Living Cosmology

This weekend was the “Living Cosmology: Christian Responses to Journey of the Universe” conference up at Yale Divinity . The event was sponsored by the Forum on Religion and Ecology under the direction of Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, both of whose work I’ve come to appreciate a lot since I’ve been teaching the World Religions and the Natural Environment course. The event was very academic, being almost entirely university speakers presenting their papers on a range of cosmology topics from Cosmology, Law, and Erath Jurisprudence to Seeds, Soil, and Food.

The two panels that I enjoyed most were the first and third on Saturday morning. In the first panel, “The Influence of Teilhard de Chardin,” I got a chance to hear Ilia Delio (Georgetown) speak about the contrast between a Christianity that is based on the Adam myth of original sin and a Teilhardian, mystical Christianity that sees Christ as the cosmic person. I was delighted both to have the chance to hear her—I’d tried to sign up for her weeklong workshop on Teilhard last summer at Maryknoll, but I’d been closed out—but also to listen to her take on the relationship between technology and religion.

The other panel that I found very worthwhile was the one on “Views of the Divine.” There several speakers were intriguing. Mark Wallace (Swarthmore) started by speaking about the woodthrush as a “singing monk” (In line with Tibetan monks and singing bowls in its song) and then went on to point out how Christianity needs to get back to claiming to be an animistic religion. (His definition of animism was that all that exists lives and is holy) to respond to the crisis of heart that the world is currently having. Wallace was a strong speaker about whose courses and writing I’d like to learn more. Catherine Keller (Drew) went on to talk about reimaging the divine and spoke from her process panentheistic perspective saying that at the moment her favorite term for God is “the supreme entanglement.”   As in the other writing and teaching of hers that I’ve heard, her 12 minutes was dense (as in loaded with material to think about, not stupid) and gave me a lot to think about.

A lot of the speakers kept going back to the inadequacy of language for moving from a dualistic view of the world in which spirit and nature and separate rather than interwoven to a unified way of seeing creation. It’s an issue I’ve struggled with a lot, both in my teaching and in my leading of worship. I’ve also raised it several times in our Great Company and Green Sangha discussions so when it first came up at the Conference. I’d hoped there would be practical suggestions for ways to bridge the gap from one language to another. Instead what people said or implied was that someone would have to create a new dictionary to help us move into the non-dualistic world but no one wanted to make a start at that work.

Being at he conference made me feel as I often do when I attend workshops that are either connected with academia or with the parish—that I don’t quite fit in either world. As I listened to the academicians, I couldn’t help but wonder how most of what they were saying could ever be connected to the life of the average Christian. What, for example, would someone in the pews make of praying to God as “the divine entanglement?”  I left hoping for more speakers who could connect wood thrushes with spirituality in everyday wording and unify head and heart.


Disconnected From Religion

When I was twenty-two and first started teaching religious studies at a college level, most of the students were around the same age I was (or, in my evening classes, older than me).   In my Introduction to World Religions courses, I’d begin the first section exploring the general characteristics of religion, what students knew of religion—either firsthand or through previous studies, and ways in which they felt religion had had an impact on their lives or the world around them. Semester by semester, I’d have classes with more than half the students telling me that they were active Christians of one kind or another, another quarter telling me they were Jewish, and then a student or two who would come from other religious traditions. As we explored religion after religion in subsequent classes, students would compare that religion and what they were learning of its beliefs and practices to their religious experiences and we’d take on the insider-outsider problem and the biases that could come from doing comparisons in that way. The conversations could get heated but they were usually very interesting.

As I reached my late thirties, the make-up of my Introduction to Word Religions courses began to change. Instead of students who listed themselves as active followers of a religion, I began to have classes where the bulk of the students had been raised in a religion but had stopped attending after confirmation, bar/bat mitzvah, etc. because they either didn’t see how the religion in which they’d been raised connected with their current life or because they couldn’t believe something that they’d been taught as children during religious education classes. The class discussions moved toward conversations in which we unpacked what doctrines, creeds, and rituals that they’d only understood from a child’s perspective might mean from an adult’s view and how such fresh looks at old beliefs might connect with their current lives. We also spent a lot of time doing “everything you’d always wanted to know about” Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, or whatever the religion of the week was. This gave people a safe setting in which to ask questions about things they’d seen, experienced, or heard about that had puzzled them. There were questions that came up about each religion, but the bulk of them often came from people who had practiced a religion but not understood why the religion had suggested they do or say something. The conversations could be challenging, but it was lots of fun to watch students often reconnect something they’d discounted back into their lives.

For the last several years, the make-up of my Introduction to World Religions courses seems to have shifted yet again. Now instead of active followers of a religion or former followers of a religion, the bulk of my students have never had any connection in their lives with a religion, nor are they aware of any connections that their parents may have had. In my Tuesday evening section of the course this semester, for example, only one student has had any connection with a religion (evangelical Christianity) and he no longer follows it. Religions of any kind—or spirituality in general- are something remote for the students and the challenge these days is to find a way to help them connect to the idea of any kind of religious experience or tradition.

As part of this course over all the years I’ve been teaching it, students have to attend a worship service in a tradition and then interview the clergy person leading that worship to learn more about the specific rituals and actions they’ve seen. In past years students have been able to connect that to their own former religious experience, but these students have nothing to which they can connect the encounter and so it becomes much harder for me to provide contexts for the religions they are studying. I think I’ve got to find a new way to teach the course to give them some more personal glimpses of what it might mean to have some spirituality in their lives, but to do so in a way that makes it clear that no one is trying to convert them to any specific belief system. The whole process is leaving me puzzling, rethinking, and trying to find some “Velcro” activities that will give them some feeling for what a religion can offer in an individual’s or a community’s life.