by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor
In 1952, e.e. cummings was invited to Harvard for a series of what he referred to as nonlectures. From the outset, cummings clarified that he had no interest in the traditional lecture form: “Lecturing is presumably a form of teaching; and presumably a teacher is somebody who knows. I never did, and still don’t, know. What has always fascinated me is not teaching, but learning.”
I grew up in a conservative Christian home, set out to become a youth pastor in my college years, then found myself in my 20s somewhere between faithless and unsure, among friends who had similarly fallen out of love with religion, the church, God, or all of the above. Oddly, we had met years prior at a church that only a few of us now attend.
Finding ourselves lost within a story we had been a part of our entire lives, we met once a week last summer to ask each other hard questions, questions we did not rush to answer. In the spirit of e.e. cummings, I delivered a series of nonsermons (now transcribed here), because sermonizing is presumably a form of preaching; and presumably a preacher is somebody who knows.
Maybe I did, but now don’t, know. And anyway, what has always fascinated me is not preaching, but wondering.
I recently visited a barber I used to have because I promised him I would “come see him,” as you do when you run into your old barber in public and avoid eye contact while they look at your maintained hairline and wonder who you’re seeing now. Over the course of the haircut, the barber asked me what I had been up to, and I told him that I was finishing a graduate degree in theology. And—as always happens when I mentioned this in passing—the question followed: “So do you consider yourself religious?”
When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, I dreaded the obligatory question in the months leading up to that date: “So what’s next?” I had double-majored in religion and writing (two very lucrative majors when you get to the job market) and had no plans for ministry nor any offers to write professionally. I would respond that I was looking, but had not decided yet. Maybe teaching, I would say. Maybe graduate school. I hated the question. When you don’t know what’s next, the question morphs into an accusation, however self-imposed: What do you mean you don’t know?
In the two years it took to complete my Master’s, “Do you consider yourself religious?” became the new “So what’s next?” If I was honest, and said I didn’t know, I felt the waves of accusation coming, and they were not always self-imposed. As a child living deep in the Bible Belt—Texas to be exact—my family attended church every Sunday. I led my first prayer for our church as a kid, I became heavily involved in the youth group in my high school years, and I went on to be a youth intern for three separate churches throughout my college years. I sought God’s will in every decision and felt God’s presence moving me to action often.
At that time, “So what’s next?” was conceivably answered by “ministry,” though I had begun to lose what I then referred to as “the call” for a career in the church. And yet, when I announced to family and friends that after three years of teaching I was going back to school to study theology again, most believed this was because I had some investment in studying Christianity and preaching on it.
And why wouldn’t they? I am a Christian, after all, right? That’s what studying theology is for, right? To be religious is to be Christian (or Muslim or Jewish, etc.), right?
Maybe it is not all that simple, but let me get back to the haircut with my barber. “Do you consider yourself religious?” he asks, and because he is the type of barber who is interested in what you’re saying, he stops cutting my hair and makes eye contact with me. He waits for my response like a dentist removing their utensils so that I can speak.
I don’t know why—perhaps because I had made assumptions about his own beliefs, or perhaps because I meant it—but I replied, “No.”
“No” is a strong word for someone who grew up Christian, who once thought preaching Christianity would be his profession, who once sought God out in every aspect of his life, but there it was, lingering in the barbershop for four or five strangers and his sometimes-barber to hear.
“No,” as in, I don’t consider myself religious, not in the traditional sense. “No,” as in, for about 25 years I would have said “yes, definitely,” but not now, in this moment, for whatever reason. “No,” as in, I was so invested in religion I almost became a minister for a church, but now I can’t even say for sure if I am invested in the religion part, personally. “No,” as in, I have studied religion for six years but can’t quite say what, exactly, it does for me, if anything, not anymore. “No,” as in, not yes.
But “no,” as in, no? I am not sure that is what I meant to say.
What ensued was a conversation of backpedaling and not very good explanations that ultimately proved—if not to me—that what I meant by “no” was that I really don’t know what we mean by “religious” anymore. This barber, whom I had mistakenly assumed was not religious and would let me get away with saying “no,” turned out to be someone who grew up with no religion but has found it in the past few years as something he really connects with. He now attends church weekly with his family and is good friends with his pastor.
“It seems like we all go the opposite way of our upbringing, don’t we?” he laughs, and I laugh, too, because right now I really want to cry.
But as true as his statement may be for the two of us, I think of all of the friends I knew growing up in church who still go, who still put their faith in a God in a way I haven’t for years.
It seems actually, at least to me, that many follow in the path of their upbringing, but some of us go wayward.
My barber’s perspective made me envious, as if I was looking in on something I had never been a part of. He described the way that traffic happens, that one person who is selfish and wants to get somewhere faster than everyone else will weave in and out of cars, making the drivers inside those cars nervous, and causing them to slow down, which creates traffic for everyone else.
What we need, my barber tells me, is for people to think outside of themselves, to seek connection and not isolation. This, to him, is the point of religion. If that is religion, I tell him, then praise be, I am religious. Let the barbershop say amen.
The problem is, if you told me that story without context and asked me to describe who was religious, it would not be the drivers who are polite and work together to get everyone where they are going. I would have pinned the selfish driver as the religious zealot, en route to heaven no matter what collateral damage he causes along the way. Thus lies the problem with so many metaphors in religion: they collapse under inspection.
In a lecture on letters, the poet Mary Ruefle describes the way an experience can be a miracle, and later the same experience a tragedy. On opening a simple letter from a friend, she writes, “Only now, thirty years later, do I understand what a miracle that moment was, that I was its destination and it had arrived. If I die tonight, that moment is blessed and without regret; very rarely in life are prayers thus answered.”
But she goes on: “I have experienced the countermovement of this moment, standing by the side of the road under a great elm, in a cloud of dust from a passing car, with a letter in my hands that caused me to collapse in pain and shock and acutest anguish.”
If I had told my barber that yes, I am religious, I am a Christian, a different conversation would have occurred, and we would have shared a different connection. Yet the same word to a different person, perhaps in the same room as us, would have been the end of the conversation, especially to those who had been hurt by religion, as so many of my friends have.
Further, would it have been sincere for me to say I am a Christian, when that word feels so ill-fitting now, like it never used to when I came to that altar and felt my worries washed away?
I worry that, in saying “yes,” I lose the capacity for a common language to at once communicate the small miracles of the day and the large tragedies of our lives. I am not saying this is just the fault of the religious, or any institution, but that collectively we are not speaking to one another’s joys, nor one another’s fears.
What do we mean, really, when we use the word “religion”? Is religion an institution, or is it a belief system, or is it anything we devote ourselves to, from a family to music? In my years of studying religion, I find myself drawn to two definitions, one by religious historian Charles Long, and the other by humanist and hip hop scholar Anthony Pinn.
From Long: religion is an “orientation—orientation in the ultimate sense, that is, how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one’s place in the world.” By orienting ourselves to anything at all in this world, we practice religion, in the sense that each of us locates our ultimate significance somewhere. That doesn’t mean we each believe in a god, or gods, or that anything comes after this life, or even that we have to go somewhere each week to ritualize your orientation. It simply means that by orienting ourselves toward something that gives us meaning here on earth, we participate in what we call religion.
Pinn picks up on Long’s sense of orientation in his own definition: religion is the process of making meaning out of an absurd world.
If nothing else, we can all agree: this world is absurd. Death and destruction abound, whether it be hurricanes or fires taking lives, barrages of bullets killing students in schools and people in public spaces on an almost daily basis, law enforcement killing and being acquitted of killing Black people, law enforcement separating and caging families upon entry into this country, and all of the other ways we destroy ourselves and see ourselves destroyed. It all goes on despite our protestations, and it all seems out of our hands. We want to do something, and sometimes we do, but here we are, each just one person with such small voices, and where does that leave us? It’s truly absurd.
Still, I choose to make meaning out of my time here. I choose to spend my time loving the friends I love, writing the words I write, teaching the kids I teach, in hopes that in some way my small corner of the world will be better because of it, even if I die and am forgotten in a matter of generations, and there is no eternal reward for it, just something earthy and grounded and seemingly insignificant. “I may not be able to do great things,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “but I can do small things in a great way.”
Even, yes, if the world is no less absurd for my having been here. This, too, is religion.
I don’t mean to quote something nice and easy from Dr. King to make myself feel better about whatever it is I’m doing to make meaning of this absurdity. What I try to remember about Dr. King is something I learned from Ava DuVernay’s Selma: that Dr. King, now commodified, iconicized, and projected into the heavens, was merely a man—albeit an extraordinary one—who worked with others to make the world more just in his small amount of time on this earth. To render him godlike paralyzes or pacifies us; to render ourselves incapable does the same.
Last summer, I gathered with my friends—some of whom are still in church, some of whom have left church, and all of whom are less concerned with church attendance and more concerned with what we believe now. Every week for two months, on Sundays at 6pm, we gathered at each other’s houses and opened ourselves to the process of figuring out (and often not figuring out) our faith or lack thereof. We called it Summer Camp—and not church—because church is not a place all of us felt we could make meaning out of.
What if Summer Camp turned out the same, I asked? How could we know that what we were doing was any different, any more meaningful? We invited each other into the tension of holding space, both for our sense of the miracle that our community could be, and also a sense of responsibility to what we must do to make it so.
“My religion is the beat,” JAY-Z once declared, and the same might as well be true for me. I first came to music in the sixth grade, when I was bullied relentlessly for a year, and music quite literally saved my life that year and in years following.
I am reminded, however, that though the concert hall has long been a holy place for me, a place where I feel most connected with my spirit, others do not access this privileged space in the same way. The research on sexual harassment of women at shows is enough to prove that what is holy for me might not be the same for others. In 2018, Vera Papisova asked women at Coachella about their experiences with harassment at the festival. While there, Papisova herself was groped 23 times. The concert, usually effortlessly holy for me, can be a place of torment—a hell—for others.
It is absurd, how terrible the world can be. I am invited into a response: will I work to make the space holier, or will I stay where I am? The latter should not be mistaken for a lack of response: it implicates all those who choose complacency.
When I call something, anything, my religion, I won’t ever again say that it should be yours. I won’t say that if only more people went to church, or read their bibles, or attended concerts, we would all be better for it. “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another?” Henry David Thoreau asked. “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
Austin Kleon, a writer and artist who shares his thoughts on creativity and how each of us can be lifelong students of something, posited that instead of asking graduates, “What’s next?” we should start asking, “What do you want to learn?” The question is much more inviting and hopefully less intimidating, as the answers could spark any number of conversations.
Imagine yourself here, fully in this moment, and you don’t have to proclaim any religious affiliation, nor do you have to tell your family or your barber or anyone whether you’re religious, as if you have an answer for that. But what do you want to learn?
I invite you to make meaning with me, and with one another, in this absurd world, in our unthinkably small corner, in our outrageously short amount of time. My religion, at least on Sundays at 6pm for one summer, was what my friends and I made of our space together.
Beyond that, it was up to us to make it holy, or merely human. What a joy and a responsibility to see no difference between the two.
- e.e. cummings, i: six nonlectures (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).
- Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, & Honey (Seattle: Wave Books, 2012).
- Charles Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and the Interpretation of Religion (Aurora: The Davies Group Publishers, 1999).
- Anthony Pinn’s definition of religion appears in many of his works, but I first encountered it in his co-edited volume with Monica Miller and Bernard “Bun B” Freeman, The Hip-Hop and Religion Reader (London: Routledge, 2014).
- Vera Papisova, “Sexual Harassment Was Rampant at Coachella 2018,” Teen Vogue, April 18, 2018, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/sexual-harassment-was-rampant-at-coachella-2018.
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854).
- Austin Kleon, “What do you want to learn?” May 16, 2018, https://austinkleon.com/2018/05/16/what-do-you-want-to-learn/.