Sean Lanigan is soon to be ordained in the Episcopal Church and is building a new spiritual community for young adults in Long Beach, California: www.beachprogressives.org.
So we’re meeting because you went to Yale Divinity School with Jessica Misener!
Yes! Divinity school was interesting. Great, and interesting, and everyone was having crises all the time, including me. I’d come out when I was 16, and all throughout college I was trying to figure out my relationship with God. Everyone said, “Go to divinity school and you’ll figure it out.” And of course, divinity school is both a really good and really bad place to “figure it out.”
I bet. So what’s your background? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Roman Catholic, a religious school. So religion was not a Sunday thing but an everyday thing. I was an altar boy, which was exciting—I got to miss math class to help out at funerals, and sometimes I even got paid. How many fourth-graders regularly see dead bodies, witness these rites? It was fascinating. It was an early encounter with death, with all these things that in our society feel more disguised. Because death, really, is invisible now.
And I was an altar boy for weddings too. I don’t know that my early religious sense was an intense experience of God so much as it was simply that I got to see the church as a place that mediated a lot of powerful human emotion, and parts of life that are important, and big.
When did you start to have a personal experience of God?
Well, I was a sensitive kid. In my community, liking art and dance and music was just so bad if you were a boy. There was this very stereotypically masculine environment—the Packers, kids getting taken out of school to go hunting. And so I had this early draw to Jesus, the fact that he was this guy that was different from other guys—a man who was much more of an outlier and outsider than we acknowledge oftentimes.
But, it’s hard for me to remember any big moment of experiencing the presence of God. Even now, I don’t live in the consistent experience of being aware of the presence of God. It comes and goes; it’s fickle.
After you were an altar boy, what next?
I was bullied a lot, to the point where I obsessively read magazines about homeschooling, and then I convinced my parents to let me go to boarding school in high school—this very Brooks Brothers, Dead Poets Society environment. I was very out of my realm there, and I was forced to play football, which I hated, so I transferred to another school, an artsy school in Vermont with its own farm, and throughout all of that I was basically the only kid going to church on my own. And I’d come out recently, and I was trying to figure all that out.
Had you always known you were gay, or had your commitment to religion suppressed that?
I always knew I was different, but for a long time I didn’t admit it to myself that I was gay. I thought there was no way to reconcile my church, my family and my sexuality. And it’s too strong to say my family was devastated when I told them, but it took them a long time to work through. They weren’t raised in an urban setting, they didn’t have the opportunity to be in educational environments with a more open frame of reference. They were thinking no grandchildren, a life of suffering.
And I internalized this sadness for many years. My process of self-acceptance is still going on.
For your family, was it more religion or culture driving their emotions? Or are those things separable here?
For a long time, the Catholic church has said—in documents, at least—that LGBT people should be treated well, and humanely, just with the understanding that you should be celibate. So for my family it was more a sense of disappointment that my life wouldn’t be what they expected.
There’s not a real push for laypeople in the Catholic church to be theologically sophisticated—there’s not a movement for churches to provide those tools and resources—and with that, plus Midwestern privacy, and this idea that reproduction is really important—it was just a long, slow process.
Did you get more comfortable with your sexuality in college?
Well, at Brown, anything goes, and I wasn’t sure what to do with all that freedom. I almost folded in on myself, I think; I became more religious to manage the chaos. I didn’t do what most people do in college, which is experiment. I withdrew from that, from a desire to work out my relationship with God first.
Especially in college, there’s this idea that sexual experimentation is the primary way of finding freedom, and that sex is the highest extent of feeling free. Everyone was feeling very enlightened with sex, and with this fancy liberal arts education, and I was convinced, maybe overly convinced, that this couldn’t be the only answer. I felt that our freedom was so constrained by media and tastes and fads, and that there was a bigger realm of freedom outside this, and that freedom was somehow wrapped up in knowing God.
So I was like a double dipper in college: I’d go to Catholic church on Saturday night and spend Sunday morning in Protestant church. I wanted a context that would affirm me as a gay person, but it was hard for me to abandon the milieu I’d come from, even though the Catholic church felt sometimes like a difficult, unreliable mother. We love you, maybe you’re going to hell; we love you, we love you not.
I assume that at this point you were having the feeling of being in the presence of God more strongly? That sense that was absent as a kid?
It was more a really constant yearning. Even before I’d ever read the mystics, I’d just had this strong feeling that there was something much more that’s possible than what we were up to.
It’s too bad that the mystical tradition was for a long time basically nonexistent in America. That’s what got me into Buddhism in college—I couldn’t quite locate, in Christian theology, a framework that would encompass my experience. To oversimplify, I was attracted to the fact that Buddhism acknowledged suffering and also showed how to move through it, to alleviate it. I wanted to learn how to meditate; I thought that maybe Buddhism could teach me how to pray in a way Christianity hadn’t.
So I’d go on these ten-day silent meditation retreats, and the retreat center was in a former Jesuit novitiate with the stained glass windows intact. And I’d do my walking meditation in front of a stained glass window of Jesus at Gethsemane, walking towards and away, towards and away—of all the places there I could have chosen, I kept coming back to that one, and it was too literal. There’s a Dalai Lama quote about finding liberation in the tradition where you were raised, and I realized I could spend so much time trying to be a Buddhist, or I could sort of change the angle of my approach to Christianity, which I already had so much of. I don’t have the view that all religions are the same, but I think that all religions deal with similar human difficulties.
Do you believe that someone can be “saved” from a different religious tradition?
In my church, we don’t focus on salvation as much as in other Christian traditions. It’s not that we don’t think about it, but—and this wording might sound obnoxious—we come at the issue from a position of epistemic humility. Like, how could we really know in any sort of definitive way?
Atonement theory asks what actually happened on the cross. Some people say it was just a man undergoing capital punishment. Evangelicals believe in substitutionary atonement—that Jesus had to pay this price. For me, the story of Jesus is more about the act of incarnation. The idea that a human, who was also divine, transmitted love in a way that was terrifying to people, that upset all these hierarchies and messed up the order of things—and we reacted to that sort of love by wanting to kill it for being so disruptive. And the resurrection of Jesus is the vindication of that love.
So, the debates about what actually happened, and about what they have to do with salvation—I just think, no matter what, that Christianity wouldn’t have been transmitted if something very significant hadn’t been palpable to people at the time. And Christianity for me still means opening up again and again to that radical love of God, to engage in those counter-cultural practices that Jesus taught.
How do you feel about Christianity in politics, or the dominant state of Christianity today?
I feel like an outsider, mostly. But, I’m really committed to being part of the same thing as the Christians I disagree with. When I moved to California, I called up the younger evangelical pastors—a group that includes people who may not be certain about my salvation—and found, as I always have, that there are real commonalities. “Mainline” Christians (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians) tend to be analytical and scholarly; evangelicals are really passionate, and I’m drawn to that.
So I’m in this in-between place. I think the emotional side of faith is just as important as the rational side. I like doing Bible study, which a lot of mainline Christians don’t do much of. We studied Genesis 2 and 3 the other day in our community, deconstructing gender and the fall and sin, sort of trying to resurrect Eve as a valiant character who wanted to experiment with her existence, to go out in the garden and try new things. And my ministry is actually sponsored by both the Lutheran and Episcopal churches, and I’m lucky that my denominations are supportive of me doing this work.
I like that Dalai Lama idea you were talking about earlier—that you can make space anywhere.
Yeah. And nothing I do is new or radical within Christian tradition, which has such a breadth and depth to it. That’s one of those merits to returning to a tradition that you’re really steeped in—you know it enough to see where it’s appropriate to push it, flex it, remold it. And you can do this within the grammar. With Buddhism, I just didn’t know the grammar well enough—and of course to some extent that grammar includes things about how to be Japanese, or Tibetan. I knew I wouldn’t be confident manipulating that tradition in a way that still honored the tradition.
How did you end up deciding to steer away from Catholicism and towards the Episcopal church?
It was hard. But I just thought that, with Catholicism, there would be a level of deception I would have to practice to some degree. And within the Episcopal church, I really loved the sacramentality of it—its capacity to see all of life, all of matter, as having a capacity to express the divine. That nothing God created is outside of the glory and love of God.
That separates us from other strands of Christianity, which identify a stronger break caused by sinfulness. In Catholic and Episcopal theology, sin is certainly acknowledged as real, and the fact that we’re not necessarily in communion the way God might have intended—but there’s always this possibility, this openness to reconnection.
What’s it like to have your work be your faith? What’s it like to wake up and think, “Okay, REALLY not feeling work today,” and then all this other stuff is at stake?
Yeah, it’s strange. I’m pretty introverted, but I have to function as an extrovert to build a new community. I sometimes wonder what I’m doing—starting from scratch, having no people, no bricks and mortar. Some people are really good at this, and they function like church entrepreneurs, but I sometimes feel like I’m flailing. California is an interesting place to try to do religion right now, because it’s almost post-religious.
I often go back to the Psalms and read all this anger and frustration and dramatic language. It allows me to be in the state of feeling disillusioned and still having that be within the realm of God. And really, all it takes to re-boot me is a five-minute interaction with someone where I feel a real connection, and the connection doesn’t even necessarily have to be about God. But that’s where I find God, always, in that between-ness.
What’s your favorite Bible verse? I know that’s like asking a musician what their favorite band is.
For today, let’s say it’s Romans 8:18-27.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
There are ways of interpreting this as negating the present, but that’s not how I read it. I just love that language—groaning, longing, for God. It encapsulates my sense that the realization many of us hope for never quite seems to arrive. We can long so deeply for the presence of God at the same time that we are already (and paradoxically) totally immersed in God’s presence.
Previously: "Interview with a Pagan Clergyman"
Photo via kstraw2/Flickr