Four Reasons To Go To Divinity School

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.

The Common Cause Action Learning Process at work in my parental home.

The Common Cause Action Learning Process – lots of reflection with coloured pens.

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.

Leading a blessing song for Anna & Robert's wedding.

Leading a blessing song for Anna & Robert’s wedding. Yay!

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.

The Olympic Torch Relay was a masterclass in the power of ritual and symbols.

The Olympic Torch Relay was a masterclass in the power of ritual and symbols.

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…

§ 6 Responses to Four Reasons To Go To Divinity School

  • Emma Biermann says:

    Hey Casper, I’m loving your blogs lately. Thanks for sharing the steps in your personal journey. Big love to you and good luck kicking off the new school year (and please teach me what you learn about eighth century prophets! 🙂 xxx

  • Hey Casper, thanks for writing this. I have a good friend in Australia who I think you would get along with really well – Jarrod McKenna – so when you come and visit us one day, you two should meet. I am reading a book he got me recently called “Take this bread” by Sara Miles, I think you’d like it.

    Also reading this post reminded me of a quote I have on my desktop at the moment that is kind of about things we don’t understand but that we know are important: “You’re afraid of the dark but that’s where you learn to see”.

  • Inge Wallage says:

    Beautifully written, Casper and I very much agree. I have written something regarding loosing our anger on my blog earlier this year (referencing Thich Nhat Hanh). Furthermore, I got quite inspired last year by the Wicca religion, which I felt was the closest to embracing our beautiful world/nature. I would love to hear your views on that! Last, but certainly not least, I am very inspired by Alain de Botton . What the secular world can learn from religion(s) is quite a lot. Hence, I admire you and the journey you’re on. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to hearing more and ongoing! :). Just fyi: I have left Greenpeace, but certainly not my quest for a different, more green and peaceful world. Per 1st September I will join IWA (International Water Association) as their Communications & Marketing Director) to contribute to systemic water solutions in our world. Hope our paths will cross again, warmly, Inge

  • lizziegawen says:

    I have found that my Christian Faith and spirituality sustain and shape my activism in a positive way. I’m going on a week long silent and mindfulness retreat at Woodbrooke Quaker Centre. The week is based on the teachings on Thich Nhat Hanh, who Inge mentioned in her comment. I now live in an intentional Christian Community and you’re welcome to visit anytime 🙂 We have lots of lovely veg growing in the garden.

  • Lance says:

    despite being an aspiring theologian, unless you have plenty of time and money, I’d say skip the divinity school and take 4-5 specialized classes over time- one per semester, perhaps.
    An Mdiv is far more helpful than say, a theology degree, because it is inherently practical, but either way, I’d probably the degree itself, and just take individual classes that might cultivate what you’re looking for.

    Either way, I applaud the recognition that religion is an important piece of social activism. Good luck!

  • secretordinand says:

    Hi Casper, This is really interesting, I am an ordinand at the CofE and I too have a blog, which I have recently turned into a blog to highlight my attempt to to be joyful and more mindful in life.
    Also is that you at Cambridge, UK with the Olympic torch?!

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