In the Western, developed world, the Christian church is dying. Membership is shrinking; young people are taking their spiritual lives elsewhere. When one reflects on the kind of religion being peddled in such churches, particularly in the evangelical and fundamentalist factions, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It’s certainly not a surprise to me, because it is the kind of religion I was raised with: a literalistic, anti-scientific, exclusionary, close-minded, and demeaning belief system. A belief system which refuses to validate, or collaborate with, our most up-to-date scientific cosmology. A belief system which refuses to acknowledge and prophesy against social injustice. A belief system which shrinks from questions, flees from doubt, and rebukes mystery. A belief system which cares only about the parishioners’ continual intellectual assent to some objectively absurd doctrinal statements, their continued support for the current imperial power structure, and, of course, their continued financial contributions. I too fled from this belief system – this power-draining, life-denying perversion of what could have been a channel for the Living Spirit.
And yet, I am currently a member of a nominally christian church. In fact, I recently began calling myself a Christian again! How can this be? Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth?
Let me explain.
I found out about the Abbey of the Redwoods from my friend Megan. Currently the Abbey’s farm manager, at the time she was working at a local herb store that I frequented. We spoke every time that I came in, and we seemed to share similar interests. She was eclectic, intelligent, and a joy to interact with. Given the current state of christian religious institutions and her professed pagan inclinations, I would never have expected that she attended a church every week – until she invited me. I hadn’t heard of her church before, but I figured that if a self-identifying “heathen” was attending a christian church every week, it was probably the right sort of church for me. And, given that I’m now a member, it seems that I was quite right!
Now, our church is kind of a strange institution made up of two entities. The first entity, Grace Good Shepherd Church, is technically a christian organization. The second, the Abbey of the Redwoods, is actually an interfaith contemplative project – an omni-religious, philosophical outgrowth of Grace Good Shepherd sprouting from its more traditional religious root. It truly is a beautiful symbiosis – the church’s christian tradition grounds the Abbey, nourishing it and providing it with stability and direction, while the Abbey’s interfaith contemplative focus keeps the church pumping with life – expanding, growing, reaching, cross-pollinating, fruiting and flowering.
For me, this is an ideal balance – the symbols, narratives, and ceremonies of Christianity are my first spiritual language, the traditions with which I feel most at home and by which I feel most emotionally compelled as a result of my childhood. Yet I could never feel truly satisfied in a christian context without the interfaith, comparative, explorative, and embodied approach of the Abbey. To have the Church without the Abbey would be like living in a home which one has never left, and to have the Abbey without the Church would be like being on a journey with nowhere to return home to. Together, the Abbey and the Church make up a single being – they are both the wandering and the return, the home base and the call to adventure.
It is in an environment like this that I can feel comfortable exploring and embodying my Christian heritage. In fact, I even feel excited! Emboldened! Inspired! Because here at the Abbey, my being Christian doesn’t mean that I have to deny science. Here at the Abbey, my being Christian doesn’t mean that I have to reject the value, truth, and wisdom I find in the teachings of Buddhism, Vedanta, Taoism, or Paganism. Here at the Abbey, my being Christian doesn’t mean that I have to affirm every line of the Nicene creed, profess that I have all the answers, or confirm that the content of my theology conforms to a predetermined list of acceptable propositions.
No – in this community, our primary concern is not with the “objective truth of our religious metaphors”, but with our own subjective investment in, and exploration of, our religious symbols and the religious symbologies of people the world over. What do these symbols, stories, and metaphors say to us about who we are and who we are meant to be? How do they transform how we live and how we relate to others? What do they say about the people who conceived them and the time they lived in? What beautiful Beyond do these narratives point to, and how are we living into that Beyond right now? At the Abbey we do not ask “what is the Truth?”, but instead “how do you narrate the mystery of your subjectivity”?
So yes, I’m a member of a Christian church. And yes, I call myself a Christian. But my church isn’t just Christian, and neither am I. My church is about asking questions, not just providing answers. My faith is about swimming in mystery, not getting to certainty. And my spiritual community is enthusiastically heterogeneous, not self-satisfied in its homogeneity! At last I feel that I have found a place where I can live in spiritual community, a place in which I can cry tears of joy and gratitude as I listen to a sermon or share in communion. How strange it is that the very things I was told would draw me away from God – doubts, questions, expansion, experience, exploration, contemplation, meditation, and more – are the very things that characterize the spiritual community within which I now feel more close to God than ever.
May the Abbey be a place where you too can feel close to the Divine – whatever that means for you. Remember that God does not belong to anyone, but is the One to whom we all belong. May you discover that belonging alongside us, so that we might share in your journey – for here at the Abbey we really are a “priesthood of all believers”. Grace and Peace be with you.
Jarod Quiring (he/him) is a life-long student of theology. He hopes to soon facilitate an Abbey of the Redwoods seminar based on the Richard Rohr book “The Universal Christ”. When he is not philosophizing and theologizing he likes to find balance by working hard at Sea Goat Farm (although he is known to bring up conversations around the nature of God). He also enjoys training capoeira, spending time with his dog Blossom, and reading science fiction & fantasy.
This piece is part of a continuing series featuring Abbey members, their unique orientations to spirituality/religion, and their perspectives on Abbey life.