In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like
in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense
— Dante’s Inferno Canto I, Translated by Seamus Heaney
Love shouldn’t be serious, should it?
You meet, you kiss, you start
I fancied that I understood it
I forgot my foolish heart
— My Foolish Heart, by Kurt Weill
About a year ago, I sent out a distress call to my network. I had been slogging through a very long, dark Night of the Soul. I was about to turn 48, and my career, such as it was, had stalled. Add to that a rough break-up a few months before the rise of Trump and I was just utterly depleted. So up went the ol’ Bat Signal.
Now, I have some wonderful friends. I have one rule where pursuing friendship is concerned: “Never be the smartest person in the room.” You can substitute “funny,” “compassionate,” or “wise” for “smart,” of course. Whatever the qualities you love and esteem in others, find friends who exemplify them and who inspire you to reflect them right back.
(Friends who will share their fries are also great, but I think this goes without saying.)
(Also needless to say: I had a lot of incredible input from my little SOS.)
I set about exploring, researching, discerning. One idea that particularly intrigued me came from my friend, Fernando, a brilliant academic whose work in the field of Public Health is staggering, who was pursuing a Master of Divinity at Boston University. He invited me to a community lunch, held at the School of Theology every Wednesday, and on a lark (two words: free food) I hopped on my bike and headed over.
What I found on this and subsequent visits was a truly diverse actualized community committed to equality, justice, diversity and inclusion.
Now, I know that sounds awful, right? What kind of people dedicate themselves to pushing that agenda? Ugh. We all know do-gooders, and let’s be honest: they’re some of the most annoying people on the planet. Either that or total Debbie Downers, right? It’s always “Do you know how they slaughtered the animal you’re eating right now? Do you know how much an hour the people who made your iPhone are paid?” And who wants to hear that when you’re stuffing your mouth full of delicious meat scrolling through your Insta feed? Gah.
But this wasn’t like that. (There was a vegetarian option, but they didn’t make a big thing about it.) No, these folks were looking at the big picture in a different way. I had met people like this all along my journey, and they were always the ones looking for a way forward, not for reasons to turn back. Here were Muslims and Christians, Buddhists and Atheists, men, women, black and white, gay, straight, and other, sitting down at that table together, differences aside, in true communion. And I was definitely not even close to the smartest cat in that room.
(In fact, if there had been an actual cat in that room, it might’ve had me beat.)
It was not the first time I had considered this path, but my thoughts and feelings about theology, both my personal beliefs and my sense of the utility of theology as a lens and a tool for social change, had evolved in the 30-odd years since I had last considered it. It’s not that I had suddenly “found religion”. I was raised in a Mainline Protestant Church in a working class neighborhood in the ’70s and ’80s, and that church community had provided me with a pretty solid set of values (which were also perfectly consistent with a secular worldview, and without any recourse to hellfire and brimstone).
I had a mentor back then, who happens to be a warrior for LGBTQ rights as well (a piece of the puzzle unknown to me at the time), who cleared a path to Divinity School for me. But in one of those moments of glorious teenage rebellion, I rejected this path, and ended up at a liberal arts college pursuing a degree in History instead, something I have certainly never regretted. My interests in literature, art and language were so broad, my curiosity and passions so wild and profligate, I would not have benefited much from Seminary at that time (and any Seminary I ended up at would have felt the same way about me, too, you can bet).
So instead I followed these wild impulses, with decidedly mixed results (I will never understand what prompted me to take that Quantum Mechanics class), through my undergraduate degree program and off to foreign lands for a decade after college, working as an itinerate English teacher, mostly, in places as far-flung as Budapest, Istanbul and Marrakesh. Theology remained an interest, alongside many others, but I honestly didn’t spend much time fussing over the metaphysical, which I realize now, I had always thought of as metaphorical, anyway.
I learned a lot, much of it the hard way, loved and lost and loved and lost again (and three or four more times after that, as you do), and made a decision to return to the States — to Boston — in 2001. But 9/11 and its immediate aftermath had me turning right around, and back to Budapest I went. No one who experienced that day can quantify the sense of loss, the sense of a world out of balance and teetering on the edge of an existential and actual abyss. And religion was the last place to look for refuge from that world-shattering violence. I didn’t even think about it.
I spent another two years abroad, finally returning to the States for good in 2003 to help care for my ailing father, back in Indiana, where I’d grown up. This was a profound homecoming for me. I had occasion to really reflect on my personal beliefs, while reflecting on his and on the beliefs of other members of my family, whom I loved and respected but did not
always ever agree with. This was nothing new, though. It had been the case since at least college, when I had declared rather dramatically to my mother that I was no longer a believer. (“Are you on drugs?” she had asked over breakfast at Denny’s. “Not at the moment, unfortunately,” I remember answering.)
But it didn’t matter. Not as we came together as a family (and an extended family and community) to care for dad and, as importantly, for each other in this important chapter of all our lives. I helped care for him in home hospice for the last 4-5 months of his life, and we all managed to set our differences aside. There was something much more powerful, more enduring and authentic than our differences that we were taking part in, that we had opened our hearts and minds to: our shared humanity.
But it was hard some days to keep our hearts and minds open, I’m not going to deny it. Outside, in the time I had been off conquering the globe, a lot had changed in Indiana. My family had been in a turbo-powered new wave of white flight, fueled by demographic change and twenty-plus years of “Culture War” propaganda. Exurbs were popping up by the day to the West of Indy along the Route 36 corridor, complete with big box stores and mega-churches all along the way.
The old, rather boring Mainline Protestant Churches of my youth had been relegated to a slow death while Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches were popping up in white enclaves outside the city limits, with gleaming new structures that included top-of-the-line sports, education and social services (for tithing members). They were also aggressively, often radically political, and brooked no dissent from their Culture War dogma.
My father, in his mid-70s, and a lapsed Catholic from way back who had embraced the life of our little Church in Speedway, had no patience for the overlong over-the-top services of the local megachurch or its impersonal pastor, Steve — Dad derisively called it “The Church of Steve” — whose preaching was “too preachy” for him. When I asked him why he never went to church anymore, without missing a beat he said: “I’m always afraid Tammy Faye Bakker is going to leap out from behind a rubber plant!” He had also gotten spoiled by the old church’s strict Order of Worship that had literally never, in all the years we had attended services there, run over an hour, whereas Steve could bang on for God knows how long. And then your whole Sunday is screwed. Nobody wants to have to rush through brunch because Steve got a bug up his ass about abortion. Let’s be honest.
Dad was careful not to criticize The Church of Steve in front of my mother, of course. She had evolved from a lapsed Lutheran with a wild streak to someone deeply concerned about the salvation of all those around her and constantly anxious about the Second Coming. Minutes after my dad passed, she wondered aloud if we should honor his wish to be cremated, since she wasn’t quite sure how this would impact his being raised from the dead when the time came. My brothers and I convinced her that if God was capable of raising the dead, he could probably raise them from ashes as well.
But her obsession with the metaphysical was not purely coincidental. It’s obviously a big part of how the Church of Steve legitimizes itself as a moral authority. There is a relentless focus on eschatology and decoding batshit prophecies in “Churches of Steve” (I’ll just call them that from now on) that is coupled with a liturgy that emphasizes the divine hierarchy, judgement and punishment, over radical equality, love and forgiveness. One of the foundations of this brand of indoctrination is dredged from Galatians 2:16: “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ”. Often breezily summed up as: “The Gospel is founded upon faith, not works.” This is how the metaphysical has eclipsed the moral in the modern Evangelical movement. And I have some, uhh, problems with that.
It’s obviously a gobsmacking distortion of the original message and meaning. And it gets to why, after a great deal of discernment over many months, I’m pursuing a Master of Divinity at Boston University. While the number of people regularly attending church is in steady decline, the power of these institutions is still formidable. If, as many of the good-hearted and fiercely intelligent people I’ve already encountered in this field believe, these traditions and institutions can be leveraged to effectively redress some of the great wrongs in society, many of which they have historically been used to justify, it’s worth understanding how this can be achieved, and working together toward those better outcomes.
This second part — working together — is very important to me. The element of community in so-called communities of faith, the element of affiliation and belonging — both the tribalism it can engender at its worst, and its power to organize for greater good at its best — is something I want to know more about. BU offers an opportunity to study and participate in a diverse and vibrant community that seeks the greatest good that welcomes people of all faiths and no faith to the table.
(OK. Two words: free food.)