“You know what? I think he is searching.” I said this to my husband about my friend Eugene. I had been admiring Eugene’s photography. He takes wonderful pictures of landscapes and buildings and churches—particularly the steeples of churches. I was enjoying such a steeple picture when I made this comment. I guess I wondered how someone could capture the essence of a church so well… as an atheist. So I assumed he must be searching. I guess it was my Christian way of thinking about atheists. I want to know that everyone is “savable” (I might be skating on thin ice, here).
I have known Eugene since high school, but it has only been in the last five years or so that I have known about his religious beliefs. I honestly do not know how I did not know, because we had conversations about religion back then, but I assumed he was just, you know, searching. After all, Atheism did not fit into my ideas of American citizenry where Christianity is normal. We lost touch over the years because of college, travel, marriage and children, and jobs; but found friendship again as adults.
So I teach a spirituality course for graduate social work students. My quest in this class is three-fold: facilitate student learning of different faith traditions, equip students to engage in culturally sensitive practice, and offer students a way of deepening their own faith journey. To that end, I invite practitioners of diverse faith traditions to class for the purpose of engaging conversation about the real nature of those faith traditions. We have hosted people of Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and Pagan faith. And Eugene. We learn about a process of engaging in conversation with those of another faith, in which we practice self-awareness, tune into the faith/tradition of the other, integrate it just enough to be changed by it, sit in some conflict or dissonance, discuss and do it all over again. Before the process is complete, we must discuss again and assess implications of new awareness and understanding (Canda & Furman, 2010). The students seem to enjoy this process—part of the process is participating in class discussions and writing reflection papers. I think we have learned wonderful things and deepened our faith in this process. But something interesting happened when Eugene came to class last year that has kept me in the midst of this very process.
Every time he comes to class, he challenges students to think through their own faith in order for them to know why they believe what they believe. He challenges them not to leave their faith, but to embrace it—just not blindly. However, last year we also talked about those pictures. I wondered why he took so many wonderful pictures of churches, if he was not somehow drawn to them. Although I am unable to recall his exact words, I remember that the class concluded that he is as spiritual as any of the rest of the Christians in the room. It appears to me that spirituality enables him to see and capture beauty in things. Spirituality enables him to be the amazing father that he is to his children. Spirituality, I think, is what enables him to be a humorous, challenging, and gracious guest of a Christian university.
I spent some time thinking about this. I still do not really understand spirituality without the acknowledgement of God, and that is fine with me. I don’t have to understand, because I am on a journey. What I am learning all over again is: spirituality is broader than my belief in and about God. This understanding has helped me engage in dialogue with others as well. It has made me more curious. It has allowed me to be less interested in “saving” people. It has caused me to call into question some aspects of ministry and evangelism. It has enhanced my prayers. To be spiritual is to be in touch with something bigger and better than the temporal. I am so thankful that I have not been called to give an educated explanation of it. Eugene’s presence in my life and in the lives of my students, reminds me that spirituality is defined more broadly than my religion, tradition, or doctrine.
I am on a journey that I hope never ends. I pray that I never fully grasp it because I am not sure I should have the capacity to do so. I will keep asking, reading, questioning, praying, and loving the journey.
Canda, E. R. & Furman, L. D. (2010). Spiritual diversity in social work practice: The heart of helping (2nd ed). Oxford: University Press.
Stephanie Hamm teaches in the Abilene Christian University School of Social Work. Her social work practice experience has included services to women, couples, and children in mental health settings, including high-risk pregnant women and infants. Research interests include diversity, evidence-based social work practice and education, and spirituality in social work. Over the years, Stephanie has enjoyed being involved in ministries to women and girls. She and husband, Scott, have two amazing children.