I spent another wonderful day in Washington, D.C. today. It was a gorgeous fall day in every way. I had an opportunity to spend several hours with Rev. Dan Claire, who works with the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA) and also pastors The Church of the Resurrection, a fine young church on Capital Hill. (I hope to preach there in 2007.) Dan is an unusually gifted Christian leader with a real vision for a missional church in an emerging context. He, and two other ministers who work with him, have seen rapid growth and exciting response to the gospel over the past four years. Dan is also completing a doctoral program in biblical studies at the Catholic University of America, which we toured following lunch. We also visited the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, one of American Catholicism’s greatest buildings. (It is truly gorgeous and reverential place, though the Marian elements did not move me. Some of the more clearly biblical elements, expressed in various mosaics, are breathtakingly beautiful.)
During the morning hours I made two sight seeing stops. The first was at the National Zoo where I saw the most famous guests in Washington, two panda bears from China who grace the newly opened Asian Trail. Then I found a historical site that few know even exists, the Woodrow Wilson House, located at 2340 S Street NW. This historic home is the only presidential museum in the District. (The 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, is buried in the District, near the National Cathedral.) I am interested in Wilson for several reasons. His presidency, in so many ways, was the first “modern” presidency. Our role in the world changed under his leadership more than under any previous president. I am also interested in Wilson because of his deep devotion to a thoughtful version of Reformed Christianity, of which I feel sure some readers are not aware.
Wilson’s father was a devout Presbyterian minister. At one time Wilson thought that he would pursue the ministry but eventually he chose to become an educator, finally serving as president of Princeton University. After this call he was elected governor of New Jersey. This political turn led to his being elected president in 1912. His ability as a teacher was apparently unique and his students loved him. An introvert, he loved to study and write and was often misjudged because he did not enjoy long conversation and small talk. This hurt his public perception as president, especially following Teddy Roosevelt as he did.
At the Wilson House there is a display that was created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. In that display there is a reference to Woodrow Wilson’s faith. I wrote the quote down in order to keep it. Here is what Wilson wrote:
Never for a moment have I had a doubt about my religious beliefs. There are people who believe only so far as they can understand—that seems to me presumptuous and sets their understanding as the standard of the universe.
Wilson was a historian and college administrator, as well as one of our most gifted presidents. He was a keen intellectual. He was not saying, by the above statement, that he never found problems in his study of the Bible or in his thoughts about Christian faith. It is evident to me that what he meant was that these problems never caused him to have real doubts about his beliefs because he knew his mind was not the final judge of truth in the universe. Not a bad expression of faith at all coming from a serious intellectual, or anyone else for that matter. I think it could be said that Wilson reflected the ancient Christian understanding that one believes in order to understand, not vice versa.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."