Lessons in the Human Experience

StagedThere are some questions all of us ask.

by Phillip Ratliff 


For the next several weeks I will travel to Atlanta on Saturdays to Marist High School. This isn’t a Billy Madison situation. The purpose of my visit is to explore a topic I have always found as fascinating as music, theater, and dance. That topic is theology and it’s one that, until recently, I’ve been largely self-taught.

I’ve long assumed that finding God in Atlanta would be a difficult undertaking. Upon pulling into Peachtree Station by train, I’ve seen the authenticity of Birmingham and the Alabama countryside melt into a postmodern whir of glass and metal. “This might as well be downtown Dubai,” I’ve muttered to myself.

Atlanta, my thought has been, doesn’t invite its inhabitants to self-empty, to peel away inauthentic layers. There’s too much to put on or fill back up with. The ascetics of the first three Christian centuries understood the distractions of human communities when they put on hair shirts and prayed in the solitude of desert caves. But Atlanta is human community par excellence. Any caves have been long been emblazoned with the images of Confederate warriors and commoditized through the attachment of zip lines. For every brilliant chef-owned restaurant Birmingham has, Atlanta seems to have 20. For every Birmingham strip club, there are rows of such establishments in Atlanta, serving up wayward girls “wearing nothing but high heels and a smile,” as one sign off Buford Highway recently bragged. There is a sort of solitude in Atlanta, but it’s an anger-soaked “time out” experienced in cars.

In actuality, I’m finding, Atlanta is a more complex place, which is to say, it can be an amazingly simple, introspective place. My theological studies, nascent as they are, began not at Marist High School, but at the lovely Jesuit Retreat Center in Sandy Springs, Georgia, where introspective simplicity abounds. Though functionally attuned to the same purpose, the center itself is a slice of rusticity very different from the Gothic severity of, say, St. Bernard in Cullman. Lay people, led by priests and spiritual advisers, engage in the Jesuits’ distinctive form of prayer, contemplation, and self-assessment, Ignatian Spirituality.

Some retreat attendees could be seen at the Jesuit Center as I pulled in my first day of class, unsure of what to expect. It was raining and my first step onto the center’s polished stone floors was actually more of a slide, sending coffee all over my legal pad. Undeterred by this, I entered the classroom confidently.

The class was small, five in all, plus an instructor. After introductions, we settled in to work. Our approach to moral theology, I soon learned, was ecumenical and broadminded, not at all like the arguments over belief and religious brand name loyalty I see on Facebook. Although the course is offered through a Catholic institution, Mobile’s Spring Hill College, we gave Luther’s writings on faith and works—an issue that got him anathematized—a serious, sympathetic reading. The class struggled mightily with a concern that has brought the Internet into scandal and schism in the past decade: the question of how atheists form their ethical framework. They most certainly have one, we concluded, and often damn good ones.

The class stretched on into the afternoon. Discussion grew more personal. Shells were removed. People in the class revealed a variety of motives for taking the class. One member is a deacon in a Melkite church hoping to teach religion in a Catholic high school. Another is a former med school student who, moved by the human suffering and compassion she witnessed during her studies, dropped out to become a hospital chaplain. Our instructor holds a PhD from Loyola-Chicago and teaches at Spring Hill when she’s not dosing out moral theology to high school students. Here were real Atlantans, not ensconced in chrome architecture or queued up on an interstate ramp, but seeking empathy, with each other and across tradition and time. It was an empathy that extended 180 miles west along I-20, I am sure.

The class ended with assignments (a presentation, two papers, and 250 pages of reading to be completed over the next two weeks). Four hours later, I was stepping out of my car and into the Birmingham air.

I’ve read about half of my assignment at the time of this writing. I have learned much about how morality and ethics work, but very little, I’ll admit about practical concerns I’ve faced, like what to do with a 9-year-old who calls you an idiot. It is these practical moral concerns that I imagine Atlanta citizens deal with about as often as I do. Trying situations may be different, however. (Surely Atlanta residents have more road rage to contend with but, because it is more cosmopolitan, it’s arguable that its denizens have brokered a more lasting peace over football rivalries.) Sooner or later, we all step out of our vehicles and into an interpersonal world where what we do, think, and say matters. It’s a truth, I’m certain, that Atlantans and Birminghamians, atheists and believers, all seek to grasp.                                   m

Leave a Reply