I recently heard a fascinating interview with Dr. James Doty, a Stanford neurosurgeon who among other things studies compassion. Doty spoke about the ways in which the human brain is wired for connection—one human to another. The joy we find in shared laughter, our capacity to be empathetic and our longing for relationships have all helped us survive and advance as a species. The story of this human journey is quite literally written on our brains and revised by our daily functioning.
Sitting within a completely different academic discipline, I love hearing a scientific perspective on something I view with a theological lens. I have long believed that being truly human means intentionally cultivating our interdependence with others. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures convey this relational framework in the stories of God’s covenant, in the commandments to care for the vulnerable, and in that most central teaching—to love one another. Giving and receiving loving-kindness is at the heart of our human existence and our common purpose.
This belief, and perhaps some inlaid wiring in my brain, are what get me up on Sunday mornings. Now, I know that, statistically speaking, fewer and fewer Americans participate in any kind of worshiping community. Church attendance has been dropping for decades. Across religious traditions, each successive generation in America is becoming less “religious.” I will also say I have sat through many bad sermons, painful music and empty ritual, and I am well aware that leaders and laity alike can turn religion into something quite ugly or even abusive. But over and over again in my life, when I have needed others for support, for prayer, for celebration or for wisdom, church has been the place where I’ve found it. A church family is where those well-worn relational tracks in my brain have found their home.
We have a little worshiping community at Carroll. We call it Gather. Long gone are the days of required chapel services; instead, of their own free will, students come to Gather on Sunday afternoons for music and prayer, scripture and reflection. But most of all, they come for relationship, for authentic relationship with one another and with God. Among my many hopes for Gather is that students experience true connection there. I hope they will feel the lightness of burdens shared and hearts heard. I hope they will engage with daring vulnerability and find the freedom of acceptance. I hope they will hear God speaking through their own voices and through the voices of friends.
There is so much loneliness in the world today, so much inhumanity. We each need a place where we can savor authenticity and practice mutuality. We need a community that will reach out with loving-kindness and foster greater compassion in us. We need companions who will remind us what our brains were made for and embolden us to use them. The culture may be shifting and the venues of worship may be changing, but we are all still in this together. And we need each other to be truly human.