This weekend I will turn seventy. It is a rather odd feeling: Yes, I am that old! In some regions of the Netherlands every fifth birthday (60, 65, 70, etc.) gets a lot of extra attention. Admittedly: I will have to get used to people saying: ‘Ah, you are now in your early seventies’, rather than: ‘in your late sixties.’
But why give it much further thought? After all, today I am only one day older than yesterday, and tomorrow I will be only one day older than today. And this is how it has been for seventy years. So, what’s the big deal?
On the other hand, however, it is a milestone. Especially since other people will see it as such. The poet who wrote the Psalms saw reaching the age of 70 or 80, respectively, as serious moments. But I try to be a little more positive about it than he was. For him there was not much left at that age but misery and trouble. So far, I have had a life without too much misery. I have more reason to be thankful than to feel miserable.
It seems natural at moments like these to look back. What have been the most important moments for me in those seventy years? Who were the most important people for me? What were my major mistakes and failures? What have been my achievements (if any)?
From time to time I look back on my pilgrimage in the domain of theology and in the development of my faith. Where was I some fifty, forty, thirty, twenty or even ten years ago? And where am I today? Has there been a clear development? Have I arrived somewhere? Or have I gotten stuck somewhere in the wilderness? My response to such questions can only be very subjective. Others may look at my life very differently. That is OK, as long as they realize that they do not know my full story, as I know it myself!
How may I best chart my theological journey? By checking my memories? By analyzing my sermons from past decades? By comparing the books and articles that I wrote? This could all possibly be useful. But this morning it occurred to me that I might try to make a short list of the ten books that through the years have had a major influence on my thinking. I can assure you that I read more than ten books! But this may give some indication as to where I was heading through the years.
Here then is a little list with titles and the approximate year I which I read the book:
1. Fundamentalism (James Barr) – ca. 1966. During my M.A. studies at Andrews University I got hold of this book that has become a classic. It opened my eyes to the phenomenon of fundamentalism. It did much to save me from the trap of fundamentalism.
2. Church Dogmatics, vol. I.2: The Revelation of God (Karl Barth). ca. 1973. It was part of a reading assignment for one of the topics I was studying when working on my B.D. at the University of London. It was ‘heavy going’ and I managed only 2 or 3 pages per hour. Barth’s treatment of the Trinity, in particular, taught me that human words can never adequately define the mystery of the divine.
3. Teach Yourself Philosophy of Religion – ca. 1973. This was one of books I had to read for the class in philosophy of religion when working on my B.D. It opened up a world that was until then totally foreign to me. It was a first encounter with the problems that occupy philosophers of religion, and with issues that, increasingly, were also of personal importance to me.
4. Speaking Well of God (Edward Vick) – ca. 1980. Written by a British Adventist theologian, who is usually regarded as rather ‘liberal’. For me, this book was the first systematic attempt that I had seen in the Adventist Church to deal with the doctrine of God. It strongly stimulated my theological interest.
5. Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America -1740-1845 (Catherine A Brekius) – ca. 1999. As an Adventist Christian I have always had plenty of questions about the nature of the experiences of Ellen G. White. This book deals with religious developments in the USA, in the time of Mrs. White. It describes how the prophetic gift was quite common, especially among women in Methodist circles. It made it clear to me that the phenomena that we see in connection with Ellen White were not quite as unique as many Adventists tend to think. It provided me with much background information that helped me to get a more balanced picture of her ministry.
6. What’s So Amazing about Grace? (Philip Yancey). – ca. 2000. A popular bestseller that helped me—better than any other book on the topic—to understand the mystery of grace.
7. The Cost of Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) – a. 1995. This book indeed shows ’where the rubber hits the road’. It reminded me again and again of the burning question: What does my faith mean in concreto? How does it affect the crucial choices that I make?
8. Warranted Christian Belief (Alvin Plantinga) – ca. 2000. One of the most important books I ever read. It helped me to find answers to questions that became increasingly urgent, in particular about the key issue that always remains in the background: Can I be absolutely sure that what I believe is true?
9. Hans Küng’s autobiografie, 2 dl. – 2003, 2007. The inspiring life story of a great man who has for decades lived with the tension of what his church expected of him and what he himself thought and believed—but who remained loyal to both (to the church and to himself). There is much that I can identify with.
10. Jezus van Nazareth (Joseph Ratzinger) – 2007. I cannot agree with all that the author says. But I have no doubt that the person who wrote this book, whatever his faults may be, and whatever we may deplore in the institution that he leads, truly knows Jesus!
These are ten books that may be seen as road signs along my pilgrimage. Looking back I conclude: Yes, this pilgrimage has led me somewhere. I have been at many beautiful places. But I am not there yet! One’s spiritual journey and growth are never complete and one’s life remains: ‘under construction’. Even at seventy.