President emeritus Phil Eaton on sharing stories of joyful belief
After I stepped out of the office of president of SPU, I began to ask how much, even unconsciously, I had been co-opted by the presuppositions of a culture that no longer believes in mystery, faith, grace, and the transcendent.
I pressed myself hard: What actually do we believe when the pressures of skepticism are so severe? How do we say what we believe — to our neighbors, our friends, in the places where we work — when the counter-arguments of unbelief come at us so aggressively? In light of all these questions, I began to write my new book, Sing Us a Song of Joy: Saying What We Believe in an Age of Unbelief.
One event, with which I open the book, helped spark my response:
“Hope you are going to a party or something,” a woman remarks in the elevator of our condo. Apparently we look a little too dressed up for a Sunday morning in Seattle. “Actually, we’re going to church,” my wife responds cheerfully. “Oh … well … have fun,” our neighbor replies. As we step out of the elevator, we know we’ve been hit with that all-too-common sort of speechless incredulity when anything religious creeps into the conversation these days.
We’ve all had this kind of experience. Bring up church, the conversation dies. Declare yourself Christian, you get that puzzled look, indifference, even hostility. I began to ask, Where do we go from here? How can we talk about church in an age when the church is in decline? How can we talk about our faith when we face disbelief that anyone could possibly believe in God? How can we affirm the joy of the gospel of Jesus Christ when all truth is called into question and all joy seems to have departed the scene?
Another thing happened early on. One morning, while reading the Psalms, I read that marvelous Psalm 137 as if for the first time.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
as we remembered Zion.
On the willow trees there we hung up our lyres,
for there those who had carried us captive
asked us to sing them a song …
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
(Psalm 137:1–4, The Revised English Bible)
In the disorientation of exile, where I believe Christians find ourselves in the 21st century, we are tempted to hang up our harps on the willow trees. Perhaps we’ve even forgotten our song. Perhaps we’ve become embarrassed about singing in public.
Exile is surely a time for weeping, but then this great poem stunningly pivots — God’s people are actually being asked to sing! “For there those who had carried us captive / asked us to sing them a song.” Really? Can this be true? Yes, sing us a song of joy, even the skeptics began to plead.
And then the poem ends with the question for our own age, the question I discovered as the question of my life: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
Well, this is how I set out to write this book. What actually do we believe in an age of unbelief?
Well, this is how I set out to write this book. What actually do we believe in an age of unbelief? And how can we talk about our belief? These questions sent me into deep reflection and study and conversation. I was guided by thinkers such as Charles Taylor, Lesslie Newbigin, Nikolai Berdyaev, Christian Wiman, N.T. Wright, and so many others. Most of all, I was called into a faith deeper than I had ever known. As we face radically different presuppositions about what is real and how to live, how can we sing the Lord’s song, sing it beautifully, confidently, winsomely, sing it in speech and writing and behavior, sing it in the quiet moments of study, family, church, prayer?
As my response began to unfold over the months of writing, I dipped into some pretty deep wells: The teaching from my childhood; all that formative learning along the way as student and as professor at Whitworth University; the sturdy blessing of lifelong study of holy Scripture. I drew from the wells of so many years at Seattle Pacific: from the lectures and writing and conversations with so many of my dear faculty friends; from worshipping to the rhythms of joyful gospel music; from so many speakers who joined our conversation; from the challenging encounters and friendships downtown. These rich memories, and so many more, came rushing over me as I continued to write. I became renewed, intellectually — but most of all spiritually — as I drank from those deep wells.
I wanted to say, look, I’ve blossomed, I’ve come alive again, I’ve discovered new faith. Even as I wrestled with the pervasive patterns of doubt in our age, even so I came to a fresh encounter with a lavishly loving God. And I came out of the writing with a renewed mission for my life: I want to sing a new song of joy as long as I am capable. There is so much singing that is harsh, discordant, combative, destructive, even among Christians. Could I sing a song of joy? Can I sing it winsomely, compellingly, attractively, effectively, with humility?
And so I share my new book with enormous gratitude for the deep wells that nourish Sharon and me from our many years at SPU. My dream now is that we all, wherever we are, might join in a mighty chorus and sing together a song of joy so that the world will know the Lord’s song once again.
Philip W. Eaton is president emeritus of Seattle Pacific University. He served as president from 1996 to 2012, and he and Sharon currently live in Pasadena, California. They are active with their church community, family, and other work.
This article first appeared on pages 40–41 of the autumn 2018 issue of Response with the headline, “Writing about joy to a troubled world.” Illustration by John Mata.