August 1, 2013 § 6 Comments
I am as surprised as anyone that I’m about to study theology.
As a gay teenager, it didn’t take me long to figure out that religion was not for me. Outside the school lunch hall, I remember being told by a newly evangelical friend that I was doomed to go to hell. Once I’d figured out that I was – in fact – fine, it was clear that organised religion was absurd, irrelevant, and cruel.
The house I was raised in was largely secular, the country I grew up in also. Yes, I went to a Steiner school and ended up singing in a gospel choir at university – but even then I couldn’t sing the word ‘God’ because it felt weird.
So why now start a masters at the Harvard Divinity School to combine with my public policy degree?
1. Systemic change outside – demands personal transformation inside
Urgh, I know. The whole ‘start with yourself’ shit. Five years ago I would have rolled my eyes at this. But from every transformation I’ve been through (coming out, becoming vegetarian, taking up fitness, recovering from my accident) – I’ve learned that the physical changes have always come after an inner transformation. Without a change in my worldview, new behaviours just didn’t stick.
Likewise, streaming through our economic and political systems swims a sea of values; what do we deem important? What do we reward? How do we understand ourselves as humans in relationship to the natural world?
Without shifting some the answers to those questions internally – how can we hope to build something better out in the world? I have learned the hard way that policy changes alone aren’t going to get us to where we need to go. The world demands more of us.
I want to point to my mentor Charlotte Millar here, for introducing me to a mindfulness practice and helping me run the project I’m most proud of – Common Cause’s Action Learning Process, where I first started putting this into practice.
2. Social action has to come from a better place than anger and revenge
It is a dirty secret, but after five years of activism, campaigning had become unfulfilling. Maybe even a little boring.
In so many conversations and meetings, I have sat with activists – all of us justifiably upset about a blatant injustice, indignant at the world’s betrayal. And although we talked about the issue at hand – I believe the hurt we were feeling came from somewhere else.
All of us had experienced the unfairness of the world in one way or another. For me, it was the exclusion and loneliness I felt being a closeted teenager in a testosterone-fuelled boys’ boarding house. For others, it was about having a stutter, being made to feel different because of race or class, a parental break-up, abuse, or something else entirely.
This pain had become our gift – it gave us eyes to see the world for what it was, and the purpose to do something about it. But it was also a crutch. Each campaign had become an opportunity to replay the revenge-cycle, to finally beat the big bad guy. Secretly, it didn’t even feel that different whether I won or lost – the fight is what mattered.
With time and healing work, these old wounds have softened. I am less angry and have more compassion. I’m more able to see multiple truths. I will always work towards justice and sustainability – but can no longer do it with the fuel of a hurt 15 year-old, because I am no longer him! So now I look to a more nurturing source, and much of that I have found in spiritual practice.
It should have been obvious, really. So many of the great social movement leaders I admire had a rigorous spiritual life. Even amongst today’s forerunners, we see these ideas brought to life at the Movement Strategy Center and the Rockwood Leadership Institute, for example.
3. This work allows me to be whole
I love the world of political activism – strategy, messaging, debate. I even have a thing for innovative policy design. And – I also love leading a group to sing in harmony, opening conversations that allow for true vulnerability, and making a space so beautiful it moves people to wonder.
Previously, I could sneak elements of this into my work – but in the world of divinity school, these things are legitimate – with experts, and rigour and opportunities to practice and innovate. I even get to take a course in sacred music!
It feels like I have found a life to which I can bring all my gifts, not just those that impress on the CV.
4. Religions know about making meaning – and meaning is what we’re looking for
I learned an important lesson in Marshall Ganz’s classroom last year. We often think we need to make changes easy for people. But really, we need to make them meaningful.
That’s what every brand tries to do. That’s what every great story, celebration and relationship does – they bring meaning to the random set of experiences that life consists of. Think of the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony – chimneys coming out of the ground and bouncing NHS nurses singing ‘Jerusalem’ moved me to tears!
Religion, at its best, can do this beautifully. It can build true community, give us a place to commit to being our best self, offer wise teachings, remind us of deeper meaning and purpose, mobilise us for justice, create transcendence, help us work through the inevitable challenges of life, share inspiring stories and nurture elders.
Personally, I think most religions are doing a pretty crappy job at serving people like me in doing these things. Others agree – alternatives are springing up like the School of Life and the Sunday Assembly, while insiders like Richard Holloway are leaving established institutions.
With everything I’ve learned about the need for a new narrative of progress, the hero’s journey and symbolism – I think the world of theology has plenty to offer for someone keen to build meaning into social and environmental justice work.
There is still so much I want to do, and no doubt in five years time I will look at this with wholly different perspective, but for right now – it feels really right.
I’ll see you in the lecture on eighth century prophets or intermediate Hebrew…