One Professor’s Explanation of His Transforming Moment

Hearing stories of transforming moments offers hope that there is something beyond routine living day by day. James Loder provides a helpful explanation. He had his moment early in his career as a professor at Princeton Seminary. He spent the rest of his academic years explaining it in biblical and psychological terms.

His moment came on September 2, 1970, traveling to Canada for a vacation. He saw a middle-aged woman standing near a disabled car. He stopped to help. Just as he had his head under the fender trying to change a tire, this car was hit from behind by a driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel. James Loder explained his reaction in The Transforming Moment.

“As I roused myself from under the car, a steady surge of life was rushing through me. I never felt more conscious of the life that poured through me, nor more aware that this life was not my own. My well-being came from beyond my natural strength. By far, the most significant and memorable effect was not the pain, nor the anger, but the gracious nature of the life I was experiencing. My sense was that the power was emanating from the center of Another’s awareness—an awareness that positively, even joyfully, intended my well-being.”

James Loder offers a number of observations about such specific experiences. He was conversant with the theories of psychologists about this kind of peak experience. While they can describe and classify various such events, they cannot explain the “what” content of such experiences. There is no way to validate as truth such an impression of life beyond the ordinary. It is finally the person with such experiences who has to determine it to be authoritative for how he or she lives in the future.

In other writings, I have distinguished stages of faith, especially from Confirmed Faith—believing what the church teaches—to Convicted Faith—accepting the truth of the Gospel as the truth for me. How that happens differs among individuals. Usually, the process could be described as faith insights that add up over time to transformations. There is no human way to “speed up” such transformation, beyond praying for it and seeing what it looks like in other believers around you.

Loder rightfully writes about the “theological repression” of these convictional experiences. They are too subjective to fit into the rigorous demands of theological thinking and too unique to be coped with by highly generalized theological systems. Such is my experience studying systematic theology and looking for the truth that ties everything together. Academic theology is the wrong place to look. The story language of the personal convictions of individuals is a better source.

Consider Loder’s conclusion: “The effect of this repression manifests itself, for example, within the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., a mainline denomination of which I am a member. It stresses theology, a cognitive, confessional orientation to faith, and academically trained clergy; as a result, it generally appeals to the middle and upper social strata of society. An open conversation about convicting experiences and their significance for life and faith is the exception among Presbyterians.”

“Yet a recent survey showed that 80 percent of our clergy and approximately half of our lay constituency have had such experiences. The theological repression of that experience has generated a deep, untapped convictional unconscious among Presbyterians, and, on the basis of other research, I would suspect among other churches as well.”

What Loder says about Presbyterians I know to be true of Lutherans, based on my research and dozens of workshops I have led.

Surely the way forward for the withering mainline church bodies is to have participants share their stories of their personal conviction and how this work of Christ’s Spirit affects the way they live.

Have you had a special experience of the “gracious nature of life” like that of Prof James Loder? Do you know anyone who has? Do you agree with him that in traditional churches there is a “theological repression” of such convictional experiences?

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