beauty, and then I posed to myself this sequence of thought:

If there is a God, then he must have made all this for a purpose, and that purpose must include my existence, and it must include the reason I am asking this question. And if this is true, then I need to get plugged into him.

I wanted to know either way, and I was convinced that if there were a God, then it would be most natural to become rooted in my origins. To be radical before I knew what radical meant. But I wanted verification. The “if” clauses were real.

This was a commitment to myself, in the sight of the universe, in the sight of a possible God. It was in fact a prayer to an unknown God.

One or several evenings later, I was the first student into chapel, taking my assigned seating in the small balcony. As I sat down and looked forward in the empty sanctuary, I said under my breath, “Good evening God.” Immediately I retorted to myself, “Wait a minute John. You don’t even know if there is a God. How can you say ‘good evening’ to him?”

But also immediately, I became aware of a reality that was prior to and deeper than the intellect, of a truth that held the answer to any and all of my questions. There was a God, I knew deep within me, and I knew that I had just lied to myself by saying I did not know, even though it was only now that I knew I knew. My heart knew before my mind knew, but as part of the whole that my mind was now grasping. I had yet to speak it (see Romans 10:9-10).

In this moment, God’s presence ratified the reality of my belief as I simultaneously discerned a Presence literally hovering over me, filling the entire balcony. And, critically, this Presence was hovering and waiting for my response. It was powerful, inviting and embracing. This all happened within a moment’s time, and I realized that I did believe. No sooner had I exhaled my agnostic retort, did I then inhale and say, “Yes I do (believe).” As I did, this literal presence of God descended upon and filled my entire being – heart, soul, mind and body.

Now I knew nothing at the time of the divine name and nature of Yahweh’s presence and glory, as experienced by the Israelites in the exodus community with the tabernacle, and later in Solomon’s temple. Nor did I know anything of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Yet the grace of God came into my life that November evening, as he but gently crossed my path with a touch of his Presence. I asked an intellectual question in view of an awesome universe, and was answered by the Presence of the awesome Creator.