Creating Space

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On College Hill streets are designated exclusively for vehicles bearing resident permits despite the fact many homes have driveways. In order to use a lot one is required to have a student or faculty permit. The top flight of the multi-story garage was once reserved entirely for visitors. Now it offers a mere row, while dozens of empty spaces beckon from behind orange cones bedecked with warnings about what will happen should the uninitiated cross their path. Wandering onto the campus of the local university, hoping to probe into the spirituality of blossoming post-Christians would have been difficult enough without having to overcome latent hostility just to find a parking spot. So I brought a friend with me.

Our plan was simple. First we prayed. Then we strategized. We were two guys, one significantly older than the traditional college student. Approaching individuals, particularly females, would be awkward and was ruled out; a severe limitation given the student body’s nearly 4 to 1 ratio of female to male students. Stopping anyone who was walking was also out of the question. They were undoubtedly headed to class or some other appointment. Wearing Younglife or Fellowship of Christian Athletes gear? We’re happy about that…but not interested right now. We needed a group; one sitting and actually communicating rather than isolating themselves with ear buds and laptops. Outside a popular campus coffee shop that is exactly, perhaps miraculously what we found. There were two dudes and one chica; two neuroscience and one business major; two seniors and a sophomore. And a whole lot of post-Christian perspective.

We covered a lot over the next 15 minutes or so, ranging from the “happy accident” of the world’s existence, to Ouija boards, to bad experiences at Catholic high school. It had been, I don’t know, maybe 20 years since I last heard anyone talk seriously about an Ouija board. Having purposely neglected to reveal my ministerial identity we received a refreshingly honest, colorful, and profane evaluation of Christian orthodoxy and its alleged thought control. Two devoted atheists and a non-committal agnostic in turn asked if we knew about DMT or hypnotic past-life regression. We did not.

It took my sidekick and me the next 20 minutes in the library just to debrief this one experience. It’s not as if anyone was mean to us. In fact it was a surprisingly pleasant experience; but it was a lot to absorb. We had noticed certain themes throughout our conversation and wondered aloud, “Is someone teaching this here on campus?” Take energy for example. When it came to the matter of life after death it is energy, not heaven and certainly not hell that seems to dominate the thoughts of the post-Christian. “Since we can neither create nor destroy matter, it’s not like we cease to exist when we die…our energy just returns to the universe in a different form.” Nearly every not Christian person I have talked to since has given their assent to some nebulous version of energy transfer theory. While admitting they may not have thoroughly formulated or even be able to articulate their opinion, it certainly appears to them more plausible than believing in hell even if less hopeful than believing in heaven. “Heaven and hell…that’s a bunch of malarkey invented to control people.”

Then there was this one student. She believed there was a God, but otherwise appeared thoroughly flummoxed by my inquiries. It was as if she had literally never thought about where the world came from, who God is, or whether Jesus deserved any amount of attention at all; indeed many people haven’t. But when I asked what, if anything, she believed about life after death… “Oh, I have an answer for that! Reincarnation. Definitely.” This was curious so I asked why she was so sure about that particular aspect. She began by telling me that her grandmother had died last year. It was very sad, but a few weeks later her family adopted this cat. Suddenly she stopped speaking and stole a sideways glance at her Catholic friend across the table. “I’m not saying that my grandma was the cat…we just…the cat just sort of…my family felt…”

“Energy?” I suggested. Compassion compelled me to try to help her out of the bind I had put her in. Yes, she confirmed it was indeed Grandma’s energy that she believed she felt. Someone asked if it was difficult not to laugh as the college student began explaining Grandma’s reincarnation as a tiger-striped tabby. I confess it took a concerted effort to conceal the smile that wanted to creep across my face. Reincarnation…isn’t that a bunch of malarkey invented just to control people? In retrospect I am confronted with the seriousness of that moment as an individual wrestled with the fact, when forced to follow it to its logical conclusion, that she found no security in a belief she initially felt so sure of. That is no laughing matter. It might keep her up at night.

Figuratively speaking, the church is a place post-Christians regard as designated exclusively for residents who bear all the necessary permits, know the language, and behave and dress accordingly. There may be space reserved for visitors, but the uninitiated are keenly aware of their vulnerability. Wandering onto the campus of the local church and probing into the spirituality of blossoming Christians is difficult enough without having to overcome latent hostility just to find a spot. Unless there is a friend, someone willing to “park” far away and walk patiently with her as she circles “the block,” seemingly investigating every possible alternative so as to avoid the imminent confrontation of the gospel, the post-Christian is likely to just give up and keep driving.