At Amelie’s

Carol and I are sitting at Amelie’s, a French bakery in Charlotte, N.C., that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s after eleven o’clock on a Thursday evening, and there are lots of people here. At a table to my right, I can sort of hear two men talking about the theater. There’s a card game going on at aother table. There’s a couple who look to me as though they’re on a date. Two women sitting on couches are talking very seriously in low voices. That’s this room. There are two other rooms, the main bakery counter, and the outside patio. I’ve heard at least two languages other than English (Russian was one, and I’m not sure about the other). I’m seeing a lot of white folks, but there’s definite racial diversity here. And I’d guess that all of the people here are younger than Carol and me (that is, at least under 45). There is excellent wifi access, and I can see people checking Facebook and surfing the Web. We are sitting at a table with two laptops, a pear tart, a peach tart, and a cup of really good coffee:

OK. You know what the setting is like. Now, a lot of what I’ve been hearing about recently is how the shape of religion and spirituality is changing, and it’s increasingly taking place outside of traditional places of worship, particularly for people younger than me. If I lived in Charlotte, given that I’m something of a night owl, I have a feeling that I’d be spending a lot of time here. And if I were going to imagine a place where I’d want to do spirituality, this would be it. This pear tart can only be described as spiritual. Good wifi access, pleasant surroundings, interesting conversations going on around you — what more do you need?

If I had my way, church would look more like Amelie’s, and I’d be able to get fast wifi access and really good pear tarts and really good coffee there.

Hey, a guy can dream.

Yet another General Assembly conversation

Yesterday I ate dinner with Roy, a seminarian who is also a psychiatrist and a professor at Stanford; Helen, a retired minister who is a former college professor and one of the more incisive theological thinkers I know; and Don, a playwright who is also a staff writer and editor for NASA. (And before you ask, yes, I did feel a little out of my intellectual league.)

Helen said to Roy that she thought his insights into psychiatry and psychology would be of great value to Unitarian Universalism. Because, she said, Unitarian Universalists too often concentrate on the rational side of human beings. Roy said that yes, he thought Unitarian Unviersalism could improve on its understanding of human beings, and they talked about the huge unconscious power beneath the rational self. Don pointed out how Freud drew heavily on Greek myths to provide examples for his psychological theories, while he could have drawn on the Hebrew Bible — the story of Abraham and Isaac is certainly rich in psychological insight — but as a Jew who had rejected his heritage, Freud seemingly didn’t want to turn to the Bible. (I thought: yes, and that does sound like many Unitarian Universalists.) But then, Don pointed out that the Greek myths offered such rich material for Freud, he didn’t need to look beyond them.

And as I sat there listening to them expand on this idea, I wished I had the skills of James Boswell — I wished I could remember long stretches of conversation, and accurately report them. Books have their place, and online resources like blogs and videos and Web sites have their place, but listening to really good conversations — where you’re sitting at the table with the people who are talking, and where you could even speak up (though you don’t because you’d rather just listen), and where you can see and feel and hear the interaction between the people — is, to my mind, the best way of all to learn and grow as a human being.