Upon hearing about my project, my Airbnb host in Belfast introduced me to a Presbyterian minister he knew. The minister had worked as a hospital chaplain for years. It seemed like a good plan.
“He says, ‘a funeral is for the people in the pews, not for the deceased,’” my host said of the preacher’s tactics. So far, so familiar. My mother describes her clerical role at funerals similarly: “The family is overwhelmed by grief. There’s so much they don’t know what to do with it. I tell them ‘I’m here to guide you through this, to tell you what to do. I’ll hold onto your grief for you.’ The ritual is a container for their emotions.”
But my host moved in a different direction. “He knows it’s his chance to save the living’s souls.” Ok, so a bit of a different playbook.
We arrived to the minister’s home, where we met one of his clergical colleagues. The colleague asked me what Presbyterian Church I’m associated with. “PC USA,” I reply. He responds with a nod, “I was in the States for a while. I worked with a PCA church.”
The PCA split off from the PC(USA) in the 1970s over the liberalization of the church, with the PCA notably rejecting the ordination of women as Pastors and Deacons and affirming the inerrancy of Scripture.1 Not only is my mother a minister, but this theological approach moves against my bedrock beliefs in evolution, a God for all sexualities, and the Bible as a transcendent, but not literal, document. There were signs we were not coming from the same theological place.
Unlike many other chaplains and clergy I’ve interviewed, who sought to heal the living, these minsters understood their role as ensuring that the dying have confessed their full and complete love for Jesus Christ. Saving souls. From their theological perspective, it makes sense. Of course it might make some patients uncomfortable, but when the stakes are eternity in unimaginable pain, well, isn’t it worth it? And they can never doubt the necessity of their work, because it would place their own soul in danger.
I understood this intellectually, but I felt uncomfortable. The Watson is wide open; I’m not seeking answers to specific questions. In my interviews, I explore what comes to people’s minds when I say I’m studying death, at most suggesting why I chose to speak to them specifically. It often means I’m along for the ride, and in this case, it meant I felt unable to mention my experience of the Church. My relationship with religion was largely through my mother and these men (all men) seemed unlikely to approve of female clergy. Furthermore, her use of the Gospel as revelation towards social justice was entirely unlike their emphasis on the individual relationship with Christ.
At the same time, when asked about my faith, I said I “grew up Presbyterian.” It was isolating. I felt like a fraud, and in the gap between my burgeoning religiosity and their doctrinaire insistence on professions of faith, my newfound spirituality felt stymied. I allowed them to believe I shared their core beliefs, under the understanding that to do otherwise would have turned the conversation towards my conversion, and away from what I hoped to learn.
But would it have? Was this a failure of imagination? The Watson says we should lean into discomfort, but I’ve always assumed it would be the discomfort of the unfamiliar, and I had spent years of my life in close proximity to this spirituality. My best high school friends and their families shared many of the core tenets of these men’s faith. And when we talked about religion, they knew where I stood and were uninterested in converting me. We talked about our differences without forcing the other to move.
But, here, in this minister’s house, as I ate fried chicken his wife prepared, I hung back, a facade of the faithful. There were practical differences. My high school cohort had crushes and theater casting decisions and video games to discuss. Our known shared experience was broader and deeper, shrinking the relative importance of the space between our spiritualities. Here, the limited scope of the conversation led to a narrowness that meant our differences couldn’t be dodged. My host was also at dinner, and prompting a theological argument carried the possibility of an uncomfortable living situation.
At the end of the day, the most important source of my discomfort was in my familiarity. I assumed they would proselytize, because I presumed to understand their philosophy and predict how they would respond to difference. Maybe I was right. It’s a reasonable read on the situation. But so what? Wasn’t there more to learn from opening myself to challenges? There was no evidence that the conversation would have turned angry or tense. Certainly the men were familiar with talking to those who disagreed, and must know how to live with that disagreement. The capacity to articulate my own view of the world could have opened up the conversation, allowed us to look at how our differences change our relationship to death, rather than imitating easy going.
All Watson fellows are given a small leaflet inside of a passport case, titled “Getting it Right,” to guide our unguided year. One instruction is to “fail up,” to integrate mistakes. Perhaps presenting a more authentic self would have led to a tough conversation. Maybe I would have been forced to confront the fact that someone else’s deeply held faith is something I find ethically troublesome, and its common root with a faith that does not has my total assent, but has indelibly shaped who I am. But isn’t that the point?
1. Technically PC(USA) was PC(US) at the time, not becoming PC(USA) until 1983 with the merger of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States, but I didn’t know that until I skimmed the Wikipedia page. Thought it was worth mentioning to avoid familial reprimands.