Reflecting on State of Formation’s Workshop at the 2014 American Academy of Religion

Mark Oppenheimer: “I had a strong sense of calling to be a religion journalist.”

Haley Feuerbacher: “I found I needed the type of work done by State of Formation, and when I needed it the most, I couldn’t find it.”

Whether emerging or established, religious and ethical leaders hearken a sense of call, and seek to articulate the power of vocation in an increasingly distracted, distractible world. The stuff of State of Formation—dialogue, difference, engagement, dissonance—matters, both to our Scholars and to our wider communities.

It might be a small good thing to be changed within one’s self, but it is in the articulation and amplification of one’s work that change is made in the world. This past weekend, at the American Academies of Religion annual conference in San Diego, State of Formation Scholars and staff conducted a workshop with Professor John Grim and journalist from The New York Times Mark Oppenheimer.

Katelynn Carver, Haley Feuerbacher, and Mark James were selected as Outstanding Contributing Scholars after a submission process wherein they reflected upon their own work as public scholars in engagement with writing within the State of Formation community. A sense of urgency, good humor, hope, and energy built in the room as the three scholars, along with Grim and Oppenheimer, both reflected on their own experiences as writers within community and engaged one another in conversation that was by turns funny, mystical, prickly, and inspiring.

Katelynn Carver: “We need to look for [dialogue] in places we’re not trained to look for it in the classroom…How do I make these ideas accessible?”

The scholars and workshop participants grappled with the theme of recursive engagement with one’s context. Oppenheimer urged us never to journal, never to waste a written word for ourselves or for a hidden drawer—our writing is meant to be read, our ideas meant to be engaged. And sometimes, the academy isn’t the [only] most fruitful place.

Mark James: “We must seek to be surprised or puzzled; we need to relearn to look and listen.”

John Grim: “We had a dream, we had good teachers.”

Finally, real engagement with alterity is hard. Even with our best intentions, we struggle with difference, we bristle when we can’t recognize our favored versions of ourselves, and we face—as long as we seek to learn—the unusual, the unknown, and the uncomfortable. And yet, this posture can be both scholarly and human, we grow into our best selves even as we successfully learn.

Part of what we learn is to open the door wider to others, to add leaves to the table, to go out into the courtyard and listen to passersby we feared yesterday. For our Scholars, for our community members, and for our mentors, the possibilities for learning and deeper relationship are best realized when we enter into relationship, become willing to remain even when it gets tough, and when we share our experiences with others. State of Formation exists to facilitate these learning postures, and it would be nothing without the heartful willingness of our Scholars to make transparent their processes of learning, writing, and engagement.

Even amidst the storied and grand histories of religious engagement, dialogue, and scholarship, for many of us, at the end of the day, we need the following: You prepare the coffee, you open the door. Set out the coffee, invite as many as possible. Prepare to listen, stay in the room when surprised. Practice the posture of openness, embrace both wonder and anxiety. Say, “Tell me more.” Say, “What did you mean by that?” Say, “I wonder if we might…”

This year’s State of Formation workshop brought those practices into person-to-person encounter, and allowed us all to continue to build the world in which we wish to work: a world of listening, learning, and ever-wider access to participating in the conversation.

Photo courtesy of the author.


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