Chris Stedman is sprawled across an aisle seat of a Southwest 747. His grin is framed by stubble and a straight-visored baseball cap that reads OBEY. Tattooed to his upper right arm, is the Carl Sagan quote, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love,” above it.
I am two seats over, buckled well before everyone has even boarded, and it looks as though everything about me is in the upright, locked position.
“This is why I could never leave Christianity,” I say.
Chris is an atheist and a humanist chaplain at Harvard University. He is the only explicitly nonreligious speaker invited to the 2012 Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, N.C.—a festival that is generally (and with exception) aimed at the liberal, often-invisible fringe members of the Christian community. Being that I theoretically fall into this group, Chris offered me his plus-one free ticket.
While it generally takes an act of God (or, “a series of convergences” Chris might say) for me to make a decision, I told him I’d go. After all, I’d been experiencing my own dark night of the soul where almost every conversation I’ve had about religion/ Christianity over the last year has been doubt-ridden and cynical. In my best mood, I hoped my attendance would put me in touch with some other cynics, believing it might relieve my cosmic guilt. What I secretly feared, however, was that I was going to Wild Goose to break up with the Christian faith I’d grown up under.
It is 88°F, and the forecast predicts the same for the three days that Chris and I will be at the four-day festival. I am already a perspiring mess in Ray-Bans, as is Chris, and I’ve never been asked if I was someone’s boyfriend so many times at one occasion.
The people here sport dreadlocks, tattoos, skinny short-shorts (not gender-exclusive), and enough hand-carved wooden instruments to make Burning Man jealous. The coffee is fair trade, you can get a more-than-decent vegetarian Indian dinner for $5, and I’ve not seen a single bottle of water for sale, as the grounds are equipped with free taps to an onsite well. Cell reception is shoddy, and there are a lot of sweaty participants with their iPhones raised, praying they can get the chance to live-tweet about keynote speakers such as Jim Wallis, Frank Schaeffer, and Brian McLaren.
The first talk we wander into is in the “Shadow Tent,” and is a discussion on how to find faith after cynicism. In fact, some variant of the phrase “post-cynical faith” is all over the program. I had expected to feel on the outs here, much like I have in the churches of my youth, and it surprises me how almost commonplace my cynical narrative is here. My gut reaction? Get cynical about other people’s cynicism.
“You should pay attention to this one,” Chris says.
From the moment he asked me along, he’s referenced the Goose in terms of how it would affect me, how, even though he is a featured speaker, that his role is also that of an observer. It’s as if by placing himself outside of participation, he doesn’t have to worry about being excluded.
Interestingly, when he’s able to get enough 3G reception, Chris has been in the middle of yet another critic of his work—the aggressor, as usual, is a fellow atheist complaining that Chris plays too nice with the enemy. Exclusion, I think, is something Chris knows all too well.
It is late Saturday night, and we are walking in darkness around the grounds, ritualistically sheathing our legs with our hands in hopes that we’re keeping the ticks and chiggers from crawling up our shorts. We’ve both forgotten flashlights. I’ve called him out on his “observer” stance, as it feels like a cop-out, as if the atheist is too enlightened to learn from the mystics.
“Even though they’re fighting it,” he says, “much of the discussion is still couched in Us-&-Them rhetoric. Most of these talks don’t seem to be intended for atheists. I’m not their audience. They seem to be most relevant for Christians, or even the religiously unaffiliated.” He pauses, then, “You know—like you.”
“Wait. Am I religiously unaffiliated?” I ask.
“Well, you don’t go to church.”
I can’t argue the point, but to hear it so baldly categorized like that makes my head spin. Have I truly left the institution of religion, even if I don’t have any real desire to give up on God? Almost frantic, I start telling him I want to get over my cynicism and find faith again, that I’m trying, and that just the other day—
“—Whoa—the stars are out,” he says.
I look up, and without ending my previous sentence, say, “Oh my god—how have I been camping this long and never once looked up at the stars?”
That’s the beauty of faith, I think. The ability to remember to look away from the mud.
I don’t say this out loud, because I can already hear Chris say something like, But what is faith in this context? What are you referring to when you use that word? If we—all of us, not just the religious—can’t agree on a guiding definition, then isn’t using it this way just another form of exclusion?
I can’t answer this, and so I stay silent—something I’m learning is perhaps the best strategy for the on-the-ground reality of interfaith relations that include the nonreligious. Though, let me clarify: silent for the moment. If there’s anything that has pushed me to the margins of faith, it is the exuberant, golden retriever reflex of the religious to give as much of an iron-clad answer to its doubters. Exclusivism, perhaps, is the predisposition to answer every question, so much so that it turns any conversation into a one-sided act of bravado-soaked self-protection. We often don’t want just to be right, but to be right first.
“A night sky like this always makes me think of Carl Sagan,” he says. “He didn’t sacrifice awe and wonder for the sake of being honest about reality. His almost-mystical bent is part of why I love him so much.”
Chris puts off using the camp showers until just before his talk at 4 p.m. on Sunday. He sports dark skinny jeans and a tie for the occasion, his tattoos still visible. The crowd, I can tell, is going to love him.
He’s here to promote his forthcoming book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground With the Religious (Beacon Press, November 2012), but also to spread the message of the memoir, which is that, while we may disagree about what happens after death, we can certainly find some good work to accomplish together before it. He charms the crowd with jokes that poke fun at both camps, and moves them with his story of becoming an evangelical Christian at age 11, only to feel marginalized a few months later when he realized he was gay. Brian McLaren is outside the tent getting cooked by the sun at the beginning of the talk, as if he is unsure of whether to stay. A few minutes in, however, he pulls up a chair under the tent, stays all the way through the Q+A, and is among the first to give him a standing ovation.
When Chris opens things up for questions, one woman asks for resources as she “de-converts” from the faith. A man in hiked-up athletic socks and a Toyota hat grabs the mic and announces, “I don’t have a question. I’m an evangelical, and I’d like to apologize on behalf of my community.” I want to say something like “the crowd has fully adopted him,” but again I hear Chris in my head counter with the criticism that it’s not about being co-opted by another narrative, but simply that these narratives are allowed to intermingle in an environment of respect and action.
Traveling with an outsider—either by choice, or not—has a way of not letting you ever get too comfortable on the inside. My crisis of faith is not over, nor should it have been in one weekend. However, by sweating it out with this humanist and being mistaken for his lover more times than not has increased my empathy for and awareness of margins, until all of a sudden, Sagan’s words etched permanently into Chris’s skin don’t sound all that much different than Christ’s second greatest commandment.
Bryan Parys is an essayist, music reviewer, and instructor of writing at the University of New Hampshire. He earned his MFA in creative nonfiction at UNH in May 2010, where he started work on a memoir titled Wake, Sleeper. The book explores how the loss his father shaped and butted heads with his Christian upbringing.