A Search For Religious Expression

I was raised to be the kind of secular Jew that is Jewish solely by bloodline. The fact is, if you had asked me what my religion was, I would have said Judaism. That is, until I even stopped being even that Jewish. 

Now I say I’m agnostic or atheist, both of which have been true at times. But if I were being honest, at this point in my life I would say I am spiritual. But I don’t say that. Ever. I don’t—this may be the first time I have done so outside a whisper in my own head—because there is so much cynicism attached to that term among my peers here. 

Everyone sees it as a new-age bit of B.S., a cop-out, or some hippie poser thing. It’s not exactly a secret that religion and spirituality are pretty underground at the 5Cs. Not that there aren’t any religious groups or spaces for talking about spirituality and so on, but those topics are contained in their weekly meetings and don’t leak into the general campus discourse. They’re not welcomed in the world of the 5Cs, or anywhere else I’ve ever lived: namely liberal, urban areas. The experience of “something else” intrinsic in these discussions does not seem to fit well into the logical, rational culture here. It’s too intangible to study properly, so we reject it. This society of cynicism does not want to hear about spiritual experience.

I’m not looking for religion. If anything, I don’t want it, because I’ve lived my whole life with a rhetoric of logic above all. But I can’t ignore the fact that I’ve always been fascinated by religion, unable to shake it. I’ve gone from asking in preschool why my best friend’s family said grace over dinner, attending church, and being told not to take the Lord’s name in vain—I regularly asked my mom who “the Lord” was—to now being a religious studies major. Somewhere during those years of my life I realized that there are a million and one ways to understand divinity and to feel connected to something mysteriously deep. There are just as many ways to live that out, and spirituality doesn’t have to have anything to do with any of my preconceptions. Maybe it’s a thing I could even try. Maybe.

I want to be able to explore this new realm of possibility for myself, even if right now my experience of divinity consists of certain songs and crisp days and moments of intense human connection and sometimes Table Manners. But here, even if I surround myself with people who are similarly open to talking about these experiences, or similarly eager to explore them, I can’t fully shake off the sense that our cynical society is sneering over my shoulder. I can’t be honest with myself or be sincerely open to the possibilities of what I’m thinking or feeling. At a place like the 5Cs, where most forms of external religious expression elicit confusion or skepticism, I don’t feel as if I can confidently and fully explore these curiosities.

This is where my interest in pilgrimage comes in. Pilgrimage takes you totally out of society, out of your community, out of everything comfortable. It challenges the pilgrim to go far beyond his or her limits, generating intense experiences through this pushing and challenging. It draws together a community of devoted, passionate people. Whatever exactly it is they are looking for, they are willing to push beyond the norm and open to this depth and intensity of experience. This experience of something greater, something deeper or more intense or more alive or just more, is what all pilgrims come to find in their own way.

And I want this experience. I’m not looking for religion, but I am looking to externalize my internal spiritual questioning. I’m looking to tear myself out of my comfort zone and fling myself into this all-encompassing, overwhelming, intense experience. I want to try being honest with my thoughts and myself for a while, by freeing myself from all the usual pressures. I want to live for a time in a space where exploring spirituality is welcomed, not merely a thing I can maybe do in the appropriate place at the appropriate time with the appropriate people. I think that I, and others like me, need to take our spiritual questions and curiosities outside of the 5Cs. I want to leave this world of cynicism for a bit and just see what happens.

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