A few months ago I overheard my husband counseling a friend who was going to accompany us to a party thrown by a bunch of my colleagues in anthropology. “You don’t have to worry with them,” my husband assured our friend, “anthropologists are interested in everything. Watch, whatever you say they’ll find it interesting, they’ll talk about anything forever.”
It’s evidently what makes us quirky party attendees or hosts, but I like to think that our curiosity as anthropologists is also one of our best qualities. We find the world more interesting, more beautiful precisely because of diversity and difference. Life is more intriguing because of culture, because your corner of the world doesn’t look talk, or act, like mine. And yes, I could talk about those fascinating differences in culture, well…forever.
A foster mom in Anhui, China embraces her foster son. Photo by Jason Fouts.
On the last day of the class I was teaching at the seminary this semester, when I felt like I’d earned the right to speak a little of my own passion into my students’ lives, I challenged them to believe that they might learn just as much about God outside the Church walls or the seminary campus as within. I asked them to dare to believe that pushing their faith to include, behold, embrace, and learn from people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds–pushing their faith to be real outside the Church might actually make it deeper, more powerful, and more poignant.
You see, I think that while it’s human to be curious, it’s also human to be really freaked out by difference. And when we Christians get skittish, we often take a lot of the beauty and truth and goodness that God has blessed and made and called good and try to cram it into our manmade boxes. I think good theology and good anthropology teach us to do just the opposite (like reminding us that Jesus blew the chains off women, tax collectors, diseased men and women, and prostitutes, and included us Gentiles in salvation) (or anthropology that shows us how insightful, productive, and healthy cultural differences are), but we humans also like to be in control.
Anyway, I said these things to my students not only because they’re my truth but also because the next generation of spiritual leaders just might be our politicians, professors, doctors, lawyers, philosophers, non-profit managers, prison wardens, and community organizers. A friend of mine had a conversation last week with a faculty member at the seminary who said her greatest concern is that we are preparing seminarians for jobs and a world that doesn’t exist. A few days later, that same friend asked me whether I claim my Christian faith in community and what that means.
Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation. Photo by Evan Schneider.
And I realized for the first time in years of discerning and seeking and praying that I can say that I’m “out,” for lack of a better term, in my department at my university, as a Christian, a minister, a person of faith, and it finally feels right. My colleagues happily introduce me as their resident pastor, they call on me for counsel in difficult situations because they know I’m not afraid of the messiness of life, and they even appreciate being told they are prayed for.
But it doesn’t just go one way–these same colleagues hold me accountable when I begin to complain or gossip, they counsel me through life’s big decisions, and they rejoice and grieve with me. Both these experiences close to home and those afar of being ministered to by those supposedly outside the fold have taught me that the Spirit isn’t limited to the walls of the Church despite our unconscious, subversive efforts to confine it. The prophetic isn’t limited to God-fearing people, and Christians don’t have a monopoly on Truth.
A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Ben Robinson.
Perhaps this is where my anthropology meets my theology so nearly, neatly, and dearly–in the enmeshing of the sacred and the profane in the everyday lives of people in culture, relationship, and meaning-making. Real salvation is transcendent in that it seeps out of our pores to touch everyone we meet and everything we do. And so I think theological education has to change to respond to not only this reality, but this Truth. It has to equip all these people who are going to be outside the walls of the Church institution, and who will be ambassadors of faith and hope and love in this world.
I look around and I value and am inspired by both forms of leadership, service, and ministry–those inside the Church and out–but I believe the Church and seminaries have often been focused on internal ministry at the expense of the external, and our lives are lived, made, and redeemed in the everyday.
A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.
Thanks for letting me talk forever and ever this morning about what I really find interesting in this beautiful, strange, sacred world.
P.s. You may notice the blog has a new look. About time, right? Everything’s pretty much the same except some of the links are to the right and on the bottom. Thanks for stopping by and let me know what you think of the facelift. —Erin