After attending religious institutions from pre-school through graduate school, I taught theology at one straight after. So the last time I was not tied to a religious organization, I was four years old. Like “my world revolves around mac-n-cheese” four years old. At 31, I did not even consciously realize I was going to my first ever secular academic institution. I must say it has been lovely, healing, and extremely refreshing.
The first few times I said something in writing class or read a piece aloud, I realized that I was looking around to see who I offended. Nothing. No eternal judgment, discrediting or dismissal? No one just judged me, my God, my faith and my ability to achieve salvation? There were smiles, encouragement, and suggestions to improve what I had already created. My classmates were holding a mirror up to my shifty-eyed vulnerability, and I really saw what theological academia had done to me. How timid and paranoid I was in sharing what I thought was true because it is so painful to have other people tell me that my experience of truth is wrong. It is all a collective truth experiment. They say things like, “I love your story.” The harshest it gets is, “It’s not my style, but it is good.”
This audacious tolerance and unabashed community of equals has forced me to do a lot of reflecting. Behind my paranoia is years of subtle tendency by some in the theology world to imply that there is a right answer, and the person with the right answer has an inside track to eternal life. I could be dismissed in a moment with the “I know God” trump card. I fought to be taken seriously, and it was tiring to always have the stakes so high. Differing opinions could usurp another’s sense of identity, of God, of the world. I think in theology some of us can get so wrapped up in obedience, the letter of the law, security and control that we get enslaved by the rules. We are so scared of hell that we create in and out groups and convince ourselves that we are in. We condemn others to be out so we feel right. We get paralyzed by seeking clarity. We forget to empty ourselves of our egos. It takes courage in theology to swim in doubt, risk, creativity, chaos and mystery. It is more exhausting in those deep waters, but uncertainty feels safer to me. Always has.
For the first time in my academic career, we are all here to help each other become better writers. There is no right and wrong, no black and white, just messy art. There is a group of people trying to write truth the best way we know how. All of our experiences matter. Deepening our voices, clarifying our metaphors, cleaning up our transitions is our work, so that the truth exudes more purely. We play with words and ideas together. We help each other strengthen our sense of self and our experience of this glorious, sacred world. We can’t make a mistake. In this safe space of self-actualization and growth, I could weep from happiness.
Loving God to me means commitment to risk and vulnerability, to an open system that works against absolute objectivity. Here, in a secular place, I am finding God totally alive in the safe space created for me to be. Coercion, domination, fear of death and spiritual bullying were so subtle I did not realize they were there until I left. Unlimited, I am holding mystery, chaos, uncertainty, and adoration of the muck of life in right reverence. And I am grateful.