Sung enrolled in Union Theological Seminary, New York, after he finished his PhD. He wrote, “My fellow students were surprised that I would take up Theology after having already earned a PhD.” (The Diary, 28) I will definitely take note of this.
(Sung said that he had requested to complete his MDiv study in one year. I have totally no idea how he was going to do that.)
Anyway, Sung arrived right in the midst of Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Harry Fosdick, professor of homiletics at Union and the senior minister at would-be nearby Riverside Church, the icon of modernist Christianity, had delivered the seminal sermon of the controversy, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in 1922 at the First Presbyterian Church, New York. The controversy mainly troubled the Presbyterian church most (which ended by J. Gresham Machen leaving Princeton Theological Seminary and [Northern, at that time] Presbyterian Church (USA) to form Westminster Theological Seminary and Orthodox Presbyterian Church, respectively), but it definitely stirred other denominations as well.
Thus, Sung noted how “[e]vangelism and Bible interpretation were taught using a philosophical approach along with scientific and theoretical paradigms” and that “[p]scyhology was used as laws of evangelism, and whatever science could not prove was dismissed as ‘incredible’ and ‘unreasonable.'” Nevertheless, it’s not that Sung wouldn’t welcome such approach at first. He had just earned his PhD and I guess it is pretty easy to imagine how Sung can be attracted to liberalism and, as he wrote, “had gone down the social gospel way as well.” Indeed, he wrote:
“I began spending more time in the library analyzing different religions. I even visited various religious bodies in New York and had a keen interest in Buddhism. I translated the book Daodejing by Laozi into English. I started to believe that all religions were but different routes to the same destination. There were times when I meditated and chanted Buddhist scriptures in privacy to try to purify myself.” (28)
He concluded that “everything was empty” and, hence, “had thoughts of starting a new religion.”
Nevertheless, he was still confused about all these, before he attended an evangelistic meeting and listened to a rally by a 15-year-old girl. He was totally confounded by the experience, started longing for “the New Life”, and was born again on 10 February 1927. He had series of visions from the Lord, which included a command to change his name to John. It referred to John the Baptist, and thus Sung was commissioned (or so he thought) to prepare the way for the Lord, just like the Baptist.
After this night, everything changed. He was one of the favorite students of Fosdick. But afterwards, his friend recalled that Sung would tell Fosdick, “You are of the devil. You made me lose my faith, and you are causing these other young men to lose their faith.” (32)
“I went out daily to spread the Word and to share my testimony. In tears, I urged people to come to Christ. In all sincerity, I pointed out the sins of pastors and ministers but not many could accept my words and pray with me for forgiveness. I had always loved music but now I was bursting into singing or else humming in sorrow. Many people at the Seminary thought I was out of my mind.” (32)
To be honest with you, if I were in Union at that time, I would also think that Sung was insane, although if I remembered correctly, Jesus, too was once called “demon-possessed and raving mad” (Joh 10.20). So I guess it is a pretty good company to belong with.
(A few questions, though. Have we sometimes over-dramatized our conversion experience? I mean, do you really need to harshly condemn your pre-conversion life to make your conversion sounds genuine?)