“I am going to prove that there’s a soul for my senior philosophy thesis!”
I was sitting on the arm of the chair in my philosophy professor’s office. The chair was low and squishy, so after the first few visits of looking up at my professor like Jimmy Stewart in Potter’s study, I started perching on the arm so that he had to look up at me. Professor V’s office was lined with bookcases like a little tiny philosophical Beauty and the Beast library, except there aren’t any stories of far off places and daring sword fights (unless you make the argument that Hegel and Heidegger and Sellars are all Knights of Ideas which Kierkegaard could get behind).
Professor V let my statement hang in the air and squinted at me for a minute, before detangling his immense arms from where they were folded on his chest, leaning over his desk, and commenting thoughtfully that “that’s very ambitious, Laura.”
I can’t believe that he didn’t make fun of me or give me a serious smackdown. Prove there’s a soul? Sweetheart. Bless. Best wishes.
Maybe he knew that the best way to cure me of my silliness was to let me loose in Daniel Dennett and Aristotle for a few months until I lost all hope. Maybe he was just interested in where my experiment would take me. But that day in his office, when it would have been easy to dismiss me, he welcomed me instead.
My four years in the philosophy department was one experience of welcome after another, when I was kind of a walking target, ready and easy to be shot down. I waltzed in as a homeschooled Christian fundamentalist, ready to prove that there is a God or prove that there is a soul or prove that morality is universal or whatever else I was so adamant to prove (I had read Lee Strobel OK so I was ready to prove ev-ry-thing). And despite myself, everyone in the department was so kind.
They were kind when I argued for Creationism (“schools should at least teach the controversy!”), they were kind when my Catholic pacifist hippie friend and I started our weekly religious discussion group to prove that atheism was emotionally bankrupt, they were kind when I was belligerent in my Nietzsche class (the joke was on me because I ended up writing my senior philosophy thesis on Nietzsche, oh well). I’m very tetchy about God’s Not Dead, by the way. It’s a fearful story for fearful people who’ve never set foot in a philosophy department. No one is yelling at the religious kids, I promise. Not even the fundamentalist religious kids. Not even me.
Instead, kindness was given, free of charge, around the long, circular table in the conference room, and grace was poured out over beer and wings in the basement of a pub off Main Street.
They welcomed me.
The opposite of fear is welcome.
Welcome rescued me from the fragile, unforgiving stronghold of my conservative religious belief.
The philosophy department shifted over and made space for me, me with my fragile confidence born of a fundamentalism that had no margin for error. I am so grateful that they did. Nothing but hospitality can dissolve the brittle fear that runs through the center of fundamentalism.
Christian fundamentalism is so brittle because it says “you cannot bend, you can only break – there is this way, or no way – there is fundamentalism or there is heresy – there is morality or there is sin – there is no swaying in the wind, there is only standing strong or crashing down.” Those are perfect conditions for a hell-hole of fear. When fundamentalism tells you that the only two choices are Literalism and Godlessness, you’re always only a half-breath away from atheism.
So, of course, I was an atheist for awhile after college. I was pretty fundamentalist about that, too. Not all atheists are fundamentalists, but I was trained from a young age to see things are breakable, not bendable, and as boxable, not fluid. The New Atheists appealed to me, because I believe that the world and the Divine and sexuality and morality had to be boxable. If God existed, I was all in. If God did not exist, I was all out. Dusk did not exist. I believe that hazy middle ground was a cop-out by weak people too timid to own the ramifications of their own beliefs.
By the grace of God, this angry atheist fundamentalist landed in another space that welcomed me. At a little Christian commune in England, in a big manor house of pseudo-intellectuals and doubting Thomases, I pulled out my Hitchens to start fights and found that I was still welcome. I was ornery for the sake of being ornery, I picked fights about “the Old Testament God,” and I swore like the lovechild of a sailor and a trucker. And still – reckless, foolish welcome.
They weren’t worried about me. They didn’t try to make me “good.” They didn’t try to make me a Christian. “No one seems to care if I’m religious,” I told my mentor once, confused by a Christian expression of belief that wasn’t afraid. He laughed. “We aren’t worried about people’s souls,” he said. “That’s not our job.” My own fear was met with welcome. And because they didn’t give a flying fuck if I said “flying fuck,” because they weren’t trying to convince me to love Jesus or tell me that I was bad –
Because I was welcomed, I left a lot of fear behind in England.
I discovered mysticism at L’Abri, but I am not sure I was really Christian at that point. I was still confused about organized religion. I was still unsure about historic Christianity and theology and the Creeds. But for the first time, ever, it felt like it might be just fine to not know all the answers. That if my friends at L’Abri weren’t worried about my soul, it might be OK if I didn’t either. That perhaps, just perhaps, the experience of the Divine Love that was pursuing me was a deeper truth than even theology. That perhaps, just perhaps, I could learn how to bend and not break. That I could go off the path and not die in the woods. That the choice wasn’t as clear as I hoped, but that I was going to be OK, even without clarity.
That perhaps, there was a way to be alive that wasn’t afraid.
I learned all this because I was welcomed by the Other, my differences and all. I am who I am today because I was welcomed. Every time I have experienced deep hospitality despite differences, I have left behind a little piece of my fear on the road.
We’re all a little afraid of difference. Sometimes the fear is legitimate. People can hurt us. I can also hurt other people and they have the right to be afraid of me. I hope no one hears this and decides that their good boundaries are unhealthy, because I’m very pro-boundaries. Not all of us can welcome everyone, and not everyone should open their homes – or their hearts – for everyone else.
But there’s a difference between saying “I cannot safely welcome this person” and saying “this person does not deserve welcome at all.” Maybe there are some people who I can welcome that you shouldn’t. Maybe there are some people I don’t have space for that you do. Everyone, though, deserves welcome, because welcome is another word for love, and we are all image bearer’s, and to be an image bearer means to be deeply loved by God. And to be loved by God means being called to be hospitable to our neighbor.
So let’s not settle for cheap hospitality, the kind of hospitality that happens when people who are like each other get coffee or dinner. That experience is very nice, and necessary, and we all need to be with our people and enjoy their company and come away refreshed.
Let’s be brave, and lean into rich hospitality that prepares a table for and with the Other despite difference. This hospitality is the invitation to come on in, even though we would prefer to glance warily at each other over tall fences. Hospitality is Jesus inviting himself over to Zacchaeus’ house even though Zacchaeus had sold out his country for profit. Hospitality is Jesus eating at Simon’s house even though Simon was pretty judgey about that maybe-prostitute pouring essential oils on Jesus’ dirty feet. Hospitality is not just Jesus talking to the woman at the well (how gracious of Him!) but the woman at the well talking to Jesus – which is also deeply gracious of her.
Am I strong enough to open my hands, and cup them for water for thirsty souls who are exhausted and trapped in the desert? Am I strong enough to welcome the ones who are afraid? And am I wise enough to see fear even in Zacchaeus, even in Simon?
Some days I am, and some days I’m not. I have grace for myself on the days when I’m not very sturdy, and I know it’s OK to be hospitable on Mondays and need to sleep on Tuesdays. But I am trying to make space, on Monday at least, to set out a picnic basket in the desert for the people who are afraid and need some welcome.
If we are ever going to survive fear, we will need to offer, and accept, the hospitality of the Other. If we are going to survive fear, welcome is the only way.