The Embarrassment of Faith

My friend Jen is a rabbinical student. Her rabbinical school advises students not to shout their future vocation from the rooftops in delicate settings, such as airplanes, thanks to the unfortunate reality of human lameness. The rabbinical school would rather their students, if asked about their occupation, tell people they are in the education business.

Jen told me about a recent cross-country flight of hers. She arrived to her seating assignment and buckled in next to a young man who was reading People Magazine. Jen started reading her US Weekly and eventually the two started trading jokes about their embarrassing predilection for celebrity gossip.

About an hour into the flight, Jen’s seatmate asked, “What do you do?”

“I’m in education,” she breezed. “What do you do?”

“I’m in education,” her seatmate replied.

They read on, chuckling over celeb escapades.

Another chatty hour passed. Jen’s seatmate asked, “What do you really do?”

“I’m in rabbinical school,” she said. “What do you really do?”

“I’m studying to be an Episcopal priest,” replied the seatmate.


It’s all too true, ain’t it? When I was in seminary, if I went on a date and the person asked me about my life, which is supposedly the point of a date, I never said I attended Union Theological Seminary. Instead, I’d say I study at the Department of Religion at Columbia. If I couldn’t wriggle out of the specifics, I’d explain how Union is part of Columbia and stammer about how I’m not religious, not a Bible nut, not Sarah Palin, not a Christian, I’m in fact Jewish and Unitarian Universalist and have a daily Buddhist practice. My family is interfaith. I’m undercover. I’m a sociologist and I wanted to see for myself how religious people act instead of just reading about them. I’m an ethnographer among Christians. If I get really nervous, I go so far as to explain how in 1565 some people in Transylvania rejected the Biblical trinity and started Unitarianism, which is a super liberal religious community today with no creeds or consistent rituals from one community to the other, and it’s totally non-threatening and there are gay people and trans people and Hindus and Zen masters and you can believe whatever and…!

Then my limbs get tied in knots and my head explodes.

This story of mine was basically credible. And my confused explanation of it all was consistent with my confused entry into Union after a lifetime of secret obsession with religion. I walked in there without a really clear reason why I was doing it other than that I just wanted to. I rode in there on a carpet of weird magic and super-unexpected secret gut instinct.

I was just so gall-durned embarrassed about it all. Faith is so not cool. At all. Even if you’re cool and you still believe in science and everything, religion is about as dorky and alarming as it gets. If you’re as insecure and freaked about your involvement in it as I was, if you’re a seeker through-and-through and you haven’t yet found anything, being involved in religion is the most embarrassing thing possible. Especially on a date in New York City. I relied very heavily on being Jewish to save face, because at least being Jewish is a little bit cool. As long as you don’t really care about it that much.

As usual, the passage of time helped me out.

Three years later, having graduated with my MDiv and moved on for a PhD in Religion and Society at BU, I’m a little clearer about why I went to seminary and what I got out of it. Seminary incubated my seeking, honed my passions, and unlocked my desire to find and have something that nobody could ever take away from me. It matured my perspectives on religion, God concepts, Christianity, and “believers.” I met some of the funniest, smartest, sweetest, sexiest, raddest folks I’ll ever know. I fought with them and, most of the time, lost spectacularly. I made music, movies, collages, and papers of every stripe as I explored my own relationship to the divine. I worked my schnoodle off. I learned to make sense of previously infuriating phrases like “God’s love” and “God’s will.” I realized I actually love academia (I had not thought this the case) and that I’m pretty good at it (ditto). Most importantly, I learned how to pray and chill with God. And I learned how to explain what that means to me and not apologize for it. To anyone. Even to myself.

I’m still a bit shy when people ask me what I do. This is because I am aware of what “smart” people think of “religious” people. They like to use words like vacuous, lobotomy, zombie, follower, infantile, Bible-banger, Southern, childish, Santa Claus…et cetera.

I know this because I used to use these words. I know this because I have heard these words come from the mouths of people who think believing in God means believing in a bearded Sky Daddy, a sentimental, judgmental concession stand.

But now, I don’t give a flip. I know who I am, in a way I never even knew I didn’t know, before I went to seminary. I have a relationship with God, with life and creativity, with ultimate concern, with propulsive abundance, with the present moment, that is truly sustaining and that I cannot deny as a brilliant reality in my life. What’s more, I’ve found that the most interesting, circumspect, responsible, authentic and respectful scholars I come across don’t make the reductive mistake of thinking faith is delusional Peter Panology. They understand the expansive delicacy of spiritual concern.

I was hungry enough to sample at this very delicatessen that I hurled myself through thickets of cynical, materialist intellectualism to get there. My reward is that I can now handle the reaction from my coolest friends or new godless acquaintances when I drop the S-bomb.

“Seminary? Uhhhh…that’s…um, cool. So you’re into…religion?”

Yeah, I’m into religion. And yeah, seminary was cool. It was weird. It was crazy. It was infuriating. I loved it. It loved me.

They might say, “I don’t believe in God.”

No? What do you believe in?

“Justice, love, ethics, creativity, science.”

Welcome to my congregation. Once you find your seat, it’s yours as long as you’ll have it. If you’re embarrassed to be seen here…take a deep breath. Embarrassment means your soul finally took off its clothes. And that’s the only way to really enjoy the water.

I hope for the day when everyone can speak again of God without embarrassment. (Paul Tillich)

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6 thoughts on “The Embarrassment of Faith

  1. Thanks for this, Jenn. There is a professor at Vanderbilt, who is actually moving to Union this Fall, who says that the worst place for a theologian is on an airplane!

    I have finally become comfortable in telling people that I am becoming a pastor. Still not comfortable all the time though. You never know the presuppositions that will be projected unto you!


  2. Thank you very much for sharing this.

    When we have conversations about who we are and what we do, it’s very normal to discuss our education, profession, political views, origin, but I have also found that religion is not something most people are comfortable hearing about.

    Why are people comfortable talking about politics and power, but not about religion, spiritual well-being, the contribution we can make as human beings to the individual and collective well-being through values such as love, justice, unity? I find that the more I engage in meaningful conversations with people, the more there is in fact a willingness explore reality, giving rise to a common understanding of our individual and collective needs and the means for addressing them.

    It’s a fascinating path to be walking on.

  3. Great post, Jenn! Very thought-provoking and humbling to hear about your journey.

  4. What beautiful and honest writing.

    It’s hard to come to any kind of certainty on what we believe, much less talk about it, and when we try to explain what we’re certain of, subconsciously we [I] know it’s all debatable.

    I mean, I follow Christ, and we all know what kind of perversions and hypocrites come out of the faith, but I still seek answers, still love God, still striving to parallel what kind of person Jesus was, because I think it’s a worthwhile goal.

    Then I read your post, and realize we’re seeking the same thing, but they’re ‘labeled’ something different.

    Really enjoyed your post.

  5. So yesterday I was on the train back to NC. About halfway through the ride as I was eating my lunch I decided to strike up a conversation with the woman next to me. She was traveling alone and I could tell she was a little uncomfortable. Turns out she was going back home to SC after being with her sister who was sick in NJ, and she had been there since February. She said she didn’t travel much and was nervous about the train for some reason. So I was telling her about my many train travels to try and ease her mind. I said I’d like to be like her one day and settle down in one place but right now, as a musician, I go where it takes me. We were having a really nice chat.

    She noticed my laptop and notebook in the seat pocket and asked, “so are you in school up there in NY?”

    “Yes, actually,” I said proudly, “I am at Union Theological Seminary. They have an M.A. program in the Arts and Theology that’s really cool. ….Awkward silence…. Actually she gave me a look like I just told her I liked having sex with donkeys. “It’s a really good community of people, lots of folks who are really interested in social justice issues.” ….. (she turns uncomfortably to look in the other direction like this will save her)…. “you know, like poverty and stuff….” …..

    Eventually she just said, “Well, that’s nice, if that’s what you’re interested in.”

    And that was the end of our conversation. I put my headphones on, thought of this article you wrote, and laughed to myself. Should have said I was in education.

  6. I understand how you feel. As an Oungan of Vodou, I have to deal with a lot of misconceptions about my religion. Sometimes it’s not worth investing the time and energy to turn people’s views around, like a business meeting.

    Planes, however, I feel much less threatening. They’re temporary relationships that fleet quickly.

    The problems are stereotypes and culture baggage. People immediately peg you once you’ve mentioned your religious or spiritual path. Even now, reading my religious affiliation, you’re probably pegging me. However, spiritual journeys are not easy roads to travel. I feel equally at ease talking about Christianity, Hinduism, transcendental meditation and Vodou. Neither one of these subjects come without their own prejudgements.

    It took me time to come to ease finding the right balance with being able to say who and what I am, without internal embarrassment v while not letting the other person feel like I’m proselytizing. I try and lead by example, hopefully changing one mind over time, or over a plane trip.

    One other are that has helped is interfaith relationships with similar less popular religions. I’m sure that conversation on the plane was interesting, once the two of you were out with it.

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