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  • Kevin Shorner-Johnson

Spiritual Crises of Ambiguity and Loneliness

The below speech was offered to religious studies majors and minors as we contemplated the relevance of religious studies in the midst of a pandemic.


It is such an honor to spend time with you this evening. As Dr. Jeff Long received the Ranck Prize for Scholarship, I reflected that tonight I wanted to take what he started, in advocating for the importance of religious studies and continue this path. And in so doing, I confer upon you recognition, honor and congratulations for exploring language, texts, traditions, and practices that are noble, sustaining, and life affirming.


We seem to be at crisis points at national, global, and local scales that point to many ambiguous, and persistent problems. Ambiguity is a loss of a sense of certainty and the persistence of ambiguity cultivates an anxious spiritual crisis as we reach and grasp for something which to construct meaning. And then the other spiritual crisis before us, that as we use the language of “social distancing” we acutely feel language of loneliness in this present moment. In 2019, Varun Soni, the dean of religious life at USC, cited a 20,000 person Cigna study to note that around only half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis AND that Generation Z may be the loneliest generation, based on responses about relationship, isolation, companionship, and being known.


Ambiguity and loneliness, I have felt shades of these anxieties this year. Things that once were simple at Elizabethtown College — like how many people could be in a room, how we ate food, how we met, became filled with mind numbing complexity. Awash in a sea of electronic communications and zoom meetings, I feel myself grasping for relationship and meaning.




In celebrating you tonight, I celebrate you as leaders who have chosen to lean into a field that can speak to this moment - studies that cultivate rich language, texts, practices and understandings that open deep conversations where objective understandings fall short. I want to close this by speaking to the nobility of language and the sacredness of ritual.


Authors on the climate crisis have noted a significant loss of vocabulary from our language regarding flora and fauna. Wolff Medin and Pankratz studied the presence of words in the Oxford English dictionary from the 15th to the 20th century, noting an increase in words for different types of trees and then a haunting extinction of words in the 20th century as words about human artifacts such as types of furniture, boats, and books showed opposite trends from the 19th to the 20th century. All (Kashima & Margetts, 2014 p. 300) Their argument is that as we lose the precision of our language, we lose the depth of our relationship with the biosphere and consequently our sense of interconnected being. We should note that so many indigenous traditions around the world have complex vocabulary that point to forms of relationality that deepen our notions of ecological care. Language is sacred relationship, held in the embrace of story and text.


Tonight I worry that there is a corresponding and significant loss of religious vocabulary. Our species has wrestled with meaning, and the feeling, the sensation that there is something deeper at work in the world. As we hold the awe of what it means to love in our grasp, we employ words like grace, mercy, reconciliation, intention, forgiveness, truth, transcendence, embodiment, discernment, and sacredness. This list reveals my Christian orientation, and we know here tonight that different traditions illumine new understandings of unanswerable and essential questions.



As I sit with each of these words and the texts that deepen them, I note, just how central each word may be to questions of meaning. How do we bring awe and wonder into conversations? How do we deepen our sense of noticing and story, senses that lead us to deeper ethics and relationship.


Finally, I want to note our need for ritual. Amid the tumult of everything being different in this pandemic year, ritual has never felt more sacred to me than it is in this time. Ritual grounds us, marks what is important, brings intention to relations, and brings our minds out of cell phones and Zoom meetings and back into our bodies. As religious studies majors and minors, you know that rituals are essential to what it means to be human, and in light of data on loneliness, ambiguity, anxiety, and turbulence, it may be the fully embodied rituals that bring comfort, reparation, restoration, and reconnection. Our attention is sacred, and our choice to bring intention into this moment is one that holds profound meaning.



Thank you for walking the path that this field illuminates. From this field, you are equipped with the care, custody, and curiosity of language, texts, traditions, and practices that move our sense of being deeper, especially when we are navigating a sense of crisis. We need this thinking, this language, these texts, and this intention. In a world of hyper connectivity at quantum speeds, your field embraces a slowing, a conversing, and an imagining. Without the slowing, gentling lean into relations, we may only be more lonely and lost in echo chambers of our pursuit of more.


May you bring the wisdom of these studies, and your work of curiosity and insight, into conversations that deepen meaning, purpose, and companionship. May you be a voice that cares for words, the vocabulary that take conversations on walks of greater care, love, and humility.


As we confer our recognition to you this evening, I thank you for excavating this path, deepening your gifts of language and study, to enrich the gifts you may offer yourself, others, and communities in relations that struggle for meaning.



Kashima, Y., & Margetts, E. (2014). On human-nature relationships. In Paul G. Bain, Jeroen Vaes, & Jacques-Philippe Leyens (Eds.), /Humanness and dehumanization/ (pp. 294-319). New York, NY : Routledge.

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