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June 10, 2009

Five Books At One End of a Shelf By Ron Evans


Five books at one end of a shelf. A somewhat forlorn grouping to be sure, they are the only books left in my possession of a purely theological nature. All others have fallen away.

And this morning it occurs to me that I have never stopped long enough to look at why I have kept them, never risked asking: “You five there on the end of the shelf, why are you here?”

I might point out that clergy like myself , in their theological training, were expected, if not to have mastered the writings of various theologians, then to have at least some passing acquaintance with them. For most of us this meant that we sat through lectures and heard various names mentioned, all German it seemed -Cullman, Neibhur , Bonhoeffer, Barth(actually a Swiss) Pannenburg, Brunner (there were two of them) Bultman, -the list seemed endless.. We may have read a book or two by some of them. Occasionally something stuck.

And herein lies the origin of the five books, all of them by Paul Tillich –yet another German who had found a safe home in America. I have carried these books about faithfully for over 40 years.

1960. A new prof , Pieter de Jong by name, had arrived at the college that fall, a big, friendly bear of man, dressed neatly in suit and tie and speaking in a slightly Germanic accent. The story was that he had been involved with the Dutch underground in the war at considerable risk to is life. Whatever the case. it all combined to lend to him a kind of presence, an air of dignity. Gifted as a theologian he was to bring something of a revolution to the classroom, not to mention our social life.

One of the first things he proceeded to do was to invite his students to his home to socialize. Until that time profs and students had always kept their distance, the washed and the unwashed. Surely de Jong respected that distance, even maintained it, but he also bridged it with grace and charm. As an undergraduate I remember the excitement around the college after the senior class returned from the first gathering in de Jong’s home. Among other things they had been served wine, a move which was, up to that time, unheard of in United Church circles where even grape juice was suspect. And then there was de Jong’s wife.

The family had a new baby, weeks old, and rather than putting the child away with a baby sitter Mrs. de Jong brought the infant into the living room among the guests. When the child began to fuss she simply dropped open her blouse, brought out a breast let the child enjoy himself. So vivid was the description it was as if I had been there. But then the clincher.

Having satisfied his hunger, the child did what babies do next. And Mrs. de Jong, rather than leave the room, simply lay the child out on her lap, whipped off the wet diaper, fired it past a startled student into the nearby hamper in the hall, and pinned on a new one. Wine, boobs and diapers: never had anything like this been before in Saskatchewan. In retrospect, from a theological perspective, you would have to say it was a scene more liberal than orthodox, but never had liberal theology been so popular.

Later that fall de Jong did something that was as surprising as the wine and refreshing as his wife’s breasts; we would have oral examinations at Christmas rather than written. Unheard of and a little scary. How do you go in to the prof’s office and talk for an hour about issues that most days had been as intelligible as Sanskrit?

“Well, Ron, “How are things going?”

I can still hear the words, direct, tinged with that slight Dutch accent. And I can hear myself replying, why or how, I am not sure. Knowing I couldn’t talk about his lectures because I couldn’t understand most of what he said, I replied,

“Well, it was something you suggested in one of your lectures, a book that I have been reading.”

“Oh,which one was that.” It was as if his ears perked up and we were off and running.

The book in question was The Protestant Era, a book of Tillich’s essays which I found easier reading than his two volumes of theology. Only in later years was I to learn that Tillich had a bit of a reputation that accompanied his theology. In a day when such things were not mentioned, it was nevertheless known that any woman who rode more than three floors on an elevator with Tillich got off in some what different condition than when she got on. Whatever he may have done on elevators, however, does not detract from his theology, some might even say enriched it.

I had not read the whole of The Protestant Era, surely no more than two or three chapters, but in that brief encounter I had come upon some words which, while I couldn’t exactly explain them, I knew were somehow right, good beyond all measure. I compare them today to poetry. Like good poetry you don’t just understand it, rather it’s the sound and the rhythm that catches you, sets you off in all directions with a meaning that the poet may never have intended. Tillich may have been a bit of an old reprobate but he was also a poet and a theologian, one who gave life to words in a way that I had not heard before. Take a concept like sin.

Raised as I had been in Saskatchewan, and I have no reason to believe the situation differed greatly elsewhere, we knew what sin was. In fact, we had a list of them in our heads -don’t smoke, don’t drink, and even though we didn’t talk about it, don’t have sex until you were married and then be careful lest you enjoy it. A little exaggerated, I know, but the fact is sin became sins, a grocery list of do nots, one prophylactic placed upon another designed to make sure nothing happened.

Tillich began changing that perception. There in his book he spoke of estrangement, a word derived from a Latin root meaning to “treat as a stranger” or “not belonging, lost, one who did not belong to the family”. Tillich went on to say, or at least I heard him saying, that this is the condition in which we find ourselves as a culture, a people, and certainly as a 21 year old at college. It is not just the grocery list of sins that has beset us but rather a condition, a state of alienation, of being lost, wanderers in a foreign land without a home. I don’t know what that means to you but as a young man, fresh off the farm, who has made a decision to enter the church, and whose identity, although he did not know it, had been scattered like feathers in the wind, this was pure poetry, music. I didn’t understand Tillich but I knew he was right.

My sin was not just the grocery list, in fact I had always thought that if the items on the list were the worst sin had to offer it wasn’t all that bad. My sin was a state of being lost, estranged. Sin was not one of the items on my list it was the brine in which I was pickled, the condition in which I lived. No home in which I belonged.

But estranged from what? Family? Not really. They were still there, and for all my complaints were still good people. Friends? I had a few. Even had a girl friend. So what was amiss?

Tillich said I was estranged from “the ground of my being”. Again, without a word of explanation I knew he was right. Coming from a family where work was a given and to work hard was to receive honor and blessing, I worked. In my memory we never took off a July 1 to enjoy a sports day. It was a day when the kids were home from school and you worked. One year we splurged and went to the exhibition and stayed at the Bessborough Hotel for 2 days and enjoyed ourselves. Even that was almost a sin. In short, if you worked hard and kept the grocery list that was all that was required. You would surely get ahead, wherever that was. For my father it meant he could pay the interest at the bank. But something was missing. There was no point to it, no end, no beginning.

Tillich said it was to be a stranger, estranged from the ground of my being. The temptation is to try and explain Tillich but, like explaining poetry, something is inevitably lost. Perhaps a story will help.

At about the same time as I was encountering Tillich I began hearing about Alcoholics Anonymous. Although I did not drink, alcohol abuse in our home caused no end of difficulty; AA caught my attention. Later I came to know a number of AA members, never ceasing to be moved by their stories and by the affection they had for one another. There is nothing like going on a fishing trip with a group of recovering alcoholics and being subjected to a weekend filled with stories of their escapades, stories marked by pain but filled with gratitude. One particular man I came to know and admire, Angus by name, as an older man who had been sober for years, yet never ceased to display a sense of awe that somehow life had been returned to him.

It was from Angus I first hard it said that in the development of alcoholism in a person’s life the spiritual dimension that was the first to go and the last to be recovered and that if this recovery was not made sobriety would be a tenuous business at best. Surely a recovering alcoholic and Tillich were talking the same language.

I don’t know if I should have ever been ordained and sent out as a preacher or not. To-day, increasingly, I feel alienated from the whole process of whatever it means to be church, the estrangement more complete than fifty years ago. And old age brings with it its own loneliness, its own dimensions of isolation. One advantage, however, if I can call it that, is that at seventy three I have something I didn’t have at twenty three.

I have experience and with it a bit of memory that has accumulated. For one thing you know, even though you never quite get used to it, that you are a stranger. In youth you didn’t dare entertain such an idea. Anyone who thinks they have estrangement licked, old age will cure them of the thought. But it is this every understanding, this knowing, that lends to life occasions of solitude, moments saved from the work of being anxious.

Little things become important. Stories. The wisdom of drunks. Remembering sitting in a prof’s office, one who served wine at his parties and whose wife’s breasts were beautiful. Remembering a fall day reading Tillich’s books, books that have been with me forty years. A remembering that brings with it, sometimes as if by accident, the sheer joy of that first reading.

Estranged, yes, but someone knows my story.


Ron Evans is a CPSP Diplomate who now devotes his energy to writing. His book, Sakatchewan Remembered, was well received. One reviewer states: "...Evans will make you laugh. He takes subjects that once made us blush with guilt or laugh nervously, and makes them approachable and acceptable. He does this by using his humor to gently sand away the rough edges. I have a belief that if you pursue something to its darkest, quips Evans, there will be something bearable about it..."

Following the book's publication, Ron focused his creative energies to produce an audio version of his book. The words and voice of the author blended with the music of a gifted local musician makes it a must have CD for your collection, especially if you like to listen to books in your car and when on the move with your iPod.

Ron's most recent book, Letters from the Sourdough Bagel: confessions of a loner who likes company, has yet to make its appearance on AMAZON.COM.

Click here to email Ron Evans.

-Perry Miller, Editor

Posted by Perry Miller, Editor at June 10, 2009 2:06 PM

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