Spiritual Autobiography

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Widening: A spiritual autobiography {Written December 2014}

Tricia Gates Brown

It’s hard to beat as a visual for the spiritual life, poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s: “I live my life in widening circles”—glassy ripples overtaking wider expanses of unchartered water, drawing them into circles of unifying experience.  I marvel at what’s rippled into the path of my own spiritual consciousness, at the wideness spanning out from the pinpoint center of my being like an expanding galaxy. I also wonder if the wideness was inherent in me, and is inherent in all of us, from the start—the way the fullness of the cosmos was present in the head-of-a pin origin that gave birth to it. Maybe in humans the expanding gets stymied or collapsed by the experiences of our lives, and we must live our way back to first knowing. My undertaking here—writing spiritual autobiography—is to understand the process in my own life. As the saying goes: We write to learn what we know. And I write this piece in part to remind myself.

I was born in 1970, the year of the massacres at My Lai and Kent State, the year Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena were named the first female “Doctors of the Church,”  the year Earth Day was inaugurated, and just hours before the Apollo 13 crisis ensued. Looking back on my childhood spirituality, forged in a crucible, one thing stands out: I always had questions. Even if I didn’t verbalize my questions, which were often internal in keeping with my introversion, I was perpetually curious, and in my own silent way, challenging. Instead of playing with other children, I’d often perch by the brick fire place in our living room listening to adults discuss religion, no doubt searching for answers to my questions—and for a time, the answers satisfied. Answers were easy to come by in my home if I stayed alert. The religious context of my childhood was one where answers were valued more than questions, a context I’d describe as fundamentalist-leaning evangelical (as opposed to just fundamentalist, which is harsher than the religious worldview of my childhood). In fact, my questioning felt safe, even encouraged, as long as I accepted the answers I was given. And for a time, I did. But during my teen years, when questions outpaced answers, I rescinded into the echo chamber of my own internality. Questioning, like the open-mindedness that occasioned it, was thought to be dangerous, so I was careful not to flaunt my curiosity.

The year I taught theology to college freshman at an evangelical university and started the semester with Rilke’s inculcation to “love the questions” and to “live the questions now,” I came across students who’d likewise been schooled in the value of answers while taught to fear questions. Though the majority of my students appreciated Rilke’s gentle permission, a few warned of dangers: If you question certain things, you can be led astray. Certain things are not to be questioned. That is what it means to believe. Once you forfeit belief, you forfeit everything. And so the thinking goes. It was familiar to me.

Nonetheless, I questioned. One night I woke from childhood sleep extremely frightened of death, and more specifically, of hell, which awaited many on the other side of death (so I was taught). How could I know I wouldn’t end up hell-bound, or caught amid the coming apocalypse? I tripped my way to my parents’ bedroom in long flannel nightdress, tears streaming down my face. Dad lifted his Bible from the bedside table and directed me to a couch in the living room, where he consoled me. He explained I had nothing to fear of death, hell, or apocalypse; he inquired about my faith in Jesus, read some scriptures, then prayed and sent me to bed assured of salvation. It is a tender memory. There was comfort in the feathery pages of my father’s Bible, so ready with answers, but even more in his concern over me and my fear, and his good-shepherd way of leading me back to belief.

The memory stands in contrast with another, when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. By this age, I’d started to notice injustices, including injustice between genders, so I asked my father why women couldn’t be pastors. This time he didn’t reach for his Bible, since the pertinent verse was so available to memory: “Because it says in 1 Timothy 2:12 that a woman isn’t permitted to teach or have authority over a man.” (The text of the larger passage reads: “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.  But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint” [1 Tim. 2:12-15]. Incidentally, scholars largely agree Paul didn’t write this late first-century epistle, though it’s pseudographically attributed to him.) At the time I probably said, “Oh, … okay,” provisionally taking Dad’s word at face value, accepting it as an explanation. But there were seeds of doubt even then. I couldn’t help but see flaws in the answer, and if the source of the answer was the Bible, then the Bible must have flaws too. And because our fundamentalist-evangelical faith was solidly based on that book, deep fissures began to appear.

Yet what I didn’t doubt as a child was transcendence. I sensed it in and around me, and had for as long as I could remember. It was a felt sense of nearness to a loving spiritual presence, an immanent spiritual presence that seemed to imbue many things—nature, music, human interactions, silence, animals, beauty, love, even pain, in the sense of empathy for suffering. Voices for scientific reductionism will tell me I had a genetic disposition for faith. The God Gene. And that may be true. (Yet if there is such a gene, I submit we cannot assume it’s misleading. Isn’t it equally possible those born without the gene are misled by their deficit of a faith disposition?) All I know is that I needed a system, a language, by which to make sense of my inner knowing, and what was proffered to me was fundamentalist-evangelical Christianity. Therefore, as a child, I tried to fit my experiences into the meaning system I knew. Over time, my meaning system grew, and I was able to understand what “divine presence” meant in ever-widening ways and through countless iterations. But as a young person, the possibilities were limited. This led to some dissonance. While I apprehended transcendence, and that transcendence was, at its center, love, I had conflicted feelings about God. God was associated with shame and punishment and maleness, and by this God, I often didn’t feel loved.

Church culture is the culture I grew up in. And it offered benefits. The church provided a surrogate extended family, so that while I didn’t have close relationships with biological extended family, I had copious “fictive” aunts and uncles within the church. Their love was unmistakable and, along with my parents, they helped cobble together my sense of self. Like family members, they comforted me when I was afraid, confused, or hurting, and praised my accomplishments, specifically in the arts. While playing guitar, singing, and acting in church—opportunities not readily available in my small town, I developed artistically. And I developed enduring friendships at church. One of my closest friends to this day is a woman I met, at thirteen, in church youth group.

My ethics were shaped by church experiences. With my youth leader, I loaded bags of Thanksgiving provisions into an old Toyota pickup and delivered them to cash-strapped families down pot-holed back roads that I, in my privilege, had never traversed. I painted and cleaned a youth drop-in center in San Francisco, baby-sat and taught art projects to kids to assist struggling parents, and visited men and women in nursing homes. Loneliness fell from their eyes as I reached out to them, teaching me the healing potency of connection. The emphasis on service taught me by this youth leader, as well as others in the church, shaped my worldview and my sense of what it means to be human. Through these experiences I drew connections between spirituality and concern for human suffering that were foundational to future convictions.

I also encountered my share of the ridiculous—mainly when I ventured from home to other “churchy” experiences, or to congregations who made my home church look eminently rational. In one instance I spent two summer months on an evangelical-youth service project in Mexico that required attendance at a pre-project “boot camp” with hundreds of youth from around the country. I could write an essay on this experience alone, but I’ll summarize. Every loopy element of fundamentalist Christianity was on display at this camp: indoctrination in biblical inerrancy, megalomaniacal authority figures with punctilious lists of rules, awkward puppet shows, extravagant systems for color-coding scripture verses, awkward singing, unavailability of tampons in lieu of government-issue, 14” maxi pads that came with safety pins instead of adhesive, awkward tele-evangelist-style preaching, awkward nightly altar calls, spontaneous eruptions of glossolalia, and so forth. I felt like a time traveler awakened to a bizarre and disorienting world wondering how I’d gone and boarded the crazy bus. Interestingly, I dealt with the experience by setting myself apart in dramatic ways—doubtlessly steeling my young self as a result. One humid afternoon, as hundreds of kids stood waiting for buses on a muddy roadside, I pretended to be meditating—in full Buddha pose, with thumb and forefinger joined in the hand mudra—as my way of coping. I did this (not meditating, of course, but shamelessly posing) until a team leader approached asking that I please be more discreet. It was a telling experience. Almost prescient, considering how meditation impacts my spirituality today.

Other aspects of my teen spiritual evolution were prescient. One was my early conviction of the incompatibility of violence and God. I didn’t learn this at home or at church. Neither did I learn it from cultural influences, as young people come of age in the ‘60s seem to have done. My generation was enmeshed in the invisible, intangible “cold war,” rather than the home-wrecking Vietnam War of the prior generation, and seemed almost indifferent to violence. Yet it was something my heart knew inherently, in seeded convictions that grew to form the thick root structure of my spiritual tree. As a teenager, I painted peace signs on my T-shirts and passed hours in my room listening to anti-war anthems by non-American bands like U2. I became more and more perplexed by the ready associations of conservative Christianity with militarism and of a redemption story with violence at its core. If anything set me on an inevitable course away from that tradition, it was the violence-sanctioning God at its center.

My early curiosity went beyond questions about biblical literalism, hell, and violence, to questioning the apparent lack of mercy in fundamentalist-evangelical theology. Beginning at the age of 15, one of my closest friends was a Muslim (he and I are still friends today). We occasionally talked about religion and religious assumptions and I couldn’t help noticing we had more in common than not. In fact, it seemed that non-exclusivist religious people of all creeds had more in common with me—reverence, experience of transcendence, strong ethical bearings and views about social justice, commitments to tempering materialism—than the plethora of “good Christian people” I knew who were secular in all but name. Yet according to conservative Christianity, those non-Christians were doomed to hell if they didn’t accept Jesus. This did not make sense to me. Again, my early convictions on the matter presaged future convictions.

Yet in the human way of running headlong toward the firing squad as a way out of a conflicted experience, I married—at the age of eighteen—a decidedly moralistic, domineering, teetotaler of an evangelical (who was also young, immature, and not at his best stage of life, and who has many admirable qualities not mentioned here). At seventeen I had moved to northwest Oregon for college. The five years I spent married to the man shaped me in far-reaching ways I have described in my memoir and will not repeat here. But one outcome of the marriage is how repelled I became by any religious form that sanctioned his often cruel domination of me, demanding I submit to it. After those five years, I was ready to run from that religion. It was almost as if I drew near to what repelled me so I could marshal the will to flee.

And it worked. Shortly after leaving the marriage I commenced seven years of academic theological studies that ended with a PhD from an excellent university (I finished my BA, completed an MA, then went on to PhD study at University of St. Andrews), and a life of religious inquiry and spiritual journeying that gains steam each day. —But here, I’m rushing.

My first forays into academic theological education were at the evangelical university I attended in part because of its proximity to my apartment and to my mother’s wonderful babysitting—George Fox University. By 1994, I was the single-mom of a two-year old. An evangelical university may sound like no leap whatsoever from where I’d been, yet the experience was a leap. My professors were tangentially evangelical (most of the liberal stripe), but were also intellectually generous and encouraging and refreshingly wide-minded. With fundamentalist students, they knew to push gently, but with students like me, they reveled in discussing progressive, unorthodox ideas. They gave me full permission to question and challenge. And they accepted me, even when I landed in places they didn’t go themselves.

Even before classes started I collected reading material from the local library—so hungry was I for education, and with so many questions. In this way, I was introduced to the scholarly investigation of scriptures as ancient literature, and the discipline wooed me. It opened for me an entirely new way of looking at the early Jesus movement and its eventual scriptures. It started me on a course that dismantled the theological structures of my youth while creating new scaffolds for stretching intellectually and spiritually. Once I laid aside assumptions of scripture’s infallibility, I was able to appreciate its complexity and intrigue. My appreciation for the textual tradition of the Judeo-Christian religion and the blood-and-sweat contexts in which it was born, began to grow. This is not to say that I gloried in every word. The Jewish and Christian scriptures disturb me almost as much as they inspire me. Yet the complexity caused me to fall in love.

My college professors stoked this love. But not only did they encourage me intellectually, they introduced me to contexts and languages for expressing early convictions about violence. This context was liberal Christian pacifism—particularly of a Quaker stripe as George Fox had been founded by Quakers and boasts many Quaker faculty. Under their influence, I began to understand how nonviolence could be viewed as central to Jesus’ life and ministry. This included his execution at the hands of the Romans, which is understood by Christian pacifists not as the necessary and sacrificial filicide of a violent God, but as the sort of thing powers do to those confronting them (the powers being, in this case, the Romans). Those naming and taking on “the domination system” often meet this fate, and Jesus did so with determined nonviolence, exposing humanity’s violence and scapegoating in the process. According to the Christian pacifistic tradition, the Jesus followers’ experience of Jesus as present post-crucifixion (his “resurrection”) vindicated Jesus in his nonviolence and revealed God’s nonviolent essence.

I started to learn about that phrase: the domination system, which not only made sense of Jesus’ teaching about the radical and upside-down “reign of God” (the opposite of the domination system, and often translated “the kingdom of God”), but also of my youthful intuitions that God sides with the suffering and the marginalized, with those at the mercy of the dominative powers of the world. I also gained an understanding of the very active nature of pacifism both in the life of Jesus, and in the lives of those historically aligned with the stance (pacifism categorically does not mean passive-ism). Many historically pacifistic Christians were and are actively, globally engaged in work for justice and peace. They stand with and advocate for oppressed people, they educate people about human rights struggles, they communicate with legislators and others in positions of power, they ever evolve into communities of greater openness (a struggle now seen as some members fight to create greater openness to LGBTQ people in their communities), and they strive to live lives of simplicity that contribute less to systematic racism and oppression.

During my first year of theological study, I was profoundly impacted by the film Shindler’s List. I saw it at a local cinema. Never has a film, book, or other work of art struck into my life in such a painful way. I dampened many Kleenex in the course of the film—as did most viewers, I assume—and I continued to sob on the drive home … and for most of two days. The reaction wasn’t merely to the blunt horror of the story, told so forcefully and well. The reaction was more to the depiction of common human evil, to our human capacity for evil, and more to the point, my capacity for evil. I felt implicated by the film and haunted by certain images in it. Even in the most brutal actions of the most brutal Nazis in Shindler’s List, I saw myself, my capacity to do terrible things out of selfishness and hate and my ability to look away when others do them. I saw the challenge posed by the film, a choice between baseness, apathy, and self-protection on one hand, and risking oneself for others on the other, as a challenge I needed to answer. (It’s a challenge I still need to answer, twenty years later, and often don’t answer well.) In lieu of the film, I lost my appetite. But more than anything, I hungered to walk in the direction of kindness. I look back to that film as a turning point in my life not because I was transformed by it (I’ve since chosen selfishness over kindness more than I care to acknowledge), but because it forced me to see things I didn’t want to see, in myself and in the world. Years later I would see how historic Christianity, in particular, was implicated in the anti-Semitism that birthed the Holocaust, but this took time and education.

Many threads came together for me in these years of early theological education. In liberal, pacifist Christianity, I’d found a place where my convictions seemed to fit, and where I could exercise Christianity without experiencing profound cognitive dissonance. I was not always comfortable at George Fox, not because of what I was taught or because of the teachers, but because of fellow students. Among fellow religious studies majors were some who didn’t appreciate my perspective, and to them I felt suspect and unlikeable. Though I found many fellow travelers in my major, excellent comrades on the journey, I encountered those who were less open. Yet the discomfort of the experience was part of its value for me, in helping me grow more tolerant of discomfort. I learned to speak up for my perspective and ask questions even when it made me unpopular.

By the time I completed my study at George Fox, I was primed to journey on. During my tenure at the school, I constantly did a sort of shuffle, readjusting my feet to a smaller and smaller platform of “belief,” trying to keep enough of a platform in place that I had a place to stand. I would tell myself, Well, I don’t believe x or y anymore, so I’ll adjust the design of my platform to be strong without this or that plank. It was a delicate dance that required me to cling all the more to the remaining planks (which was, of course, unsustainable). As academically critical as my professors were of the Bible, they tended to maintain a certain relationship to it as a matter of faith (an evangelical Protestant, highly sola scriptura faith). They always returned to the Bible as final authority when theological questions were hard to parse out (though this seemed to create a tension with the spirit-authority espoused by Quakerism—a tension I never saw resolved in my few years affiliated with “programmed” Quaker institutions. In efforts to “discern the spirit” within these institutions, dominant voices seemed to prevail while marginalized voices remained quiet—as if the spirit was nothing but a barometer of power. Granted, my experiences were limited). I was discovering the limits of the Bible under the tutelage of these very teachers. I couldn’t help wondering: Why go back to the Bible for ultimate answers? What has the Bible done to deserve this authority, aside from being declared authoritative by the same Protestantism that—for all the good it did—also fomented post-Enlightenment anti-Semitism? There seemed to be a certain sophistry in saying: The Bible is not inerrant, but it is infallible (meaning, “It won’t fail you as a guide when properly understood”)—which is exactly what institutions like George Fox espouse. I am aware, from where I stand today, that my professors may struggle with these questions as much as I do. Yet I’m speaking here of my perception of their positions when I was their student.

Now, readers won’t be remiss in discerning a certain self-righteousness in my spiritual trajectory to this point. Coming out of a religious tradition that didn’t suit, I actively “found” myself by defining myself against the all and sundry of conservative evangelicalism. And I felt quite ego-secure and justified in doing so.

But worry not, the fall is coming.

Perhaps as described excellently in Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward, the progression I followed is the natural progression in the “first half” of the spiritual life. In the first half of life, self-identity and even self-righteousness are, in a way, necessary. We have to develop a strong sense of ego and identity before we have the security to lay it all down—the critical business of the “second half” of the spiritual life. Laying it all down, or accepting the humiliation of the ego, is the point of spiritual life, the doorway to kenosis (self-emptying) that allows us to experience oneness and compassion more than division and flank-guarding.

It would be several more years before I learned this.

However, my first stop on the path came in 1995, when I was twenty-five years old. The stop was a monastery. Had I not happened onto Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey, I might have been reactionary—forever shaped by what I stood against. But as it was, I became reconciled with my faith tradition in ways that were fluid and open-ended and appreciative of the tradition’s beauty. The abbey, and key people associated with the abbey, introduced me to a Christianity that was unique in my experience. Because I’ve written extensively about the abbey in my memoir, I will summarize here. Finding the abbey was a spiritual homecoming. It was also an introduction to the contemplative life, a religious-spiritual life grounded not in cognitive beliefs and dogma, but almost entirely in experiences of spirit.

A Native teaching I recently heard delineates three things necessary for a fulfilling life: beauty, mystery, and community. The abbey offered me all of these things in new and far-reaching ways. Beauty. Mystery. Community. Beauty came first. Not only in the laud-song chant of the monks, the simple wooden chapel, or the incense fog of the ritual, but in the enchantment of the northwest woods. Miles of woodlands adjoin the abbey property, and at the time, the monks maintained walking trails that hugged roaring creeks and scaled hillsides, inviting people from the wider community to come to their property for quiet in nature. I accepted the invitation. I went every few weeks, at least, taking long walks in solitude among the trees and in all seasons. I had never encountered such set-apart natural beauty that felt safe to explore as a woman alone (a sense of safety I didn’t—rightly or wrongly—experience in places like state parks). Until experiencing such intense connection with wild spaces, I hadn’t realized how much I hungered for it! It turns out I need connection with wildness to feel balanced and healthy. I knew I appreciated nature and had since childhood, but I hadn’t entered wild nature enough—alone—to know how differently I felt after such an experience. I imagined it was like living in smog all of one’s life, then getting away for an extended period into fresh air. I felt, at last, centered and undistracted in wild nature, open and receptive, alive and attuned. I felt complete in ways I can’t describe. (Since 2007 I have lived shoulder to shoulder with many miles of wild nature, and I still can’t describe why it feels necessary to me. Proximity to wildness is simply my element.)

Next was mystery. The worship experience at the abbey centers around daily “lauds,” or psalm-chanting services that take place five times a day. In the abbey chapel, the voices of the monks blend into a melodious and stirring song that has far less to do with the words they chant than the meditative environment created by their song. This was new to me. It was beautiful and sensual. It helped me connect with spirit by beckoning me out of my noisy, busy mind that wanted to figure everything out—as if I could. The chanting stirred up reverence for beauty and for the spirit of love and graciousness palpable at the abbey. It evoked mystery because the experience was impossible to pull apart and categorize without causing it to disintegrate (sort of like falling in love). If it was to be experienced, it had to be attended, not labelled and controlled.

Community came in the form of like-mindedness and kindred spirit-ness. Though for years I enjoyed solitude at the abbey, it was not a lonely solitude. I was surrounded by other souls—both the monks and fellow visitors to the abbey—who not only understood the allure of the abbey and its contemplative element, but who took time out of their lives to enter it with open hearts. This alone was a profound communal experience. I also met monks in passing (mainly those staffing the retreat guesthouse since Trappists are a cloistered order), enjoyed the inter-faith and eclectic books offered in their bookstore, and started to sense the wide-mindedness of the monks. Though they were committed to a certain tradition as Trappists living in community, this commitment didn’t preclude full appreciation of other traditions, such as Buddhism, or learning from wise minds across the breadth of human tradition and conviction. The abbey had its own Zendo, or meditation room. This theological generosity fascinated me and made me hopeful. It was something I’d found hinted at in books but hadn’t witnessed in practice before this stage of my life, my mid-twenties. It seemed to speak of faith experiences based on unity and spiritual connectedness that didn’t require intellectual beliefs—though the monks recited the creed every day. The creed and the tradition were clearly valued by the community, and provided a foundation for their common life, but just as clearly, were not limiting or binding. The more I apprehended this, the more I felt a strong sense of kindred-ness with the monks of Guadalupe, even without knowing them one on one. They felt like my community. Years later, in 2000, I made the best friend of my life at the abbey, a near 80-year-old monk named Brother Martin, who I will introduce later. But even before meeting him, I found community.

Still, my spiritual experience was far more shadow than light. It would be years before I had the symbols and metaphors I needed—the mythology—to guide me in my life of faith, or the spiritual practices to season my life with more kindness and tranquility. Most often, I felt confused and shaky, even if I portrayed devoutness on the surface. In a sense I had “in hand” the traditional symbolism and metaphors of the Christian faith, which I was learning volumes about as a theology student. But my relationship to them was as scholar to subject, investigator to investigated, and this made it difficult to ground my spiritual life. I was critically questioning the Christian story and what gave rise to it—and rightfully so. But I had been schooled throughout my life to believe the value of Christianity lay in concrete historical events and the facticity of certain claims regarding who Jesus was and what he did. If I was to maintain a scaffold in the faith, I had to maintain trust in the one key assumption I personally held as essential. I believed at this time that for Christianity to have value, Jesus had to be both human and the one and only God—the out there God, and needed to be the unique revelation of that God to the world. If this was true, almost every other aspect of Christianity could be prodded and tested, and if need be, discarded. It took me years to deconstruct this assumption and to recognize how many assumptions underlay this one assumption. I was still trying to rebuild my belief system based on what I learned, in a way that left this plank standing. Furthermore, I wanted the fully human and fully divine doctrine to be true about Jesus for another reason. As stated earlier, I’d accrued in childhood a fairly unattractive image of God, which I will describe as the “Charleton Heston God.” This God was punishing, stern, and not at all happy with women. Though I didn’t believe this anymore, I unconsciously conceptualized God in this way out of habit. When I was able to disassociate God from this imagery, and to consciously conceptualize God as more like Jesus—generous, woman-embracing, defiant of the powers of domination and oppression, healing, child-affirming, celebratory, creative, etc.—I felt hopeful. For this reason, I wanted to believe that Jesus was the one and only, out-there God, and that Jesus showed us what this God is like.

When I travelled to University of St. Andrews in Scotland to join their New Testament Studies program, I was eager. I was also newly married and had my five-year-old daughter Madison in tow. I was eager to live abroad and explore a new country, to share the experience with my husband and daughter, and to achieve in ways that would (I assumed) win me the respect of family members I wanted to impress, maybe even my ex-husband. I felt I had something to prove, and the PhD would be key to proving myself (a doomed enterprise, if ever there was one!). Regarding the academic program itself, my expectations were vague. I had little idea what to expect, and the expectations I did have were overshadowed by fear, or insecurity about my abilities. Yet in the end, what I learned in the course of study dwarfed all other expectations. (Living abroad proved overrated as I was frequently sick, my immune system overwhelmed by foreign viruses. While living in Scotland I began to feel the effects of a disease that wouldn’t be properly diagnosed for fifteen years—adrenal insufficiency, which by that point had developed into Addison’s Disease.)

The St. Andrews professors with whom I worked were experts in a method of study called social-scientific biblical criticism. In a nutshell, the method uses sociological/anthropological models developed by social scientists—most frequently anthropologists—working in the Mediterranean world to assist in interpreting texts from that cultural context. (As an example: in my dissertation, I used the anthropological model of patron-client relations in the Mediterranean to elucidate the way Jesus and the Spirit are conceptualized in the Gospel of John.) By this time I’d spent three to four years studying the Christian scriptures as ancient texts and coming to know the broad historical events surrounding them. But nothing opened my view of the Jesus movement like social-scientific biblical criticism and the work of scholars engaging the method. The method put flesh on the characters and events of the Christian scriptures and brought vividly to life the first-century Mediterranean world and those in it. After a year or so at St. Andrews, I finally started to understand it, and to understand Jesus. Here I only allude to the learning, since the purpose of this essay isn’t to spell out academic insights. But the question remains: how was my spiritual life shaped by these insights?

As it turned out, the years I spent in Scotland were a prologue to churning shifts in my spiritual life. Gaping holes appeared in the foundations of my rationalistic religious consciousness—a religio-spiritual identity that had centered on cognitive belief. Underneath was mythology, reverence, and spiritual vitality, though I couldn’t yet see this. All I knew is that doubts about specific Christian propositions or doctrines far outnumbered firm beliefs. As the world of the Jesus movement came alive for me, it was easier to see how particular stories came to be told about Jesus, and why particular events were narrated in a certain way. Often the stories served the needs and purposes of the later communities who produced them, and were written more in light of later events and challenges—such as the brutal Roman war against the Jews in the years around 70 CE—than in light of events actually narrated. This didn’t make the stories untrue, even if they weren’t (and weren’t intended to be) historically accurate. The new genre of “gospel” was a far cry from journalistic reportage. The truth was in the meaning of the stories for the readers, how it reassured them of God’s faithfulness, compassion, and presence amid their inconceivable struggles, and how it inspired them to be faithful and compassionate. (According to the historian Josephus, the Romans crucified thousands of Jews in the centuries around Jesus—in the period of the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, several hundred every single day.)

Excellent examples of what I describe are the accounts of Jesus’ birth—the accounts being quite different in Matthew and in Luke, the two gospels that narrate Jesus’ birth. In Matthew, a gospel born of a Jewish community seemingly embroiled in the traumatic events of the Roman wars and Rome’s destruction of the Jerusalem temple, Jesus is pointedly portrayed as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies, including prophecies about a messiah in the Davidic line, born in Bethlehem, the city of David. David and his line were closely tied with the temple, and the author wishes to depict Jesus as the culmination and replacement of the temple. Jesus, preacher of the upside-down reign of God, is also portrayed as an inherent threat to state domination, such as that of the Romans and their client, King Herod. The story of Jesus’ birth is told in this way in Matthew to make it particularly useful to the community for whom he is writing, one that has suffered brutally under the Romans, and most importantly, lost the locus of their faith—the temple. For them, Jesus is depicted as all they need, as the new temple.

Aside from the concerns of the communities for whom the gospels were written and how the stories spoke inspiringly to their situations, the truth of the stories was to be found in God’s immanent presence in Jesus and how he lived out of this presence, because readers are shown by extension how to live out of God’s presence in them.

It no longer seemed likely to me that doctrines requiring belief in the literalness of gospel (or other) accounts—such as the account of the virgin birth—were on steady ground. Belief in these doctrines required a degree of belief in the historical facticity of the Bible that I no longer had (and I contend, that the authors of the scriptures didn’t intend us to have, since they didn’t set out to write strictly factual accounts of history). Specific doctrines or propositions I no longer believed included: the virgin birth, certain miracles as historical occurrences rather than metaphorical narratives, the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible, the idea that Jesus called himself the Son of God and understood himself to be the one and only, out-there God in the flesh.

Still other doctrines I had not believed for years, such as the presence of an evil nemesis of God (Satan) and of hell as a place of eternal punishment, as well as notions of atonement theology (the belief that Jesus death was required as a sacrifice “to save sinners”). Furthermore, my belief in Jesus as the one and only, “out there” God in the flesh was starting to crumble.

In some ways, setting aside notions that the Bible portrayed most or all events with detailed historical accuracy, and developing a greater fresh-and-blood understanding of the Bible with the help of social-scientific biblical criticism, only made the texts more interesting to me. My tendency was not to chuck the Bible or the Christian tradition into the rubbish bin. Quite the opposite. I’d started to understand how the stories told about Jesus and others were valuable and enduring apart from questions regarding historical facticity. Perhaps the insistence on doctrines and cognitive beliefs were a distraction from the power of the story. The power of the story is what I wanted to get at, what I wanted to understand. Yet it took several more years before I came close to understanding. Meanwhile, at the same time that I deconstructed beliefs from my childhood, I simultaneously developed an appreciation of and fascination with the characters involved in the inception of the Christian faith, and a love for the contemplative Christian tradition I saw lived out at the abbey.

For the evolution of my spiritual life, intellectual stirrings were perhaps less impactful than emotional stirrings. At this time of life, I was slipping. I was increasingly anxious about my ability to fulfill the demands of the PhD program—especially the teaching component, about my worsening physical condition (I was exhausted and virus-stricken almost constantly), and about my relationships. I felt growing distance from my parents and uncertainty about the wisdom of my second marriage. I needed grounding. I wanted reassurance that things would be okay. On one occasion, standing in the pews of a Church of Scotland service, I latched onto a snippet of poetry from a hymn and started to repeat the snippet like a centering mantra. Drop thy still dews of quietness till all our strivings cease. Take from our hearts the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace (John Greenleaf Whittier). Fifteen years later, I easily tease the words from memory, so frequently did I “pray” them in those days. Yet the words were not the point of the mantra. The point was the repetition, the centering, the practice. And this was new to me. I had the slightest intuition at this time that God was not an out-there God, but an in-here, right-here God, a presence both immanent in all things, and transcendent. This conviction was new and unformed, and didn’t help me make sense of Jesus or my tradition. Still, I was inching my way in that direction.

My spiritual life became centered on contemplative forms, such as hesychastic (mantra-style) prayer, and key ethical convictions I had about what was true and important: nonviolence, advocacy for those who were suffering, and activism. These convictions took me in directions I cannot narrate here for lack of space, but I will say this: their bearing on my spiritual life was bittersweet. I drew, and still draw, direct connections between spirituality and active work for justice in the world. As we develop connectedness to spirit, and as we grow in compassion, we will naturally open ourselves to others and their struggles. But I also had a good deal of ego wrapped up in early efforts. Was I involved in activism and advocacy because I was interested in helping others, or was I defining myself in ways that made me feel good about myself, that gave me a sense of purpose?  I think activism is always a combination of these polarities. But in immature stages of faith and spirituality, the balance tips decidedly toward ego. In my case, this was certainly true. It was also common to see a strain of domination and verbal violence in the language of activism: activists talking about “the other” in ways that stereotyped and maligned people, activists overpowering colleagues who were less assertive and more generous, and activists being blind to their own oppressiveness. (Activist communities are as human as others, and these traits characterize all human communities unless painstaking anti-oppression work is done.) While I later found these practices off-putting, I originally found empowerment and self-identity in them, and in my own ways, participated. My intentions were murky, at best.

The same can be said for the academic community in which I was, at this time, deeply enmeshed. Academics tend to gain status by taking a position on a subject and not only defending the position, but actively dismantling the positions of those who disagree. I assume the stated goal of this contest is to hone understanding and over time, further learning. But often the enterprise seems less about learning and more about defending and arguing established positions for career gain. There’s little status to be gained in growing and changing one’s positions and theories with frequency; instead, dominating the field by choosing a position and arguing it tirelessly—though in ever new ways—is how one gets attention in academia (by means of publication, employment, and fellowships/awards). Therefore, while I was studying the Christian scriptures and developing a deepening understanding of Jesus as a picture of the God-imbued life, in which the domination system is nonviolently challenged and the values of power and status are laid down in favor of meekness and radical generosity, I was actively engaged in the worlds of activism and academia in which I and others lived out rather non-Jesus-like values. Competition seemed to propel those around me, and propelled me too, even as I found it off-putting. I defined my ideas over and against what others believed, and in a way, I had to. A world-renowned research university is a great place to investigate and be introduced to new ideas (the library alone at University of St. Andrews is world-class), but I didn’t find it conducive to the synthesizing, awareness-building, circle-widening work of the spiritual life. (Interestingly, many of my colleagues in the university’s “Divinity School” [read: “Religion Department”] were there preparing for ministry, studying to receive MDiv degrees and go on to ordination. I can’t help but wonder how this worked out.)

After two years of study in St. Andrews, I returned to Oregon to complete my degree in absentia, and graduated in the spring of 2000. In the years that followed, I was spiritually adrift. I’d dismantled one foundation, but had yet to build a replacement, though I continued to practice mantra-style prayer and centering and to appreciate contemplative experiences at the abbey and in silent Quaker meeting. Transcendence was apparent to me as I still sensed a loving, transcendent spirit animating the world. At times I felt filled with that presence and inspired by it. But while I tried to be the person I wanted to be—forgiving, self-sacrificing, equanimous, loving, kind—or to “allow the spirit” to draw these things out in me, I was most often disappointed. I needed mythological bearings and a spiritual practice that would help me grow.  But as it was, I felt increasingly perplexed by the tradition I had, until recently, called home. When the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred, and I saw the country pivot in a vengeful, war-bent direction I viewed as deeply destructive, not only for countries like Afghanistan and Iraq but for the American psyche, I despaired.

My memoir speaks extensively of the years that followed, which were pivotal for my life, so I refrain from repeating the narrative here. From the perspective of the spiritual life, I was in a liminal, undefined place of transition. Major things happened. Most importantly, I packed my things and left my community and second husband, a man I deeply respected and who treated me with kindness. Leaving him was the most grueling and difficult thing I’ve done. In the course of this life transition, Madison suffered, moving into a period of insecurity and depression I deeply regret. At the time, she was twelve. It is hard to look back, however, and see the events of those years as anything short of necessary. Whether they were necessary, or simply appeared that way, I may never know.

Madison and I moved for ten months to a slumberous beach-side village on the north coast of Oregon called Oceanside. Here I spent hours walking the beach, looking out the front windows of our tiny, rented beach house perched on a hillside and facing an endless expanse of ocean, or sitting on the small patch of grass out front. I was, by turns, hopeful and depressed. So much had been lost—home, relationships with friends and acquaintances, the understanding and support of family members, financial security, and connection with a faith community. I felt like a failure, like everything I’d thought about myself, and all the ways I’d promoted myself to others, were shams. My life was emptied out. But empty spaces are full of possibility. For several months I filled the spaces with my daughter: reading books and watching movies with her, making food and eating with her, crocheting, sitting together and staring at the sea. I filled them with the few enduring friendships I had, which deepened, with writing, and with nature. My life was full of wonder at times, and freedom, despite the depression.

I also adopted new spiritual practices. During these months I was introduced to meditation practice by Buddhist writers like Natalie Goldberg, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Thich Nhat Hahn. The latter’s teachings on mindfulness became especially influential, as I listened and re-listened to his audiobook The Miracle of Mindfulness walking along the beach. I started my own early practice in mindfulness. This practice, which picked up steam over the coming few years, is a practice I continue today. As I tiptoed my way into mindfulness practice and got an inkling of what it entailed, I was amazed at how absent I’d been from my life to this point. Rarely was my attention turned to the present. Most often, my mind was a torrent of thoughts and anxieties, conversation with imaginary interlocutors, and remembrance (not to mention snippets of pop songs and old TV jingles). It was noisy and unsettled almost all of the time. And before my forays into mindfulness, I was unaware of the noise. Much of the thought-torrent involved defending myself against perceived threats, and I began to see the role shame had and did play in my life. I felt attacked and shamed by outside sources almost all of the time. I saw how I’d lived amidst so much fear and had since childhood. Fear and shame had played a pivotal role in my psyche and in my emotional development. And though they rode roughshod over my sense of security and beloved-ness, they went largely unacknowledged until I learned the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness practice is powerful. It involves drawing one’s attention back, moment by moment and—especially early in practice—for brief snippets of time, to one’s senses, one’s direct experiences, and one’s thoughts. For example, sitting here writing, I’m mindful of the slight discomfort in my back as I sit, the hum of the loud refrigerator in the writing studio I use, the warmth of the space heater against my legs, voices in the next room, my hunger as I await a burrito warming in the toaster oven, and my distractibility—almost always dogging me as I write (I’m mindful of my thoughts: What Pandora station will I listen to while I eat? Will there be a new episode of “Parenthood” this week? What should I pick up at the store for dinner? Etc.) I’m mindful of the compulsion to stop and check email, to rise and get a drink, and so on. When I started practice, I could sustain attention to the present moment for tiny fractions of time before unobserved thoughts carried me away. The practice of mindfulness may be simple, but it isn’t easy. Yet when we aren’t mindful—and we most often aren’t, we spend hours disconnected from our bodies and our true feelings, and completely unaware of our thoughts, off in fantasies, illusions about ourselves, or anxieties that control us. When we’re being mindful and we notice, say, worry (such as my concern that the outfit I chose for the day isn’t flattering and people will look at me critically), we can usually de-escalate our worry by bringing it into awareness. We can stop and notice it: I feel insecure about how I look and feel worried people will criticize me. Often simply acknowledging such feelings makes them go away, and we move on to the next thing. (When I acknowledge the worry, I realize no one cares if my outfit is unflattering! Furthermore, the concern comes from a false sense of self, since my body is only a small fraction of my true self. I am much more than my body, and that more is what friends and acquaintances notice and treasure in me.) Once we acknowledge a worry, we no longer feel so concerned. We’ve identified the source of our anxiety, often realizing we’ve fabricated a problem that doesn’t exist. We move onto something new. In this way, awareness itself is powerful and liberating. It provides us with a truer picture of ourselves. Operating in mindfulness, I no longer deceive myself into thinking I’m above vanity or insecurity or [insert common weakness here].

When I discovered mindfulness, my inner peacefulness increased, and continued to increase by fathoms in coming years. It also diffused some of the power of shame in my life. When I’m feeling shamed and defensive, I can de-escalate the shame by turning my attention to the feeling and acknowledging it, letting myself feel it, and remembering the shame comes from wounds and unhealed trauma deep inside of me. The messages it tells me about myself, and what others feel about me, are not true. In practicing mindfulness, I began to realize what a role shame played in my conceptions of God. I could never feel loved and cared for by a benevolent God when I felt shamed and threatened. I’d spent a lifetime slowly dismantling conceptions of God as vengeful, misogynistic, domineering, and punishing. But until this time, I still had a deep-seated doubt of God’s love for me. Mindfulness helped me heal this misconception, in part through recognizing how I’d projected life-long shame struggles onto God.

Exposing the root of my insecurities and misconceptions about God, pinpointing them in my earliest life, helped me to see more clearly. God had always loved me, but I had somehow missed the experiences that enable a person to know security and love from God. Whereas, as I child, I was supposed to learn that a loving force of kindness and benevolence moved the universe, and that I could rest in that kindness and love no matter what, I had—for whatever reason—stood fear-struck on the cusp of my life. This loneliness and lack of security had been my ever-present shadow for thirty-four years.

And as I became aware of this, the shadow slowly disappeared. A haze parted across my horizon. Walking along the edge of the ghost-lit Pacific, or sitting on my porch listening to the hush of waves, I felt embraced by an endless, grandiose love, and I knew this love was God. Sometimes I would just sit, basking in it. For once I knew this love, this presence, was trustworthy, that I could count on it like a baby counts on her parent to catch her as she’s tossed giggling into the air.

As I experienced this, I began to change. I no longer felt so threatened. For long stretches of time, I knew everything was okay. And as I began to experience the love at the center of all things, to feel bathed in it, I imagined God in different forms, some anthropomorphic, some not, greeting me with celebration. Suddenly, as if a lifetime’s worth of encoding has been erased overnight, I knew divine love was indelible.

It is after this dawning that I begin the very intentional practice of letting go, slowly loosening the grip I had maintained on every aspect of my life, my work, my relationships, my remaining beliefs—my success-obsessed ego. My letting go had been, at first, a survival strategy, a reaction to enervating frustration and failure. Lacking the energy to make things work in my marriage and career, I gave them up. Not “gave up on them,” but gave them up to God. For once I knew that marriage or no marriage, friends or no friends, publishing or no publishing, everything was okay. Though I still had (and have) a tendency to cling, I became mindful of this tendency. And when I noticed myself clinging to things—such as hopes for a certain friendship or written piece, dearly held viewpoints, opinions people had of me—I closed my eyes and pictured my fingers opening like the petals of a flower. And as I let go, I experienced ever more loosening in my spirit.

Of course, I didn’t figure this out on my own. Important authors and friend-discussions contributed to my development, as did a particular friend. Enter Brother Martin. I met Martin at the abbey in 2000 after returning from Scotland. He’d been a monk for over fifty years by this time and was in his late 70s. We met while he was working the front desk of the guesthouse on one of my twice yearly retreats, and we quickly became friends. Again, so much is written about Martin in my memoir that I’ll summarize.

Martin saw something in me that no one else had seen. In fact, on one occasion early on, he exclaimed, “You are full of spirit!” with so much emotion and conviction I was taken aback. Tears came to his eyes. As we grew in friendship, I saw he was uniquely able to pick out the good in me and overlook the bad. His perspective was constantly skewed toward love and compassion. Though it took a while, I began to see Martin’s love as a metaphor for divine love, and I have no doubt my experience of Martin’s friendship allowed me to understand and accept God as a loving, compassionate presence for the first time in my life. This change wasn’t immediate, of course, but it came with time—thanks to Martin. Martin became my closest friend and something of a paternal figure, at least a very dear mentor. But our relationship was and is reciprocal. Not only do I share my disappointments, hopes, fears, and gratitude with him, he shares the same with me.

During my time in Oceanside, I started a meditation practice that remains in my life—though the degree of regularity has varied widely through the years. While living on the edge of the Pacific, my spiritual practice veered toward meditation and mindfulness, and away from Christian symbols and rituals central to my spiritual life to this point. When I moved to the Oregon coast, I stopped attending church. (Years later I did wander back–finding a home among progressive Episcopalians.). One of Martin’s great gifts to me was theological generosity, the way he encouraged me along a path of authentic spiritual searching and growth, no matter where it led. Despite Martin’s life as a monk, and his deep commitment to Christianity, he offered me full encouragement as I journeyed outside the tradition to find what was meaningful and challenging for me.

And meditation was challenging. I started on my own (though I briefly practiced with a group). I read books about meditation, learning from teachers like Sharon Salzberg. I sat for short meditations on a bright purple prayer stool Martin crafted in the ‘70s, the decade I was born, and began to learn from observing and letting go, growing millimeter by millisecond toward greater awareness. Meditation and mindfulness cultivate concentration, calmness, and understanding, but also compassion, because they increase our honesty about ourselves. Observing truly our own thoughts, impulses, feelings, and opinions bring us down to earth like nothing else! It shows us how like others we are, how imperfect we all are, and how impermanent our experiences and opinions. Over time, it helps us glimpse our oneness with all of humanity. In this way, meditation helps us relinquish ego repeatedly as we view the struggles of ourselves and others more compassionately.

It was 2005 and Madison and I had moved north to a town called Cannon Beach. I simultaneously moved away from Christian practice and lay down Christian belief structures, wrestling with confusion regarding my connection to the faith. To say “I am not longer a Christian,” did not sound true to me. The Christian faith was my heritage, even if I’d moved far indeed from early experiences of the tradition.  There were things I loved about the faith:  the joyful, liberating, insightful, and God-filled historic Jesus; his teachings, especially those in the earliest gospel writings and in the theoretical source “Q”; many old hymns; the stories and traditions surrounding Christmas; the challenge of nonviolence represented by Jesus’ death and the symbol of a cross; many figures from Christian history, including women like Mary Magdalene and Teresa of Avila, and inspiring figures like Francis of Assisi; the monastic contemplative rituals involving chant and incense and silence; many texts of the Christian scriptures. Furthermore, during these years I became convinced of the importance of mining one’s heritage for the good, rather than abandoning heritage. From 2003-2005, I worked for a total of three months on a Native reservation with a human-rights organization, and learned how many Natives feel when others appropriate their religion. I heard a Native woman express her desire that people find the richest and best experiences within their own traditions rather than appropriating and overtaking the traditions of others. For years I thought about this and took it to heart. If at all possible, I wanted to find the richest and best experience within my own tradition, and to hold to it rather than eschewing it in favor of another tradition or a religio-spiritual hodge-podge. Most of all, I didn’t want to react against Christianity or appropriate the religious traditions of others. I longed to make peace with Christianity.

I held this longing in my heart and refused to concede. Like Jacob, I would wrestle with the angel until it blessed me. I rarely, if ever, called myself a Christian at that time, because I didn’t know what people meant by the term. What one person meant by “Christian” could be nothing like what I mean, and nothing like me. In the meantime, I gathered bits and pieces of meaning like twigs and grasses, constructing a unique nest of faith for myself, a nest that would one day perch on one of a million branches of the Christian tree. During this time, I discovered past and present episodes of the American Public Media program Speaking of Faith (now called OnBeing), which features excellent thinkers in ethics, religion, and spirituality, as well as other subjects. While doing activities around the house, I streamed episode after episode of the show, managing to consume the multi-year archives of the program.  Hearing the experiences of such a diverse array of spiritual people, and integrating their insights into my journey, was spiritual nourishment. I learned about religions with which I was unfamiliar, and was inspired to study comparative religions more than I had in the past. But mostly, I felt a kinship with the speakers, like I was a part of a vast community of spirit.

Casting around for ideas, reading widely, and holding very tenuously to my Christian heritage characterized my journey for a few years. I continued to draw on meditation and mindfulness for spiritual practice, but long felt groundless, like I was floating in the clouds, needing something tangible to hold to. Around this time, Karen Armstrong came onto my reading list, and her books not only acquainted me more intimately with other faiths, but with the importance of mythology. With Armstrong’s help, I began to understand that people need distinctive “myths,” to use her language, and to understand my hesitancy to let go of Christianity. Armstrong defines myth as: “essentially, a guide.” Her use of the word doesn’t imply that a story or tradition is a fabrication (as popular usage of that word “myth” implies). On the other hand, facticity in a scientific or historical sense isn’t the point of mythology. The point is to tell us how to live and who to be.  Myths are stories that give our lives meaning—something we desperately need. As Armstrong wrote in The Spiral Staircase: “The myths of the hero, for example, are not meant to give us historical information about Prometheus or Achilles—or for that matter, about Jesus or the Buddha. Their purpose is to compel us to act in such a way that we bring out our own heroic potential.”

I began to see that for me, the Jesus myth is central and indispensable, which is why I can’t lay it down. For me, the Jesus myth, which includes his teachings and actions, guides me in how I view power-dynamics, how I view injustice and strive to relate to those less privileged than I, how I stand up to authority. It shapes and guides how I think about divine presence, compelling me to see divinity as compassionate, generous, and immanent. It guides me in my commitment to nonviolence. Myths provide stable vantage points from which to see and understand the world, and the Jesus myth is my mythological terra firma.  Many secular people are starved for mythological terra firma and meaning stories, since myths demonstrate what it means, within a particular tradition, to be human and to live a purposeful life. Social-scientists increasingly demonstrate how much we need myths. Having meaning stories is so important that people without faith or spiritual traditions often develop their own myths to fill the vacuum. Dominant non-religious myths in America center on science and technology, popular culture, sports, 12-step programs, or national, state, and family histories.  Myths are everywhere we look.

As I came into a nuanced understanding of mythology and its importance, I happened to resume church attendance—at a Spanish-language Episcopal mass (in 2016 I started attending the English-language mass). In 2007 I built a small house in the river valley south of Nehalem, and in 2010, wandered into the Spanish-language service. It was my first time attending a liturgical service, which attracted me with its beauty, repetition and eloquence, not to mention the beauty of the Spanish-language community who attended. Moreover, it was a boon that I couldn’t understand the words! Separating the experience from the dialogue of the mass, which still tripped me up, expressive as it is of Christian doctrine, helped me re-engage with the tradition without criticism of “the creed.” Now, as I practice the liturgy with a community, in particular the common symbolic meal called Eucharist, my appreciation for the symbols grows. I may not share the beliefs of every individual around the table, but I love them and they love me. We hold a common desire to experience God’s presence and to share the path.

Along the spiritual path, I find helpful images or symbols come to us at just the right time—right when we’re able to understand and integrate them. This is what occurred when I happened into the Spanish-language liturgical service. It also occurred when I bumped into Jewish Kabbalah, a prominent form of Jewish mysticism with roots in the 1300s. I have barely scratched the surface of Kabbalah and already it has offered much. In particular, a helpful metaphor for God.

Gradually my conception of God has shifted away from a view of God as out-there and other, the traditional, personal, Western view of God. The shift began around 2007 as I pondered the Chinese concept of “chi.” In traditional Chinese culture, chi (more precisely ) is frequently translated as “life force,” though the literal translation is “breath” or “air,” analogous to pneuma in Greek and  ruah in Hebrew, both of which are used to describe God’s ever-present spirit.  To the Chinese, chi is understood as the life force running through everything that makes things grow and heal and reproduce. It is immanent in all living things. As a principle, chi seems to me a non-scientific forerunner of what physicists now observe as the unpredictable and ineffable energy inherent in everything, making the universe what it is.

Thinking about chi, and about the energy moving the universe, I began to imagine this life force, or ruah, to use the analogous Hebrew concept, as not just the symbolized spirit of an otherwise separate and out-there God (or a third person of a triune God or “trinity”), but as what God is. Perhaps, I wondered, God is this life force running through everything, animating and healing and recreating the universe. Perhaps God is in all things, and that is where God is to be found. Jesus may have suggested  this when he said “the reign of God is within you.” Since childhood, I’d sensed a transcendent presence in the world, yet had stumbled over conceptions of God, which often seemed domineering and anti-female, even petty. Perhaps my childhood intuition was leading me toward a divinity that is immanent in all things and relational, as well as transcendent.

In the midst of playing with these notions, I happened upon an interview with Kabbalist and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who offered a metaphor for God that greeted me like a long-awaited messenger. It was an image that brought together countless threads of thought, intuition, and longing. In an OnBeing interview with Krista Tippett[i], Kushner said (with all his usual levity):

There are two ways to understand our relationship with God. I’m going to say right up front that they are both just metaphors, relax. Just metaphors. The first one, picture a big circle and the big circle represents God. And then picture below it a very tiny little circle. And that represents you in the world. And because the big circle is above the little circle, it’s naturally hierarchical, and therefore it’s generically masculine and welcome to Western religion.OK. That’s the one we all know, and you and all your—all of our listeners could easily talk at length about that. Now I’m going to give you another metaphor. Just another metaphor. Relax. Same big circle that represents God but the only difference is that the little circle that represents you and me is inside the big circle. And that is a more Eastern—it strikes us as a more Eastern model, but it’s —as [Gershom] Scholem demonstrated, it’s widely available in Western religious tradition as well. And the goal in that model is not to pray to God or have God tell you what to do, but to realize that you have been all along, contrary to all of your illusions, a dimension of the divine, and in moments of heightened spiritual awareness, the boundary line, which is the little circle defining you inside the big circle, momentarily is erased. Momentarily is blurred and it’s no longer clear where you end and God begins.

Around the same time that this metaphor from Kushner blew open my world, I read about teachings in early non-canonical gospels, specifically the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, that depicts “the human condition” as our not seeing who we are—not recognizing our true God-essence and where we originate from, and our clinging to our material nature. According to this gospel tradition, we are full of God in a sense not unlike that symbolized in the Kabbalistic metaphor. Furthermore, Jesus was a person who transcended the human condition because he recognized who he was, in the sense of who we all are—a part of God. It was fascinating for me to learn that this understanding of God, humanity, and the significance of Jesus was, so early on, an interpretation of the Jesus events, albeit one that didn’t “win out” in the contests that determined orthodoxy.

I continue to ruminate on these learnings, these insights gleaned from teachers like Kushner. The thinking simultaneously draws me farther away from certain Christian orthodoxies and closer to Christianity. I continue to ponder what it might mean to be inside the vast circle of God, as in Kushner’s metaphor, and to understand the divinity of the also very human Jesus in this way. Perhaps Jesus is divine in the same way you or I have the potential to be divine (a prominent teaching of early Christian fathers of the fourth century, like Gregory of Nyssa). And Jesus is an example of someone who lived at least a portion of his life with the boundary line around his small circle erased, someone who showed us what that could be like.

For me, what it means to be a Christian is to be inspired by Jesus and drawn to the Christian story more than other stories (though I find much to love in other religious mythologies, especially Buddhist and Taoist teachings). I see Jesus as a person of extraordinary spiritual insight who understood God, and who recognized who we are in God, who he was in God. In the first-century context, it was not unusual for people to be conceptualized as having “divinity.” Nonetheless, I don’t think Jesus understood himself as divine, especially not in any exclusive or special sense. The conceptualization of Jesus’ unique divinity came later, after the brutal 70 CE destruction of the Jerusalem temple and much else by the Romans, when the followers of Jesus were figuring out how to replace the temple cult which was so central to their lives. While the majority of Jews took the road of synagogue-based Torah observance, or Rabbinic Judaism, as replacement, the sect of Jews that came to be called “Christians” took the Jesus road. And part of their broadening understanding of Jesus’ significance involved coming to understand Jesus’ relationship to God. The understanding that later received the stamp of orthodoxy was one in which Jesus was “the one and only Son of God” and a full incarnation of the very out-there God.  But early Christian understandings of Jesus’ relationship to God also included notions like those represented in Kushner’s metaphor of the circles. Unfortunately, the understanding of Jesus as “the one and only Son of God,” and later orthodox assumptions about those who didn’t accept the doctrine, had unthinkably tragic consequences for relations between “the Church” and their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Marcus Borg wrote: “Being a Christian involves living within the tradition and letting it shape our lives. It means letting these stories have their way with us.” I appreciate this definition. I like the idea that stories shape us. Each day I try to have “beginner’s mind,” to use a Buddhist phrase, about what it means to “live within” the Christian tradition and about who the stories of Christianity are shaping me to be. I am, as ever, full of questions. But I find solace in Abraham Joshua Heschel words: “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.”

The delightfully practical tradition of Buddhism continues to inform my spiritual practice on a day-to-day basis, and has its own way with me.  Buddhism’s emphasis on training the mind and heart through intentional practice of mindfulness and through the living of the eight-fold path[ii] is a spiritual practice far more tangible than anything I was able—in my unique experience—to find in Christian tradition. I am grateful for the path.

Whatever path one takes, the goal is transformation. And what are we being transformed into?  The great traditions all hint at compassion—that we are being transformed into beings of compassion and active love. According to my Christian tradition, we’re being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, and according to my Buddhist tradition, we’re transformed into beings of compassion and loving-kindness. And in my heart, these are the very same thing.

[i] http://www.onbeing.org/program/lawrence-kushner-kabbalah-and-the-inner-life-of-god/transcript/6312#main_content

[ii] The noble eightfold path: right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.