On a cold, snowy day last January, I received a message from the alumni office of Princeton Theological Seminary. They were promoting a gathering on PTS’s campus for the second weekend in May. I remembered the beauty of springtime in Princeton. In particular, my imagination conjured up the image on the seminary campus of a paulownia tree in bloom with beautiful, purple flowers. As a graduate of that institution in 1970, I decided it was time to go back and see if the tree was still there.
That spring forty-eight years ago was not a time of accomplishment and hopes for the future. During the winter of that year I came before an ordination committee of the Presbyterian Church and they refused to ordain me. Because I had a wife and young son, I needed to find employment. I decided to turn away from the ordination process and seek employment in the profession of my family. I applied and was accepted as a laborer at U S Steel’s plant in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. I calculated that I could earn more money in the mill than as a new minister; and, I would have time for the writing and photography I wanted to explore.
I worked at U S Steel for three years while I formed the ideas that would create a career as an oral storyteller. During this time I continued to attend a Presbyterian church as a layman. I was even ordained as a lay elder in the Church. As my career as a storyteller became more important in my life, I stopped attending the local church and eventually gave up my membership in the Presbyterian Church. For forty plus years I have had little relationship with the Christian Church in any of its denominational forms.
This brings me back to that decision on a wintry night last January. Why did I decide to attend a PTS alumni event––three days with one-hundred and seventy-five people who have given their lives to the Church? I know that it was not because I have regrets about the decision that I made when I left the Church. As Joseph Campbell put it, I did find my “bliss” in telling stories to children for thirty-five years and what has followed in adult storytelling for the past ten years. I think, for me, it is related to what I will call a lifelong search for the spiritual in me.
My last morning at the PTS alumni gathering, I attended a lecture by Miroslav Volf, a professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. His lecture was centered on the ideas of “Trust and Trustworthiness” as understood by the Christian tradition. His subject was supported by Biblical sources, history and what I will call psycho-socio statements about the human condition. What I found missing was any reference to the importance of myth in our spiritual lives.
After the lecture and brief questions from the audience, the alumni attending broke-up into four groups to continue discussion of the subject in smaller groups. I joined one of the groups hoping to stimulate discussion by introducing my concept of religious myth as a foundation for a spiritual life. I wanted to talk about Carl Jung’s concept of archetype. And, I admit, my ego wanted to tell the story of my rejection by the Presbyterian Church (about being trustworthy) and my journey to build a career and find my own form of spirituality.
The art of conversation involves both listening and sharing ideas. When I enter into conversation I try not to dominate with my own ideas. In a group of thirty people, as we had that morning, I like to get a feel for the group and wait for an opening where I can share a new idea that adds something to the conversation. I should have known with a group of extroverted Presbyterian ministers, talking about theological ideas, there were not likely to be any lulls in the conversation.
The leader of our group restated several of Dr. Volf’s main points in his lecture––one that trust between antagonistic groups comes when we build bridges between them–– and then asked for responses. An elderly woman immediately claimed the floor and told the story how she became the first Presbyterian woman to be ordained––building a bridge between females and males in the Church in her understanding. An African-American woman questioned the bridges that have been built between blacks and whites in this country. Another woman of color, who came from a Caribbean Island, questioned the bridges built by missionaries on her island. A white male questioned the value of bridges between antagonistic groups. He told the story of Jesus and the money changers in the temple. When we encounter evil we should destroy it, he argued, not build bridges to change it!
This was all good conversation in a community of Presbyterian ministers. I enjoyed their discussion, their different perspectives of the Church––but the more I listened, the more I came to feel like a New York Yankees fan at a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. Their Christocentric metaphors for the spiritual experience are not shared by me. And yes, I know, they are Christians and now it is clearer in my heart and mind that I am not a Christian. I thank the PTS community for helping me to say these words: I am not a Christian.
I walked out of the discussion group without saying a word to anyone about my spiritual journey after graduating from seminary. As I headed to my car, I looked across the campus quadrangle and there I saw the paulownia tree. It was in full bloom with beautiful, purple flowers. I smiled: it had been a good two days in Princeton, New Jersey, but now it was time to shake the dust from my shoes and leave town!