Whether devout or agnostic, we are all theologians. A spiritual impulse runs through every aspect of human experience; it's the part of us that searches for meaning. What matters in a life? What matters in a death? How do we show love? How can we be of service to one another and to the world? Religious traditions arose to address these questions, and many of us grew up thinking of the answers as the domain of experts, clergy, saints. We never learned how to use our personal experiences to discern our own meaning and truth.
Below are some exercises to lead you to your sense of the sacred through the stories of your life. Quaker author Parker J. Palmer likens the soul to a wild animal that needs “quiet, inviting, and trustworthy” spaces to show itself and to speak its truth. Remember as you consider these matters, by yourself and with others, how very intimate this part of life is. Go gently and respectfully, and expect to be moved, refreshed, and surprised.
In our time, many essential human issues and institutions are up for grabs—definitions of the beginning and end of life, of marriage and family, of love and community. From my conversations with people across the world's traditions, I am convinced that religious wisdom is as much about contemplating questions as it is about closing in on answers. Start to think of your spiritual dilemmas, and not just their answers, as blessed and sacred. Chew on them, and share them with others.
Pose a large spiritual question that you'd like to explore or be more knowledgeable about: Who is this God I believe in? How do I make sense of evil in the world and live with that? What is prayer? Respond by reflecting, meditating, or writing in your journal, and answer it through the story of your life. If you're considering prayer, for example, call up the prayers of your childhood, those you said and what they meant to you, the periods when you stopped praying and why, the different forms your prayer has taken in joyous, fearful, or heartbreaking moments. You will gain a clarity about your beliefs that you did not have before, and you may face further ways in which you need to explore those beliefs.
The ancient Celts spoke of “thin places” and “thin times”—when the veil between heaven and earth is worn thin, where the temporal and the transcendent seem to touch. We've all experienced these instances when we're surrounded by natural beauty, in moments of friendship or love, in a place of quiet, at a hospital bedside. Recall those times when you experienced a fleeting moment of mystery. Revisit the memories and feel how they've imprinted you.
Take an issue that religious passions have inflamed, and humanize it. For example, have a discussion with someone in your family or community on the opposite side of a hot-button issue, like the gay marriage debate. But don't start with the predictable arguments or positions. Instead, ask yourselves and each other, When did I start to care about this? Why do I care now? What are the hopes and fears I bring to this issue? This won't make the debate less complicated or hasten its resolution, but it can transform the way we treat each other along the way. It can engender compassion, a core virtue in every spiritual tradition. It can help us identify the questions we share in common as well as the answers that divide us. And it can make a new kind of conversation possible.
Revisit words that are important in your religious practice for the richness your own experiences might give them. Toss them around in your mind, outside the context in which you learned them, and look at them in the light of real life. For example, many of us grew up thinking of God as “Father.” This is a metaphor, an approximation. But that Father-God of my childhood was all too literal, all-powerful, and remote. I've found the actual experience of being a parent to be much more about vulnerability and a loving, excruciating lack of control. Reflecting on this has given me fresh ways to think about the nature of God and the power and frailty of the freedom that marks human experience.
Build silence into your life, and into your family's life. Silence is an essential element, in virtually every religious tradition, of spiritual health, knowledge, and growth. But it's a rare commodity in our culture. We have to reacquaint ourselves with silence and tend and treasure it in activities that are already part of our routine—prayer or meditation, walking or gardening, time with our children when the television is off and hearts and minds are still and open.