By Rabbi Rami Shapiro There is no conflict between religion and science. Science has won. Today’s theologians are taught to think like scientists, to assume that reason and logic are the tools of their trade, when in fact their real tools are imagination and storytelling. Do you think the parables of Jesus rise and fall on the facts of science? Of course not. The parables are true as works of the imagination seeking insight into the spiritual and ethical dimensions of our lives. But today’s clergy and seminarians are tone deaf when it comes to imagination and storytelling. They have no feel for mystery. What we need are some good old-fashioned shamans!
When I attend worship services in churches and synagogues around the country I find (with some amazing exceptions) that they all seem to belong to the same religious denomination: the Church of the Living Dead. The music is bland, the lyrics are vapid, the liturgy is trite, and the sermons are predictable (unless of course I am speaking). Nobody complains because the complainers have stopped coming years ago. The people who come expect to be bored and are rarely disappointed. It isn’t that the clergy are bad, in fact most are doing the very best they can. It is just that the definition of “very best” elevates conventional prattle to the highest rung of excellence.
Clergy should be shamans. Clergy should make magic. Clergy should graduate from seminary with a tool-kit filled with chants, contemplative practices, stories, and a guidebook for creating sacred space that is fluid, dynamic, creative, and surprising. Clergy should be masters of surprise. Why did God cover Sinai in clouds, thunder, and lightening? Because an eighty year–old man coming down the mountain with a couple of dinky stones tablets is boring, but an eighty year–old man coming down the mountain with a couple of dinky stones tablets backed by a fearsome sound and light show is awesome! Can you imagine anyone, after hearing Jesus tell his parable of the Good Samaritan, lean over to a neighbor and say, “I knew it! I knew that Samaritan guy was the hero. Man these parables are so predictable.”
In the Hebrew Bible God says, “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14). In other words, “You can’t guess what I will be, because I am all about surprise.” Yet we translate the implicitly creative and surprising I will be what I will be into the oh so static and predictable I am that I am, and then train clergy to be just as static and predictable.
If I were to create a seminary I would have students spend the first three years in serious academic study of the history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and psychology of religion, comparative religion, comparative religious literature, and the most cutting edge ideas pulsing in physics, biology, and astronomy. Then I would focus the next two years on learning how to paint or sculpt, write poetry and short story, play an instrument, create sacred space, and invent transformative moments of life-cycle magic. I would require improv training and send students to clown school. I would train them in stage magic, and shamanic trances. And all the while help them deepen their contemplative lives through chant, meditation, dance, etc.
What about pastoral care? I’d teach them to refer to professionals. What about education? I’d teach them to hire good educators. What about running the business of religion? I’d teach them to hire good administrators. What about leadership? People don’t need leaders when it comes to religion, they need role models.
My school would graduate holy rascals and holy fools. We would graduate clergy who scandalize their communities not by violating ethical standards but by actually living them. The complacent church and synagogue goer would quit in disgust, and the places would be packed to the rafters with people hungry for God.