Episode 12: Matthew Croasmun on how (and why) to ask, "What makes a life worth living?"
In the final episode of “Can These Bones,” co-host Laura Everett talks with Matthew Croasmun about the popular Yale undergraduate course that invites students to apply the best of their intellectual energy to questions of meaning, purpose, value and worth.
What constitutes a life worth living? And how do you begin to explore that question? The Rev. Dr. Matthew Croasmun and his colleagues tackle the issue in a course offered by the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. In it, students engage with a range of philosophical and religious traditions to form habits of reflection that will equip them for “the life-long process of discerning the good life.” In his conversation with “Can These Bones” co-host Laura Everett, Croasmun talks about what he has learned from teaching the course, why engaging with other religious traditions is vital to his faith, and why he is one of the faculty advisers for Yale’s secular humanist community.
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More from Matthew Croasmun
Yale Center for Faith & Culture: Life Worth Living program
Life Worth Living video: “David Brooks and Miroslav Volf: A Conversation on Character, Flourishing & the Good Life”
Yale University Office of the Provost: Yale Title IX reports
Elm City Vineyard Church
Yale Humanist Community
Books and poetry mentioned in this episode:
“Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life,” by Anthony T. Kronman
“Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” by William Deresiewicz
“Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe,” by Tom Krattenmaker
“God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom,’” by William F. Buckley Jr.
“God Unbound: Wisdom from Galatians for the Anxious Church,” by Elaine A. Heath
“As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Laura Everett: From Faith & Leadership, this is “Can These Bones,” a podcast that asks a fresh set of questions about leadership and the future of the church.
I’m Laura Everett.
Bill Lamar: And I’m Bill Lamar. This is the last episode in our series of conversations with leaders from the church and from other fields. Through this podcast, we have aimed to share our hope in the resurrection and perhaps breathe life into leaders struggling in “valleys of dry bones.”
Laura, you spoke with Matt Croasmun, a pastor and research scholar who teaches a wildly popular undergraduate class at Yale. Tell us a little more about Matt.
Laura Everett: Matt is the director of the Life Worth Living program at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. And Matt and his wife, Hannah, also planted and have pastored the Elm City Vineyard Church in New Haven. By training, he’s a Paul scholar. He’s an author and an interfaith advocate.
But the focus of this interview is really Matt’s work in teaching the Life Worth Living course at Yale College. The course was founded by the theologian Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz. The course has been offered since 2014, and it’s proved to be wildly popular -- so much so that it’s now being offered at other universities.
I want to read you the course description, because I think it helps give a sense of what’s going on here. It’s the course Humanities 411, and it reads thus: “‘Life Worth Living’ draws upon a range of philosophical and religious traditions to help students develop habits of reflection that will equip them for the life-long process of discerning the good life. … [What does it mean for a life to go well? …] In short, what shape would a life worth living take? We will explore these questions through engagement with the lives and visions of founding figures from six diverse religious traditions of imagining a good life: the Buddha, the Torah and the Hebrew prophetic and wisdom writers, Jesus of Nazareth, Muhammad, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Nietzsche.”
The course itself is fascinating, and perhaps what’s even more fascinating is the overwhelmingly positive response to it. Students are excited to take this, and curious to ask this big question: “What constitutes a life worth living?”
Bill Lamar: You’ve almost made me want to go back to undergraduate, but probably not.
Laura Everett: No, I’m good.
Bill Lamar: Let’s hear your conversation.
Laura Everett: Matt Croasmun, welcome to “Can These Bones.”
Matt Croasmun: Thanks so much. Great to be here.
Laura Everett: We’re really glad to have you today. So this course, this Yale college undergrad course, Life Worth Living, began in the spring of 2014. Tell us the origin story of Life Worth Living.
Matt Croasmun: Sure. Actually, that particular story is only tangentially connected to me personally. But my colleagues Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz began designing this course when Ryan and I were both still in graduate school. Miroslav is a professor of theology at the divinity school, and Ryan was one of his graduate students.
And I think it began in large part for Miroslav with a kind of diagnosis of something unsettling in our universities and in our culture at large. I think a particular book that crystallized many things for him was Anthony Kronman’s book “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.”
And that book makes basically that case: that fundamental question of, What is the good life? What is the sort of life worth having? What’s the sort of life worth wanting? What’s the sort of life that we ought to want for ourselves and ought to want for our children? That fundamental question is both deeply contested these days, in ways that perhaps it was not in more homogeneous cultural environments, and yet at the same time, that question has been sort of given up on.
It’s no longer a question that’s being asked and answered in today’s universities. So indeed, for at least a year if not more in advance of teaching the course, Ryan and Miroslav and my other colleagues at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture were gathering scholars and professors from all over the country and asking, “Is it possible to ask and answer this question in a pluralistic environment and still take issues of truth really, really seriously?”
And the course that they taught for the first time in 2014 and that we’ve refined and expanded since then is our answer to that question.
Laura Everett: So clearly, students at Yale are smart and ambitious. I’m curious about what were the signs that you and your colleagues saw -- the notice that there was something missing?
Matt Croasmun: Well, there are a number of signs. Some of them you can see earlier; some of them take longer.
To be frank, on this campus, the Title IX reports that have come out in the last several years about sexual violence on this campus would be among the sort of signs that, early on -- that is, while students are here at Yale -- there is a sign that what it means to do right by one another, what it means to form this sort of community of honor and respect, is something that’s not happening the way that anyone here would want it to be.
I think a lot of the signs, though, may take longer to appear.
But Bill Deresiewicz, in a book -- which I’m not sure is entirely fair to the Yale education, but some of his criticism is really well-received -- in a book called “Excellent Sheep,” talks about that what many elite students are really good at is running on well-defined tracks. They’re not very good, necessarily, at charting their own way in the world.
The last moment -- and of course, we could talk about many other signs -- but the last moment to talk about is the midlife crisis for those who do succeed. They run on those career paths. They get everything they thought they wanted. And all of a sudden at the end, they realize they’re deeply dissatisfied.
And often they get to 50, 55 and they are -- winning wasn’t worth it. Because maybe they won a race that wasn’t worth winning. And so these questions of value and of worth, I think, were highlighted again and again, from the undergraduate careers of our students all the way into later periods of life, in which it was clear that these questions of worth, of meaning and value, were questions that our students are not prepared to answer. They’re worse for it, and the world in which they are in many cases leaders is worse for it as well.
Laura Everett: Matt, you talked about the tendency for people with wisdom and talent to know how to move on well-defined tracks, and maybe even strive to move fast on well-defined tracks, but that the winning might not be worth it.
It strikes me in the same way that academic courses can also run on well-defined tracks -- the Intro to Engineering, the Psych 101. There is a path that is clearly laid out for academic programming, and [it strikes me] that you all made the same decision, to create a course that was not just about being on a well-defined track. I imagine -- were there places of resistance for this kind of course?
Matt Croasmun: I remember when the course was first taught, there were these questions. We offer a retreat for students to attend, and at first we weren’t sure: Is this allowed? Is this appropriate? What would some of our colleagues think? What would administrators think?
We had some sense of what the bright lines were in terms of what we -- you know, we couldn’t require students to come to the retreat, but we could certainly offer it. But something like that really starts to sit outside -- “Wait, wait, what are you doing with your students there?” “Well, we’re taking them away for a weekend, and we’re inviting them to tell each other their stories and to share really personally where they’re coming from, where they’re headed.”
And so I think that, too, was something that sat really clearly outside the norm.
The other practice that I’d point out would be, on the very first day of class, I tell students -- usually within the first 10 minutes of the first day of class -- I tell students, “Look, I am a Christian, and worse yet, I’m a Christian pastor.” I tell them, “Look, I feel like I need to tell you this, because it means I can’t be your neutral tour guide about questions of the good life.”
We, in our course -- and presumably we’ll talk more about this -- we look at all kinds of different answers to the question of the good life. Religious answers, nonreligious, philosophical answers, answers and traditions that sort of sit in between categories of religion and philosophy and help us even think about what those categories are and what they mean.
But I can’t pretend to be neutral as we walk through. Because of my Christian convictions, it’s really important to me that the classroom be an open environment in which anyone, wherever they’re coming from, can approach each of these traditions and really hear them honestly and charitably, and give each tradition its fair hearing.
But again, I don’t do that despite my Christian convictions. I do that because of my Christian convictions. Because of who I know Jesus to be, I understand part of my love of neighbor to extend to that intellectual generosity that I want to offer to my students and to the authors and the traditions that we engage in the class.
But I tell them right from the beginning, “Look, this is who I am. This is where I’m situated. I know that you’re situated somewhere, too. And I hope that right from the beginning, we’ll recognize as we have these conversations that none of us is located nowhere. All of us come from somewhere. We have convictions. We have instincts. We have a history and a background and a set of impulses that have brought us to this table that are going to shape our conversation together and I hope even might themselves -- that is, our deep convictions -- might themselves be shaped by our conversation together. But that’s only going to happen if we actually bring our whole selves to the table.”
You know, I have multiple students every year tell me that they recognize, “Oh, that is not normal.” That is not the professorial neutrality -- which is only ever a myth. But even at least the myth of that neutrality is their standard experience, and they really, really appreciate that forthrightness.
Anyway, we could keep going on. There are many things that we do that are nonstandard, at least in our sort of environment. But the reason we do go ahead and teach a course and make it try to fit in this sort of box is that we want students -- Yale students are smart. I mean, our young people are brilliant wherever we’re encountering them, at whatever institution we’re encountering them.
And what we want to say by putting this in the curriculum -- because we could have taught this outside the curriculum. We could have put together another extracurricular. And of course, there are extracurricular communities that are helping students ask these questions, many of them campus ministries. In their best moments, that’s what’s happening there.
But we wanted to put it in the curriculum in order to say, “You know, the best of your intellect, the very best of your thinking that you apply to organic chemistry or to Russian literature, the very finest, the best of your intellectual energy -- that’s actually what this question of meaning and purpose and value and worth is worth. This deserves the very best of your intellectual energies.”
And so by putting it in the classroom -- now, of course, that means we have to reshape the classroom in all the ways that I just said -- but by putting it in the classroom, we’re trying to say, “This deserves the very best of your intellectual energies. You can reason about this. You’re never going to become an expert in answering this question, but you can get better at asking it. Posing it rightly. Thinking about it charitably, learning how to think about it together with people very much unlike you.
And those sorts of things may not sound like the normal sorts of intellectual challenges that you’re going to be presented with in the classroom. But they are no less intellectual, no less intellectually rigorous, and no less worth the best of your intellectual and academic energies.
Laura Everett: I want to turn for just a second to ask about you, because you said that all of us are located somewhere. And you and your wife, Hannah, were intentional about locating yourself -- planting yourself, quite literally -- as pastors, with Elm City Vineyard Church in New Haven. I wonder, how has teaching this course, Life Worth Living, changed your pastoring?
Matt Croasmun: You know, I think it’s shaped it a lot. And people who are in my church would tell you they hear a lot about this course in sermon illustrations and just in life together.
I said one of the ways that we do tackle these questions, even on a college campus these days, is we -- I hope -- we tackle them in campus ministries. And that was my experience as an undergraduate.
I was part of an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship; it was life for me. I believe in the church. I love Christ-centered communities. I planted one. I’m all about that.
But if that’s the only context in which we ever ask and answer these questions, I think we’re really, really missing something. And so I think this course has informed my pastoring, largely in saying, “Hey, the conversation we’re having here in the church? This is really, really valuable.”
And -- it’s not a “but,” right? And, because we follow Jesus -- Jesus who engaged with people across religious boundaries, across cultural boundaries, across all kinds of different socioeconomic sorts of boundaries -- because we follow that Jesus, we should expect that Jesus is in fact still going to speak to us across those sorts of boundaries today.
So in our church, we’ve intentionally cultivated relationship with the mosques and the Muslim communities in our city and in our metro area here. And we’ve done that in a way that hasn’t been -- this isn’t about proselytizing, but it might be about a richer vision of evangelism.
And with some of our interlocutors, who, in their Muslim convictions, have hopes for evangelization as well -- I’ve learned more about what it means to be a follower of Jesus by my engagement with my Muslim neighbors than I ever could just within the walls of the church. And so our church itself has become -- we’ve led people into those sorts of experiences.
I’ll never forget: one Saturday afternoon in the early fall in New Haven, we were working together with a local mosque, Masjid Al-Islam, and they were giving out -- they’re located in a poorer neighborhood here in our city -- and they were giving away book bags with school supplies for students as they were starting school.
And we just thought, “OK, well, that’s fantastic. We would love to help with that. How can we do that?”
And so we show up early that morning, we show up at the mosque, and we ask, “What can we do?” And they say, “You know, what we could really use you for is if you could go door to door in the neighborhoods around here and invite people to come down to the mosque.”
And I remember -- you know, the Vineyard’s an evangelical sort of movement. So you can imagine how challenging that might be for folks in a mainline church, and an evangelical church maybe even more challenging, right?
OK, we’re going to go door to door inviting people to the mosque. And my father was with me, and as we’re going door to door, I remember my father was maybe the one, I don’t know, knocking on this particular door.
And he gave them the flyer. He said, “Hey, they’re handing out book bags and school supplies; you should come down to the mosque. It’s just down the street.”
And the person said, “Oh sure, thanks.” And as we were walking away, they sort of quickly profiled us and asked, “Wait, are you Muslim?”
And my father, God bless him, I’ll never forget, just turned around and with all innocence and sincerity, said, “Oh, no, but we’re followers of Jesus. And we just think that if Jesus was here, the thing that Jesus would be doing is helping hand out book bags of school supplies down at the mosque. So we hope to see you there.”
And I just love that, right? Because the answer wasn’t, “Oh yeah, no, we’re not Muslims, but we’re Christians, and it’s more or less the same, and I hope we’ll see you down there.” Right?
It was, “No, we’re not. There’s a real difference here. We’re followers of Jesus, and because of -- not despite our difference, our particularity -- but because of our particularity, because of the particularity of who Jesus is, for that reason, we’re going door to door inviting people to the mosque.”
And I could repeat that story with the secular humanist community in our town and other sorts of communities in which we’ve been engaged. And so for me, that’s become sort of irreducible.
That’s completely changed my picture of evangelism, in ways that maybe I’ve described a bit already. But it’s also just changed my sense of discipleship -- that that’s how I come to know who Jesus is. And how I grow as a follower of Jesus is by encountering Jesus in these perhaps surprising ways among these other communities. And I learn so much about Jesus in those encounters.
Laura Everett: You know, Matt, I had a question prepared about how this course is changing your students; I didn’t have a question prepared about how this course is changing you.
Right? It sounds like this is really changing a number of things about how you see yourself as a pastor, what your church’s relationship is to your neighbors, what it means to be clearly rooted in a tradition but widely open. That teaching in a pluralistic setting is changing something about how you think church can be in relationship with the world. Am I onto something there?
Matt Croasmun: Absolutely. So I remember just wrestling so much: “Am I a pastor? Am I a scholar? Am I called to the church? Am I called to the academy?” And it all came together around, “Oh, I’m a teacher.”
When I lead my church best, it’s when I’m teaching. That’s the mode in which I pastor best. Actually, in my personal life, with my daughter, when I father best is often when I’m teaching her something. And I came to figure out, “Oh, I’m a teacher.”
But what this course has taught me is more about what being a teacher, what teaching is. And I think that part of what -- this’ll be a little bit meta -- but I think that part of what real teaching is, is learning.
I can’t ask my students to put their lives on the table and be ready to be potentially transformed by their encounter with one or another of the traditions that we’re going to encounter together without putting my life on the table in a similar sort of way.
And so absolutely, my life has been changed, in part, just by the encounter with these traditions. I’ve sort of fallen in love with Confucius, which I never would have thought. The Analects are just so powerful. And I feel like I’ve come to understand -- I’m a Paul scholar by training -- I’ve come to understand Paul’s sense of the self and the social better by thinking about that question together with Confucius.
But it really is more than just the specifics of encountering each of these traditions -- though, of course, my Sabbath practice has been enriched by engaging with Judaism, and you keep getting those sorts of specific examples. But even more, it’s been this sort of metapractice that what it means to encounter Jesus is to go encounter Jesus among the people that my old evangelical self might have imagined needed to have Jesus preached to them.
I am at the moment one of the faculty advisers for the secular humanist community here at Yale, the Yale Humanist Community.
Laura Everett: Hold up. There is a Vineyard pastor who is the faculty adviser for the Yale secular humanist community?
Matt Croasmun: One of. But yes.
Laura Everett: OK.
Matt Croasmun: Yeah, and my bio on their website begins with “Matt Croasmun is the director of the Life Worth Living program and staff pastor at the Elm City Vineyard Church.”
Now, some of that’s because of the incredible charity and wisdom and openness of Chris Stedman, who for many years was the leader of that community. But the reason I’ve gotten so engaged in that community has been, again, not in spite of my commitment to Jesus but because of my commitment to Jesus.
I stumbled into this community at a time when a man who has now become a friend of mine, Tom Krattenmaker, was writing a book called “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.” He’s a board member for the humanist community.
He would tell you he’s pretty sure Jesus isn’t the Son of God, inasmuch as there is no God, but he just can’t let go of the words of Jesus. He’d ask me as a Christian, he’d say, “I know you guys, like, sit with this book all the time. But have you read it? Have you seen what’s in here? I mean, this guy, he says to love my enemies. I don’t even love my friends that well. Like, what -- I’ve been to church. You guys don’t seem to be all that flustered by this. But when I sit down and read this -- maybe it’s the religion that’s gotten you sort of, like, to the point where this doesn’t strike you like it strikes me.”
Maybe I’m putting words in his mouth. I think that’s probably what’s happened.
But I’m hearing, all of a sudden, afresh, the true power of Jesus’ vision of a way of life from my friend Tom the atheist. And he started [a monthly] gathering -- so all of a sudden, despite my best efforts to say, “No, no, I want to be here and hear from you all on your terms; I want to hear what it’s like. So many of my students are secular; they don’t have commitments to a particular religion or philosophy. Maybe they’re committed to something like humanism; I’d love to find out how you’re thinking about life. Please, don’t change what you’re talking about because I’m here” -- despite all of my insistence, I found myself in a monthly meeting with a group of eight to 10 atheists, and every week, all we were talking about was Jesus.
I kept saying, “Guys, please, can we talk about something else?” But all, you know, Tom was trying to -- “Let’s talk about Jesus.” He said, “I think Jesus is the great humanizer. This is who Jesus is for me. The teachings of Jesus help me become more fully human, and as a secular humanist, I can’t think of anyone better for us to spend our time talking about.”
Now of course, Tom’s a bit controversial within the secular humanist community for that. But I thought, “Jesus came to make us more fully human?” I thought, “That is brilliant christological insight! This may have been what Irenaeus was trying to tell us.” I mean, I can go back deep in the church’s history.
Anyway, so it’s those sorts of encounters that have me thinking. I mean, I love my small group, I love Bible study in the church, I love praying for one another and worshipping together, and again, I’m the biggest fan of the church you’ll ever meet.
But there is something irreducible to my spiritual life now. I have to be able to sit down with people who don’t believe like me, who, if we ever do stumble upon my Scriptures, our Scriptures, they're going to read them with fresh eyes.
If we ever do talk about Jesus, they’re going to have that sort of perspective. And more than even all the particularities of encountering the details of my tradition, I know that we have this shared question, where we’re all trying to figure out: What does it mean to live a good life? What does it mean to live the true life? What is the life that’s most worth wanting?
Charles Taylor, the philosopher, says it doesn’t matter whether you are a religious person or not; we all live in this secular age. And what it means to live in a secular age is not that religious belief is impossible but that religious belief is no longer assumed. And so that’s why I’ve found something so shared with my secular humanist friends, because I may find my way into a life following Jesus. That’s where I’m located. But I have to choose that again every morning, or I have to construct -- I have to choose to live my life that way.
This question of flourishing life, of the good life, is still pressing to me in a way that, well, I want to be more and more analogous in many ways to my secular humanist friends. And spending time with them and feeling the urgency of that question, for those who are trying to construct meaning, whether it’s bricolage out of various different pieces that are out there or something more existential from their inner convictions, or however they’re trying to do that.
The urgency of that quest sharpens the urgency of my own discipleship to Jesus. And yeah, I have been changed. I have been spoiled for any other sort of religious life.
Laura Everett: Matt, what a beautiful vision of what is possible as a Christian pastor, as a scholar, and most importantly, as a teacher. It is impossible to listen to you and not hear that there is life being breathed in and through coursework, academic institutions, Christian institutions, by this wild and brave openness.
The Life Worth Living course is now going to be offered at other universities. We’re so curious to see how scaling and sharing what you’ve learned spreads to other communities.
Matt Croasmun, thank you so much for joining me on “Can These Bones.” It’s been a real joy to speak with you.
Matt Croasmun: Likewise. Thanks so much. This has been a great conversation.
Bill Lamar: That was my co-host Laura Everett’s conversation with Matt Croasmun, a pastor and a teacher at Yale.
This conversation was indeed quite interesting.
And let’s talk about a life worth living. I mean, it seems like a simple concept -- not simplistic, but simple -- yet quite elegant and quite thick, as Matt describes it.
As you do your work with the Massachusetts Council of Churches, what would you describe to your constituents as a life worth living?
Laura Everett: I hope my life is a life worth living if the world is more just when I leave it.
I hope my life is a life worth living if there is more truth and beauty in the world, if people are kinder and gentler and more honest to one another because I’ve been in it. I think my life has been worth living if I’ve shown something of the overwhelming and liberating love of God. And if that’s what I’ve done, then I can go home.
Bill Lamar: Don’t go today, Laura. We’ve got more work for you to do.
Laura Everett: Yeah, I’ve got a board meeting coming up.
But also, I think there’s a parallel question, actually, for churches: What is the life of a congregation worth living? What is a church that has reason to exist in a community?
Christians have this practice of asking these questions and offering some answers. We say pretty clearly that a life worth living is not just one about making money or public acclaim, but in service to God and to our neighbors.
But I also wondered -- I mean, this conversation with Matt really got me asking: Are churches asking these questions? Do you think churches are asking these questions about what constitutes a life worth living?
Bill Lamar: Laura, I don’t want to throw water on the flame, but in my experience, I think that instead of the inquiry, what we are doing is repeating what we have heard. I don’t think that we are wrestling with that question, What is the life worth living? What is the cross-shaped life, the gospel-shaped life? What does that mean? I don’t experience that enough.
And to be honest, it may just be the air that we breathe. I have to force myself sometimes to start from that place, because it’s so much easier to read what someone else has written and to repeat it or to go with the tropes and the stuff that we’ve heard all of our lives.
But to step back and to ask the question … And I think that for the class to be so popular at a place like Yale -- you know, I think about the book “God and Man at Yale,” by the late conservative writer [William F. Buckley], just talking about what kind of campus that was and is. I mean, these are the future leaders of the world in many ways.
And so their hunger, I think, points to a deeply human hunger. If congregations and Christian institutions can facilitate these kinds of conversations around what makes a life worth living, or a community worth living into, I really think that we would be doing a great service.
It seems to me that as Jesus is walking with the disciples, a lot of what is happening could be considered a course in life worth living: How do I live a life worth living when I see my neighbor in pain? When I see my neighbor sick? When I see people being oppressed? How do I then engage in worthy living? It’s very interesting.
Laura Everett: I think of -- really, one church comes to mind when I think about whether or not this is happening broadly. And I want to stipulate, there are probably places that this conversation is happening that I haven’t seen. It turns out, I actually don’t know all of the churches. As it turns out.
Do you remember when our friend Stephen Chapin Garner was pastoring at the UCC church in Norwell?
Bill Lamar: Yes, very much so; I visited with them.
Laura Everett: They had a small group around vocational discernment. It was specific; it was designed for when people were at a place, at an inflection point in their vocation, in their careers, and they were thinking about making a change. And they gathered a group of people around them to pray and discern and listen for the will of God about what the next move might be.
I think about a number of my Quaker congregations that I work with regularly that have “clearness committees” that do that work of discernment in community.
But for the most part, I don’t always see churches asking these big questions. I wonder if we’re afraid of the heft of the language. It’s a big question to ask: “Is your life worth living?” There’s almost something accusatory in that.
Bill Lamar: The dean at Duke Divinity School, Elaine Heath, has a small book that she shared. And one of the questions in the book is -- essentially, what I am getting from it, the question is, maybe our God is too small. That God is so much larger than we can imagine. She’s using, as a partner, Paul’s writing to the Galatian church.
But I think about this. I think the reason we’re not asking this question in some corners of the Christian community is it might disrupt notions of God. It could indeed be, as I’ve heard someone say, that we worship a notion of God, and not God.
That asking these questions might force us to see a God at work in the world and in our institutions that might cause us to have to do things totally different, and make us very uncomfortable. I think the truth of the matter is all of us acculturate to a deity who kind of lets us get away with doing what we’re doing and being who we are. And asking this question is going to throw you into new categories.
And what I appreciate about what Matt talks about is, when he’s talking to his class -- you know, he’s got people who are religious, people who are not religious; there are religious answers to the question; there are nonreligious; there are philosophical answers -- but the one thing that he seems to value is that you start authentically.
I think this is where the modern church -- at Metropolitan, I’ve had people to come into the church to say that they’re both Buddhist and Christian, to say they don’t know if they’re Muslims or Christians -- and what the church has to do today is what Matt is doing in that classroom. Whoever you are, wherever you start, let’s engage the conversation. Not, “Go back and think like me, and come back and ask the question again.”
And I think that, especially for insular faiths that have not been used to new people coming in with new ideas, I think quite frankly if we look at theology and politics in America, people are often scared as hell of new ideas. Questions dislodge us. I think we’ve got a lot of work to do, and I think Matt is pointing the way.
Laura Everett: One thing that comes through so clearly in this is that they’re asking these big questions, not in isolation, but in community. This isn’t a self-directed study. They’re working this out with one another.
And there’s a theological fearlessness that I think Matt embodies for me, in saying, like, “Yes, I’m a Christian, and I need to be in conversation with Confucius’ writings and practicing Muslims.” Right? That he can live unthreatened by the possibility that God might show him something from another tradition, but that it must be done in community.
I don’t disregard that personal reflection time in meditation and contemplation is really important for listening to the voice of God. But part of the design of this course is that you can only kind of get at these big questions when you do it collaboratively.
Bill Lamar: I really, really want, myself, to begin to keep -- and I think it’s a practice that I’ve engaged -- but keep practicing listening to many. I think that many of us, our reading of Scripture and tradition makes us think that there may even be something sacrilegious to engage with the thinking of others.
But there is just, there is no way around it, and we should not look for ways around thinking through the wisdom of the ages and how that can help us to live more clearly into what I think is God’s vision for the world.
Again, you know, Matt names himself as a Christian pastor. He is clear about that, but he’s able to facilitate this discussion. And I think that if we have a faith that will not engage with others based on the truths that they hold, I would have to question what it is that we have.
Laura Everett: It reminds me, actually, of what we heard Eric Barreto say in an earlier episode: that if our theology cannot answer to the experience of Ferguson, then our theology is too small.
In a related way, I think Matt’s saying if our beliefs cannot engage with a world beyond our beliefs and our system for meaning making, then our faith is too small.
I don’t want a brittle Christianity. I want this vibrant, robust, integrated thinking that I really think we’re seeing in how Matt is thinking as a pastor, as a teacher, as a scholar and researcher -- as someone who gets to be the facilitator of such a glorious set of questions. I need that integrated thinking.
Bill Lamar: And I think also, Laura, we want to commend the many congregations and Christian institutions who are trying to facilitate these inquisitive spaces, where [they can engage] questions like, “Is life worth living?” or, “How can we live lives worth living together?” We want to commend them.
And for those who are trying to figure out how to do it, one of the practical things that we’ve engaged at Metropolitan is to convene on Wednesday nights and instead of studying books of Scripture all the time, we’ve read books together and asked questions together. And it has grown, and people are coming, because people want to engage in church, where they don’t have to hide their theological commitments, but they want to use that as a basis to have conversations with other people who are talking about things differently.
And I really believe that finding books to study, bringing in people to have conversations who may be different -- we’ve had immigrants come in; we’ve had people from other faiths to come in. How can we help to facilitate that kind of communal reality? I think that the church has a great opportunity here.
Laura Everett: What I hear is that at Metropolitan, it’s not just an accidental conversation; it’s an intentional one. That you are intentionally putting yourself in conversation with issues and questions that your congregants are asking, not just on Sunday morning, but through the rest of their lives.
Bill Lamar: I have to say this -- that these conversations can be very uncomfortable. Our leaders had a conversation last night, and it’s uncomfortable. We left with a feeling of love, but there was also tension. So I think that the church must learn that love and tension can coexist -- not love and violence, but love and tension, which might give birth to something beautiful. Those things can coexist.
Laura Everett: One of the things about being in conversation with other communities, other ideas, other religious traditions that I noticed in that interview with Matt is something that shifts around language.
Matt is unabashedly Christian. He has a sense of where his most serious commitments come from. But he’s also learning to talk in a way that doesn’t immediately shut down conversation with people who aren’t connected to the church.
And part of what I’ve learned by being in regular contact with people who don’t use the church vernacular is that I have to speak more broadly and clearly in ways that invite other people in. That there’s a real gift in getting outside of my own community, because I can’t just, like, go to the usual shorthand, or the terms that are such insider baseball. And I think that’s part of what’s happening as Matt’s teaching, too.
Bill Lamar: There is a spaciousness and a largeness, too. And I think it’s very appropriate that Matt is our concluding conversation, because he offers for us, for our churches, for our institutions, enthusiasm, hope, the integration of the church and the academy, the world of the church and the world of those who are not churched, not in churches, and a dedication to the succeeding generations.
So I think it’s very interesting he’s holding in tension the past -- received traditions, both the gospel tradition and other religious and theological and wisdom traditions -- holding the ancient in tension with the strivings and the hunger of the young. And I think that, wow, it shows quite a pattern for the church and for Christian institutions. This kind of integrative thinking offers so much hope and possibility.
Laura Everett: Well, and listeners, we really hope that this kind of integrated thinking is what we’ve offered through this series of 12 podcasts. I know that I have learned a ton about communicating and asking good and generous questions.
I’ve never done interviews like this before, so I feel like -- thank you. I want to say a word of gratitude to all of you listening who learned alongside Bill and me as we learned how to ask good questions.
Bill, I’m wondering what else you feel like you’ve learned through this process.
Bill Lamar: I have learned to be joyful about the fact that there are people around the world asking wonderful questions, doing great things, and that I don’t have to do it all -- but I do need to be in some kind of communication or conversation with these folks.
And I think this is why podcasts are booming. Because in some way, we are afforded the privilege of listening to conversations we might not have the privilege to listen to were it not for the miracle of this modern technology.
And so I don’t have to work at JetBlue to learn from Marty. I don’t have to be in Austin to learn from Gideon. I don’t have to ride the train from Washington to New York to learn from Vernon Jordan.
I can indeed just sit back in places of comfort and hear the conversations. And I am now even more committed, Laura, to listening in -- to, if you will, some holy ear hustling, some holy eavesdropping into the kinds of conversations that will remind me that God is at work in so many places.
As the poet [Gerard Manley Hopkins] says, “Christ plays in ten thousand places” -- everywhere these things are happening. And it’s happening in the church, outside of the church, in boardrooms, in coffee shops, in classrooms. And it excites me, and I want to continue to listen, because I think it makes me a better pastor, a better friend, a better leader, a better servant of the gospel that I am compelled, called and joyful to preach.
Laura Everett: Listeners, you’ve heard the benediction from the Rt. Rev. William H. Lamar IV.
Now go and do likewise.
Bill Lamar: Something like that.
Hey, Laura, I think that we want to continue the conversation. How do you feel about inviting the good folks to join us on social media with their questions about how bones are living in their realities?
Laura Everett: I’d be happy to be in conversation with folks, too. I can be found on Facebook -- Laura E. Everett -- and on Twitter @RevEverett. I would love to be in conversation with you all as you ask questions about how the bones of your own institutions can live, and how we can learn together about other folks we need to be listening to.
There are so many more stories out there.
Bill Lamar: And, listeners, if you’ve found the conversations valuable, please do share them with your friends, with your colleagues. And if you’re a good Christian, you should also share them with your enemies.
And we’d like also to direct you to our website at www.canthesebones.com, that you might continue to share the good work of our conversation partners.
And indeed, we want to invite you to be asking in your churches, to be asking in your institutions, in your friendship groups, “Can these bones live?” To look at places of brokenness and death and to have the audacity, to have the gall, maybe to have the faith, to say, “I still see life.”
Laura Everett: Thank you for listening to “Can These Bones.” I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we did. There’s more about Matt Croasmun, including information about the Life Worth Living course, at www.canthesebones.com. You’ll also find the audio and other information from all 12 episodes of this podcast.
“Can These Bones” is brought to you by Faith & Leadership, a learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. It’s produced by Sally Hicks, Kelly Ryan and Dave Odom. Our theme music is by Blue Dot Sessions, and Matt Croasmun’s interview was recorded at Yale University. Funding is provided by Lilly Endowment.
I’m Laura Everett, and this is “Can These Bones.”
This transcript has been edited for clarity.