The sky of South Texas domed a flat land, smoothed by ancient ocean tides, scoured by hurricanes and floods, stretching from horizon to horizon. That sky was my first invitation to openness, space, wonder. No surprise that I soon began scrambling into the hackberry nearest our house, with its wide low boles I could just throw an ankle over and shinny up, a toddler hauling herself into the first lap of the tree. Higher and higher I’d climb, wondering if I was in the sky yet, feeling the kiss of westerly breezes on my cheeks and catching the faint salt scent of surf-tossed ocean, thirty-five miles away.
The evening version of that sky was starred so thickly in our neighborless nights that the Milky Way had vast companionship. The Big Dipper and rarer Little Dipper of my childhood I later learned to place among Orion, the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, Taurus, Scorpio. Later still I learned how these constellations were formed by human imposition on distant-from-each-other stars, constellations, galaxies.
I remember hearing somewhere along the way that “space” actually begins just above any planet or other object’s surface, and I love that idea. Although I will never travel in a space beyond that of planet Earth’s gravitation pull, I can know that my fascination with and curiosity about what lay above me and around me is a cosmological thread that connects my 60-year-old self with my six-year-old self as surely as any other tie that binds.
And that’s where the religious part of religious naturalism comes in for me. I understand religion as the ties that bind: people to themselves, people to each other, people to that which matters and has worth to them … but also, the substrate of what ties all to all.
For most of my life, I have wandered various branches of Christianity, seeking in theological exploration some way to make sense of a connective fire in my bones: fire for love, for justice, fire to make more life more possible for me and for others.
I won’t say I plumbed every depth of wisdom and practice, but I went pretty deep, following my love and curiosity and desire into spirituality, ministry, various degrees, different fields. I’ve been a journalist, pastor, professor, chaplain, and am now an educator of chaplains. I have struggled with what is limiting or lacking in Christianity, and done my best to break through those limits and remedy those lacks, particularly in doing my part to address Christianity’s need for decolonization and anti-racist practice. Indeed, my PhD resulted in a constructive theology of white anti-racist thought grounded in practice. There have been spaces where that work has made a difference, and I am grateful for that.
As Christian Wiman says in My Bright Abyss, God calls some of us to doubt that faith might take new forms. I have followed and fought with all the power of my doubts, all of my life, and am coming to a space of some equanimity that I have done what I can in the space between and among and around the world of doubt and faith. The meaning and inspiration and calling I find in Christianity has ebbed lower and lower, even as my gaze and life have taken me deeper into the world that has always been making it possible for me to live. I know I have not always returned the favor. I will spend the rest of my days doing what I can, not because of what I believe in or hope for, but because of what I see, and how those lights and darks and greens and blues and oceans and firs fill me: with air, with joy, with life.
For many years, the hackberry I climbed as a child served as a story of finding God in the breath of wind in the highest branches, and of the saving graces of that finding. That tree represented uplift; that tree represented salvation, from family and other troubles; that tree represented sanctuary.
Now the story is simpler. The tree is no longer a metaphor for what saved me and gave me life.
The tree itself is what saved me, gave me the breath of life; the tree itself was the sanctuary, the salvation, the bridge between an ever-changing sky and ever-changing me.
I have learned from the work of various scientists and naturalists how interconnected the world is, how each element sustains others, shares energy, and in dying makes energy available that enables new life. I believe our work as human beings is to follow this natural model, and to become more aware of the ties that give rise to us and bind us to everything.
Without privileging our species, I do feel humans have a particular responsibility as a part of the natural world that not only has consciousness, and but now also bears culpability for planetary-scale harm. We can do better, and we must, to help make more life more possible.
My hope is that as we come to a wider and deeper awareness of the joyous entanglement that is our true nature and our true calling, we will live into that entanglement with all the life-giving joy and justice we can.