One of the great privileges of immersing oneself in theological education is the permission to consider life’s open questions with unapologetic attention: What is time? What does it mean to love? How can one person change the world? As seminarians, we “start big” and revel in how ideas come together in the cosmic scheme of things. Then with new eyes, we look out at the world around us, right beyond the edges of our transformed selves, and begin to dream. I’ve come to perceive that we change the world through the ways we fill up time, with our labor and loving attention. In mystery, grace enlivens the fruits of our labor, and change ripples outward.
It then becomes crucial to discern what is appropriate work and bring clarity and love to it at every moment. Every one of us is actively shaping the world by our touch, which is why we have no certainties about the future.
I say this with a lot of hope and some anxiety.
Last summer, I conducted a series of interviews with people in the tech industry. Living so close to Silicon Valley, I wondered about the spiritual climate of a such a wealthy and promise-driven industry. I asked the workers to describe what they did and how it did or did not intersect with their myriad spiritual identities. We also spoke about meaning, values, family, and dreams. I learned that most people can speak from the various levels of themselves within one breath. The self who is fascinated by abstract, technical problem-solving is the same self who has to support a family and worry about an expiring work visa, who, in turn, is the same self dreaming of positively contributing to the world. How these levels of the self fit together is a spiritual question. How to recognize the forces that keep us from integrating the desires of our deepest selves, with the output of our concrete labors, is also a spiritual question.
One interviewee, a Buddhist who worked at Google, spoke about the difficulty of serious reflection in an environment abundant with distractions and the mandate to stay busy. It was also hard to discern the direct impact of his own labor because it was dwarfed by the scale of the company’s impact. He worked to support his family, but, “I feel guilty all the time,” he said. Whenever he could, he recited mantras to help the dead and those around him.
Another interviewee talked about her desire to be happy and how helping people made her happy. She was aware of extreme suffering in the world and wasn’t sure if data analytics—her line of work—was doing much to alleviate that. Moreover, she was wary of the kind of data companies stored, how the profit-motive compromised both privacy and security. While she attended church growing up, she no longer identified as religious because she couldn’t find a way to comply with doctrine she didn’t believe in. She missed the sense she had as a child that all was basically right with the world.
Still another tech worker, a devout Muslim who worked at Apple, wondered how to align the practice of his faith with the capitalist ethos of his work culture. He liked the operational aspects of his job—the problem solving, having an effect on global supply chains—and he appreciated that his boss did not schedule meetings on afternoons when he attended mosque. He did not believe Islam was about espousing one particular political or economic ideology over another, but still had lingering questions.
Without having the answers to these questions, I recognize the need for spiritual care. One person I interviewed simply professed, “I am hungry for fulfillment,” and as an afterthought, “I am not going to become a monk.” Is it possible we are pouring the best of ourselves into a false promise? And how is that collective compliance shaping our world? In the end, everyone has to face these questions on their own, but ministers are meant to accompany those who are earnestly seeking, wherever they happen to be.
From the many ministers I’ve met at PSR, I have experienced what genuine accompaniment feels like. My professors and peers have given me the courage to ask precisely the questions that are stewing in my soul. That is a freedom I now wish to share with the world. As I considered what work is mine to do, I have tapped into my own private longing for fulfillment, one wordless question after another. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, the source of what fills me is generous and warm. It doesn’t cost anything. I envision a ministry at the heart of where there is need, loving our way to open questions, mirroring that gracious light which is enabling all of this in the first place.
– Michele Chun, MDiv student
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