Friday, April 16, 2010

This I Believe... (Part II: My Intellectual Autobiography)

Part II: My Intellectual Autobiography

It has been said that all theology is autobiography. In other words, all theology is a hermeneutical exercise that you cannot separate from yourself.

This lecture is structured into three major parts. In the first part, I will sketch out a bit of my own autobiography. In the second section I will sketch out my own belief system, and you may see links between my theology and my autobiography. Finally, I will offer you a framework for thinking about your own beliefs, which is to say that I will share my beliefs about beliefs.

I am actually going to share with you two different autobiographies. The first is an intellectual autobiography. The second is a religious autobiography. The two share many overlapping parts but I will attempt to tell them each distinctly.

I grew up in the town of Wayland, Massachusetts, a town of slightly more than 10,000 souls about 20 miles due West of Boston. Wayland is a wealthy suburb that invests heavily in education. My parents both worked as high school teachers in neighboring towns. For both my parents, education was important. My mother taught high school English and theater. Before becoming a high school physics teacher, my father taught nuclear physics at MIT for a decade.

Growing up, education was instilled into me as a core family value. And, it was also a core value of the town in which I was raised. I attended a public school system that was geared towards sending its students to elite universities. It attracted top flight teaching talent by offering high salaries. (Some of my high school teachers earned six-figure salaries.) My junior year high school English teacher had a Ph.D. in English literature from Stanford. My high school biology teacher had a Ph.D. Even my second grade teacher, Dr. Chafe, had a Ph.D. My high school history teacher published original research in scholarly journals. It is one of the best public school systems in the entire country.

In my early teen years my interests grew increasingly towards history, social studies, and English even though science was perhaps my strongest subject. I remember growing dispirited with science in eighth grade when my teacher, an adorable man with the unfortunate name of Mr. Stern, had us use lasers and note cards to set up a little classroom experiment in order to prove that light travels in a straight line. Out of my dismay for the orderly nature of existence I protested by writing a lab report that claimed that we had performed the experiment on the day when all light particles decided to fail to delight the joyless students in Mr. Stern’s eighth grade class by staying orderly and straight-lined. They were unimpressed by the simple holes cut in the notecards but might, on some other day, delight and entertain a more pleasant group of students. I knew the correct answer. I knew the answer I gave was not the correct answer. The correct answer just wasn’t that interesting.

As I entered high school, I was increasingly drawn towards literature and history and the social sciences. Science, especially biology, remained my strongest subject, but the social sciences were what captured my mind. It was during my high school years that I chose ministry as my future vocation, though there were certainly other temptations. My score on a national biology exam was among the highest scores in the entire nation and I briefly flirted with the idea of pursuing bio research or medicine. Those subjects failed to captivate me in the same way that the humanities did.

One of the tremendous advantages of attending the high school that I did was that it was designed to launch you into college. Of a graduating class of 134 students, all but two were college bound. Harvard capped the number of students they would accept from Wayland each year so there was great competition over which four students would get to go. Finishing in the top half of your class was enough to earn you a trip to an elite college or university. My high school classmates were bound for schools including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, The University of Chicago, Amherst, Georgetown, Wesleyan, Colby, Swarthmore, Bryn Mayr, and so on.

I finished just inside the top third of my high school class and I chose to attend a small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. Reed College had a well-deserved reputation as the most academically rigorous institution of higher learning in the country. It has produced more Rhodes Scholars than any other liberal arts school but one. (If you re-load the page that I've linked to several times, a picture of me juggling will eventually pop up.) Reed ranks third in the nation in the percentage of graduates who earn Ph.D.s; the only schools to produce more doctoral students are Cal Tech and Harvey Mudd, both science and engineering schools. Reed College was founded by a Unitarian minister and its students pride themselves on an intellectual and academic discipline that borders on masochism. The library closed most nights at two o’clock in the morning and every night there was a parade of students leaving at closing time. Reedies don’t close down bars; they close down libraries. The library was the hoppingest place on campus on many Friday nights at midnight. In the humanities, professors regularly assign an average of 500 pages of reading per class per week. Ten to twelve hours of studying per day is the norm for many students.

A week after my 18th birthday I moved from Boston to Portland, Oregon, with plans to major in religion, gain acceptance to Harvard Divinity School, and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. (I suppose you can call me driven or call me stubborn.) My academic work focused on the history and theory of religion, American history and American literature, the social sciences, semiotics, and literary criticism. For the most part I was an Americanist although I did explore other avenues. At age 19 I became enamored with Gnostic Christianity and spent a semester teaching myself Coptic. (I spent at least 6 hours each day studying Coptic.) I devised a special schedule that involved sleeping from midnight to 2am, studying Coptic from 2 to 4 in the morning, and then sleeping until 6:30 in the morning. I kept this schedule for about two months. I managed to finagle an all-access VIP pass to the British Museum and Library in London and spent the better part of a week in London handling ancient Gnostic Christian texts from the Nag Hammadi library and Oxyrynchus, including heretical Christian texts from the late second century of the Common Era and a beautiful illustrated copy of the book of Revelation from the fifth century. In other words, what the average teenage American tourist does in London.

I spent my summer breaks working as a lifeguard, but also immersed myself in the required reading list for the Ministerial Fellowship Committee for Unitarian Universalist ministers. I had actually read just about the entire required reading list before I started seminary. I read Forrest Church and James Luther Adams. I also read William James and I attempted to read Paul Tillich. Forrest Church’s early obsession with Thomas Jefferson inspired my own early obsession with Thomas Jefferson and my undergraduate thesis critiqued the Enlightenment approach to religious freedom as embodied by Jefferson. I also learned how to write grants and managed to get my college to fund a fall break trip to Charlottesville, Virginia which allowed me to handle Jefferson’s original architectural drawings and pamphlets from the 1770s both for and against the legislation of religious freedom. In other words, what the average college student does on fall break.

On a spring day in 1999 I received an admission letter from Harvard Divinity School along with a scholarship that would completely pay my tuition over three years. Several of my friends at Reed reacted to this news by expressing sympathy. “Oh, it is only a masters program not a doctoral program. Are you OK?” “Only tuition? No fellowship?” This was a dream come true for me and yet several people treated me as if I needed to be consoled.

My Harvard Divinity School education combined coursework in religious studies with practical courses in ministry, from homiletics and preaching to polity to counseling to theories of religious education. I continued my scholarly interests as an Americanist, studying the history and theology of New England religion from the Puritans through the Civil War. I also developed an interest in the psychology of religion and comparative mysticism.

I mention all of this in order to make a point by omission. In seven years of religious studies, I looked at religion comparatively, historically, sociologically, anthropologically, psychologically, and linguistically but the one place where my training was light was in the realm of philosophical theology. I somehow managed to work around a deep and sustained study of Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, Kant and Hegel and Hume, Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard, Barth and Niebuhr and Tillich. These figures were not unknown to me. At the same time I didn’t feel like I had mastery over them. I remember when I was the student minister in Needham, Massachusetts having dinner at the home of John Buehrens and his wife Gwen when John asked me which theologian I found most influential. I answered, “Anne Lamott,” which is a fairly embarrassing answer. I’d now answer that question differently.


Follow the link to continue to the next section, Part III: My Religious Autobiography & Drawing My Faith Journey

Or, return to the Table of Contents