The following was presented as a reflection on May 28th at the Unitarian Universalists of Cumberland Valley 10:30AM service. Audio of the sermon is available on the UUCV website.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question. “What sort of people live about here?”
“In THAT direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in THAT direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.”
From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Chapter 6
At the beginning of May, I completed my first year of the Masters of Divinity degree program at Lancaster Theological Seminary. It has been an amazingly and surprisingly rich experience, and I have learned far more than I ever expected about myself, other people, and religious belief.
Looking back, I didn’t enter seminary with a firm understanding of my own religious beliefs. I certainly didn’t consider myself “Christian”, and I didn’t think I was an Atheist. But I found I couldn’t quite embrace the term “Agnostic” either. Everything I’d read seemed to suggest that agnosticism was a form of weak atheism – basically a statement of “I don’t believe in G--, but I’m not brave enough to say that out loud.” As I think that those who know me would readily attest, I don’t generally hesitate to express my opinion on something that I truly believe. So the implication, then, was that if I claimed agnosticism, I would be deceiving myself; that somehow I’d decided that my emotional comfort was more important than truth.
Now, please understand: I’m a scientist – I have a Ph.D. in physics from Georgia Tech. “Emotional comfort” aren’t words that I generally associate with my field and training. I have taught classes where people have literally cried – not by design; I have taken classes where I have left literally crying – again, not by design. Doing science is, at its most basic, the practice of being wrong, repeatedly, over long time frames; learning science is the practice of being wrong repeatedly over short time frames. In both cases, (I’d argue) the ultimate goal isn’t even to be right, but to achieve the position of least wrong. Is it even possible to do anything other than seek truth with such a background?
I am keenly aware, however, of the nature of human beings; scientists act as illogically and dumb as everyone else. Physicists know better than anyone how speed, time, distance, and friction interact to determine the course of a car on a road, yet we still speed in the rain and talk on the phone while driving. Is it possible for a scientist to seek emotional comfort over truth? Quite – especially when the evidence lies outside of one’s area of expertise. So I knew I was going into seminary to learn stuff that I didn’t know. I just didn’t quite know how to describe myself, and because of that, I didn’t really quite know what I was there to learn.
One of the things I like most about that exchange between the Cheshire Cat and Alice in the passage we heard earlier is that it encapsulates two amazing observations about life (and, as it turns out, about seminary). First, if you don’t know where you want to end up, then it can be difficult to choose which way to go. Fortunately, I (like Alice) had a deep desire to get SOMEWHERE – which meant that all I really had to do was continue to walk until I found that place.
As it turns out, I may not have entered seminary able to clearly articulate my beliefs, but I did come in equipped with the perfect tools for the job: curiosity, logic, skepticism, and a sense of humor. I didn’t know what I wanted to believe (or not believe), so I walked with others. I walked with professors as they guided us along unfamiliar paths of theology, history, and biblical literacy. I walked with other students as they struggled to reconcile familiar landscapes against these new trails. I walked with my family and friends as I processed what I was learning in my home contexts. And in all of these cases, I looked for the breaks and holes in the underbrush along the side of the road: the places where an implicit choice had been made in the process of understanding – “it means this, and not that” – sometimes without conscious acknowledgment. And at these places, I would stop and ask – does this choice feel right? Does this feel like it leads toward me? And if it didn’t, I’d try the other path – attempt to follow it as far as I could. Sometimes others would come with me – professors were especially helpful; even if they didn’t know the particular trail, they could often point me towards help – reflections of those who might have come this way before. And, over time, I began to learn how to pick out the turns that felt right; how to better search for the branches that weren’t obvious, but lead in the “right direction”. That was the first big insight I gained – I learned where I wanted to be, by figuring out how I wanted to get there.
What’s fascinating to me is that the choices always turned on Big – capital B – questions: “Why are we here?” “What are we supposed to do?” “Why does life sometimes hurt?” “ Do my actions, and feelings, and choices even matter?” These are fundamental, existential questions – they aren’t Christian questions, or Jewish questions, or Muslim questions, or Buddhist questions. They’re human questions. And Seminary has been, for me and I think quite a few of my fellow students, a rather deep (and sometimes disconcerting) engagement of those questions.
It’s difficult stuff, and many folks just want answers – or, at least, emotional comfort. This has lead to a few popular narratives that get adopted wholesale, without much thought: for example, the idea of Original Sin – “Humans have always been fundamentally bad and sinful – things should have been good and wonderful, but we messed it all up.” The concept of Heaven – “This life is just practice, or a holding cell, or something – it doesn’t really matter, because one day we’’ll go to a better place.” Or even the Prosperity Gospel – “Blessing comes through faith – just believe and ask, and you will receive.” This is what most people think of when thinking about religion – the common sets of answers that get repeated ad nauseam from pulpits and in bible studies.
This is the second big insight I gained – religion is the process of seeking answers to big, existential questions, not the answers themselves. That process – that seeking, and exploring, – has incredibly valuable and fulfilling, even if it’s also been incredibly difficult, and though I know that I may end up finding myself at one of those common answers anyway. Worse yet, I may not end up finding satisfactory answers at all. This realization is what finally lead me to embrace Agnosticism; I firmly acknowledge that I will probably never be able to make any fully factual claim to answer these questions beyond what brings me emotional comfort – there may actually be no truth that I can grasp beyond that which brings me emotional comfort.
I said that the passage earlier encapsulated two amazing observations. The second observation is that, in life (and, as it turns out in seminary), people are quirky, and often don’t make sense. Each person I know at LTS has a slightly different patchwork of understandings about the big questions and big ideas; each person is completely and utterly convinced that he or she is right. When judged from the perspective of my experience, no one else makes any sense; when judged from the perspective of someone else’s experience, neither do I. “We are all mad here,” indeed.
As it turns out, though, the third insight I gained addresses this point. One of the Big Questions that I have found an answer to is, “Do I have to do this alone?”; and the answer I’ve found is “No, but….”
But it probably won’t be easy – there will be misunderstandings, and inequity, and pain.
But it may take work – to build connection, to encourage empathy, and to spread joy.
But it may feel dangerous – if you choose to give love, and justice, and hope, you might not get them back.
Madness may be unavoidable, but hopefully we can bridge some of the gap – with compassion, imagination, and a bit of stubborn persistence. In doing so, perhaps we can find answers to a few more of those big, existential questions – without having to choose between seeking truth and emotional comfort.