Name: John Mark Wiggers
Title: Rector, St. James Episcopal Church
Thoughts on Faith: "It's not about having all the facts and the answers. It is about trust."
It sounds like an interdenominational joke: What happens when a Southern Baptist loses his faith? He turns Episcopalian.
But for Father John Mark Wiggers, the journey from Alabama preacher's kid to Episcopal priest was anything but a lark. Growing up as the son of a Southern Baptist minister, he embraced his father's religion wholeheartedly. And then came those adolescent years, which tend to test childhood convictions.
"It started as a teenager, struggling with doubts about my faith," says Wiggers, who is now rector at St. James Episcopal Church on Broadway. "I grew up what you could classify as in the conservative evangelical wing. Then I had a short time of exposure to what I would call fundamentalism, which is different. And that really challenged me. Because I did all the things I was supposed to do: I prayed, I read the Scripture. And that's where my questions were coming from, from that very thing."
Despite his emerging uncertainty, he enrolled at Baylor University, the private Baptist college in Waco, Texas. While there, he continued to push against the boundaries of his beliefs. "I even thought I would try out moral depravity," Wiggers says with a grin, "but that really didn't work for me. So I was a little depressed. Holiness wasn't going to work, and moral depravity wasn't going to work, so what was I going to be? Mediocre?"
Exploring other congregations and denominations, he eventually hit on a church that seemed to embrace uncertainty rather than rail against it. "I found in the Episcopal Church a place where my questions were welcomed," he says. "In the ritual and the worship, there was a link to what was ancient. But there was also a connection to the present and what's going on in our world today, and how to engage and bring the two together."
Wiggers, who is 40, has shaggy hair, a trim beard, and an amiable manner that helps explain why many of his parishioners know him as Father Dude. (He is married with two sons, ages 12 and 6.) Sitting at Java in the Old City, which he calls his second office, he could seem like a certain kind of stereotype of the laid-back, hip priest. But there's nothing blasé or glib about his thinking on faith and its manifestations.
"I think that faith is about trust," he says. "It means that I trust in something larger than myself. I trust that I need God in my life, and that God is real in my life. And that God can work in me and others. I trust that God has a desire for the world, and that's a desire for good, and that God wants us to participate in making the good happen—making God present.
"And I use the word trust a great deal, because I think the word belief has become demeaned. It's come to mean, ‘I have all the facts, I can prove this to you.' Well, that's really not what faith is about. It's not about having all the facts and the answers. It is about trust."
He sees the books of the Bible as crucial to that trust, but in a complicated way.
"In our culture, even people who aren't big churchgoers still put a lot of stake in, ‘Well, the Bible says...,' or ‘What does the Bible say?'" Wiggers says. "But for me, I tend to see Scripture as the story of a people who are seeking to trust in God, seeking to live out God's desire. And I love the fact that throughout Scripture, the writers didn't feel the need to gloss over the heroes of the faith. Moses was this stuttering murderer, and David—who's a man after God's own heart—had a man killed so he could take his wife. None of these guys could get elected or ordained or anything today. But in the midst of all that, there was this wrestling to know God, and that God was persistent in pursuing those people. And I believe that reveals something of who God is, that God is pursuing us. That we may fail, we may feel weak, we may not know exactly what to do, but that God forgives. God empowers."
From this standpoint, it doesn't much matter if there are contradictions in the Bible, or if some of its books mandate social or economic restrictions that almost nobody abides by anymore.
"It's a very human story," Wiggers says. "All of our stories of life, even our family stories, have a few extra details or contradictions, depending on who's telling it. Those aren't why we tell the story. We tell the stories to convey something of what life is about. I think Scripture does that, of a people. And through Scripture, I have that connection. I think it's something that's still unfolding."
He finds inspiration and wisdom in other sources, too. "I love the Russians," he says. "I love Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky. If I could canonize any one book as Scripture, I would say The Brothers Karamazov. And that's because, again, they have a very real sense of humanity: raw, frail, flawed humanity. And still making life in the midst of that, and finding God. For all of those writers, the spiritual struggle is very important."
Wiggers also cites René Girard, the French Catholic philosopher whose 1972 book Violence and the Sacred explored the evolution of ritual sacrifice. In Girard's view, Christ's death is not a traditional sacrifice—in which someone or something must die to preserve the community—but a rejection of the sacrificial tradition altogether. "He has really taken on challenging traditional notions of what the crucifixion means," Wiggers says. "In theology there are theories of atonement, of why did Jesus have to die? Probably the most popular, particularly in American Christianity, is the notion that God demands a sacrifice for sin. And that Jesus was that ultimate sacrifice. Girard and others—and, I believe, in Scripture, certainly you can read this argument in there—that it wasn't God who demanded the sacrifice, it was humanity that demanded the sacrifice. And that Jesus came as God in human flesh to undermine that system, by revealing that this violence would not win the day."
That idea carries over into Wiggers' view of what it means to actually live the faith of Christianity. He doesn't think the challenge of Christ's teachings was only about earning some kind of eternal reward.
"Scripture is about living the faith day to day," he says. "When Jesus talked about the kingdom of Heaven, what he was talking about wasn't some far-off afterlife. He was talking about right now, a different way of seeing, a different way of living that could really change the world.
"His teachings, the beatitudes, are all about emptying ourselves out," Wiggers adds. "Be a servant to others. That's who will be the greatest, is a servant. There was the law that had been around, love your God and love your neighbor. But Jesus came along and said, ‘Yes, love your God and love your neighbor, but I tell you also, love your enemies.' There are so many ways that we participate in violence in our world. Not just in the explicitly violent things, but economically and socially, we look for a scapegoat."
The Episcopal Church has been wrestling in recent years with its own form of scapegoating. With the decision to ordain openly gay priests and allow bishops to bless same-sex marriages, the church has lost many members and even some entire congregations. But Wiggers says he is glad to be part of an institution that thrives on diversity. "I'm most moved by people who for whatever reason have felt marginalized or excluded who can find community among people who aren't like them," he says. "That kind of thing really encourages and inspires me, and nips away at what cynicism there might be in me."
Correction: We incorrectly had Rev. Wiggers' middle name as "Paul" in the hed and info box; it's actually Mark.