I never really got tangled in wars between religion and science. Contrary to Larry Mitchel’s experience, related in a couple posts on this page, it didn’t all “start with science” for me.
Rather, for me It started with a sense of the presence of God, and seeking to figure out what he meant to say.
I passed through many emotional stages growing into that conversation—from childhood comfort in memorized prayers, to fear invoked by apocalyptic images, to uncertainty as I sought for firm footings in the swirling seas of life, to comfort once more in the promise of grace.
Negotiating those steps was a sort of dance, in which I wanted to lead–but felt I was being led.
Like a moth to a candle flame I felt drawn–and at times, I fled.
Alone I walked, like the times in my early teen years when I wandered in the corn fields near our rural home in northern Illinois. In the distance I could see a far tree line, but the corn around me was over my head and hid what was right in front of me. I plunged on, sensing something out there … and then, through the corn, I heard a gentle gurgling. As the corn grew shorter I could see a gap of green through the stalks. A copse of trees like an island in the sea of corn. A brook bubbling from a spring, with soft green banks inviting me to rest. A quiet moment of serendipity and wonder.
Yes, there was a mystical dimension to my growing spiritual consciousness. To others I spoke of ideas and arguments, of questions and propositions. But in the silence of my own contemplation, ripping away the veil of ideological disputation revealed the all-consuming fire of Heraclitus. Or the fathomless ocean depths towards which all of Melville’s brooks and streams fell.
Alone in my quest, the steps I took carried me far from those I cared for, and who cared for me.
To tell the story plainly, I was a college student asking questions about the faith in which I was raised. Not the first to do so, nor the last. But some of the saints in my church took my questions personally. Issues I raised at church or in the pages of the student newspaper were sure to find their way back to my father-in-law, a pastor who lived in a small New Hampshire hamlet about an hour from the little Massachusetts college where I was studying theology.
My father-in-law didn’t just hear the questions—he heard the fear, the anger, the contempt with which the reports were carried.
He was skilled at conflict management in the church—later, in another congregation, someone likened him to an old goat that the Yankee farmers would put in the barnyard to calm things down when the other animals got each others’ dander up. And part of his skill lay in his determination not to pass on tales that would only serve as fuel for the fire.
But some of it did get back to me. One saintly woman stopped an old wife in her tale and suggested she stop scurrying about New England upset with me and instead say something to me directly (She never did).
It was about then that I reached out to one of my professors for counsel. He taught us counseling, and preaching, and pastoral administration. He wasn’t publically entangled in the theological disputes of the day, and clearly wasn’t bothered by my questions.
I don’t remember just what I said as I sat in his office. I know I vented my frustration at all this “indirect fire,” and the emotions that swirled around and within me.
And the professor paused. And he talked to me about grief. We can experience it, he said, not only when someone dies, but when there is any loss—of friendship, of ideals, of meaning. And the same emotions can burst forth in us and others that Kubler-Ross attached to dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
That professor’s words stayed with me, and helped me to reframe my own reactions, and the reactions of others around me. And they helped me step away from internal arguments within one denomination to see a wider world of people, relationships, ideas—as well as wider opportunities for ministry.
The specific issues and questions and people and places aren’t important in this telling. But I use this a way to raise some questions for you to reflect upon.
Look back on your life. How have you changed in your spiritual and religious outlook and practices as you have matured? How did your changes affect your relationships?
Did you ever find yourself in later years recovering some of the very things that you once tossed aside—finding that life’s struggles now caused you to look at them in a new light, and that your experiences now imbued them with new meaning?
One of the things I learned as a 20 year old from that professor was the fact that each person’s journey is unique. We don’t see all that’s going inside. Emotions are natural reactions to change. And we can sit with a person, and listen patiently to their questions and their emotions without feeling threatened. That insight was to prove vital in my years as a university and military chaplain.
And a couple of years ago, sitting in that former professor’s living room, listening to each other’s stories, I was able to share with him what his counsel meant, and how grateful I was that he, Tim Berry, took the time to listen.