Living the questions

I probably run in different circles of friends than was the case years ago. When I was in seminary, my friends were seminary students. We were reading the same books and listening to some of the same lectures. We were all involved in churches and immersed in the process of learning to lead congregations. Our first parish out of seminary was in a small town, where I had friends who were members of other congregations, but no friends that I remember who would have identified as not religious. Our next parish was in a small city and there I began to make friends with folks who were more diverse than was the case previously in my life. these days, I have made an effort to cultivate friendships with people outside of our congregation and with people who are different ages than I. I still have a lot of friends who are pastors and who are members of Christian congregations, but I have more friends who identify as members of other religions and more friends who are not formally affiliated with any religious institution.

I have begun to develop an interest in people who like to identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Actually, I think that their self-chosen identifier is often not quite accurate. At least they don’t seem to be spiritual in the sense of practicing spiritual disciplines on a consistent basis. And they don’t appear to be irreligious. They do tend to have a slightly anti-institutional bias, and they have some distrust of Christianity. But they seem interested in ritual and eager to find some form of community where they are free to talk about their religious ideas.

There don’t seem to be very many places where people feel free to explore their spiritual curiosity. There are plenty of religious institutions that seek to tell others what to believe and how to practice their faith, but places where the questions are embraced without pre-formed or pat answers are less common.

When I encounter open hostility towards the church it is almost always hostility towards religious institutions that are very different than the church that I serve. There are a lot of people who believe that all churches are narrow-minded, anti-science, homophobic and judgmental. Churches are often described as places filled with hate and judgment by those who don’t attend church. I suspect that this comes in part from media churches and from some of the mega churches that are based on the personality of their leaders. A quick scan of congregations in our city reveals that the majority are part of religious traditions that have no specific educational requirements for their leaders. Rather leaders are self-appointed and pick up whatever parts of religious tradition they encounter without every engaging in a systematic study of the history or theological traditions of the church. This produces a kind of self-defined
Christianity that does an interesting kind of “pick and choose,” quoting various parts of the Bible and Christianity while ignoring other parts.

Whatever the cause, it is the case that there are people who are interested in exploring spiritual traditions and who are longing for community who are potential members for a congregation such as the one I serve and who are not aware that such a congregation exists. They are often surprised to discover that I am curious about religion, and study other world religions. They expect me to be closed minded and dogmatic, neither of which are my normal positions.

I think that I meet these people in part because they are searching. They don’t want to become part of some Christian churches because of narrow approaches or anti-science and anti-anti-intellectual preaching, but they long for a spiritual community of people who are honest, vulnerable and connected.

The Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in German, but much of his work has been translated into English. There are several quotes of Rilke that have influenced me, but one seems helpful for those who are searching for a connection with a religious community:

“Be patient with all this is unresolved in your heart. Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

I think that this quote inspired a group of teachers and religious scholars to develop a series of books and educational resources aimed at engaging people in ongoing conversation around some of the big issues of life. They call their group and their curricula “Living the Questions.” I have used some of their resources and we hav watched some of their videos together in our church. I appreciate their approach and suspect that it might be helpful for those who are seeking.

It is my sense that some of those outside of the church are eager to find a safe environment for talking about their questions. They are afraid that churches and church leaders will dismiss their questions or label them heretic for them. It is true that there are plenty of churches and church leaders who are not at all comfortable living with the questions. They rush to answers even when their answers are misinformed or not really answers to the questions asked. I spend enough time with other pastors to notice in them a need to be experts and to always have the answers. I’ve become old and experienced enough to know that I don’t have the answers to all of the questions and that sometimes just sitting with the questions is more helpful than rushing to establish one’s self as an expert.

There are people both inside and outside of the institutional church who seek grace, kindness and authenticity. Fortunately, I have been blessed to know many of them. Our questions are the bond that ties us together.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!