Framing my concept of the journey of life, I have written about two distinct dimensions of how life unfolds. One is a defining moment in which a person makes a major decision that defines the direction of one’s life. That choice changes the course one will travel.
The other, a twist of fate, is a seemingly random action that spins one’s life in a particular and peculiar direction. Last week, I wrote about a classroom seating change that made way for a huge difference in my own development. This week, there is an odd mixture of making a critical decision which results in an unexpected twist of fate. It’s complicated, this thing called life.
When entering college, I had made a decision to use the next four years as a means to discern my career path. I decided to attend Emory because of its reputation for a superb pre-med program, playing with the notion that I might become a physician. That was the main driver behind this decision to choose Emory but it was reinforced by the presence of a vibrant liberal arts program that would round out the learning of any student, something I knew that I wanted. I hoped that the four years would yield a broad exposure to the world as opposed to a narrow specialization. The focusing would wait for grad school in whatever form was appropriate. That was the plan.
That plan included me taking the courses required to prepare me for medical school but with the clear intent of taking a broad range of courses that would expose me to a variety of subjects, keeping my options open. Who knew where I might go: medicine, law, politics, journalism. But to be practical, I knew that I must take some courses that would allow me to choose a more specialized path when my college days ended.
When I arrived on campus in August, I knew that I would be taking at least one science course in my first quarter. It would be a challenging chemistry course sometimes known as a “freshman killer”, renowned for taking an aspiring student out of the chase for medical school, redirecting his/her career path. Better early than later seemed to be the Emory mindset.
I also planned to take a psychology course, as I had a native curiosity in how the human mind worked. With those two courses on my plate, it meant that I would be able to select one course from a wide scope of options. To be frank, in this competitive environment, facing two challenging classes, I was thinking of taking a course that would be a “slam dunk”, or as it was known in my circles, “an easy A”.
What course might I take that would fit that goal? In my head, I thought about a wide range of subjects. English had been my favorite subject in high school but Emory had a host of fine but difficult professors. probably not a good bet right out of the gate. History was a favorite, but I was unsure as to the depth of my background. History of art had a renowned department but I didn’t think I could float it past the scrutiny of my dad. And then it dawned on me: religion.
I had grown up in a Christian home, attended Sunday School, learning all the Bible stories. The pastors I experienced while growing up were holders of doctoral degrees in New Testament, no jack leg preachers in my past. These guys were New Testament Greek scholars. They had innoculated me against a simple literalistic approach to the Bible. Frankly, I had not been impressed by the thinking of the religious folks I knew. How hard could a religion course be? I was prepared, ready to go, no problem here.
Now a brief side trip is called for. Beside Emory’s reputation for its medical school, it also had recently become infamous by the writings of a religion professor, one Thomas Jefferson Jackson Altizer, who had popularized the notion of the Death of God. Although originally offered by Nietzsche, it hit the popular media which sensationalized the thesis on the cover of Time Magazine, a magazine that functioned as the social media of the sixties. If you are interested, you can google it but you will find “the death of God” to be rather tame by today’s standards. But the cultural response was quick and strong, as if the bedrock of America was being shaken. It resulted in the ladies’ group at my home church putting me on their prayer list as they heard that I had decided to attend a godless college. Their specific prayer was that I would not lose my faith. There was lots about me that needed some earnest prayer but going to Emory was not at the top of the list.
Back to my curriculum strategy, I looked in the course catalog in the religion section. Time of the class offering was important….nothing too early. There was a class, Religion 103, Contemporary Trends in Religion, that sounded broad but not too deep. Perfect. The teacher I knew nothing about, a professor named Boozer, which was comically appealing. And the class was scheduled to meet at 11 o’clock. Perfect. Piece of cake. Easy entry into the collegiate world of scholastic pursuit. Right?
When I attended the first class, I caught a clue that I might be in trouble. The professor was a barrel-chested Methodist minister who did his doctoral work at Boston University, Dr. Jack Boozer. This quiet man passed around an appropriately blurry, mimeographed syllabus that was packed with titles and names of authors I had never heard of, except Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer, I had heard of him. A missionary, I seemed to remember, couldn’t be too sophisticated or demanding. My second mistake.
This bespectacled professor decided to rock my world by exposing me to a panoply of writers that revealed just how limited my experience and how narrow a horizon I had. Day after day, he opened my mind to the variety of systems of truth, asking tacit questions about my own beliefs and faith. Later on, I would understand that this was my baptism in cognitive dissonance, my ride on the intellectual scream machine known as the vortex of relativity. Looking back on the experience, it was both vexing and exciting, my brain in an uncontrolled spin. Did he have an agenda, a plan, to dismantle my constructed view of God and the universe, or was he just doing what college teachers do, opening and developing my mind?
He began with a Jewish mystic, Martin Buber, and his classic text, I-Thou. It gave me my first taste of a nature mysticism, offering me words to put on my native feelings of connection that I had been searching to find. But even more, he used Buber to introduce a basic notion of ethics, of how we treat one another, to touch my Southern soul of fairness, having observed discrimination in my own backyard. I was hooked.
He lowered the existential boom, as much as you can with an eighteen year old, with the rapid-fire barrage of Camus and his dramatic text of The Plague, a text I would recall later as I faced the AIDS crisis in Atlanta. This was followed by the Basque essayist Miguel de Unamuno and his The Tragic Sense of Life. This pair of existential aces would push my innocent head under the dark water of finitude and death, leaving me gasping for air.
Throwing in some Christian existentialism, he initiated me into a life-long love of Paul Tillich in his classic, Dynamics of Faith. This thin volume of a book shook my foundation of equating faith with a mere list of beliefs, redefining faith more broadly as ultimate concern, a way of leaning into life. He filled this out by dipping my spiritual toe into the deep water of Tillich’s second volume of Systematic Theology that examines the role of Christ in the thinking of an thoughtful Christian.
Not to get stale, Boozer then trotted in Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his dazzling integration of science and religion. In a blaze of imagery, we read passages from The Phenomenon of Man, introducing the notion of evolution in scientific and poetic terms. Then came Teilhard’s cosmic fireworks of The Divine Milieu, a fantastic devotional tour of creation with a spiritual twist. I was not ready for its depth but knew truth when I saw it. I would have to get back to you, on this, TC.
Rounding out the course, before Christmas vacation, we read the script and then listened to Bernstein’s Mass., playing the vinyl record on one of those inimitable gray institutional record players. Not knowing what a “celebrant” was, nor the traditional structure of the Mass, I followed the text as best I could, enjoying the genius and spirit of the work. I resolved to figure out this liturgical stuff later. I was mounting a list of deferred learning.
In the middle of the course, Boozer began my personal “detective story” journey of searching for the Jesus of history behind the myth. He did this by affording me a chance to read the work of a man who was a physician, theologian, and humanist…..my kind of guy, Albert Schweitzer. The world agreed with me as he won the Nobel Prize for his philosophy and reverence for life, incarnated in his humanitarian hospital work in Africa. The Quest for the Historical Jesus became the starting point for my life’s quest to understand who Jesus was in his time and how to make that real in my own. This would launch me into many more religion classes with the stellar faculty of Emory’s religion department.
So what began with the momentous decision of choosing a college, tweaked by a strategic selection of an anticipated “easy” course to pad my grade average, became the unexpected twist that altered my life journey. I stumbled onto my life’s mission in a weak moment of “deciding”, the very thing that the existential school, that Boozer introduced me to, would tell me was the distinctive burden and glory of being a human being. It was my choice, a seemingly inconsequential selection that became a determining twist of fate.
Later, going through classical psychoanalysis, family therapy, and spiritual direction, I could see how my path had been prepared by earlier events that make the outcome less surprising. But I hold fast to the irony and comedy of how my deciding my freshman schedule, desirous of an “easy A” brought me the ride of a lifetime. It was none other than St. Jerry of Garcia who said it: What a long, strange trip it’s been. Indeed.