Angst. Wrestling. Struggle.
For those of you who have read my blog for awhile you will recognize a certain thread of angst that shows up from time to time, usually in waves. If I felt that this was particular only to me I would make sure that my angst was worked out on the therapist’s couch and leave you out of my personal dramas. But I am quite convinced that my struggle to find my place in this shifting religious/spiritual realm is not confined to me, but is just a symptom of the deeper and larger issues our religious institutions are facing.
It may be just a little more pronounced in me because my livelihood is tied to this. The average parishioner who is lamenting, “I hope my church doesn’t go away” is just the tamer version of my lament, “Might my livelihood be in jeopardy?” Almost never are my blogs just playful intellectual exercises. They are efforts to negotiate our way into this emerging new world and to work through where I fit, if I fit and whether there will be any paychecks associated with it when “it” comes.
A few days ago I had a breakthrough.
Somewhere in the midst of my last two blogs on the deeper meaning of my vertigo attacks and the comments to my blog something broke loose. I think I found the source of this angst, this wrestling and this struggle that keeps surfacing in my writing and my life.
I am calling this blog “The Culture of Curiosity.” I think it was a combination of two comments, one from Roy and one from Herman, that broke this open for me. Their comments seemed to jar me into finding the source of all this. And I suddenly found myself going all the way back to my days in college taking religion courses.
You see, the thing is, I never intended to become a church pastor. In college I worked on a double major. I took a Sports and Fitness Center Management major thinking that I would likely work my way into being the executive director of a YMCA or similar health-centered community center. But I also worked my way through a religion degree simply because I loved the studies so much that I couldn’t keep away from it. I took religion for the sheer joy of it and majored in Sports Management as a decent way to make a living.
I know people around me saw what I couldn’t, but following college I headed off to seminary for a master’s in religion. Still, I had no intention of becoming a pastor; I just couldn’t curb this deep curiosity I had for religious studies. (I know you are thinking, “He’s getting a master’s in religion and doesn’t want to be a pastor? This dude is a little slow!”)
It wasn’t until I was only fourteen months from graduating that an internship in a church convinced me that being a pastor was the right place for me. Where else could I satisfy this insatiable desire to study religion, dive into the realm of the sacred, and the ponder the role that humans should play in the cosmos.
In seminary I took advantage of theology courses with every elective I had. I studied the writings and speeches of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. I dove into the theology that emerged from the Holocaust, studying both Jewish literature and Christian literature. I wrote a paper in my Reformed theology class on the “Death of God” theology that emerged in the 60’s. And I studied Latin American Liberation Theology that was at the root of confronting political corruption in Central America in the 1980’s. In other words, I had all kinds of fun satisfying my theological curiosity.
When I graduated personal friends who were just a couple of years ahead of me in seminary gave me a copy of Bill Moyer’s Power of Myth, the transcript of his interviews with the famed anthropologist and professor, Joseph Campbell. These friends were my contemporaries and like me they lived in a “culture of curiosity”, a culture that many of my Baby Boomer friends also resonated with.
I was on a roll. I had bachelor’s in religion with honors for my work on “The Protestant Response to the Holocaust.” I had a master’s degree in religion with an emphasis on theology. I was stretching myself into understanding our Christian tradition through the lens of religious mythology. I was becoming a bit of a theologian in my own right. I was completely in my element.
And then something happened. I became a pastor and my culture of curiosity clashed with the culture of church. What had served me so well in college and seminary suddenly unnerved many in my congregations. I remember so very clearly the conversation with a pastor twenty years my senior who cornered me one day with a wrinkled smile on her face saying, “I hear you caused quite a ruckus over at your church this Easter.”
I said, “Yeah. And the weird thing about it is all I did was preach the stuff we learned in seminary.”
I will never forget what she said next, “Oh Brian, I know. But you don’t bring that stuff into the church.”
That was the day my world changed and the day that probably serves as the origin of my angst, my wrestling and my struggle. I got into this whole religion business because I found that there was nothing as satisfying as reading, discussing, thinking about, and pondering theology and spirituality. I got into this business because I wanted to be part of an institution charged with asking the big questions of life such as, “Why am I here?” “What is my ultimate purpose in life?” “How ought we to be treating each other?” “What is the nature of life itself?”
But the deeper I explored those questions the more I felt I was skating on thin ice in the church. I could feel a subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to spend more time reinforcing people’s already chosen beliefs rather than venturing into new worlds. My curiosity has led me to Bali where I was able to experience a Hindu “baptism” and rituals of absolving. I powered my way by pedal and two wheels into Muslim Turkey where I shared with brothers and sisters the spiritual discipline of five times a day prayer. In two months I will fly to Nepal and cycle to Everest Base Camp all the while visiting Buddhist temples and monasteries and getting a taste of Buddhist daily life.
I have two degrees in religion not because I wanted to be well-prepared to serve as a pastor. No, I have these degrees because I am deeply curious about the religious questions that simmer in the hearts and souls of every human being.
This is what makes my heart sing. This is what drove me to spend tens of thousands of dollars on degrees with nary a plan for how I might use it professionally. This curiosity for the religious and soulful impulse of people and cultures is what drives me despite the puzzled I looks I sometimes get from church folks who seem to wonder, “Isn’t Jesus enough for you?”
My angst is this. By virtue of my age I am part of a culture of curiosity. My Baby Boomer contemporaries aren’t just satisfied with the answers that the church gave them as children. They want to know how those answers stack up against the questions of our time that include pondering the truth behind Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Native American spirituality and a host of other smaller religions and spiritual orientations. They want to know how our tradition is going to face the growing environmental crises that we have brought on ourselves. They want to know if and how our theology confirms the truth of science and whether the two can co-exist in the world in ways that are not mutually exclusive. They want to know if religion can become a force for unity rather than the reason for ongoing division.
At their core, they want to know if their theological curiosity will be welcome or a threat.
On that issue the jury is still out.