Looking at the “Living” section of the Huffington Post, one might glean that the ethical, spiritual, nutritional and relational impasses of our day can all be ameliorated by vaguely spiritual language, a sort of Eastern-Western Oprah-esque patois that exhorts self-empowerment and deep breathing. Is it true, as Richard Fox stated in his 1985 biography of 1940’s theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, that the time of the efficacious public intellectual has passed? I do not believe it has; but I do believe that today’s public intellectuals must hone the skill of speaking the language of the audience they are speaking to. For the “spiritual but not religious,” this may indeed take the tack of yoga classes, special interest groups and lifestyle blogs as sources of constructive reflection, community and succor. For those willing to go down the rabbit hole of re-appropriating religious language, we have the traditions of liberal and liberation theology to reframe religious language so it can be used to give voice to the seekers, the marginalized, the doubters, the broke, those in need of transformation, and those in need of inspiration. I’m interested in ways to reclaim religion for queer folks, young secular seekers, and women, particularly women challenged by confusing religious (usually Christian) imperatives of sacrificial love and obedience that may be invoked to their detriment.
I am presently a third-year Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Amongst my four immediate family members several traditions are represented: Judaism, Hinduism, Christian Science, Presbyterianism, Unitarian Universalism, paganism, Darwinism and raging Atheism. I call myself a Jewish Unitarian Universalist with Buddhist leanings (or a JewUBu if I need to save time). I approach religion as a symbolic system; a framework of symbols and behaviors that express the practitioner’s conception of the transcendent. In my own pluralism, I believe that all religions are needed to present their perspective on the ultimate in order for us to deepen our relationships with each other and with our own humanity, and to offer practices for giving ourselves to each other and to higher callings.
When I first got to seminary—the least practical thing I have ever done, something I did not fully understand, and something I could not explain to anyone, least of all to myself—it could have been the worst mistake of my life. Instead, going to Union Theological Seminary has turned out to be the best mistake of my life. Why? Because one result of my training is the skill to not get freaked out by language I find grotesque and objectionable.
For me, the freakiest language was always biblical and liturgical language: God the Wrathful Father, the sins of the Flesh, blood-spattered swords, mallets rammed through skulls, the Cross, instances of religious bloodlust like the genocide of the Canaanites, or the slaughter of the Lamb of God. Sin, salvation, Heaven, Hell, blood, guts, et cetera. Blech! I thought. In this world, who needs it? Is religion, Christianity particularly, anything other than a Hieronymus Bosch painting or a clever rouse of the Roman Empire? It took me about a year to learn how to break through the language into the meaning—to get beyond the dogma and the doctrine, indeed, the letter of the law, and into the spirit of it. It took getting more familiar with the plainspoken Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path of Buddhism to understand the pure love ethic that Jesus espouses in the gospels. It took a pretty nasty turn with an abusive boyfriend to understand that Jesus’s sacrificial love isn’t a literal call to self-sabotage. It took a summer sojourn at a Benedictine monastery to take the Lord’s Prayer into my heart in a way that was a plea to the beyond. It took five years of s’lichot services at five different synagogues to feel at-one-ment with God during the High Holidays. It took daily yoga classes from a French yogi in Jogjakarta, Indonesia to understand Sanskrit in my whole body.
So, as far as the blood and guts of religion go, all I can say is, it takes a whole world to make sense of itself. If, as theologian Paul Tillich insisted, religion is an endeavor of meaning-making, I believe we can make meaning out of the blood and the guts in a way that gives us peace, or constructive anger, or communion (because we struggling humans have all known some blood and guts).
It’ll take another, and more theological, post for me to get into why, after impugning religion at large and Christianity in particular as nothing more than an embodied Hieronymus Bosch painting, I set my eyes on it in an epic dog-and-bone-show. Whether pathological or theological, there was something in me that needed to stare down the beast of religion, or what I thought of as religion. Turns out, the beast is me. More on that later.
Thanks to Union Theological Seminary and the Henry Luce Foundation, I attended the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia. I was overwhelmed by the preponderance of sacred fashion statements, the number of New Age practitioners from the North American West Coast, and inscrutable phrases such as “interfaith dialogue” and “global interreligious conflict-solving.” What can this mean in our daily lives? How do religious tensions between people—and within people—get provoked in the workplace, the family home, or sitting in traffic? Why would a person who has never set foot in a religious institution, or who was rejected by one and never looked back, ever care about such questions?
Religion is one way to talk about matters that affect all of our lives most deeply and most ultimately—but I can also talk about running, or food, or music, and reach the same end. The common thread throughout my years spent studying religion and in the independent theater, music and film industries is my abiding fascination with relationships, personal narratives, and how communities coalesce around shared convictions, traumas and sometimes against an oppressive dominant paradigm. I believe that spirituality is not an ancillary issue in the areas of well-being and health, and that religion is an active factor in global trends in education, economics, healthcare, human rights, gender relations and community conflict. As I was raised amongst the seven traditions of my own interfaith family system, I developed curiosity about the daily lives of inter-tradition families and communities, and it was my undergraduate education at Stanford University in performance studies and playwriting that sharpened my consciousness about the power of ritual and group dynamics. My desire to study religion as practiced, and not merely as argued and pontificated about, led me to study at Union Theological Seminary instead of in a religious studies department. My education at Union has given me a firm grounding in the academic principles of faith and religion. My participant-observer stance at Union has deepened my own understanding of the category of the transcendent beyond a psychological construct into more of a relational exchange that can serve as a catalyst for constructive individual and collective transformation.
I want to try and make relevant, applicable, and empowering the sometimes archaic and unwieldy, sometimes violent and militaristic language of religions. Sometimes there’s not much you can do with the blood and guts, and I would certainly not be one to wipe it off the floor in a revisionist history. But there’s more you can do with blood and guts than wash it away or say it’s all for naught. I regard secular cynicism about religion as an exciting challenge, which is why I applied to be a Contributing Scholar to the State of Formation blog. Over my years at Union it is through my reframing and restating—not necessarily rejection, but still free interpretation—of traditional doctrine, and through my eschewing of aggressive and otherworldly expressions of the divine, that I have become slowly empowered and sustained by the messages of world religions.
If you saw where I started this journey, you’d know it was quite a war: blood, guts and angels too. Angels aplenty. I’ll explore that in entries to come.