Wei Chen. That was her name. I had almost forgotten her, and how she was the reason my youthful conservative theology began to crack open in uncomfortable and unseemly ways. It started with Wei Chen, my college friend from Hong Kong. This was back in the Seventies at a time before social media and cell phones, when friends-in-person were everything—like rare and delicate flowers. To lose one tore at the heart in fragile and significant ways. But that is what happened between me and Wei Chen: a tearing, a loss, a betrayal. Living in the dorm, far from home, Wei Chen and I met at our first dorm meeting, two green freshmen in need of mutual support. My fascination with international students and her need for an American cohort seemed enough to get our friendship going. Wei’s sweet, shy radiance and profound intelligence attracted me. And her sheer bravery. I mean, really brave—coming all the way from Hong Kong, and all alone! She was tiny in stature, with a shiny mop of chin-length black hair, wire-framed glasses and a heavy leg brace. Her severe limp was something that we never spoke of, but it was obvious that she had out-maneuvered the demon of self-consciousness, yet another thing I admired about Wei Chen.
So we chummed around on campus, sharing all the trials and woes that wide-eyed terrified freshman experience on a strange campus—and in Wei’s case, a strange country. She had her mother send me beautiful gifts that featured reds—a delicately painted fan and a bamboo plate with a mountain landscape in colors of bright red and quiet browns. All was going swimmingly until that day the devil rode on my shoulder.
At the time, I was part of an ultra-conservative Christian campus group, not uncommon for lonely college students from small towns who never heard of anything except one version of things. At one of the first meetings they gave out handfuls of tracts called The Four Spiritual Laws and insisted that we needed to share this truth with our friends and make sure they accepted Jesus as savior exactly as the tract prescribes, or else they would go to hell. Of course I didn’t want my new friend to go to hell, so I felt compelled to present this charming heathen with the one and only truth in the universe that would keep her safe from the fires of hell.
Problem was, Wei Chen did not see this friendly gesture of pointing out her eternal doom—baring immediate conversion—in the same light. I still remember the look on her face after I gave the carefully practiced spiel—yes, after all these 40 years, it was the look in her eyes, the disappointment, even tears behind her wire-rimmed glasses that I remember most vividly. Dear God, what had I done? She didn’t—or couldn’t—speak. But it was as if she were saying: I’ve been through this before. I thought you were different; I thought you were my friend, an equal, someone to share things with. But you’re just like all the rest: you want to change me. You probably only became my friend to try to convert me. She turned and walked away, her limp more pronounced than usual. Our friendship had been dissolved, leaving me confused and sad and conflicted.
From that time on, the crack in my narrow theology and naïve worldview grew wider until finally, after a few more years, my entire worldview broke open and lay in shattered pieces—ready to be reconstructed in a new way. The more I learned about history and religion and theology, I discovered that some of the greatest evils on earth have been perpetrated by well-meaning people like me, whose theology centers on hell, judgment, and a God of Fear—the God of the Four Spiritual Laws. Many good souls feel obliged to help others into heaven, especially if that’s the only theology they have ever heard. Saving others from the wrath of God becomes a passion, an obsession; but slowly, inexorably, they begin to identify themselves with that wrathful God—to the woe of humanity. Left to its own devices, a theology of fear spirals down to demonic places, like self-righteous absolutism and prejudice. Eventually, as history teaches us, fear unchecked finds no other outlet but violence. Today I live in New Mexico, where crimes against humanity were perpetrated against the Native Americans on the grounds that we needed to “save them.” For some missionaries, there was an honest but misguided desire for these “savages” to stay clear of hell. For others, it was simply a way to take over the land. But as the bloody history of the West reminds us, we—the interlopers—ended up as the savages. Theologies of fear never have happy endings.
I lost a friendship over The Four Spiritual Laws: a neat and tidy but painfully narrow interpretation of Christianity, one that squeezes out all love and beauty, leaving only self-righteous rigidity built on the delusion of absolute truth. If only I had known then that there were other ways to be Christian, other theologies and biblical interpretations that were based on love rather than fear. If only I had known that there was nothing to fear in other religions and worldviews. If only I had traveled or been exposed to other cultures . . .
While I grew out of the soul-pinching worldview of One Way or the Highway (to hell), I assumed optimistically that everybody else would grow out of it, too, that the world would evolve into a healthy pluralism of mutual respect. But here it is, 2016, and the devil of the narrow and fearful is growing in popularity beyond anything I ever imagined. This cunning devil visits all religions in turns; he’s quite democratic in that way. He specializes in the art of amnesia—helping religious folks forget the kindness and love at the heart of their faith. It’s as if the old devil is perusing his busy calendar and thinking to himself: Okay, this Thursday I visit the fundamentalist Christians, get 'em worked up over those scary Syrian Refugees so they forget about their calling to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Friday, after I grab a coffee with Donald Trump, I’ll return to the fundamentalist Muslims, distracting them into forgetting that Islam means peace. On Saturday, I’ll visit those New Atheists, who—and this is funny—think they are immune to all this because they oppose religion. Ha! Note to self: Do not let the New Atheists remember my good friends Stalin and Mao, two anti-religious tyrants who wiped out untold masses of humanity by their fundamentalist ideologies. Yes, all I have to do is scare people of all stripes into forgetting their values of decency and human compassion—that’s it! So easy. Fear and Forgetfulness, the two pillars of my work. With this dynamic duo, I can rule the world!
So that’s the devil that caught me up in college and destroyed my lovely friendship with Wei Chen. After university, I went to seminary and later studied philosophy and history, too, and came out of it with quite a rebellious spirit—yes, to hell with ignorance, fear, and absolutism! My faith does not need all that nonsense. I now call this rebellious spirit the way of Fat Soul. Fat Soul is the counter-cultural alternative to the rigid narrowness that plagues the planet. That is, to combat the devil of Fear and Forgetfulness, to keep razor-sharp rigidity from shredding our relationships, to say YES to a multi-faith world of diversity, we might just need to go wide in our souls, to grow plump with listening, and to gain girth through gratitude for those who are different from us.
We may need to simply laugh and lose a little control. I mean, have you noticed that absolute-truth mongers and control freaks in general tend to lack a sense of humor? Comedians show us the way by their ability to take the uncomfortable absurdities of life and make us laugh. Laughing means letting go, and that’s near impossible for the thin-souled and fearful. So, what are these narrow souls afraid of? I believe they are afraid of losing control in a world changing too fast. The tension of pluralism is too great for rigid, fearful—and yes, uneducated—souls to handle. For these impoverished souls, those of different religions and cultures and skin-colors and sexual orientation seem threatening and scary and suspicious. It's like the compulsive dieter who is afraid of going off her diet even once, for fear of losing complete control. But to expand our hearts and minds means letting go, allowing ourselves to be sullied with doubt and imperfection, and to know that it’s all okay. After a life of study and travel and experience and ministry and banging my head against the wall of life, it finally hit me the only thing that will save the day is that we quit taking ourselves so damned seriously.
Yes, one way to beat the devil of fear is the way of laughter and play; another way is education, especially the study of religion, sociology, history, and culture; another way is to travel and actually talk to people of other faiths and cultures. Yet another way is to set ourselves smack in the middle of a beautiful forest filled with scuttling wildlife and the well-modulated arias of blackbirds. If we don’t get shot by hunters, we might just experience the transcendence of Beauty itself—the best cure for a impoverished soul.
And for people of faith, we can even dare to believe in a loving God, a beautiful God, a God whose hospitality knows no boundaries—a divinity who believes in friendship over ideology, in reconciliation over righteousness, and who helps us burst through rigid boundaries of the brittle ego, toward a larger, relational, expansive worldview. This means that when it comes to the soul, we need to widen out—yes, embrace what a world hell-bent on narrowness can’t seem to handle: getting wider, larger, fatter.
My new way of thinking—“Fat Soul” thinking—came about through studying the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and process theologians like Bernard Loomer. Of course this is not “the only way” (three tragic words), but it happens to be my own portal to wideness and liberation. Through experience, education, and spiritual journey, I was able to let go of a theology of fear and embrace the expansive beauty and richness of diversity. My soul began to widen out in unseemly ways, beyond the usual boundaries of us and them. I came to see that a Fat Soul is a beautiful soul—resilient and colorful and spacious and unremittingly awe-struck at every turn.
A Fat Soul dares to let go of absolute certainty and absolute control and absolute perfection—she has to, in order to make room for fresh and interesting ideas and love and mercy and joy— and still have room for a little craziness. This means we need to grow up and learn to embrace the tension inherent in a big life. Even the awkwardness and ambiguities and weirdness and discomfort that come through our differences—it’s all okay. In fact, it’s better than okay, as it all makes for a multi-dimensional, multi-layered, and expansive life. Our differences make for a kaleidoscope world, an interesting world, a world that might someday hope to get over the need for razor thin, literal, absolute interpretations that only serve to sever relationships and do violence when provoked.
I still think of Wei Chen and her courage. Here she was, a young woman (with a physical disability, no less) coming to a new country on her own in hopes of not only learning, but connecting and forming friendships with Americans. How I let her down! She is probably a great scientist today or a teacher somewhere in Asia, and I wish my narrow-minded faith had not destroyed our friendship. I wish the devil didn’t go to church so often, but there it is: Our human darkness is a given; what we do with our devil depends on us. Will we inhabit a spirituality of fear or a spirituality of love? With rampant fundamentalism, fear, and forgetfulness trolling the world for victims, maybe it’s time to lighten up and get fat.