How does a young acolyte of the secular Left find his way to divinity school? There are times when, walking to my “Introduction to the New Testament” class in the cold Chicago morning, I ask myself that question. Part of what makes it difficult to answer is that the path leading me to the University of Chicago Divinity School began in an experience I don’t find easy to communicate. Talking about how I got here is awkward for someone of my thoroughly secular upbringing and education. The term that best captures what I experienced is, however, a religious one: conversion.
Mine was a peculiar form of conversion; I didn’t convert to any religion in particular. My sacred text was not the Bible or the Upanishads—it was William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. Reading James made me entertain the possibility that religious experience could be something non-delusional that did not necessarily need the conduit of a specific religious tradition. James distilled what he thought was common to religious experiences of all kinds—the reorientation of an individual’s life from one ruled by anxiety, fear, and egotism, to one filled with peace, courage, and compassion for others. The value of religion, he claimed, resided not in the ultimate veracity or literal truth of its dogmas and creeds, but in the practical, life-affirming perspective it garnered for the believer.
I didn’t become a convert to James’s brand of natural theology upon first reading his book. In fact, after a few chapters I put it down, intrigued and envious of the experiences he discussed, but mostly baffled and doubtful of their actual existence. It took my own variety of religious experience to change my mind. The Greek for “changing one’s mind” is metanoia, translated in the New Testament as “repentance.” It wasn’t simply that I changed my mind about religion—my mind itself changed. I had been struggling with anxiety since my sophomore year in college, and living back at my parents’ house after graduation with no clear sense of what to do next had only intensified my feelings of self-doubt. I now saw that religious experience did not have to mean blind devotion. It could mean enlivened consciousness, a source of both greater intellectual clarity and deepened ethical conviction. My previous concept of myself as a completely autonomous agent who was supposed to be in charge of my own destiny was seriously put into question. I felt reverence, gratitude, and awe for the mystery of existence, and the question of what to call this mystery or how it mapped onto a metaphysical system seemed beside the point.
Although James’s pragmatism helped me to see the value of personal religious experience and initiated me into a new way of being, it didn’t offer much in the way of practical guidance for how to integrate this experience into my everyday life. That integration did not occur until, just like my un-cosmopolitan Lutheran-farmer forebears from the Midwest had done, I started attending a Christian church.
The church I eventually joined, Judson Memorial Church in New York City, was admittedly not typical—it had been a gathering place for Greenwich Village artists in the 1950s and 1960s, proudly welcoming of the LGBT community, and is now a leader in the movement for immigration reform. At Judson I began to discover an affinity for Christian theology and philosophy and realized that Eastern spirituality didn’t have the monopoly on meditative and contemplative practices. When I walked into Judson and no one tried to brainwash me, and I did not have to disavow the individual and heterodox nature of my own spiritual experience, I became less protective of the firm “spiritual vs. religious” boundary maintained by some who equate religion with erasure of the individual conscience.
At Judson I witnessed firsthand how churches can be places not only for spiritual growth, but also for civic participation. John Updike, a church-going Episcopalian, once wrote of church that it was “the most available democratic experience. We vote less than once a year. Only in church and at the polls are we actually given our supposed value, the soul-unit of one, with its noumenal arithmetic of equality: one equals one equals one.” In my judgment, even more than the affirmation of democratic souls, churches can and have been springboards for political activity in service of social justice.
THE REFRAIN from many on the Left these days is that without a grassroots popular movement to push Barak Obama, we cannot expect his administration to pursue genuinely progressive reforms. But how and where do we build a movement? If the civil rights movement or community organizers from Saul Alinsky to the young Obama have anything to teach us, it is that religious communities can be powerfully effective places to organize. It is not just that they are convenient sites where people congregate; they are places where people come together in the name of loving their neighbor and maybe even their enemy and are concerned for “the least of these.” To claim that people who don’t identify as religious can’t care as much about these things is absurd, but from my own experience, religion allows for a deliberate site in which to express and nurture care.
Whether teaching about religion, working in a church, or helping to organize a church, I hope that I will become a “connected critic,” Michael Walzer’s term for the person who critiques his society and institutions from up close, while speaking to their values through a common language. Frederick Douglass, faced with the hypocrisy of a Christianity that sanctioned slavery, is just one great American critic who embodied that role. “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land,” he wrote in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
My partial apostasy from the secular world is not, I have come to realize, as unusual as I once thought. According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than half of people who were raised without any religious affiliation now claim involvement with a religious group. I think there is a growing awareness among my generation that, despite what the self-assured clamor of the “New Atheists” might lead us to believe, spiritual and religious questions are as important to our time as any, and are not just a private matter; they have public relevance as well. As David Foster Wallace, one of the most brilliant writers of the generation just preceding mine, said, “[I]n the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
If I were the only one with these kinds of ideas about religion, I might have kept them to myself. But happily there are others who are convinced of religion’s potential to be a tolerant force in the creation of a freer and more equitable world and a meaningful, healing resource for our fractured selves and splintered society. After my New Testament class, I see them at our Chicago Seminarians for Justice organizing meetings.
Neil Ellingson was born in Minneapolis in 1981. A graduate of Harvard and former editorial assistant at Dissent magazine, he is currently a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Chicago Divinity School.