The train to Harvard

Copyright © 1998 by Christopher L. Walton

Philocrites : Essays | 1.18.03

I made my way from Salt Lake City to Harvard Divinity School by train. Aside from one December weekend at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, a February weekend in Boston, and a humid week in Indianapolis for a UUA General Assembly, I had never ventured east of the Rocky Mountains. I took the train so that I would have some sense of America's width, if not of its breadth and depth, and to find out how far from home Cambridge — my new home — would be. Amtrak delivered me in Boston after three days of coach-class awe, my neck kinked window-ward. I survived on a bag of salami and vegetables I brought from home, although I did splurge for a pancake breakfast in the dining car on the last morning. I also devoured two novels — The Republic of Love by Carol Shields and A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes — and listened over and over to cassettes of Dave Brubeck, Bach's violin concertos, Sting, and duets by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. I traveled east in high style.

My train, the California Zephyr & Desert Wind, was mooned by river rafters in a postcard Colorado canyon. We also saw the backsides of any number of run-down Midwestern cities. I saw a bathtub full of flowers on a farm in Nebraska. The Mississippi River was broader than I expected. Early on my last morning on the train, I wondered how people think clearly in upstate New York with all the foliage in the way. When I saw my first whitewashed church-on-a-green in Massachusetts, I wondered if the nostalgia industry hadn't been telling the truth after all. Maybe small towns really are more like a Norman Rockwell painting than a Sherwood Anderson short story. Perhaps only someone as parochial as this untraveled Utahn could be so impressed watching America roll by. When I stretched and yawned in Boston's South Station, with my bags around me, I could feel that I had moved. And that seemed perfectly appropriate: one hundred and fifty years earlier, my ancestors had walked — walked! — from Missouri to the valley of the Great Salt Lake as Mormon pioneers following their religious convictions into a strange land. I was reversing or maybe simply repeating that process by following my sense of vocation across a continent to study for the liberal ministry. Flying would have been too swift; I would have arrived with my head in the clouds. If my ancestors could cross Nebraska on foot, the least I could do was honor their months of walking by seeing the land roll by.

People asked me why I was going so far away. I told them that, since I was already from the West — born in Los Angeles, raised in Utah and Oregon — I was looking for experiences the West can't offer. I told them that I was drawn to the Unitarian Mecca and wanted to step inside the history of our tradition in Boston. (I also looked forward to meeting real live Universalists.) One fellow congregant at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City grabbed me one Sunday and said, "Surely you're going to Starr King!" When I told her I was actually going to Harvard, she drew back: "But there are Christians there!" Ah, I thought, if she only knew. One of the reasons I chose Harvard was that I was curious about those liberal Christians in New England. A few weeks later, a coworker asked what Unitarian Universalists study in seminary: "I mean, if you can believe anything you want, what's to study?" I tried to respond to his question without getting defensive, but I was looking forward to having a real answer once I arrived in Cambridge. And there were other reasons for my choice, harder to describe and not necessarily admirable, which I left unspoken when I took the train to Boston.

I had asked a sophisticated professor — a man with an apartment in Budapest — to compare the intellectual life at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and Harvard. He had taught me the history of science, and I regarded him as the most intellectual man in Utah. I could tell he was hedging about Chicago: only three American cities have personalities in a European way, he said, and Chicago isn't one of them. Boston is, however, and so is San Francisco — and so is New Orleans. (New York he placed in a class by itself.) Someday, maybe, I will have travelled enough to disagree with him. But I liked Chicago when I visited it. I wandered off late one December evening from my cozy quarters across the street from the spire of First Unitarian Church in Hyde Park, past the pizza place and the bookstores and under an overpass and across a highway and through a park (or so I remember it) until I came to the odd sight of the buildings of the Columbian Exposition on the shores of Lake Michigan. I walked around that oversized Greek temple and had a wonderful, chilly time. A Chicagoan later told me that I was lucky it had been so cold. I have no street sense, and it didn't occur to me that the boarded up windows and the total absence of foot traffic were bad signs. I found the people in Chicago quite friendly. I also felt a country-mouse awe for the mix of neo-Gothic, prairie school, and modernist buildings. Chicago was my first Big City. For a bookish, overly-intellectual young man — I'm admitting this up front, you see — the bookstores surrounding the University of Chicago were heaven. I finally found a used copy of Phillip Lopate's essay collection Against Joie de Vivre while in Chicago. How could any place surpass Chicago?

Cambridge, it turns out, was even better. I fell in love with both sides of the Charles River at once. I should tell this story properly. When the blizzards of January, 1996, hit the northeast, the airlines cut their prices and I and my girlfriend Kristen booked ourselves passage for a February fact-finding mission to Boston. Old friends picked us up at the airport and took us on a dizzying late-night tour of Boston streets. Patrick was a high school friend studying law at Boston College. His wife Laura had entered art school, only to find out — on the night of their anniversary — that she was pregnant with twins. They had the good fortune of house-sitting a professor's Roslindale home during his sabbatical, and so Kristen and I were put up in high style in a loft with a skylight. We could stand on the bed and see the lights of the Boston skyline. We stood at that window, telling stories about the Boston we knew only from literature. Early the next morning, Sunday, I tried to locate the hundreds of Unitarian Universalist congregations I imagined would be clamoring for our attendance. The Boston Globe was unhelpful: three listings only! (Even the Salt Lake City papers list two UU congregations' services each week.) The Yellow Pages put me in touch with the Arlington Street Church which my own minister had recommended — hallowed, as Unitarian churches go, by the memory of William Ellery Channing and Jack Mendelsohn. So Kristen and I clucked at Laura's morning sickness and aching back, listened carefully to Patrick's instructions about the subway, and started off on our Boston adventures.

Anyone who says that first impressions don't matter is a better person than I. Imagine this: on your very first subway ride, the doors open finally at your stop — Arlington — and the very first thing you hear is church bells playing good old Unitarian hymns. Would the sound not thrill you to the very core of your aspiring-seminarian's soul? We weren't lost, after all. We walked up the steps from the subway station and emerged at the entrance to the stone church, which I understood from my reading to have been the first large building built in Boston's Back Bay. The city planners had watched to see if the Arlington Street Church would sink into the land-filled marsh. When it remained quite steady, they embarked on a mid-nineteenth-century building frenzy. I'm not sure whether those nineteenth century Unitarians had more faith in structural engineering or in God, but they had built a magnificent church. How excited I was to visit it!

That was my first impression: grandeur and confidence. My second impression was that my own minister had been wrong about something. He had once commented favorably on a Boston Unitarian church's decision to put its money into social action rather than into new carpets. My second impression, ungenerous and politically unenlightened, was that this extraordinary place should have repaired its carpets, and its ceiling, and its steps. Is it not possible to pursue beauty and justice in the same lifetime? (What a heritage: those exquisite Tiffany windows and that history of political action!) Happily, first impressions stick, and although I have never since heard the bells of Arlington Street Church ring when the doors of the Green Line train open, I remember the awe of seeing that proud stone church, my first daytime sight in Boston. I am also happy to report that the Arlington Street Church has since embarked on a renovation campaign while remaining a hub of progressive activity.

I was sold on Boston and Cambridge before I had even seen Harvard. I had read Ari Goldman's memoir, The Search for God at Harvard, and his account of the interfaith dialogue and intellectual excitement at the school appealed to me. I suppose I took Goldman's word for the state of the mind and soul at Harvard, because I spent my time on campus admiring the buildings, the art, and the student body, and trying to identify famous faculty. (Did Moses notice the scenery when he was on Mount Horeb, or did the burning bush consume his attention? How do you ever know whether you are paying attention to the worthwhile thing?) The first class I visited was Margaret Miles's Religion and Film course, which was discussing The Mission. The Sperry Room was full of better-dressed students than I had known at the University of Utah, I noted with a middle-class mix of envy and approval. The students made intelligent comments, liberally seasoned with words like imperialism and eurocentrism, but almost everyone sounded amiable in spite of their leftish jargon. I felt very much at home.

I said earlier that my reasons for crossing a continent to go to seminary included several that are hard to articulate. I wanted to do something difficult, something that would force me to discern whether my "call" was authentic. Like almost everyone I have met in Cambridge, and like everyone whose account I believe, my "call" to the ministry was anything but unambiguous. My call, if I can be presumptuous enough to call it that, included no voice, no return address, no vapor trail in the sky. I love the congregation in which I first encountered the puzzling contradictions of the liberal church, with its anxiety about tradition and individual integrity, its ambivalence about religion. I hardly knew what it meant to have joined that congregation, signing the membership book seemed so haphazard and insignificant. And yet, I found that the church mattered to me. If I could fully explain why it mattered to me, I suppose I could identify the source of my call. As it is, I believe that the magic of the liberal church is an experience, as they say, of transcending mystery and wonder — and who knows the origin of such things?

When I began attending the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, I wasn't looking for a church, at least not consciously. I was lonely and restless. You might say that I had a God-shaped hole in my life — a spiritual closet with a tightly locked door, and I didn't have any idea whether I should unlock it, or how. When I first walked into a Unitarian church as a college student in 1991, I wasn't looking for a church; I was looking for some sort of context for a set of religious questions that I didn't even have words for. You might say that I visited churches because I was curious, not because I was interested. I stayed at first because the church defied all my expectations. Inside the small New England chapel — with its bell and steeple, its coffee hour rituals, its Bach and its Jazz Vespers, its social action projects and folk music concerts, its sermons and forums — gathered people with the same apparent contradictions in their religious lives that I felt in my own: simultaneous interest in the ancient stories and in modern science; independence and community; moral seriousness and progressive politics (a novelty in Utah) leavened with a hearty and sometimes zany sense of humor. During that first year, I was an observer. Like the books I read and the classes I was taking in college, the impact of the church in my life was initially only intellectual — and while the services helped clarify that my religious questions were right on, I was still a religious consumer, taking in religion like a book club or concert or lecture. It felt good, but it didn't always feel real.

My call to the ministry started to tug at me only when I began teaching Sunday School, started a young adult group in the congregation, and joined the Welcoming Committee. It occurred to me in that work that religion isn't primarily about opinions, or ideas, or perhaps even stories. How we connect, how we engage our lives with others, how we navigate the difficult tangles in our lives, how we keep ourselves together and pull through — that is the heart of religion. Of course, in order to be a valid and enriching faith, our religion does have be thought about, made critical, and given shape in stories. It does need to be true, as far as it can be. Having faith at all can seem downright weird in this cynical world, and sometimes I too am cynical about the possibility of faith. A "faith" or faith at all seems anachronistic, delusional, a backwater province of the mind. But I discovered something important as I participated in the work of that church: my theological ideas continued to change, but there was always good work to do with the people in that congregation, and that work gave me a real context for the development of my own faith. I found that I could not give up on people, nor could I dismiss wholly the power of life in a group, because the people of that church did not give up on me and I had work to do with them.

Parish ministry seemed to offer me the kind of life I wanted to offer to others. Was that an adequate reason for crossing the continent? I could have applied to theological school during my fifth and final year of college, but I dragged my feet and waited several years instead. I wanted to feel more sure about my decision before shocking my Mormon family a second time. (They have been supportive and kind, but I still tell people that my family believes I am going to hell at the very best school.) I knew I didn't have all the skills people expect of their ministers — and while I realized that no one else does, either, I thought it would help to feel more vocational confidence. My own minister, when he finally caught me long enough to ask me when I was going to apply to theological school, laughed at my perfectionism. "Stop testing yourself," he advised. "You go to school to learn how to be a minister. Stop asking whether you can do what ministers do. Ask yourself if you are a minister. Is this what you have to do?" Good question. I knew I had been trying to talk myself out of the ministry. I wanted to be a minister. Other people wanted me to be a minister. So I got on that train at the end of August, 1996, excited but full of uncertainties. Was I being a fool?

For one thing, I wasn't sure what it is exactly that Unitarian Universalism offers the world. "Religion is the reaction of human nature to its search for God," Alfred North Whitehead wrote in Science and the Modern World. Unitarian Universalists seem so reluctant at times to admit that human beings yearn beyond the known, beyond the limits of what we can do, that I often doubt that we can claim to have a religion. Whether or not we name the "beyond" God or something else, as a religious movement we tend to project our ambivalence about religion as our religion. In a positive sense, we affirm the religious quest as a journey that never truly ends, but in a negative sense we have no idea where we are going. We point proudly to our political and social causes, but we continue to tell the old joke about the Unitarian missionaries knocking on people's doors for no apparent reason. Do we go to church for no apparent reason? "Religion is tending to degenerate into a decent formula wherewith to embellish a comfortable life," Whitehead also said, and I fear he may have been referring to us and our pleasant Sunday mornings of music and life-style columns read from the pulpit.

For another thing, I knew that I was young and that the culture of Unitarian Universalism has changed considerably from the days when young men became prominent preachers, scholars and movement-changers while still in their early twenties. I had heard rumblings about a surplus of UU ministerial candidates, and about bias against men and women in their twenties from the UUA and from congregations. I was almost twenty-six when I arrived in Boston and discovered that many of my fellow students are my age and even younger — and that every one of us, older and younger, shares anxieties about the availability of positions that pay a living wage. My own minister had graduated from Harvard in the early 1970s with only $1,000 of debt. I don't need to tell you anything about debt. Does it not seem foolhardy to quit your job, sell your furniture, move 2,500 miles, leave your home congregation, and go into debt in order to pursue a dream that seems to demand that you embody all the virtues and none of the vices of human nature? I never appreciated Paul's assertion that "We are fools for Christ's sake" until I began to recognize the extent to which I feel like a fool for doing what I know I most deeply want to do. I know Stephen Dunn wasn't thinking of ministers when he wrote the poem "Ordinary Days," but it concludes with lines that describe the inescapable foolishness of the ministry:

                     If I decide
to turn over my desk, go privately wild,
          trash the house,
no one across town will know.

I must insist how disturbing this is —
          the necessity
of going public, of being a fool.

Landscape at the End of the Century (1991)

The poem describes the poet's anxiety about his need for readers, but ministers are like poets in more ways than one. (Writing a sermon has sometimes felt very much like turning over my desk and going mad.) It is never enough to think, or write, or be religious alone. A classmate of mine, recently expressing her frustration with Kierkegaard, asked what faith would look like if Kierkegaard were right. I suppose it might look like someone going privately wild — but then what difference could it make? Instead, I think Paul was more accurate to identify discipleship with foolishness, which means that it is public enough to draw attention and ridicule. In many ways, getting on that train to Boston is my most concrete example of the leap of faith. What was I thinking?

My first few days at Harvard overwhelmed me. I described orientation to friends as an open fire hydrant offered to a thirsty man. I tried to pay attention to everything. Harvard's Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes (a man whose titles simply seem to be part of his name) perfectly distilled the sense of slightly ridiculous overload I felt when he described the history of the Divinity School to us: "There is a spirit hovering over us," he said with gleeful solemnity, in his impeccable Brahmin accent; "It infuses everything we do. Is it the Holy Ghost? No! It's Hahvahd. And now that you are here, you have joined the long line, the apostolic succession stretching all the way back to Moses, who would have come to Hahvahd if only he could!" I met so many people in those first few days, collected so much paper, got lost so frequently walking around Cambridge, ran out of money so quickly, and gawked at so many buildings that I hardly knew what I had done. I had spent three days in silence on a train simply enjoying the journey, trying not to anticipate this new life. Now everything was calling for my attention: here was a building by Le Corbusier, here was a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, here was a financial aid form, here was a map to the grocery store. Here was a journey with at least as much to see, and as much to savor, as any train ride across the continent.

Originally published in Aspire: The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Ministerial Students and Candidates Network 2:2 (Winter 1998): 10-18.

Return to Essays
Philocrites | Copyright © 1998, 2001 by Christopher L. Walton