Author tries to make sense of life in memoir
“Understanding My Life Backwards: Finding Authentic Faith through Informed Reasoning,” by Robert A. Voelker, Ph.D., M.Div. 2011. Lulu Press. 254 pp. $24.50 softcover.
By Dr. Seth Holtzman
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBUTRY — Local author Bob Voelker has penned an unusual and compelling book: part memoir, part intellectual autobiography and part religious and theological exploration. This book is his sustained attempt to make sense of his life’s journey by looking back on it. As he says, “Life has to be lived forwards,” but we need to understand life “backwards.”
His goal is to discover his story, a narrative that will better provide a coherent and comprehensive account of his whole life. This new narrative helps him make better sense of what has happened in his life, and it helps him better fit together the sometimes fragmentary or contradictory aspects and chapters of his life.
There is much to make sense of in his life. He must confront the death of his young children and wife, the patterns of gain and loss of community, the shift in his sense of vocation, the sustained critique and reconstruction of his religious and intellectual commitments. All of us have faced trials and tribulations; Voelker has faced more than most. The first six chapters are more autobiographical and personal.
There is also much to fit together in his life. He was raised in an anti-critical, fundamentalist Lutheran environment. He became a research biologist and came to accept our modern scientific framework of thought. Then he became a Lutheran minister. In the process, he found within himself deep conflicts between, for example, science and religion. These conflicts ultimately led him to rethink his religious understanding, for he increasingly found good reasons for challenging his fundamentalist and literalist interpretation of Lutheranism in particular and of religion in general.
He is concerned to find a better account of not only his life’s story but also of the Christian story and of religion generally. Here we see him as the former college teacher he is. In chapters 7-11, he takes us on a wide-ranging journey through history, culture, science and religion in order to show the need for a more modern and informed interpretation of religion. The reader learns much about the history of science and about the results of the historical-critical approach to religion, an approach pioneered, by the way, by Protestant religious scholars after the Reformation. Voelker contends that we can integrate our modern scientific account of nature with religion only if religion is understood critically.
In the last four chapters, Voelker presents his reworked and integrated understanding of nature, religion, society, ethics and humanity. Based on his understanding, he offers insights into our culture. He also tries to apply this understanding to his own life, so we see how he has come to both think and live in a new and different way.
He pulls off the multifaceted goal of his book with aplomb. The reader finds his story inherently interesting and relevant instead of idiosyncratic and overly personal. Voelker takes us through his life gently and easily, even when the material he and we face is painful or difficult. Some readers may balk at working through the more abstract discussions of religion and theology, but all of us need to mature in our religious and theological understanding.
Indeed, that points to perhaps the primary value of Voelker’s book. In addressing his own life, in looking back on himself, he models for all of us the need to do the same and how to do the same. All of us to some extent have in ourselves knowledge, beliefs, feelings and values that are compartmentalized, not yet or not well integrated. All of us are in need of a new narrative, a more coherent and comprehensive self-concept than what we have so far formed. As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out, we are all called upon to engage in the “hero’s journey.”
To this extent, Voelker’s book is applicable whether or not your life contains as much or the same tragedies as his and whether or not your religious stance and journey are his. He offers by and through his book important and universal spiritual lessons. He faces his life with courage, honesty, insight, compassion and focus. He explores losses in order to find transcendent lessons about what is good. He confronts the ways that his life and his ways of understanding are stuck. He employs the full range of human powers to make sense of things. He seeks better ways of grasping ultimate reality. All of this is powerful and inspirational.
One might question in the end, as I do, his conception of ultimate reality as “nature’s creativity.” For, how can that conception of the ultimate be both consistent with his scientific worldview and able to function as a religious ultimate needs to function in our lives and in our thought?
Perhaps his intellectual journey is not yet finished, but he has made much progress. He shares his progress with us in ways that instruct us, as you might expect from a former college teacher. He shares his life and lessons with us in ways that move us, as you might expect from a former minister. Few people undertake a work of this kind; fewer still are successful at it. Voelker’s book is no mean feat. It will stretch you, so you can grow.
Dr. Seth Holtzman is chair of the religion and philosophy department at Catawba College.