My writing is full of references to the metaphor of the journey and so it’s natural for readers to wonder about my own journey. Bits and pieces of it are mentioned in my books, particularly the more recent ones. And those who have been journeying with me through my books for a while often comment on what they take to be a shift in my perspective, my spirituality and my personal theology. They are right. But it hasn’t been a single shift but a life-time of unfolding. A friend who has known me for a long time describes it as continuous rebranding but from the inside it has always felt more like simply following my quest to be the truth of myself in Christ.
Childhood Family and Religious Culture
I was born into a deeply religious but theologically very conservative family. For three generations both sides of my family had been closely identified with the Plymouth Brethren and the Gospel Hall in Orillia – the small town in Ontario, Canada where I spent the first 16 years of my life – was without question the center of our family’s life. As befitting my status as a first born responsible child, I took my religion seriously. But I also took most things rather seriously – far too seriously, I would now say. Although it was in the background, I was keenly aware of expectations that were associated with being David Benner. I was aware that I was born into a family with a long history of deep spirituality and notable religious service on both my father and mother’s side. I was also aware that I was named after my mother’s only brother, David Boyd Long, a man I did not meet until my teens but with whom I grew up by means of the stories of him that circulated within our family and wider religious community. David had left Ireland as a young man to travel to Africa as a missionary, spending the next several decades in Angola where he translated the entire Bible into the language of the tribe he was working with (a language which was unwritten when he first moved to Africa). To be named after him was no mere exercise of sentimentalism. It was a communication of a destiny – an expectation of significant Christian service. Benners and Longs who were not missionaries or ministers were usually active as lay preachers. I grew up with a sense of being surrounded by a family and a community who expected that I take my place in this legacy.
My parents were the primary conduit of these expectations. But to their credit, while I was very aware of the magnitude of their hopes for me, never once did I consciously experience this as pressure to perform. Great expectations were accompanied by equally great doses of affirmation and support, along with lots of freedom to find my own way of living my life. I had much more trouble, however, with the culture and worldview of our fundamentalist church – their anti-intellectualism (which was expressed as a pervasive mistrust of science and reason) and their attempts at cultural isolation (which was presented as “separation from the world”). Implicitly I was taught that knowledge was good if it came from the Bible but dangerous if it came from any other source. Even in my early teens, something about this seemed wrong-headed. It struck me as silly to deny that reason and culture had important roles in reading or understanding anything. And all the talk I heard about reading the Bible literally and taking the simple, plain meaning of the text seemed intellectually naive to me. Similarly, the mistrust of culture seemed equally misplaced. Being cut-off from the world beyond our church made me feel like I was inside a glass box, looking out on a rich and interesting place from which I was separated. I wanted to be part of what I saw on the outside. Interestingly, I never for a moment considered rebelling. I was never aware of anything external against which I needed to push. Never for a moment did my parents feel like the problem. They were loving and supportive. Nor, really, was the church the problem. Slowly I began to realize that it was the worldview that I had internalized that was restrictive and oppressive. Somehow I sensed that I had to work my way through the glass that imprisoned me, not simply smash it. The quest for a broader worldview and identity was to become the central organizing thread of my life. And it was well in place before I left home to head off to university in my late teens.
My undergraduate years at McMaster University represented a tremendously important period of intellectual awakening. High school had been enjoyable but university ushered me into a world infinitely more interesting and complex than I could have ever imagined from the vantage point of the glass box from which I had been viewing it.
The mid 1960s were of course a heady time to be on university campuses anywhere in North America. This was the peak of USA’s involvement in the Vietnam War and political sensitivities on campuses across North America were high. The presence of large numbers of draft dodgers and military deserters in Canadian universities kept these issues at a continuous boil, a number of my good friends being within this group. With debate on these and other important social issues often beginning in the universities and then spilling over into the media and legislatures, the universities were definitely the place to be.
But it was much more than political sensitivities that were forming in me during these years. It was a love of ideas and knowledge. My first year studies were, with the exception of one course in each of psychology and philosophy, all in mathematics, physics, and chemistry and by the end of the first semester, I declared my intended major in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. Like a sponge, I soaked up everything I encountered but as a serious young Christian I continued to work quite intentionally at fitting what I learned within my ever-broadening Christian worldview.
Introductory Psychology was by far my least interesting course in that first year. I didn’t help that there were several thousand other students in the course. We met in large auditoriums across campus, watching a 30 foot high video image of a talking head – this being all we ever saw of our professor. But something did catch my attention in that class. Responding to a one-lecture cavalier dismissal of Freud I went to the bookstore and bought a copy of his Interpretation of Dreams. I devoured this book like nothing I had ever read before. Science had stimulated my mind but depth psychology spoke also to my soul. I responded to this first encounter with Freud by immediately beginning to keep a dream journal (a habit that persisted for 30 years) and by applying psychoanalytic perspectives in my personal work on understanding myself and my experience. I also recognized instantly what a superb fit depth psychology was with my spirit. It fit exceptionally well with my increasing valuing of mystery and complexity. For all its appeal, I recognized that science was oriented toward mastery and control, and that too easily it seemed to slip into viewing mystery as the enemy. But mystery never felt like an enemy to me. Freud, I would later see more clearly, was also under the pall of nineteenth century models of natural science but he pointed me toward Jung and others in whom I found a way of making psychology a thoroughly spiritual matter.
Within a month of my first encounter with Freud I switched my major to psychology and set my path toward a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. After taking a course on world religions, I added a minor in religious studies, this stretching me in ways that left me feeling much more vulnerable than anything I encountered in psychology. It forced me to begin a project of theological deconstruction and revision that continues to this day. But it was stretching that I valued and I never looked back after that first course. It was here that I discovered the great advantage of reading not those with whom I was most likely to agree but rather those with whom I was most likely to be stimulated to think – something that suited my temperament extremely well and has continued to be one of my most important spiritual practices.
During these years evangelical Christianity came to be my religious and spiritual home. Initially, this felt like the big tent I had been seeking as a fundamentalist. But the horizon shrunk fairly quickly and even though I was to remain within this tradition for nearly two decades my quest to engage the mysteries of life without reductionism or hiding behind simplistic formulaic frameworks for belief and living quickly led me to its progressive edges.
The Gifts of Mid-Life
Mid-thirties felt like I was still too young to have a mid-life crisis but that was when I encountered the closest thing I have ever had to such a crisis. There were no external signs of trouble. I was professionally fulfilled – active in clinical practice and the Chairman of the Graduate Department of Clinical Psychology at Wheaton College. My marriage and family life were deeply satisfying and I was happy in the leadership of a Presbyterian Church in our community. But I couldn’t ignore a growing sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction around my faith. Increasingly I had come to feel uncomfortable with the reduction of faith to beliefs. But I realized that, while I was attempting to hold my beliefs with humility, they were really all I had. I had lots of thoughts and opinions about God. But I had very little experience of God. What was awakening within me was dissatisfaction with the substitution of theology for spirituality I had accepted. And what I longed for was authentic knowing of God, not simply construals about the ultimate mystery I had been so glibly naming as God.
The cascading series of awakenings that I experienced when I dared enough trust to lean into this dissatisfaction and see where it would lead me have changed my sense of my self and the world even more profoundly than the intellectual awakenings of my undergraduate university years. They led me into spiritual direction, and later to my first experiences of contemplative stillness and retreat. Following my longings, they led me back to the mystics who had been on my book shelf for decades but with whom I had only engaged with my mind, never my soul and spirit. And they led me well beyond the religious traditions I had lived within up to that point.
Initially, these broader horizons came to me through other Christian traditions. I first heard of spiritual direction through reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and this quickly led me to an engagement with the Orthodox tradition of the Christian faith. It was here that I encountered the Jesus prayer – a gift from the Russian Orthodox Church – something that was to change the way I opened myself to God in prayer for ever. Here I also encountered the gift of using icons as an aid to prayer. This led me back to the Christian mystics I had long been attracted to but not ready to really engage, and to the discovery of the Benedictine and Cistercian traditions of centering prayer and lectio divina.
But the openness that first led me through these portals of ecumenical engagement then widened as I found myself longing for engagement with people on a spiritual journey within other faith traditions. I discovered the Sufi mystical poets, Hafiz and Rumi, people who have been intimate spiritual companions since that first meeting. Within a few years, my wife and I were blessed to be invited to spend several extended periods of dialogue with Buddhists and Taoists at the Tao Fong Shan Centre for Christian Spirituality and Interfaith Dialogue in Hong Kong. Once I tasted the richness of meeting people of other faiths in this sort of sacred place there was no turning back. I quickly discovered that I had more in common with those on a spiritual journey within others religious traditions than I had with Christians who had allowed faith to be reduced to beliefs and counted the holding of these beliefs to be their journey. It remains so to this day.
It is worth noting, however, that I have never felt myself to be more deeply Christian than I am at present. I hold my beliefs with more humility as I journey with those of any faith or no faith, and my own faith can no longer be reduced to my beliefs. Somewhat surprisingly, however, I am more deeply engaged with the Christian church than I have ever been in my life – this in spite of having been active in church leadership all my life. And the tradition with which I am engaged is an old tradition, not one of the expressions of post-denominational, post-institutional spiritual community that are now available. I became an Anglican and find myself identifying for the first time in my life with a specific denomination and Christian tradition. This is quite ironic for someone who likes to think of himself as progressive because, as any realistic assessment of the state of the Church in North America and Europe quickly reveals, Anglican and Episcopal ways of being Christian are at an enormously high risk of becoming extinct as living options for institutional religion. But, while I am deeply nourished by the old, high-church traditions it keeps alive (nothing feeding my soul more deeply than a high solemn mass with the smells and bells that remind me of the presence of the Holy and Sacred), I am not dismayed to recognize that this tradition is going to have to change enormously if it is to be anything other than a museum of old culture in the twenty second century. In truth, I am not invested in preserving the outward form of church – any church. My personal journey has been one of transformation, not preservation. So, how could I be invested in anything less than this at a communal and societal level?
The things that seem most important to me now are relational and communal. I continue to be invested in helping others on their personal journey of transformation but am increasingly interested in the way in which personal transformation can and should lead to communal transformation. For this reason, I am really excited to learn more about communal journeys and am, consequently, now more committed to life within a community than ever before. That doesn’t mean that I always like my communities of belonging. Quite in contrast, I am often tempted to return to my old more individualistic ways of following my spiritual quest and living my personal journey. But I am impressed with the difference between journeying with a group of self-selected friends and journeying with the heterogeneous mix of people that a healthy community – particularly a spiritual community – will always include. I might not like everyone such commitment forces me to engage with but I am convinced that they present to me the issues I must deal with if I am to become more whole.
More and more I see personal spirituality not as the end but the means to an end. That end is the alignment of our spirit with the Divine Spirit and our participation in God’s cosmic work of the healing and reconciliation all of creation. Personal transformation is central to this but personal awakening and enlightenment are meaningless if they don’t lead to a compassionate engagement with all of life and with all of creation. I have come to believe that healthy spirituality should always move us beyond a “me-and-God” focus to a focus on the world in which I am called to be actively engaged because God is already actively engaged there.
I don’t expect religious institutions to change the world or even necessarily be relevant to the world. Instead, in my view, they need to align themselves with what God is doing in the world. In that regard, church isn’t what is important. It is the world, and our life within it. When religion and personal spirituality fail to support our commitments to and life within the world they are, I believe, part of the problem, not part of the solution. At this stage of my journey I want more than ever before to be part of the solution – or, in the language of Christian spirituality, to be aligned with what God is doing in the world to make all things new in Christ.