Lost in Santa Rosa

I had signed up a few months ago to hear Dominic Crossan speak at the Westar Institute Fall 2008 session in Santa Rosa. I actually was interested at the time in more than just the Dominic Crossan talk, but I wasn't able to convince myself to invest an entire weekend out of town. But I had decided that I could do the 55 mile drive to Santa Rosa on a Friday night for one hour and a half session from an author and scholar who I respected a great deal, especially since it was dirt cheap to sign up for a single session.

Well, the session was this past Friday, and though my interest in all matters Jesus-y has diminished recently, I had paid for it and I had already asked for and received the day off from work because I knew that otherwise I would not be able to make it up there after work during the rush hour. Since I had done so much planning for it, I figured I might as well go. As it turned out, I got involved in other activities that afternoon and did not give myself as much time as I should have to get there. I had not printed out a map from Google or Mapquest or any other internet mapping site, and I did not bring a GPS device with me, so I had to navigate the old fashioned way, which is to say that I wrote down on a piece of paper the directions from the web site, which seemed simple enough--they said to "stay on Hwy 12 (which joins Farmers Lane) to 4th Street." After realizing I was no longer on route 12 and I also wasn't on Farmers Lane either at a certain point, without knowing quite how I had gotten off the freeway, I realized I was lost in Santa Rosa--a city with a population of over 150,000--and not with a lot of time left to spare. My only bow to modern technology was a cell phone that I had with me, so I called the hotel for directions.

When I finally arrived, barely in time, there wasn't enough time for dinner, so I asked the desk clerk where I could find a hotel vending machine. Dinner thus consisted of some cheesy crackers and a couple of Reese's peanut butter cups. That was enough to tide me over for what did turn out to be an interesting and often entertaining visual presentation of computer projected photographs of Roman Imperial inscriptions, coins, archaeological finds, and other artifacts, narrated by Dominic Crossan.

He spoke about a subject that has dominated much of his popular writing lately, namely the nature of Roman imperial theology. The subtext was only alluded to occasionally during the talk, although it came up more explicitly during the Q&A--namely, that the language used to describe Augustus Caesar (Divine, Son of God, Savior of the World, Bringer of Peace, etc.) is exactly the same as the language that early Christians used to describe Jesus. The point, of course, is that this was no coincidence, that in fact the early Christians were using theological language that the people of that time fully recognized and that was pervasive and culturally dominant--but they were applying it to a completely different individual; and by using such language they were challenging the prevailing Imperial theology of that time, and by extension, the authority of the Roman Empire itself. The prevailing theology of the time, as Crossan pointed out, proceded from Religion to War, from War to Victory, from Victory to Peace. Caesar was worshiped as divine because he brought peace to his people--through military conquest. This theology of peace through victory contrasted with Jesus's theology of peace through justice. Thus the early Christians used the identical language of Roman Imperial theology to present a subversively alternative religious and political vision. As he pointed out, telling people of the Roman Empire of that time that an executed Jewish peasant was to be described in the same language as was used to describe the ruler of the "world" at that time would have led many people to roll over with laughter. And yet, as we know, this is precisely what was done.

Crossan is a funny and interesting speaker who exudes Irish charm. It was a bit far away for an evening trip, and the drive back that night was somewhat long, but I enjoyed the experience enough that I might just have to consider attending more events the next time the Westar Institute holds a session in Santa Rosa. It even may have rekindled a tiny bit of my interest in religious exploration. I'm not sure if that is enough to inspire me to want to actually attend a church, though. I mean, let's not go overboard or get ridiculous or anything.


I started to write this entry on September 12, just before I left on vacation, but I did not finish what I started and left it as a draft. This posting represents a slightly edited version of what I wrote at that time, along with some additional paragraphs tacked onto the end.

I haven't had much to say lately. I am feeling a little disillusioned with this process of seeking out religious communities. I always knew that I was going to deal with theologies that I didn't necessarily feel comfortable with, but the more contact that I have had with ostensibly "progressive" Christian churches, the less satisfied I have become with just making do.

A few months ago, at Pastor Bob Cornwall's request, I wrote an article for a journal that he edits, in which I discussed my religious journey and my experiences visiting various churches. I wrote at the time about my frustrations as a spiritual outsider looking inward, as one who was attracted to the Christian tradition and yet repelled by many of its more orthodox doctrines. What kept me going through all of that, despite the frustration, was a certain spirit of optimism, and maybe a sense that God was calling out to me. There were plenty of new faith communities left to try out, and so many churches seemed open to the ideas of people like Borg or even Spong. I believed somehow that if I kept looking I might find something at least remotely resembling I was looking for; at the very least, the novelty of visiting new churches kept me going for a while. The desire to connect with God was also a strong motivator. Bob himself had suggested to me once, before he solicited the article, that the demands that I was placing on the Christian faith were unlikely to be met, and that I was probably not going to find mainline Protestant churches that were going to offer the kind of theology that I myself was interested in exploring. I knew at some level that he was right. And yet, something kept me going. I was willing to make certain compromises, on the theory that a little bit of moderately frustrating spiritual nourishment was better than none at all. But this was proving to be a decreasingly successful personal strategy.

I could at this point, I suppose, expand my exploration and go roaming out further afield into the suburbs, in ever widening circles of church shopping exercises, but the reality is that the payoff seems dubious, especially given that long Sunday morning car rides aren't my idea of a good time anyway.

I found some of the churches I visited through their affiliation with the Center for Progressive Christianity; and others I found by doing web searches; still others were I found via a list of "progressive" churches contained an appendix of Hal Taussig's book, A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots. There was so much variety in approaches and theologies and congregations, it all started to make my head spin, and meanwhile nothing was really working. One church might have an interesting or progressive pastor, but the congregation was not very welcoming, or else I felt like I was crashing a party to which I was not invited. Other churches had services that were full of orthodox creedal confessions and high Christological language that just didn't work for me.

I had for a while been sporadically attending a small but active progressive church, with a progressive pastor. At one point the church had been offering discussion forums on the eight points of progressive Christianity. I attended one of them, and the subject of prayer came up. I am not a believer in the efficacy of intercessory prayer, and I said so at the meeting. No one argued with me or vocally disagreed with me, but in some sense I felt that I was speaking as an outsider with a different perspective than that of the others. The other members of this congregation were lifelong members of the that church's denomination who were edging into progressive territory, while I was an outsider who came at religious belief from a quite different direction. I realized at that point that no matter how progressive the Christian community is, I was forever standing outside of the Christian faith looking inward. I didn't want to play the role of iconoclast in any case. It was the real beginning of my disengagement with the church shopping process, although attending church during the previous Christmas season, with its celebration of events that I didn't for once second believe literally to have taken place, had also been a contributing factor.

It is hard for me to totally give up on this process. I haven't totally ruled out attending a church from time to time. And maybe my enthusiasm for this project will pick up again--anything is possible. There are one or two relatively progressive churches in my community that I could attend if I really felt the urge. But for the most part, at least at the moment, I am not feeling the urge. This represents a big change from how I felt when I first started this process a couple of years ago; at that time, I felt a really strong urge, as if God herself were calling me to go find a religious community.

While I was on vacation recently, I realized that maintaining this blog, and participating in online discussion in general, had been stressing me out. My vacation certainly had some stresses of its own--temporarily lost luggage being a major one of those--but somehow they were a different kind of stress, because things like lost luggage were vacation stresses; and once I did get my luggage I had the time of my life. I had internet access, but I didn't want to check this blog, write in it, or participate in blog discussions here or anywhere else.

I'm still basking in the afterglow of that vacation a bit, even though I have been back for over a week. What that means for the future of this blog remains an open question.