Back when I first wrote about how seminary proved to be, in many ways and oh so ironically, the beginning of the end of my Christian life, I alluded to what a strange set of events it was that got me there in the first place. Now is the time to go into some detail about those events, since my topic for this essay is what to do about “signs” from a post-church view--you know, those occurrences that appear, either because of their inexplicability or their extremely coincidental nature, to be messages from God. See, the bizarre and maybe even paradoxical thing is that it was thanks to a set of halo-topped, seemingly divine coincidences that I set off down this path in the first place--the path that, though it looked like faith for the first few miles, slowly became heresy and eventually turned into full-blown apostasy. Were it not for certain events that I thought (at the time) were messages from God, I wouldn’t be writing these words about being a non-believer now. I’m not sure what to do with this fact, but I’m gonna try to work it out a little here.
Two years after college, I was back in my hometown, living with my parents and trying to figure out what the next step for me might be. Grad school was the likely candidate, as I still felt no pull toward any particular career pursuit. I thought about an MA in literature--it was what I had studied in undergrad, after all. My gut told me, though, that a graduate program in this particular discipline had a high probability of being devoid of the joy, creativity, and sense of community that I need in my education. I also thought about photojournalism (I was a decent amateur photographer) and even looked into a program in Montana. In the end, the winter weather forecast was too off-putting, and the topic just didn’t feel quite like “me”. And then, perhaps because I had a couple friends from college who were in the midst of it at the time, the thought flashed in my mind: seminary.
Seminary? Where did that come from? Nothing in me wanted to be a pastor, or to work for a church in any capacity, really. It was just a random idea, I figured, weightless in its inapplicability. A few nights later, I had a dream. Most of the fleshy details have since faded to black, but I do know that it was vivid. I have a lot of vivid dreams, so that wasn’t the unique part. What was special was the way I felt when I woke up. Physically, throughout my body, I knew the dream meant something. That it was a sign. The only specific element that sticks with me now is the one that mattered most: in it, I was told that I needed to go to seminary. It seemed so real, in the dream. I can still hear an echo of the voice. It was as if I had glimpsed a moment from the true future--a prophecy.
When I saw my mom after work the next day, I told her that I was going to look into studying theology. I knew that she was happy if I was happy, but I needed to declare this new development out loud. I started doing research. Only liberal schools, of course; and something not too difficult to get into. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I knew a couple people at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, so I got in touch with them to ask what their experience was like. In the process, I found out that Fuller had (and still has, I believe) a fairly unique course of study in Theology and Art. Well, well, well. That was intriguing. I also noticed, however, that Fuller did not have much in the way of financial aid offerings. This was also important to note, as I did not have much in the way of funds. I decided to apply anyway. I could always say no if I felt it too much of a fiscal risk.
It was around this time that my relationship with the guy was re-vamping--”the guy” from “the break-up”. I remember telling him, in one of our many late-winter, multi-hour phone conversations, that I had applied to seminary in Southern California. “I probably won’t go, though, even if I do get in,” I said with as much apathy as I could muster. “I just can’t afford it.” A couple months later, toward the end of April, I received my acceptance letter. (Turns out the guy had also been accepted to a graduate program, also in Southern California, so the levels of potential meaning were building.) Following the acceptance letter came the packet of financial aid information. I remember the date exactly because it was one week before my birthday. Staring helplessly at the charts telling me how much tuition would cost and how many loans I could take out, I figured the dream, quite literally, was through. I wasn’t particularly disappointed, to be honest. It hadn’t been a plan of my invention in the first place, the whole seminary thing. Still, I waited to decline my acceptance until the very last minute, just in case.
One week after I received the financial aid information, on my actual birthday, I got a phone call from Fuller. I almost asked my mom to take a message--I assumed they wanted to talk about loans or ask me what my thoughts were on coming, and I wasn’t in the mood--but I decided to suck it up. The woman on the other end was from the financial aid office, but she wasn’t calling to discuss loans. She was calling to tell me that I’d been awarded a scholarship, a scholarship that I had not applied for because I didn’t know that it existed. A full-tuition scholarship. I thanked her and hung up. I called my mom into the kitchen, and told her what I’d just been given. She laughed in disbelief. “Well. I guess you have to go,” she said.
So I did. I went. All signs were pointing to “Yes”--yes to seminary, yes to the guy, yes to the next exciting leg of the race. However: that relationship did not work out, as anyone who’s been reading this blog knows. As for seminary, while I went and I graduated, living costs forced me to take out a couple of big loans in the process, so it wasn’t exactly free in the end. And on top of all that, instead of strengthening my faith, studying theology was key in teaching me what I needed to finally walk away from the church. Given these very unexpected outcomes, I have to wonder what these “signs” were really about. Why would God trick me into a program that seemed fiscally smart but ended up burdening me with debt? For heaven’s sake, why would God lead me away from God? Were they just uncanny coincidences, the dream and the scholarship and all that? Part of me thinks I have to believe that now--now that I don’t even believe in the being that would be the one to conjure the omens in the first place. And yet there’s a big part of me that still thinks that something special is going on in the universe, some kind of energetic connection between everything. We've all had encounters that seem a bit too spot-on to be arbitrary. It’s not that there’s no natural explanation for these things, it’s that the explanation sits beyond the threshold of our current capacity to comprehend. And yet, why do they happen so universally, these coincidental events that often end up leading us through life-changing doors?
One come-back I’ve heard a few times from believers who struggle to accept my atheism is, “How do you explain the signs?” They’ve told me of certain symbols that keep coming to them to, say, remind them of a lost loved one. For instance, a woman is missing her deceased mother on a particularly hard day, and then happens to see a blue jay in a place where blue jays never gather, and blue jays were her mother’s favorite bird. Is that really nothing, they implore. Well, what can I say to that? Do I believe there is a God sending the bird, or an afterlife from which the dead can send messages for that matter? No, I don’t. At the same time, do I deny the significance of their experience, or even the strangeness of it? I don’t deny those things either. I want to explain that I’m both a Mulder and a Scully, a seeker and skeptic, but that’s not a very strong argument for religious folks who are used to an easy, multi-purpose answer. So, my response is that, perhaps, there does not need to be an explanation. Can there, maybe, be both no meaning and great weight to a particular occurrence at the same time?
We humans, with our complex brains and our beautiful and tragic self-awareness, are meaning-making machines. I am constantly inclined to pin significance on things, God or not. That’s good. It’s part of how we can figure out the ways in which to make our world a better place. It can also, however, make us vulnerable to the habit of calling things “proof” that aren’t actually proof. We do still need to take the world around us at its word, otherwise we put ourselves in many forms of grave danger. Otherwise we fail to understand what we should be understanding about cause and effect. Still, there is room, I think, for harmless--even helpful--spiritual thought. Let us be open to signs--let us be open to the patterns in our life that might be guiding us forward--and at the same time, let’s take everything with a pinch of a salt. Don’t lay your good sense to the side because something cool happened; and, don’t slash through the veil of mystery with your sharp logic at the expense of a sense of wonder.