Before coming to Divinity School at the University of Chicago, Charlotte spent eight years as an actress and quasi-youth minister, exploring social outreach while slowly building an interest in theological questions. I say quasi-youth minister because, as Charlotte puts it, she actively avoided the label as she worked part-time in a local Episcopal church. Performing was her true work, a stance she made clear to the church as she reinforced part-time hours while building her understanding of both worlds.
“And halfway into the near-decade that I was there, I became a puppeteer,” Charlotte tells me.
The Traveling Show
Charlotte stumbled upon Manuel Cinema, a Chicago theater company that runs overhead projector shadow puppetry. The puppets are projected onto a large screen while the puppeteers create the show in front of a live audience. It is essentially a silent show put to music, and Charlotte worked as a lead puppeteer for the production. When the show took off, Charlotte had the chance to tour around the world with Manuel Cinema– an opportunity she jumped to take. All the while, she juggled her role within the church and continued to lead service projects.
“I tried to quit, but they wouldn’t let me… I ended up getting a volunteer group to help me run the projects [at the church]. The curriculum-building element and hanging out with teenagers were my favorite parts because teens are on the edge of themselves the entire time… and these families were not interested in finding alternative ways in how the teenagers could be.” Her time with these evolving adolescents gave them space to explore their expanding selves as her program offered respite from the pressures of home life. Even as her acting life grew more prosperous, Charlotte remained connected to helping these teens, thus keeping her foot in both worlds.
Space for Divinity
Likewise, the puppet show was formative for Charlotte, but not the way you would think. “It gave me the time and the leisure to get into spiritual curriculum and formation in a way that I would not have been able to if I was focused on the hustle of being a performer. It gave me this breathing space to realize, ‘I actually really like thinking about spirituality and how my teams can interact with the Divinity in different ways. I like the research and reading.
“Prior, I was not interested in divinity or theology in any way. Even two years ago if you had told me I was going to Divinity School I would have said that I was not interested in hanging out with more priests.”
To The Forefront
Charlotte’s lifetime involvement with the Episcopal church and spiritual matters is now front and center in her thoughts as she works through the questions that drove her into this area of study. An oddity she has noted within her particular faith has likewise evolved into a current research focus. As she observes, her Episcopal community has a certain ‘shared language’ that is not accessible to outsiders. “When you’ve grown up in one sort of religious life and you’re surrounded by it, [it becomes] how you communicate. My mom and her best friend are both Sunday school teachers… and they will make jokes that I have to explain to Mike, my partner, [when we are all together]. Like, ‘this is a joke about something in the Bible,’ or ‘this is a joke about the way priests are perceived—Episcopal priests specifically.”
This shared language extends beyond the Episcopal church and affects people from all walks of life, be they faith-based or not. In fact, it is part of a theory Charlotte has been studying called Inclusion-Exclusion theory, which is the coined phrase for what happens within refugee religious spaces, specifically within female refugee spaces. “It basically says that if you have a refugee population and you encourage them to lean on religion—or if they are allowed to…. it can mean that you are less likely to function in [the region you have now fled to] because you become more and more insular.” While religious communities founded within refugee populations can offer support and respite, this can backfire as a source of isolation as members fail to establish the ability, or seek the opportunity, to make outside connections.
What could be a solution to this Inclusion-Exclusion problem? With enthusiasm, Charlotte refers to her latest book, Emergent Strategies by adrienne maree brown, which explores grassroots movements through biomimicry, a method of design that draws upon nature and biological systems. It is predicated on the belief that nature can teach us how to create more interconnected networks that respect insular functions while adding to the greater system. “She [brown] says that this hierarchy we’ve created is not all bad, but it is something we have forced upon ourselves. We are still just animals on the planet, and we are really fighting a lot of the ways that nature wants us to work. There is a thing she talks about, which is something I saw [in my projects as a youth minister], which is that relationships are the base of how you fix that [hierarchical divide]. That may not be an answer to the refugee population crisis, I do not know enough about that problem to speculate, but relationships are the core of how you create that kind of change.
“One of adrienne maree brown’s tenants is small is good, small is all. What she means is that the broad notion of how something works is reflected automatically on the ground level. So if you look at what is happening between you and me in this relationship, that will reflect the way our company or our organization works overall. As opposed to the opposite, which is ‘let’s look like we are doing this, let’s take pictures for marketing that looks like this, let’s create a vision statement that works like this’, but doesn’t actually reflect how the accountant is functioning in your system.”
Charlotte believes that social networks that can produce biomimicry fail because of our human fears. “We don’t make relationships because we are afraid of people. It was Prothero who said that it is not actually helpful in creating connections to have a globalized world. It makes you more likely to stay in your home and not be friends with your neighbor. Whereas if all you know are your neighborhood and your local area, then you think, ‘I can stay here for 10 years and know it really well! And that makes me more likely to be brave and make relationships.’ I am not anti-globalization, but you can’t force the internet on people and [think everyone] now understands what suffering is, [especially when it is] countries away. People are more likely to think, ‘I am more afraid now. There is more to be afraid of.’”
While Charlotte recognizes the privilege of attending to the distant suffering of others, she can see that most Americans do not have the luxury of such reflections. The average American is too absorbed in making ends meet within their own family and community as they try to safeguard themselves against mounting national tensions, economic downturns, and increased education and healthcare costs– among other demands. Therefore, asking a person in this position to create space for the suffering of a distant someone is often beyond a person’s bandwidth.
“I totally understand that inability, it can be self-centered but not necessarily negative. If you have more space and more comfort in your life, or more money, where you don’t have to be struggling to survive, there is time to read a book and think about someone else’s suffering.” Charlotte has a direct relationship with such people through her involvement with church service projects as she helped families in small communities in the Appalachian Mountains. “[These families I have worked for] are incredibly sympathetic, they have so much love for their families and their community and us, but it seems antithetical to their life [to connect to someone’s distant suffering]. I don’t think that is true for everybody, but I have a lot of empathy for that situation and I don’t want to demonize it.”
The Driving Force
I ask Charlotte if this gap between those who suffer and those who can empathize with said suffering is what drove her to Divinity School. She speaks of her readings before Divinity School and how through learning about these spaces she was brought into this space. This drive became her calling, which in her religious framework means that she became obsessed with the work. “You can attribute that to a Divinity or not, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. All that I was reading and learning lined up with what I learned in the Appalachians, that relationship-based communities should be a part of our national conversation. And I had skills in translating for different communities to think, ‘There is something here.’” Charlotte could work with teens, local communities, and adults and take lessons and wisdom from each interaction into her different roles. It felt like ministry work to her, although she was still not calling herself a minister. Maybe it was time to change that?
Structures of Power + Ethics + Meaning
Power is a thread that weaves itself through our conversation. The inevitable power accumulation of mega-churches and religious leaders are classic examples of how one can get lost teetering between social impact and leverage to do so. What are the mindsets of the high-powered individuals that have created these systems in which we find ourselves? How will Charlotte’s time at Divinity School prepare her to safeguard herself against such temptations, be it as an Episcopal minister or grassroots leader? What is the ethical conduct for religious leadership?
Charlotte points out that this blanket term ‘religion’ cannot encompass simply one group or moral conduct, as ethics and belief can differ greatly between and within religious groups, “Even within Christianity, the moral framework is completely split—you get to focus on what you want to focus on. I feel like that moral framework isn’t coming from your religion, otherwise, it could not be so split. There could not be such extreme moral differences within religious practices! The moral framework must be coming at you from the rest of your life—the way you make money, the way your community works, who you are afraid of, who you are interested in Otherizing—all of those build your moral framework and you make your religion fit that. In this sense, when someone comes from the religious left and says, ‘What about this thing that is really important to what Christianity says?’, it does not even compute [for the opposite side. People think], ‘Well, that’s not my religion, that is not what I am working with.’”
Methods for Meaning
“Christianity has a large amount of interpretation of who takes what text at face value—just like in Islam. I don’t think it works unless the Christian in question also believes in an outside force, a Divinity of some kind. And the Christian is going to vary from person to person on how much the Divinity force interacts with the holy text, and what is more important? Is the Divinity inspiring the text?– which means the text is totally true, no matter what. Is the Divinity in conversation with the text, and what means that I am a part of interpreting it, as well? For the big idea of creating the world in seven days [the story of Creation], you’re going to meet a lot of Christians who believe in totally opposite things because of how they think a holy text becomes holy. Does it because holy because an outside force made it so? Is it holy because we’ve passed it down for years and years? Is it holy because of the way I am using it? Is it holy because I think it’s holy? So, creating sacred text for me is not about fact.”
One of Charlotte’s favorite preachers, a Chicago-based preacher, said, “Wrestle with the Gospel until it gives you a blessing.” Rather than claiming the Gospel as fact, the preacher gives someone an option, almost an imperative search for meaning and a call to action. Charlotte’s interpretation of this question and the Gospel’s possibility for meaning is this: “It is not going to give you what you want. It is going to say something stupid about divorce and gay people—it is going to give you baggage and bullshit, but if it’s holy, you have the assumption that there is something in there for you to learn. It doesn’t mean that I have to learn that gay people are bad, and it certainly doesn’t have to mean that I have to believe that Creation was literally seven days long. But there is a huge swath of Christians that would disagree with me on that because they understand this connection between God and the text as working differently.”
Engaging With Divinity
Growing up, Charlotte’s church was interested in the sciences and reason as being one of the three prongs of being an Episcopal. “There was never any sense that, if there was a God, that God was interested in creating rules or that God is a limiter. There was always a language around the Divinity being more than I could understand, an ultimate form of understanding reality that I could try to put words to, but I was never going to be perfect at it. That really freed me from having to feel like there was some sort of choice to make.” It was surprising to Charlotte to learn that other Christians did, indeed, have the decide if Creation was seven days or risk being at odds with their faith. Her way is to see holy texts as more like a poem, a love poem passed down through the history of people into our hands. Seeing the text as a poem, for Charlotte, sets one free from finding fact and instead gives us the freedom to see Truth.
“Religion is a really personal, creative act [for me], and what is sad to me about it is that I don’t think many people are creative about their religious practice. I don’t think people engage with their theology—I don’t think we have to, and I don’t think [this engagement] makes you better at whatever religion you’ve decided to practice. But I do think when you let it just sit on you, when you are given this information and say, ‘Ok, that is what I am doing’, that lack of creativity does inevitably lead to demonizing. Because you’re not using your heart and your brain [in tandem] to wrestle with something, you’re just taking what you are given, and that is just rule-following. And that is how religion is used to control people, and that is why religion has a bad rep because it’s been this tool to control people for so long—and always will be. Any mode we have of telling people what to do, we are going to use. “
Intpretation + Creativity
I ask Charlotte how this rule-following and lack of creative engagement bleeds into the secular. “Well, we still use religion to tell non-religious people what to do. I am going to reference Louis CK—he has this thing in his latest stand-up where he says, ‘You don’t think you are affected by Christianity? What year are is it?‘* And that is not the power of a Divinity I am interested in, my Divinity doesn’t care what year is it, my divinity is outside of space and time. But that is something that religion is interested in, specifically the power of Christianity and how much space it can take up—and has taken up. So I think that the American moral landscape is built on a lot of Christian values whether or not we are a Christian nation. The joke in religion and developmental studies is that the West is very, very interested in painting itself as secular and painting the 3rd world as religious and backward—and that religion feeds into [these countries] being backward. But we are incredibly religious, we [the United States] are the most religious-secular nation on the planet and that’s also to say that Western European nations have a huge amount of harassment for religious stress. A study just came out from Pew Religious Research that said that women in Europe experience 10x more harassment for conservative religious stress than in West Africa or the Middle East. And that is the opposite of how we like to think of it. We like to think that religious oppression comes from countries that we want to invade.
*Louie C.K. is a convicted sexual offender and Charlotte is not endorsing him.
“This is all to say that non-religious atheist structures are influenced by religion [to a large degree]. And that is not great because they are [only] being influenced by the political ramifications of that religion or by how religion is being used– they are pawns in a game [where] power is using us, gender, and religion and moving us all around as pawns on this board. The result of that is we view gender, the 3rd world, and religion in certain ways.
“Our lives are short in the span of religious expansion, and America is such a baby. Studying and being in school and reading really reminds me of how easy it is to see my short, 80-years of living on planet earth—I don’t realize how influenced I am by something that happened 20 years ago. And I certainly don’t realize how influenced I am by the way this country was founded. I think we think of ourselves in these little boxes or bubbles of being, and unless you are told or you are curious about it [this historical expansion and connection], there is no way to see that you are situated within these forces. That is the way we live our lives—unsituated.
“I don’t think we engage, politically, with our history in this way [recognizing the Protestant framework embedded within the United State’s framework]. If we were going to [recognize this inherited structure], we would have to do that with race and class [and beyond]. If you open this box, you have to open the whole box. And I don’t think it is very easy for us as a nation to collectively acknowledge to way we are situated and what influences us at every moment. Little pockets of us do, where we want to know how we are situated in this world. But collectively, as a nation, not interested in doing that. If we were to suddenly unboxed that toy—that we all have [to see] the moral framework that is based on Christianity—I can only see war. It seems awful, but we would hate that about ourselves, and not enough of us would be interested in the healing part of it. I am not saying the goal is to become free, secular, I don’t think secular is freedom, necessarily. Philosophers of religion are continually trying to figure out what it means to be free of decisions and how that factors into religious thinking. None of them, even as recently as the 70s or 80s, could be freed from the framework that kept them in place. Every time you try to decentralize it and take ‘your God’ out of the mix, another god comes in—be that your inner moral framework; capitalism, if you’re Marxx; or your ID, if you’re Freud. [These entities] then become your God. Even if it is not a Christian foundation, it will still have a monotheist Christian framework, you are just picking something else to worship.”
“I think that an interesting fictional education project [would be found in confronting the idea that] you have centralized something in your life, whether or not you know it. Let’s figure out what that is. And we have the privilege to talk about self-identity and how we work, so if you actually can do the delving, then you have this opportunity to create Self in a totally different way. I do think that this is interacting with Divinity. I am of the mind that the Divine that keeps us together is interested in what we are interested in, and is interested in holiness. You don’t have to call it YAHWEH for YAHWEH to be involved. Self-creation, self-identity, and community building– I think love and God and relationships live there, whether or not it is religious. In our cohort, I know now that this is projecting a Christian framework onto something that is trying to be secular, but that brings me a sense of peace. That means I do not think everyone has to be religious, because from my own viewpoint I think, ‘Well if I believe in a God that is outside time and space and outside religious frameworks, then people should be allowed to choose their own center. And I think a lot of people would choose money, maybe, and a lot of people would think, ’Oh, I’ve chosen money, that’s interesting.’”
And perhaps inducing some self-reflection on these choices by tracing the genealogy and psychology of belief can reveal parts of ourselves that we do not currently understand– especially within individuals operating in a secular or atheist framework.
“There is something interesting about asking, ‘If people need frameworks, do you need something to build off of? Is it possible to create self without a framework?‘ I feel like I have been given all these frameworks [for self-to-world/love/God/ectara orientation] that I really appreciate… and you start to think about if this framework is helpful to in developing a person [or Self]. It changes your feeling about what people need or what people should have.” And it begs the question– what do we need to not simply survive, but thrive?