Seeing Past the Horizon
My freshman year of college, I found myself doubting my faith for the first time. My father had almost died from hypertension on my high school graduation, and every time I went to the Church for answers, I was immensely disappointed. I felt I was left with two options. Maybe, there was no God, and what happened was a very unfortunate coincidence. The other, was that God orchestrated what happened to my father for reasons both unbeknownst to me and irrelevant to me, as if I found myself cast into a play as comic relief. I tried on both of those options, and found them both impossible to reconcile. Instead I decided to traverse between these two giant claims, like a ship down a thin and precarious ravine. My experience is a microcosm of the spiritual life of young people today. We find ourselves in contact with God, not by accepting certainty, but by actively resisting it.
When searching for meaning again, I discovered Hallowing the Gaps, a spiritual essay by Robert Pennoyer II, a priest of the Church of the Heavenly Rest. Tin the essay, Pennoyer openly wrestles with becoming a church leader while actively doubting many of the foundational elements of his faith. He even admits that his being Christian has more to do with historical demographics than providence. This resonated with me in college, and still does every time I read it. Pennoyer was “breaking the fourth wall,” and calling the entire production into question. Yet, this calling into question was not a premature denial, but an expectant call to dialogue.
One of my biggest takeaways from Pennoyer is that faith is like a Seurat painting, where if you look too closely you will only see a tiny hued dot, but when you back away, you’ll see the full picture.
The interesting thing about dots, is that they offer completion without meaning. As a circle they have their own beginning and their own end. The fuzzy edges of a dot offer a horizon, which both betrays its completion and points to something bigger.
A fuzzy dot, I believe is the best way, to describe the institutions young people find themselves in. For centuries, growing up has meant that one has a coming of age. This coming of age meant that one had to be instructed in their national myth, led through the importance of their institutions, and once they were proved worthy, one was granted a voice and a place of belonging. Through this coming of age, one would find the boundaries of their entire world. With the rise of the internet, this paradigm has been shattered. The cultural exploration which was once restricted to those with the privilege of travel, or the difficulty of immigration, has now become commonplace.
We are constantly aware that the world is interconnected, and that this dot that we occupy is only a piece of a larger picture. Furthermore, we have become increasingly aware of the fallibility of our institutions. In politics and religion, trust in our leaders has dissolved to the point of apathy. The idea that we must be silent until those in power allow us to speak is gone. So, where does that leave our spirituality?
Half a century ago, the answer to the dot’s horizon was to reject the “dot” altogether. Anarchy in all things was the way to meaning and existence. If one wanted meaning, they had to find it themselves. As Sartre said, “human life begins on the other side of despair.” Today, this too is rejected as another form of insincere certainty. In the face of a global climate crisis, police brutality, and politicized bigotry, the idea of meaning being personal and invented becomes far too crass to be considered. In this way, God is not encountered through accepting institutions whole heartedly, nor through throwing them out entirely. Rather we encounter God through audacity.
We consistently break the fourth wall, and demand that those institutions who claim to show us the way to God “put their money where their mouth is.” The fact that we are in a “fuzzy dot” was not the issue, the issue is what do we do with this reality. We must acknowledge that we take up space and have a responsibility towards it. The fact that our dot has a horizon, which leads to other expressions and realities, is not a reason to fear, but a chance to discover. Young spirituality often looks less reverent than in years past, because God is expected to shake things up, to be put to task, and to make a difference. Finding out voice doesn’t come at the end of our spirituality; it is the beginning of it.