A Question for the Church

“You know, this prayer thing has me stumped. I really do want to pray. But when I sit down, my mind seems to go blank. I talk to God, but God never seems to talk back. After doing this for a while, I get discouraged and quit. But pretty soon, the nagging is back: “You should be praying.” So I make a resolution, start again, and pretty soon, I stop. What I really like to do is walk in the wild, so on Sunday afternoon, I give myself a treat and go out to the headlands and hike. Sometimes there I really feel like I am praying. But it doesn’t seem to carry over to Monday through Saturday. Anyhow, when my friend told me about the Spiritual Exercises, my heart jumped a little. So here I am.”
–A Contemporary Woman
(The Spiritual Exercise Reclaimed, p 113)

“A practice of daily reflection such as that proposed in the reclaimed examination of consciousness both depends on and fosters the skills of noticing, naming and acting on one’s awareness of God’s presence in daily life.”
(The Spiritual Exercise Reclaimed, p 116)

In my view, these ideas embodied today feel most resonate through Mary Oliver’s poetry. As she wrote in the poem, The Moths:

If you notice anything, 
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

Is Mary Oliver an example of “A Contemporary Woman,” the mysteriously attributed author of the quote at the beginning of the reading? Is the Contemporary Woman bound to find spirituality outside of the institutions that have shut women out, or can women actually reclaim spiritual practices that were created intentionally without them in mind? How can something be reclaimed if it was never claimed by them originally?

Considering the way poets such as Mary Oliver embody Ignatian spirituality today, is this the arena in which women can truly live out such spirituality, outside of the patriarchal confines of religious/Catholic institutions? Or can women truly claim space within a tradition that has never really allowed for their full flourishing?

I appreciate the pushes for feminist reinterpretations of religious texts, but I wonder how much an interpretation counts when it is still not the dominant way of understanding and seeing a text. With this in mind, how can someone like Pope Francis, a spiritual visionary who is still confined to the traditional gender roles of the Catholic church, help shift culture toward a place that allows women’s spiritual gifts to be appreciated and used in broader applications within the church?

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Farewell Interfaith Insight: Why This “None” is Going to Divinity School

This Interfaith Insight appeared in the Kaufman Interfaith Institute Inform on 7/18/17 and in the Grand Rapids Press on 7/20/17. 

———–

I am writing this Insight as my final piece working for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute. Having been the Program Manager for the last four years, and as a college intern before that, the interfaith community across west Michigan has become my own community.

However, the time has come for me to build community elsewhere, and that place will be Harvard Divinity School in Boston. This fall, I will begin studies on religion, politics and ethics through their Master of Theological Studies program, learning alongside students of all religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds.

So in this final piece, I wanted to answer the question that many of you have asked me over the last four years: why do I, as a non-religious person, do interfaith work? And more relevant to my current plans, would would a non-religious person go to divinity school?

As I have written previously, I am one of those millennial “Nones,” a term that Pew Research coined to include the over one in three people under the age of 30 who are atheists, agnostics, the spiritual but not religious, and basically anyone who would check on a form, “None of the Above” in regards to religious or spiritual identity.

Being a so-called “None” who convenes and facilitates religiously diverse interfaith spaces, my secular identity has often come up. Almost always the reaction I get is one of surprise and confusion. “But, if you’re not religious, why are you interested in religion?” Or phrased differently, “If you don’t have a faith, why would you be involved with interfaith?”

I never felt the need to ask myself this question until I moved to Grand Rapids. In my undergraduate studies, while certain stereotypes existed against atheists, I was never questioned as to why I was in such spaces. In my religious studies and political science classes, it was clear why I and my secular counterparts cared about learning about religion. Religion, spirituality, and faith were important to us – not only in our political activities nationally and internationally, but in people’s lives – in their activism, organizing, and careers.

For me, it was obvious: religion still matters. It was important for me to understand the traditions and followers in order to understand the world I am a part of. It makes my study of history, politics, and activism deeper and more authentic to the human experience, of which religion is such an integral part for so many individuals and communities.

While I may not be a person of faith, I am a part of a world where faith is an active dynamic affecting all of our lives. To engage with interfaith was a way of appreciating this aspect of existence, with an emphasis toward the lived experiences of people’s stories of faith as well as the doctrines that shape our lives and institutions.

Over these four years of organizing interfaith efforts in west Michigan, our dialogues and service projects did more than teach me new things about religious traditions. Each conversation, each relationship, quickly invoked a sense of “holy envy” in me. A term from Krister Stendahl, the former dean of Harvard Divinity School, holy envy is the recognition of something so beautiful in another person’s tradition that you wish to reflect it in your own tradition.

Realizing how deepening I found interfaith work to be, both personally and professionally, I sought to continue this formation through divinity school.

But this leads to a second question you may be asking: why does a Divinity School let in someone who does not necessarily believe in the Divine? What even is Divinity School?

To many people’s surprise, Divinity School is about much more than training future pastors and ministers. Most notably, places like Harvard Divinity School and many others leading schools have programs that intentionally reflect the religious and non-religious diversity of our country. Harvard itself has multiple theological and ministry initiatives around all religious traditions, not just the Christian tradition.

Further, more and more atheists and spiritual seekers are attending divinity school out of a desire for grounded, morally-rooted education toward careers in activism, social work, and community organizing. Instead of the pulpit, though, these leaders are taking their divinity school skills into the streets, political offices, non-profit organizations, and more.

Specifically, I chose Harvard Divinity School because, as leaders they just marked their 200-year-anniversary, they are on the forefront of the conversation around the future of religious life in America. This is a future that they recognize not only includes the secular, the spiritual, and the seeking, but it is a future that needs these voices in particular to shape our society and communities that will serve all.

It is in this space that I wish to bring my experiences learned from Grand Rapids over the last four years into a place where we can imagine what the future of our shared public life looks like – across the religious, spiritual and secular diversity that too often divides us. After all, in the enduring words of civil rights leader Vincent Harding, we live in a time that calls us “to see visions of life beyond the old boundaries, to search out the new common ground.”

I hope to continue to be a part of this conversation beyond the old boundaries, and seeking out new common ground, both continuously in Grand Rapids, and in my new home in Boston.

For those I have worked with and gotten to know during my time at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, I want to thank you for the ways in which you have welcomed and challenged me in my growth as an individual, an interfaith leader, and as a human being seeking spiritual meaning. I hope to keep up with as many of you as possible during this next chapter in my life! Please never hesitate to reach out and stay in touch. My continuing email will be katiegordon24@gmail.com.

Nuns and Nones: Conversation at intersection of contemporary religious, secular life

Originally appeared in the Rapidian (April 11, 2017). This is an extended version of my blog published on April 10, 2017 about Nuns & Nones: The Beginning.

A few months ago, I wrote two articles on the trend in American religious life that has been dubbed by Pew Research as “the Rise of the ‘Nones.’” This language of the “Nones” is an umbrella term meant to include anyone who falls into a “none of the above” situation when filling out demographic information about their religious tradition. Including atheists, agnostics, and “nothing in particular,” according to recent surveys the Nones now account for the second largest religious group in America, resulting in roughly one in four overall, and one in three millennials. (Source)

My first article explored how many of these Nones are building meaningful communities outside of religious institutions, and the second article suggested what religious institutions and Nones might be able to learn from one another.

As a so-called None myself, I was interested to see how religious leaders in our city would respond to these pieces. To my delight, a Dominican Sister emailed to let me know how she appreciated the perspective and wanted to learn more about and from the Nones.

When we sat down and talked, the similarities between her group, the Nuns, and my group, the Nones, became so obvious. Both Nuns and Nones are on the margins or fringes of our traditions. Both Nuns and Nones have a track record of challenging institutions in order to promote inclusion and justice. Both Nuns and Nones are seeking community that is open to questions and the continuous search for meaning.

From my own one-on-one relationships with Catholic Nuns, and particularly the Dominican Sisters, I knew how much there would be for us to learn from each other. Based in our shared values, this inter-generational space would lead to conversations about how to sustain ourselves for decades in movements for social justice, how to stay connected with one another in a technological world that has the potential for isolation, and so much more.

Knowing how many Millennial Nones like myself desire spaces to learn from those who came before us, and realizing how older women who are religious desire spaces to connect with younger generations and their energetic engagement with the world around them, we set the first time and place to gather the Nuns and the Nones.

This past weekend, 17 of us came together – a balance between older women who are religious, millennial who are non-religious, and those in between – generationally and religiously.

We talked about the potential limitation or spaciousness of labels and identities. We talked about how questions never go away – but only deepen and gain meaning with age. We talked about how while many of us were taught that religion is black and white, spirituality can be that space in between meant for searching and discovery. We talked about the “deepest questions and unanswered wonderings” of our lives. We asked each other how we “fit” as a human family, how we feed ourselves in sustaining our activism, and what we are looking for in community. We talked about the difference between the community of church and the institution of church, the horizontal and the vertical. We talked about how we seek validation that it is okay to ask and seek, and we received that validation from one another. We were reminded to believe in one another, be okay with failure, look at the long view of history, and that perfect can be the enemy of good.

The words we closed with were ones of renewal, hope, inspiration, gratefulness, generosity, belonging, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is (maybe womanspiration?).

What excites me most about this gathering is what it indicates beyond Grand Rapids, and beyond the Nuns and the Nones. Similar gatherings to this one are happening across the country, which also grew out of the desire for inter-generational community building around spirituality and social justice. What this reveals about the future of religious life, I hope, is that we will continue to open up spaces that cross the divisions that religion tends to create. Whether divided by generations or traditions, we forget how much there is to learn from one another, and the potential of growing alongside one another. Even with messy, newly created labels like the Nones, and rich, historic staples of religious life like the Nuns, current trends of secular life can be in conversation with long histories of religious life, and we can both be better for it.

Nuns & Nones: The Beginning

A few months ago, I wrote two articles on how Nones are building seemingly religious communities, and what Nones and religious people can learn from each other.

It inspired Sisters from the Dominican Center to email me, letting me know how they appreciated the perspective and valued the knowledge of Nones.

I admit I was surprised to learn of the interest from our local women religious in those of us who are outside our traditions – the Nones, the non-religious, the spiritual but not religious.

But once I sat down and talked with them, it became so obvious. Both Nuns and Nones are on the margins or fringes of our traditions. Both Nuns and Nones challenge institutions in order to promote justice. Both Nuns and Nones are seeking community open to questions and searching for meaning.

And there’s also so much we can learn from one another. How to sustain ourselves for decades in movements for social justice. How to stay connected with one another in a technological world that has the potential for isolation. How our different generational perspectives shape our worldview in varied and meaningful ways.

Tonight was our first gathering of Nuns & Nones! Graciously hosted by the Dominican Center, 17 of us came together – a balance between older women religious, millennial non-religious, and those in between – generationally and religiously.

We talked about the potential limitation or spaciousness of labels and identities. We talked about how questions never go away – but only deepen and gain meaning with age. We talked about how while many of us were taught that religion is black and white, it’s actually more of a gray space meant for searching and discovery. We talked about the “deepest questions and unanswered wonderings” of our lives. We asked each other how we “fit” as a human family, how we feed ourselves in sustaining our activism, and what we are looking for in community. We talked about the difference between the community of church and the institution of church, the horizontal and the vertical. We talked about how we seek validation that it is okay to ask and seek, and we received that validation from one another.  We were reminded to believe in one another, be okay with failure, look at the long view of history, and that perfect can be the enemy of good.

The words we closed with were ones of renewal, hope, inspiration, gratefulness, spaciousness, belonging, validation, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is (maybe womanspiration?).

I’m so excited to keep building community with so many women I admire so deeply. And I’m so honored to be in relationship with my community in this way.

I hope this reveals a bit of the future of religious life in America – one at the intersections, open to evolution and revolution, based in relationships and dialogue and growth – together.

C3: The Interfaith Movement & Millennial Generation

On Sunday, April 9th, I delivered the “teaching” or a sort of “secular sermon” at C3: West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection. Building upon my first visit, where I shared stories of the so-called “Nones” and building community, I spoke about the interfaith youth movement and why millennials are particularly drawn into interfaith spaces. The description is below, the readings we shared in the program are under that, and the video can be watched here or audio can be found here. Hope you enjoy!

Katie will explore the interfaith movement in the US today, and particularly the way young people are using the interfaith movement as a way of promoting social change on campuses and in their community. As Millennials, who are significantly more non-religious and unaffiliated than previous generations, are leading this movement, what unique perspectives do they bring to interfaith work? And how is interfaith uniquely equipped as a space for young people to understand their identity, build inclusive community, and promote social change? Grounded in her own story as a Millennial-None-Interfaith Activist, Katie will share insights from her years as a part of the interfaith movement in America.

I am not from east or west
not up from the ground
or out of the ocean
my place is placeless
a trace of the traceless
I belong to the beloved
-Rumi

He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout,
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
-Edwin Markham

My heart has grown capable of taking on all forms
It is a pasture for gazelles
A table for the Torah
A convent for Christians
Ka’bah for the Pilgrim
Whichever the way love’s caravan shall lead
That shall be the way of my faith
-Ibn Arabi

we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
-Gwendolyn Brooks

The Rise of the “Nones” Part 2: Rethinking Religious Communities

This article originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press on Thursday, January 5, 2017.

PART 1 of 2. READ pt 1 HERE: The Rise of the “Nones” Part 1: Creating Community in New Ways

Last week, I wrote on the trend of “The Rise of the Nones,” a phrase that points to the increasing amount of people leaving institutionalized religion, “Nones” being an umbrella category that includes everyone from atheists to believers who left the church. In the article last week, I showed that while “the Rise of the Nones” may cause concern and paint a picture of spiritually-empty young people, the reality is that the rise of non-religious and unaffiliated has actually led to exciting, creative, and even spiritual ways of building community. 

But another part of this conversation is how those of us within religious institutions can learn from Nones in order to enrich the religious traditions that they originally left.

It might seem counter-logical for institutions to try to learn from those who are leaving their houses of worship, but in order to sustain their organizations moving forward, it seems essential to listen to the desires of these emerging generations.

One such voice to listen to is Nathan Schneider, a journalist and young public intellectual who has covered religion for publications including America Magazine and more. Schneider visited Grand Rapids to discuss his own millennial faith story: raised in an interfaith family, he converted to Catholicism at the age of 18, and has thus constructed an identity that holds a tension between the inclusive desires of millennials and the comfort of particular tradition, something that spoke to many of the students who attended the event.

One theme of discussion was how institutions, such as his own Catholic tradition, can meaningfully and authentically center youth voices into their religious life. He suggested that one way to sustain religious communities, particularly religious orders that are diminishing in numbers, is to connect the currents of youth culture to the needs of religious communities.

This alignment of trends has occurred across our country and in various communities. At Catholic Abbeys in Virginia, monks and nuns were able to employ sustainable practices and renewable energy sources to save money and live out their values in new ways. Additionally, at a formerly abandoned convent in New York City, a lay woman worked alongside Catholic Workers and Dominican Volunteers to create Benincasa Community, which houses lay community members and homeless guests.

These holy spaces, open to change, were able to re-create themselves and live into their religious principles while responding to the needs of their community and engaging the emerging generation. 

These stories caused Schneider to then pose the question to the students in attendance: if you had the ability to determine the future of a religious space, a house of worship, a plot of land, what would you do with it?

He asked us to be creative, and thus empowered us to re-envision our own roles within seemingly unchangeable religious institutions. How could we “hold and transform the charisms” to help move religious communities into the future, alongside those who have carried the traditions to where they are today? 

 From responding to housing needs in an increasingly expensive city, or pointing to the power of community gardens to utilize land and promote sustainability while building relationships, there was no shortage of inspiration in imagining how our local religious institutions can respond to needs and engage new trends.

 As Krista Tippett has suggested, young people who are passionate about social issues have the potential to bring fresh perspectives into houses of worship, helping point traditions back to their own “untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart.”

 The questions for our communities, then, have increasing importance. How can our religious institutions consider the issues that young people raise within and outside of religious communities? What would it look like to center and empower the emerging generation’s voices? When will we allow re-visioning to take place, and where will that re-visioning take us? Finally, how can we do this inter-generationally – learning from our elders, listening to our youth, and led by our collective community?

 The potential for these conversations to grow our communities, and thus ourselves as individuals, is unbound. But it first requires that we ask the questions, and welcome the answers.

The Rise of the “Nones” Part 1: Creating Community in New Ways

This article originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press on Thursday, December 29th, 2016.

PART 1 of 2. READ pt. 2 HERE: The Rise of the “Nones” Part 2: Rethinking Religious Communities

The phrase “Rise of the Nones” is a common parlance these days as we discuss national trends in religious identity, or lack thereof. One in three people under the age of thirty are likely to identify as a “None,” an umbrella term meant to include atheists, agnostics, the “spiritual but not religious,” and those who believe in a God but are not affiliated with a particular tradition or denomination.

As a None myself, and a millennial None at that, this ambiguous spiritual space is very familiar to me. While a phrase like “Rise of the Nones” has a somewhat ominous and even negative connotation to it, I have been able to see first-hand the incredible and creative ways community is being built by the Nones amongst us, both locally and nationally.

Two of the people leading the research on this emerging trend are Casper ter-Kuile and Angie Thurston, graduates of Harvard Divinity School and now Ministry Innovation Fellows through The Fetzer Institute. Their research on Millennial Nones culminated in a study called, “How We Gather.”

In it, they write: 

“Millennials are less religiously affiliated than ever before. Churches are just one of many institutional casualties of the internet age in which young people are both more globally connected and more locally isolated than ever before. Against this bleak backdrop, a hopeful landscape is emerging. Millennials are flocking to a host of new organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious.”

They go on to cite how millennials are not the “spiritual consumers of their parents’ generation,” and while they may not be interested in “belonging to an institution with religious creed as the threshold,” they are often still interested in spirituality and community.

And when Millennials cannot find those things, they create spaces for them to happen.

For example, in Washington DC, a diverse arts community called The Sanctuaries brings together multi-faith and multi-racial artists and creatives, promoting spiritual growth and social change through arts and music.

Another instance is CrossFit, a tribe-like fitness organization centered on personal improvement, and a community where members have so much of an evangelical enthusiasm that it keeps them accountable and connected in ways that continue outside of the gym.

These communities, popping up across the country, have in common six aspects, according to Casper and Angie’s research: community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and accountability.

But after Casper and Angie gathered 50 leaders from these organizations together to learn more, they heard another element that was essential to these organizations. They called it, “Something More.”

This “Something More” was what these secular organizations learned from their religious counter-parts – that collective well-being is only possible when we as individuals are able to connect deeply to something outside of and larger than yourself. This “Something More” is not possible without intentional community being built to bring Millennial Nones out of spiritual isolation from one another.

What these trends show us is that the lives of Nones are not spiritually empty, but are actually rich in community, meaning, and relationships across difference and around shared values. 

Krista Tippett, in her newest book Becoming Wise, even suggested: “The Nones of this age are ecumenical, humanist, transreligious. But in their midst are analogs to the original monastics: spiritual rebels and seekers on the margins of established religion, pointing tradition back to its own untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart.”

These new ways to gather, largely led by Nones and Millennials in particular, are allowing us to engage more authentically, search more deeply, and collaborate more meaningfully. We all – religious and non-religious alike – have something to learn from these emerging trends in spiritual life.

READ pt. 2 HERE: The Rise of the “Nones” Part 2: Rethinking Religious Communities