Beginning the State of Formation Blogging Fellowship seems particularly well timed, and even well named. Forming a new life is indeed my focus these days, building on what has come before in a new place and in new ways. A critical impetus for enrolling in the Master of Jewish Liberal Studies program at Hebrew College was my “Talking with God” project. This ongoing interfaith project was inspired by theological questions that arose in synagogue and my interreligious and cross-cultural experiences while living in Berlin the last eight years. Interviewing people about God and religious observance seemed like a fruitful way to learn from multiple perspectives along my religious journey. In fine talmudic fashion, this project has raised more questions even while answering others.
Since 2014, I have interviewed nearly 50 people representing a wide range of denominations, locations, backgrounds, ages and occupations. While the interviewee list initially grew from my social and professional networks, I have attempted to be as inclusive as possible. Teasing out the commonalities and differences among participants is central to my analysis. In preparation for this work, I created a standard list of 15 questions covering three areas: One’s sense of God and community, prayer, and faith at work. Key questions include: What is your experience of God? Do you ask for things when you pray, and if so, what? And, how does your religious practice inform your work life?
One rich area of exploration has been how people experience and describe God. While there is a range of responses, many people speak of God as an amorphous being, without physical form or gender. As one nominally Christian woman from Germany said: “To believe in this father who is sitting up there. This I find a little odd.” For some, God is a palpable presence or dynamic force, sometimes better understood as a verb than a noun. A Jewish interviewee in a Thelemite community said: “There’s nothing without God, although God is no-thing.” One Muslim participant spoke of God as Noor, the light that resides within all things and illuminates them. And for an older, devout Christian, God is “the spirit of love.” In all of these descriptions, there is a shared sense of God’s great power and pervasive presence, and widespread agreement that it is very difficult to describe the Divine succinctly.
In reflecting on my learning from 60-plus hours of conversation, I have been enlivened, humbled and comforted by people’s generosity of spirit. These unusual talks are deeply personal, even intimate. Each one has been a journey into unchartered territory, and so my original hope of discovering answers to my theological and religious questions has abated. While many personal questions remain, I now know that I am not alone in my spiritual searching, and certain questions and challenges have become more nuanced. When I feel lost in a prayer service, for example, I remember the self-consciousness of a bright young medical doctor who thought that all of the other worshippers were knowledgeable and confident. And when I get distracted by the wordiness of a traditional Conservative Jewish service, I remember a reformed Catholic describe the importance of quiet reflection and the meaning he derives from lighting candles for saints. I carry these snapshots with me wherever I go.
As my understanding of how the observant live out their faith commitments continues to deepen, several connected interests have also emerged. One is the uses and abuses of religion in the public square. Another is how migration affects one’s sense of religious identity and belonging. My own immigrant experience and my interaction with refugees have sensitized me to these issues. Delving deeper into the data I have collected and these new questions will be my focus throughout the Fellowship.