As I knocked on Akash’s door, I was pleased that he greeted me with “my friend” rather than “Mr. Howell.” I could tell that he seemed a bit preoccupied. When we sat down for the usual tea, he delivered the bad news: This would be our last meeting. He was being called back to India because of an emergency and was unsure when or if he would return. He managed a faint smile and said, “So, my friend, if there is anything more you wish to know, now is the time to ask.”
“Ok,” I answered,” Here goes: What is your religion anyway?”
“I am first and foremost a guru, and most gurus do not have a formal religious affiliation. I grew up as a Hindu, explored both Buddhism and Zen Buddhism and then the Abrahamic religions. That is why I know so much about the Bible. You could call me a universalist I suppose, but I have no affiliation with the Unitarian Universalist Church.”
“Well, I have to say that you are indeed a very wise person, and I find that I agree with much of what you said.”
“I am pleased to hear that but also understand that you not only are a Christian but also are one of a diminishing number of people who attend church regularly. In addition, from my research I have learned that you have a Master of Divinity degree from a famous seminary and at one point were in line to become an Episcopal priest. Is this correct?”
“I am afraid that it is.”
“And yet you and I agree on many things. You know that I am not a Christian. I am curious as to why you seem to be so dedicated to your neighborhood Episcopal church since you do not sound like an orthodox Christian to me.”
“Well, this is a long story but two quick points. First, it is often said that Episcopalians check their hat at the door when entering church, not their brain. While there is still a lot of baggage that goes along with being an Episcopalian, there also is some wiggle room about what you believe. Second, being part of a caring, religious community is important, and, frankly, I would admit being part of a caring community is probably the main motivating factor. Besides, Embry sings in the choir, and that is very important to her. At times I must confess, however, I question if it is worth the effort. For years I have not said the creeds that are in the prayer book.”
“So what else resonates with you about our discussions?”
“I especially was impressed with your comments about Jesus and that from your viewpoint he was truly a Holy Man who embodied what you call ‘the Great Spirit.’ I had never thought of it that way exactly, but it surely resonates with me. The anthropomorphisms found in Christian, religious language as God being a “he” and Jesus being his “son” have never made much sense to me. Also, I am impressed with your comment that trying to take the mystery out of religion often is not only counterproductive but misses the point. The human condition is such that we do not and will not have all the answers. You point out that through prayer and meditation, humans can connect with the Great Spirit and that the purpose of all religions is to make sense out of the world and connect to a deeper reality that is elusive but real. What also resonates, however, is that there is validity in all religions and that there are many pathways to seeking, as you say, the Great Spirit.”
“Well, that surely should get you into trouble with a whole lot of churches. They haven’t tried to throw you out yet?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, one person told me that there was no place for heretics like me in the church and that I should leave. When I did not leave, he did.”
I continued, “But why did you not talk about the dark side of religion and religious organizations? What about the terrible things Christians did in the Crusades, the millions of Catholic and Protestant deaths in the Thirty Year’s War, the Witch Hunts in New England, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the ‘Christians’ who are outspoken Trump supporters, and stormed the Capitol and bought into ‘Stop the Steal’? The Ku Klux Klan says it it is a Christian organization. I could name many more.”
“Yes, this is true, and it is troubling. Do you remember the conversation about evil spirits in the world? I would put these into that category, but the evil spirit phenomenon remains a mystery. Also, human nature is fragile and easily corrupted. It also illustrates that simply saying you are a Christian or a Muslim or Buddhist is not enough to make you one. As you Christians say, only God knows that. But I must admit, I too find this baffling but sadly true.
“Now I want to change the subject. And ask about your seminary experience? How did that affect you?”
“Well, it was mixed. Union Theological Seminary in New York City was at the time nondenominational (It is now ‘interfaith’!), which had a rigorous academic program (The great theologians Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr taught there but had departed by the time I arrived in 1964.) and a strong emphasis on social justice, especially the Civil Rights Movement, which is what really appealed to me and many of my classmates. No one I knew there ended up pursuing a career in the ministry. Embry and I spent the summer of 1966 working on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement in southwest Georgia with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the most radical civil rights group at the time. It was an experience of a lifetime.
“My involvement in ‘the Movement,’ however, got me into trouble with my bishop, who was the head of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee. He was a feisty, old-school guy who thought that Episcopal priests had more business being in the pulpit and at the altar than marching against racism. I actually liked the guy and appreciated his honesty, but we parted ways before I graduated. I remain grateful to him to this day. Given my heretical theology and struggle with doubt and belief, it would have been a rocky road. After graduating from Union, I got a master’s in city planning from UNC Chapel Hill, which I parlayed into a career assisting developers and nonprofits build affordable housing and seniors housing. Embry got a master’s in bio statistics, which led to several health policy research jobs, and we settled in Washington in 1972 where we raised our two kids and have lived ever since. I could never have asked for more. As you pointed out, I have been blessed. So that is my life in a nutshell.”
“Thank you for sharing. Before we part ways, however, I have a question for you regarding what seems to be happening in America. I see that church attendance in mainline Protestant churches has been declining for some time and that many younger people have opted out. There is a new category of ‘nones’ referring to people who in surveys say they do not have a religion and a growing number who say they are ‘spiritual but not religious.’ At the same time, Evangelical churches while growing also have in many instances been radicalized politically with a large number thinking that your former president, Donald Trump, is the new Jesus Christ. What on earth is going on?”
“I am somewhat confused myself but think that part of this has to do with the social class and racial divisions in the U.S., which are very serious and account for some of this behavior. I also think that the established mainline denominations–and also Catholics (where immigrants have slowed the decline) –are partly themselves to blame for this situation. They are seen by many younger, more progressive people as not taking a stronger stand on social issues or doing as much as they should to address the pain and suffering that is happening in our country and the world. In a word they are seen as irrelevant. There are also divisions in these denominations regarding social issues like marriage equality, sexuality, and abortion. Plus—and this gets back to the conversation we have been having—taking a hardline position on belief and faith is a turnoff for many people in what is now a secular and questioning world.
“I will concede, however, that this is not always the case. Last week I was talking with an old friend, who has had a very successful ministry as a ‘High Church’ or ‘Anglo Catholic’ Episcopal priest. When I told him that the Episcopal Church would be better off ditching the creeds, he laughed, gave me a big hug, and exclaimed that he could not disagree with me more. He pointed out that his Anglo Catholic church in New York City was thriving as are similar churches where there is incense, chanting, and the use of traditional liturgy. On the contrary, he pointed out that declining church attendance was having a bigger impact on those churches with watered down liturgy, loosey-goosey beliefs, and in some parishes that were little more than social clubs. If the church did not stand for something and take orthodox belief seriously, he pointed out, why bother? But he concluded his remarks with this comment:’ Joe Howell, the language in the Nicene says we, not I. In other words, it is not necessarily what you believe but what the church has believed over the years.’ I interpreted that as giving people like me some wiggle room.”
The guru responded, “Well, I am glad you think you have some wiggle room. You surely need it. But while I have said “one destination, many pathways,” you also have to be careful. First, the destination needs to be legitimate, that is, an honest search for the spiritual. And, second, you have got to realize that some pathways may lead you in the wrong direction, some to a dead end, and others over a cliff.”
I answered , “Yeah, and I think I could name a bunch of those right here in the U.S. where the pathways they have chosen have taken them over a cliff. I also agree with the idea of ‘different strokes for different folks’ and admit there are no easy answers. That is why I have been especially interested in your world view and your beliefs. I believe that there should be more room in traditional Christian churches for questioning and doubt as long as the focus on spirituality remains, and the Christian message of love your neighbor, helping the poor and less fortunate, and working for social justice do not get lost in the shuffle. But, hey, what do I know?”
“Well, you know more now than when we started our conversation when you were in dire need of an exorcist. As I say, the Great Spirit works in mysterious ways. I will miss you, my friend. Don’t throw in the towel.”
“Safe travels. I hope you will return.”