I belong to a tiny, dying mainline church. It is dying even as its members are. Just the other day one of us passed— luckily not from the virus, but simply from old age. The advent of corona may postpone or hasten our closure, but it will not change the fact of it.
I am both sad and a bit angry watching my community wane. Mainline Protestantism, for all its rich theological heritage, has allowed its spirituality to wither. What remains is a musty corpus of scholarship in the seminaries, and staid moralism in the churches, either of the social-justice or the traditional-mores kind. Not that I am opposed to either, but if they are not grounded in lived experience, they lose their vitality. Some brands of Evangelicalism have solved the problem of lived experience by focusing on personal salvation—which, at least, retains a mystical aspect to faith. What, though, if you don’t believe personal salvation is the one and only issue in Christianity?
I have been pondering this question ever since I found my way back to my ancestral faith several years ago. An extended foray into Buddhism had taught me a few invaluable lessons about spirituality: among others, that the inner life of faith is a matter of cultivation, but also that cultivation has clear limits. It can thrive only when pursued within a radical acceptance of what is given, lest it devolves into attachment to specific religious experiences.
The traditional term for “what is given” is revelation. Buddhism gave me permission to formulate what I had intuited for a long time: that revelation is not limited to the words of the Bible or even the person of Jesus, but happens continually in the here and now, in the concrete interactions of the seeker-believer with life and others. Truth, in its most tangible form, is found in the fact that I’m sitting at my kitchen table right now, juggling my responsibilities as a father, husband, and professor, as a gorgeous blue sky beckons through the window and birdsong is wafting from the yard. This moment, the place that I occupy right now, is where connection (“salvation”) and disconnection (“sin”) happen, where the relationship between Divine and believer is constantly forged and renegotiated. I call this “the sacrality of the ordinary.”
Of course, life in the twenty-first century doesn’t lend itself to such sacrality. Like most everyone, I was caught in busyness and speed, in plans and schemes, in what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Then corona hit. And took all of those down.
The calm of this new situation is startling. No more striding of hallways to make it to meetings; no more knocking on office doors; no more chatter that dies down reluctantly at the beginning of a lecture. My physical environment is (mostly) reduced to my house, my social one to my immediate family.
Emails still need to be written, to be sure, and classes taught, even as diapers have to be changed, play needs accommodated, and some semblances of schooling kept up. It sounds busy, and it is—writing this piece is the first “luxurious” use I’m making of my time since the lockdown started. But it’s also… slow. Focused. It brings into relief small details of life that would usually have gone unnoticed: the way my daughter bounces through the backyard as she is acting out a princess scenario. The baby’s intent gaze at novel objects. The warmth of my wife’s hand as she brushes my shoulder in passing. Shoveling rich, thick soil into our new raised bed, I realize how my ancestors would have done the same thing, hundreds of years ago, under more dire threats.
Speaking of threats, this new calm also foregrounds darker sides of life, such as the fear in my chest: for my older relatives, for my wife who has asthma, for a world whose idols of tin and gold are lying in tatters. Beyond the death toll, what will the spiritual and political fallout be? History teaches us that when things fall apart, sometimes the response is ugly. The air is already heavy with grief over the lives that are lost, and I pray that no grief will be added by human destructiveness.
Crucially, sacral connection is not lost to fear or worry, not even to anger—as long as fear, worry, and anger arise out of a larger concern, a caring, a recognition that what I am going through is a shared experience that we all undergo together. Whatever calamity may befall me also befalls others. Whatever others may be going through may come to me—or may have come to me already. Our vulnerability, the communal uncertainty of our existence, connects us across time and space.
This is not a new insight, of course—countless seekers before me have found it, and countless more will without reading these words. In terms of spiritual frameworks, though, it is most closely associated with Buddhism, or perhaps with contemplative brands of Christianity, such as Catholicism or the Quaker path. Can it be found in a Protestantism that seems to be more concerned with outer forms than with inner lives?
I believe it can. First, Protestantism has always placed prime importance on Scripture, and the Bible is full of celebrations of life and of the sacral connection between God’s people. Jesus himself exhorted us to observe the lilies and the birds and made clear that we do not suffer alone.
Second, Protestant seekers of the past have formulated distinct expressions of this experience. John Calvin, often reduced to a cerebral scholar, had an ardently mystical side. He viewed the faith journey as a growing union with Christ and saw the world as the “theater of God’s glory.” Four centuries later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reformulated Christianity, very simply, as a life lived for others.
Together, these teachings give us distinct reorientations of the inner life. For one, they sacralize the entirety of human experience. That, I believe, is what is meant by “union with Christ.” Just as God took our whole humanness upon Himself, we are called to abandon our attempts at avoiding and controlling experience, and to discover, instead, that its rawness and its openness connect us to all of life. The Hebrew word translated as glory has connotations of heaviness, belonging, and aliveness, and this captures the essence of sacrality quite well.
Third, these teachings redirect our concerns, extending them towards the wellbeing of others and of the planet as a whole. It is no longer our own journey that matters the most, but the good we can do. The core teaching of Protestantism is, after all, that we contribute nothing to our salvation, our liberation from our disconnection from life and God. All we can do is accept that it has already occurred, and live our lives accordingly.
This, I am convinced, could be the seed of a new, authentically Protestant spirituality. It is authentic because it was always there, and it is new because it is not yet visible. I myself didn’t see it until I learned about it from Buddhism. What might this mean for our little church when we emerge from the pandemic? Maybe, just maybe, we will find that our death is not the final word, that the ancient promise of resurrection is still valid.
How have you experienced sacral connection during the pandemic?
How have you encountered the sacred within the ordinary? What are things we can do to help us to be aware of the sacred in everyday life, when stress, worry, or business threaten to block it out?
Tobias A. Kroll, PhD, CCC-SLP was born in Germany and views his migration to the US as part of his quest for spiritual truth and freedom. Brought up both Catholic and Protestant, he made a decision for the latter faith when he was fourteen, only to become an atheist short after, then a spiritual seeker on the 12-step path, then a Buddhist. He was called back to his baptism in 2012, the year when, according to some mythologies, ancestral callings were expected to stir the human soul again. He has been exploring Protestantism ever since, for the first time in any depth, applying what he learned from Buddhism to the Christian path.
Tobias is married to a Hindu daughter of Tamil Brahmins, with whom he is raising two beautiful (of course!) children. He serves as an Associate Professor of Speech-Language Pathology at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, TX, and as an adjunct instructor at TTUHSC’s Center for Ethics, the Humanities, and Spirituality. He is also a lay leader at Lubbock’s United Congregational Church.