The fact that I went to seminary but have left the beaten path is often a good conversation starter. I can pull it out at cocktail parties or meeting icebreakers because a lot of people have their own stories they’d like to tell. And in the Big Apple, which makes “diversity” look like a weak word to describe the spectrum of ways to be human, these kinds of conversations can seem common.
The truth is I still think about religion all the time. It tends on to be online but offline – talking with people who are on the same page as I am. We don’t need to discuss our hermeneutical approach to the Bible, or discuss how doctrines were constructed through history. We can skip straight to teasing out things like how language about gender is used in specific social contexts, or the role of specific theological traditions in politics, or how evolution or cyborgs or capitalism or racism or guns relate to religion. I still help edit papers for my professional theologian friends. They know I haven’t been to church lately, I know they go every week.
I have realized lately, though, that I have completely forgotten, or never knew, how to vocalize what I think to people who have a completely different frame of reference about religion, and specifically Christianity. I think I usually just avoid talking about these things in the public square of daily life, and reserve it for the spaces where I know its safe to be exactly who I am. This came to my attention because lately I realized I could still have my feelings hurt when someone disapproved of my religious leanings. I thought I was past all that. Two examples. One woman, who I didn’t know, on hearing about my changed perspective in a group setting, came up afterward to say “That’s so sad. Your parents must be so disappointed.” More recently, another responded with a disappointed sigh and remarks about how I must’ve been using my head rather than my heart in my approach to God. Or that something bad must’ve happened to me, but I needn’t worry, they weren’t judging me.
42,000 thoughts entered my head with second situation. The only thing I managed to do was mutter that I didn’t like being patronized while steam blew out my ears. I was really disappointed with myself because I studied for so many years and so intensely, and I ought to be able to frame complete sentences. This has bothered me for a number of days now. Perhaps I could have started by remarking that the head and the heart belong to the same self in one body. Perhaps I could have said that the head is pretty effing amazing thing, that the cognitive skills of humans, especially when trained to think, analyze, and create, are part of what any God I could worship would value. Perhaps I could have said that my heart has known things you can’t possibly imagine, especially since you didn’t ask. But here’s my problem: as soon as I start to think about religion in that adversarial conversation the following thoughts all crowd into my head at the same time – not entirely coherently, but rather jumbled and battling to be at the front:
First the analytical thoughts that start clashing around in my head: Did you know that the Bible is made up of a wide variety of genres, and it makes a crucial difference when interpreting everything. Did you know the first 12 chapters or so are a saga and Adam and Eve aren’t real – without even getting to the scientific difficulties of that? Do know how many authors and editors were actually involved in the creation of the Biblical text, that it took generations to come together and its almost impossible to find a full ancient text? Did you know that Abraham is the first actual historical character in the Bible? That the words about him were written, what, 1000 years after he actually stepped on the earth? How well do you remember political events from just yesterday? What do you make of the rape of Tamar? Why doesn’t it kill you that Lot threw his daughters out to be raped? Why do you criticize a government for oppressing its citizens and worship a God that is fine with the slaughter of every man, woman, child, and animal to give a parcel of land to a particular tribe? Did you know its an abomination to the Lord to wear clothing made out of more than one kind of material? Or to have a tattoo (mine is awesome)? Does it matter to you that Egyptian records don’t look like the Old Testament story about Moses? Why is ok for God to kill all the eldest children instead of just freezing all the Egyptians so the Hebrews could walk away? If God were human wouldn’t God be charged with a number of felonies? The Book of Job is my favorite – did you know that the happy ending was tacked on later? I like the earlier version, I think its more true to life. Why is it ok that the Old Testament is polygamous? And the New Testament is about single celibate men, but we look for a Biblical view of marriage? In an evolutionary universe, death and destruction are part of the process of creating more complex life. That means any definition of God has to take that into account. God did not create a perfect death-free world but one where horrible things were definitely going to happen – simply in order for species to survive, much less become more complex. The traditional attributes of God come from a different time. Did it ever occur to you that our ideas about God bear an uncanny resemblance to our current political structures, and cultural values? Original sin doesn’t make any sense in an evolutionary universe and neither do any traditional views of salvation as atonement by blood. Have you heard of process theology? I kind of like it but its too optimistic for me. Did you know earlier theologians thought the Bible had multiple layers of interpretation but in America, following the Enlightenment, people started treating the Bible as a piece of data about God, and then assumed inerrancy was the way the text had always been interpreted? Do you know Greek philosophy and cosmology, particularly that of Aristotle? Because you need it to understand Reformation theology’s context, and then you need to add afterwards an understanding of the Enlightenment and the modernist project to understand where society is today. Did you know the book of Revelations is not about an end-times prophecy that will end the world in fire? Did you know there were female apostles? Do you know why they weren’t included in the text once it came together after years of infighting and discussion about what should be in the New Testament? Did you know that language helps shape our mental universe, and that using only male language about God teaches everyone that the universe and God have a strong masculine bent? That the male experience is normative?
Doesn’t it ever bother you that America’s social and political layers bend over backwards to wrap themselves around religious ideas that the propogaters don’t understand? Don’t you ever feel like we’ve given the politicians scalpels and clearance to perform brain surgery without inquiring whether they’ve had an anatomy class?
So all of these thoughts render me speechless. I feel like I want to converse fluently but my mouth feels full of marbles. So let’s turn to emphasize my heart, that organ that is supposed to reach past my brain and love God.
My heart led me to seminary, both because I love religion but also to work on loving a God I didn’t always like very much – and worse, worried that God didn’t like me. My heart led me to change my views on gay marriage because I met wonderful gay friends at seminary. My heart was working at a church in NYC on 9/11 and witnessed the crowds gathered in desperation at the church hoping for someone to tell them it would be ok. My heart was with me when I worked at the children’s hospital and the children with brain cancer. My heart was there when one of the girls died and I had to escort her body to the morgue. When I watched the autopsy of a 3-year-old. It was there when another child survived a long, dark night of emergency cardiac surgery. My heart was with my fellow female theologians when we gathered in the bathroom at breaks to discuss our real thoughts because we weren’t treated the same way as men in many seminars – “Bathroom Theology,” we called it. My heart hurt that most women I know in seminary experienced severe mental distress due to gender discrimination. My heart was broken when my former best friend rejected me because I was getting divorced, a sin in her eyes. My heart was lifted by complete strangers during that time who showed amazing grace. My heart burst completely open by having a child.
Perhaps I sound like a complete mess. But I have to believe that whatever God is, its a God beyond anything we’ve written down. Not in power and might, but in complexity and in having both creation and destruction inside. A god beyond tradition, and texts. Not that these don’t have their value but they are so, so small when you think about trying to capture existence in any of these things. And if the world needs redemption, well, the most redemptive thing I have experienced in my entire life is my love for my son. If that kind of raw love isn’t redemptive, then I really don’t care what is.
But I do care if the seriousness with which I not only approached religion in the past but still do are minimized. And if my inability to provide a response suggests that I’ve given up. Because that’s not the case – its just that I don’t know how to invite people to visit my playground if they don’t already know such things exist, or at least are looking to visit.