An Open Letter from a Secular Student of Religion
Hey, we’ve (probably) never met, but there’s something that I’d like to get off my chest: I’m a secular student of religion. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, but it certainly feels like a big confession to make in a forum about religion. That said, let me explain why I think it matters that feminist seculars like myself study in seminaries and theological schools and what these non-secular institutions can do to help foster our growth within their walls.
You may be wondering why I’m bringing this up. Let me continue in my confessional spirit while it lasts: I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means to be non-religious and to choose to study religion in a theological setting (i.e. obsessing over it). In that hectic combination of post-Easter break haze and an ever-increasing mountain of end of semester work, I have found many odd moments of reflection that key me into the fact that I’ve changed a lot in the four years since I’ve begun my theological studies.
For example, on Easter Sunday I had found myself giving a fairly rousing interpretation of the two endings of the gospel of Mark to my parents, neither of whom asked for it (weren’t they surprised!). Four years ago, I couldn’t even tell someone what the four gospels were, never mind their individual content. In my youth, the bible was merely a confusing amalgamation of stories and letters that were not meant for me. Before coming to a theological education, that text was simply a tool for others to condemn me, as well as a means to deny myself agency (“I don’t understand this. How can my ‘friend’ tell me I am going to hell? What did I do wrong? Maybe I will never understand.”).
The choice to claim some agency by changing my academic focus from classics to religion in a theological setting was a surprise for everyone (myself included). I justified the switch to a non-secular education by saying that it would be important to understand how to teach undergraduates with faith backgrounds. However, this voiceless “calling” was something that I would only later come to understand as a deeply feminist move on my part. By taking the plunge into a field I knew nothing about, I was taking agency back from those who have told me that my opinion doesn’t count and my worth is less because I don’t have “religion” (i.e. the right version/denomination, of course!). Now that I can read biblical text with some proficiency, I can make some solid counter-arguments to people who claim oppressive interpretations of “what the bible says” about gender roles, sexuality, ethics, and more. Reading various interpretations and scholarship on the bible has honestly made me the feminist I am today, a gift for which I am most grateful.
However, it has been my role as a teaching assistant to MDiv students that has helped me see how vital it is that non-religious students study religion in non-secular contexts. I’ve not “outed” myself as non-religious to my students, though some may suspect that my lack of concrete knowledge about church logistics is evidence. But I wrestled long and hard with myself about the ethics of choosing to identifying my stance or not. In the end, I decided to say nothing. On the one hand, I was concerned about how conversations could be curtailed in light of this information, but more importantly, I decided that unless they asked me, it wasn’t a vital piece of information. My job has been to facilitate their spiritual growth and sense of the stakes in ministry by considering a variety of voices and interpretations not given by the mainstream: feminist, womanist, queer, postcolonial, disability studies, etc. I decided that I could do this without outing myself (though the irony that I am outing myself in this blog post does not escape me).
My students have challenged me to create pedagogical exercises that combine biblical study, theory, and pastoral care concerns. The turn to praxis-oriented activities has been liberating for us all: it gives them space to think through real issues and lets me learn from them in turn. All in all, I’ve learned skills and perspectives that would not have been open to me in a secular institutional context.
My current experience has been rewarding and while I have found many fellow non-religious students in my studies so far, my early entry into theological education was isolating. In consideration of that experience, I’d like to raise the following points/observations as ways to think into why non-religious students find study at seminaries difficult and what needs to be considered when moving forward.
First off, there needs to be an active conversation about how to facilitate non-religious students being in religious spaces. Are you worried about the lack of bodies in your pews and seminary classrooms? Perhaps you may want to entertain the project of helping make a welcoming space for seculars who do not want to be converted. Perhaps conversion doesn’t need to be the point. Conversation is another “c” word that would do nicely instead. Non-religious people are interested in learning more about religion, but the way into that process is not clear and seems dangerous (unwanted conversion attempts or marginalization) or too academic (only in the classroom and at a distance from real people). You most definitely want non-religious people being more educated about religion and its stakes, and it’s better that they get it from sources other than cursory internet searches.
Please consider your words and perspective. Yes, we non-religious students in seminary are often the minority, so please don’t feel you can’t be yourselves around us. But when you see my face and you say something discriminatory against “seculars,” you make me feel like I am twelve again and unable to say anything. I imagine minority denominations and faiths in the classroom feel similarly when comparable comments are made. We choose not to say anything because we are tired of defending ourselves or worry there is too much at stake (our friendship, how people perceive us, etc.).
And finally, help us understand you better, but be willing to understand us better as well. Ask us questions! Tell us your stakes, share your anecdotes. Help us bridge that divide between the academy and the church, and be kind when we don’t understand yet, or maybe never at all. We don’t (necessarily) want conversion, so accept us as we are. Take it as an encounter with the other that does not need to be overcome.
But with all that hard work ahead of us, let me suggest that we first sit down with a cup of coffee and talk about that empty tomb for a while before brainstorming what needs to be done about religious education. That way we’ll get to know one another better and I’ll definitely have more to say about that topic come next Easter. My parents won’t know what’s coming for them.