Dr. Ken Godwin, retired professor of public policy at UNC Charlotte, was memorialized at Park Road Baptist Church on April 19.
Divorce was taboo in the 1950s and “divorcees” often felt less than welcome in churches, but when an elementary school teacher was abandoned by an alcoholic husband, Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte opened its doors and its arms, welcomed the mother and helped her raise her children. One of those children took to heart the biblical exhortation, “Love God with all your mind,” and went on to earn a Ph.D. In the university he also found a bride who matched his passions and his intellect. They married, spent academic careers together, built a family, lived the American dream.
Ken’s academic pursuits in the social sciences had taught him to doubt anything you couldn’t measure. He never turned his back on that precept. He also never turned his back on Park Road Baptist. Numbered among the other reasons for an apostate to support a local congregation was the support that church had given — even when he fell in love with a woman the state would not allow him to marry. Because Karen was Hawaiian, anti-miscegenation laws prohibited their relationship. But love is blind, and religion is free, so after a civil ceremony in New Mexico the religious skeptic and his Buddhist wife returned to Park Road where a maverick pastor and a loving congregation offered their support and proffered God’s blessing.
A decade before inclusive marriage became the law of the land this experience initiated our church’s exploration of the issue, and our adoption of an inclusive policy for church members and church ceremonies.
Not long after Amy and I became the co-pastors of the only church they ever claimed, Ken and Karen moved to Charlotte. When Ken came home he brought all of his passions and his intellect — and all of his religious skepticism with him. Apparently “all your mind” meant following truth wherever it leads you — even if that means away from a childhood beliefs.
Ken doubted everything he couldn’t measure. I do not. There is no way to measure the impact Ken Godwin had on our church — and there is no doubt he changed us. I hope his church continued to change him, too, though we never again made a “believer” of him.
So, what do you do with such a skeptic, who’s not so sure of the concept of God but believes the Way of Jesus should change the world? You make a deacon of him, of course! And when he dies, what do you say? How honest can you be?
My pastoral colleagues who convene annually for retreat have a running joke that we are going to write a book based on our experiences called, “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!” Each year as we share the joys and commiserate about the oddity called “pastoral life” there are new chapters to add. Mine for this coming summer might be entitled “Atheists Make the Best Deacons — and Their Buddhist Wives Make the Best Christians!”
While he was not uncomfortable with that designation, from our conversations together I think “agnostic” might have been a more apt description of my friend, Dr. Ken Godwin. From the Greek roots, a and gnosis, meaning “not knowing,” agnostics say there’s a lot more about God we cannot know (even if there’s God) than we can know. Frankly, I am not too uncomfortable using that word to describe a humble approach to theology — and this Baptist minister had gotten pretty comfortable serving with a deacon who had a lot less certainty about a supreme being than about the supreme value of community. The whole Christian Church would do well with a little less certainty and a lot more service.
In his list of those “gifts of the spirit,” the Apostle Paul names faith as one of the gifts. That implication may be troubling;, namely, if it is just one of the gifts, maybe some people do not get it? That is, what Paul says, and his affirmation meets with my experience of people.
If “faith” means something like a blind assent to a set of religious beliefs, then some people indeed do not have it. Ken did not. (He didn’t even want it!) His academic discipline had made him a confirmed empiricist. There was nothing “blind” in Ken’s acceptance of anything. And, on the other hand if ‘faith’ means something more like ‘being faithful,’ which is actually more true to its Greek origin, some people also do not get that. But Ken Godwin had the gift of faithfulness, in abundance.
Ken was faithful in the pursuit of truth. Ken was faithful in his vision of justice. Ken Godwin, who wasn’t so certain about God, was unwavering in his commitment to community, even to the one, small Christian church that had first taught him those values.
There were a lot of things Ken Godwin did not to believe. That never stopped him from being faithful.
Ken was probably as influential a mentor as I have ever had. For almost 18 years he has been a source of almost limitless information and inspiration, of stinging challenge and comfort, of wise words and a tireless, quiet witness. I will forever be grateful for what Ken taught me about evolution and humanity and government and justice, and, by challenging my beliefs, all that Ken taught me about God.
I have often said that I do not believe in the same god many atheists do not believe in, so Ken’s theology and mine were actually a lot closer than some people could imagine. Every time I got an email from Ken I was reminded of the irony of our relationship, and every message made me hope that maybe the transcendent “More” to which I ascribe my faith actually was smiling on us.
You see, the emails would come from “Godwin K. at …” ([email protected]…), but as I read them, I often had a sense that I was listening for a word from “god wink!” I know I’m being clever, but I actually mean this. The emails came from Ken, but most of them spoke to me of an even deeper source of wisdom and truth.
For Ken Godwin, whose life of faithfulness will always make me grateful, and might just make ‘God wink’ for all eternity,
May it be so. Amen.
My guess is there are a lot of “Ken Godwins” in Baptist churches.
At least we can hope.