It was a blunt, personal comment, the kind of intellectual elbow in the ribs that scholars share in the faculty lounge.
The Jewish sociologist of religion Will Herberg asked his Drew University colleague Tom Oden how he could call himself a theologian if he kept focusing his work on modern trends -- period.
Herberg told Oden that "he was a parasite on the ancient Christian tradition," who had "never taken seriously the great Christian minds of the past," noted theologian Stephen Seamands, who studied under Oden and uses many of his works while teaching at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.
This Herberg challenge radically affected Oden's life in the 1970s, as he evolved from backing an edgy liberalism to spreading, in shelves of books, an ecumenical approach to orthodoxy. Oden kept publishing into the final years of his life, until his December 8th death at the age of 85.
"Here was a guy who -- until his mid '40s -- had been a success on that career track in the contemporary academy," said Seamands. Oden had a Yale University doctorate and thrived in an era "built on the idea that new is better and that you looked down on anything old. You were supposed to idealize whatever people called the latest thing. That's how you got ahead."
In the 1950s, Oden embraced Marxism, existentialism and the demythologization of scripture. He was an early leader among Christians supporting abortion rights. In the 1960s he plunged into Transactional Analysis, Gestalt therapy, parapsychology and what, in one of my first encounters with him, he called "mild forms of the occult."
As he dug into early church writings, from the ancient East and West, Oden came to the conclusion that "I had been in love with heresy."
In a 2012 interview with Good News magazine, Oden explained: "My basic question early on in the 1970s was, is the Resurrection really just an idea or is it a fact of history? … Did this Jesus rise from the dead? Not symbolically, not just as a fragile memory of the earliest Christian rememberers, not just as an ever-questionable matter of fallible human remembering, but did Jesus actually rise from the dead. And finally, I did believe. And that changed my life."
At that point, he decided that to move forward he would have to go backwards and start over. In an interview I did with Oden in 1994, he referred to a passage in the book "The Great Divorce," by the famous Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.
"I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road," wrote Lewis. "A sum can be put right: but only by going back til you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on."
By encountering the saints and martyrs of the first five centuries of Christianity, Oden told me, "I met God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit."
This shift in perspective led to the three volumes of his 1,400-page "Systematic Theology," four volumes on the teachings of Methodist founder John Wesley, several books on early African Christianity and, producing howls of protest on the Methodist left, a manifesto on modern seminaries and ecclesiastical bureaucracies called "Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements." Among his many other works, he served as editor of "The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture," a 29-volume set introducing modern readers to writers in the early church.
On many occasions after his intellectual conversion, Oden described a pleasant dream in which he saw his own tombstone and the inscription read: "He made no new contribution to theology."
This was the central irony of Oden's life, stated Seamands. While many academic colleagues believed that he had "committed academic suicide," Oden went on to become a key player in global dialogues among traditional Protestants, Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. One strategic partner was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI.
"We can safely say that Oden's books will never go out of date -- because they already are, from a modern point of view," said Seamands. "His works are timeless, because of his conviction that he should focus on truths that were ancient and eternal."