Yale recently hosted a conference on the role of the Church in social life. Scanning the announcement, my eyes landed on an introduction for one of the speakers. Among lists of academic accolades, one phrase particularly struck me: her faith has never wavered. It placed an aura of pride and confidence around faith that I had never personally experienced. Questions and statements of faith for me, these days, are framed by a fluttery anxiety, not confidence.
When I first began my program at Yale, I felt indecision well up inside me, which isn’t economical for making new friends at divinity school. Three questions were asked repeatedly: what’s your program. what’s your denomination, are you seeking ordination. I was uncertain the program I’d chosen was the best fit for me, and I have since changed the degree I am pursuing. I was certainly not seeking ordination, but much less certain about where exactly I landed on the ecumenical map. I found a succinct way of describing my spiritual situation to my peers, I was raised Catholic, yet I have always struggled with my relationship to the Catholic Church. I am now practicing in the Episcopal Church, but I don’t quite feel at home there either.
To my surprise and chagrin, the potential friend, more often than not, would respond, Oh, thank you for being so honest. As if I had overshared. Umm… I’m sorry, honest? Yes, I was honestly sharing my legitimate struggles with naming my denomination, but that was the neatened, sanitized version of my searching for and struggling with faith. I had said nothing about the feminist indignation that began to arise within me in elementary school that started the tough faith questions. I had said nothing about the years I’d spent in college never attending church once. I had said nothing of the years of meditation classes I had taken to replace prayer. And I had said nothing of the dark night of the soul that began to open me back up to the possibility of a higher power.
On the flip side, my questions didn’t land for many of my classmates either. I learned to stop asking my follow up to the three standard introductory questions: what led you to choose Yale? After three classmates responded, God told me to be here, and I accidentally responded with nervous laughter, I stopped asking said follow-up question. I did not judge these classmates who felt so firm in their spiritual commitments, so confident in their desire to serve a God they felt they new. Rather, I was often jealous – yeah, jealousy is technically one of those seven sins I’m not supposed to have – of their certainty. I felt alone in the interior and exterior mess of my own spiritual experience. I simultaneously felt denied of my mess – a constant mix of doubt and faith, confusion and curiosity – and separated from Christian ecumenicism of which I have always been on the perimeter and never quite understood.
Many of my friends are atheists, most of them are humanists, and nearly all of them do not understand what exactly I am doing at divinity school, but as much as I have never quite been able to understand unencumbered Christian faith, I have never been able to let go of it. I grasp something of faith that is unshakable, even if I have never heard the voice of God.
The problem with which every student of religion must reckon is that the more that is learned, the more epistemologies that are read, the less any of it begins to make sense. Not because religion or faith unravels in the presence of scientific fact – often the opposite – but rather, because the seeker is forced to grow, to reckon with her ego, to become more expansive in her thinking. Just as my legs ached as I grew to my adult height, my soul is aching now as I grow in and out of thought and belief.
I often think of the students I met in my first week at Yale, the students who told me God told them exactly where to go and what to do with their lives. I don’t run into them on campus and have no clue what questions ancient theology or Buddhist philosophy or Greek mythology has raised for them. I am having a messy experience at divinity school, which is to say, I am learning not to take ideas or beliefs for granted. It is a progressive education, making faith, belief, unbelief all open to deconstruction.
As for me, I am less certain than I was at the start of this school year. My faith does waver, but it is in the wavering that I uncover new understanding, which may, in time, lead to new faith.