Really Religious

When I first told friends and colleagues that I was heading to Yale Divinity School last fall, I received a range of reactions, but the most notable and frequent of which was: “What?! Are you really religious?

These friends and colleagues were shocked or confused, clearly reminded of all the reasons why they were not religious, why they had left the churches of their upbringings, why they hung out in dimly lit literary bars on weekend nights not parish halls, why they had chosen another moral framework or absolute standard by which they lived their lives. A religious person, in their minds, was a conservative on a soapbox, shouting hateful ideas about people of color, demeaning women, denying science, defying logic in their every hope and belief. Christian faith, to them, meant abandoning the liberal agenda, rationality, and intelligence altogether.

Their reductive conceptions of religion, spirituality, and faith aside, this response hurt me. My journey to divinity school was anything but simple. I was rushing toward mystery, toward complexity, toward human suffering, not away from it. I did not hear God’s voice tell me to go to divinity school. I did not have a moment of rapture in church that persuaded me to study religion. It was doubt, not certainty that led me. I was guided by questions that subsume and pervade the questions and discoveries of science and humanism. These questions pulsed through me the first day I stepped on Yale’s campus; they continue to course through me today.

First, I must say, my classmates and professors of deep faith live into the mystery of our confounding existence. They are deep in their commitments and their convictions, and most, if not all, employ their faith in constant service of the common good. They march for progressive causes. They dedicate their prayers and actions to repairing injustice. They are far wiser than the rude estimations liberal urbanites can wield to dismiss their far more complex and searching epistemologies.

I, on the other hand, am not “really religious” by anyone’s definition, not my secular friends nor my divinity school community. I am neither committed nor certain enough to be considered religious.

This realization, which arose from watching other intelligent people live more devotedly than I, has been painful, too. My first day of orientation at YDS, like every other new student, I answered two questions over and over: where are you from and what is your denomination? The second was far more complicated for me. Other students answered joyfully and simply, Episcopalian, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Buddhist, Jewish, et cetera. “Well,” I said, “I was raised in the Catholic tradition, but I am now practicing in the Episcopal Church. It is still unfolding for me.” To my surprise, several individuals grew serious and replied, “Oh, thank you for being so honest.”

“Honest about what??” I thought, “Honest about having doubts? not feeling at home in a church? The tension between feeling comforted in my church of origin, but railing against its patriarchal structure and conservative social ethics? Not knowing if I want to be “received” into the Episcopal Church?” Instead, I just smiled and took another sip of lemonade, hoping I’d have simple, more concrete answers soon.

A year and a half later, I have no greater ease, no greater comfort, no better answers. I do not know what to make of the Bible. I do not know how to read it, as scripture, literature, history, or pastiche. I do not know what to make of the church as a body of believers. I still do not like the act of sitting in front of a male priest and being told what to believe, how to interpret words on the page, what lines to repeat that are crafted in a way that in part reduces the humanity and dignity of women. The only time of the year I feel truly motivated to attend service is on Holy Thursday.

I respect the diligent faith I witness in my classmates at YDS. I respect the work they have done to find their religious home, to commit to an institution, whichever one that may be, that is no doubt imperfect but is striving to make the world a better place for all people. My work, at divinity school, has not turned out to be about finding a denomination and planting my flag in the sand. My reckoning with religious wisdom and faith over the last year has not been lived out within the community at chapel services and club meetings. My spiritual unfurling has only happened within me, in quiet discussion with loved ones, in writing on the train to and from New Haven, in staring into the silence alone.

From the outside, none of the structures of my life have been changed by divinity school. My beliefs have thickened in some places, thinned in others. From within an endless barrage of reading on human suffering, the human body, the doctrine of creation, Christian ethics, Christian poetics, I have contemplated death, illness, trauma, virtue in public life, human rights, the ecological crisis, conversion, community, suffering, and human flourishing. Under the pressure of complicated epistemologies, I have swung between nihilism and a near obsession with female mysticism, between resignation and devotion. My faith, which had good bones in some places and weak joints in others, has been an inside job.

Faith is not a question of belief. It is not a question of doctrine or denomination. Belief narrows mystery, faith, wisdom into bite-sized chunks, like pre-packaged granola bars for the good hearted. Belief can be unifying and uplifting when born of kindness, but belief can be narrow and reductive and bitter when created of fear. Faith on the other hand is, to borrow Maya Angelou’s phrase, “like a river flowing.” Faith is facing the mystery, beauty, and cruelty of the world and asking, what does this all mean? And how are we to live well within it?

The substance, the water, of faith, is not questions alone. Faith is trusting that there is something greater, higher, Truer, coursing throughout all of creation, including ourselves. My simple answer here is that I trust in love: the love shared between human beings, the aspirational love that inspires compassion and social change, God’s unconditional love. For me, this is the love I sense on the other side of the veil, the loving presence that I know is beyond my human comprehension.

I went to divinity school because I honestly felt at a certain point that I couldn’t not go, which is not exactly a popular answer when standing next to a man or woman pursuing the rigorous path of ordination. Although, some people might name that “calling.” I felt I had to be in the thick of it, not for belief’s sake, not for doctrine’s sake, not because scripture or God told me to, but because I have too many questions about the human condition, the nature of our existence, faith and purpose, wisdom and Sophia (the feminine emanation of God), mortality and human frailty, and grace. It is by this questioning, angst, and delight that I am becoming more deeply human, that I am becoming the person I feel I am meant to be.

The thought to attend divinity school first crossed my mind the summer after my sophomore year in college. I was tucked away in the hills of Northern California, driving to work in an education nonprofit along the foggy coast each morning, stopping by farmer’s markets at lunch, pruning roses in the evening, listening to coyotes howl as I fell asleep with fresh air pouring in my bedroom window. I was reading a lot of the Sun Magazine, in which so many contributors, from who were everything from war photographers to poets, had attended divinity school. It all began with a question for me, “How did they learn to heal the world?”

It is in the striving, the falling, the getting back up, the leaving then returning, that I feel God’s presence the most, these days. Love is stitched within the intentional effort to become more gentle, more awake, more compassionate, more motivated, and less fearful. It is in whispered dreamtime encouragement that I hear, “Yes, beloved. You’re moving in the right direction.” Though mysterious and intangible, this strengthening love is sacred to me.

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“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:7-12)