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Chris Stedman

November 2, 2011

Chris Stedman

Chris Stedman works to advocate for the mutual respect of religious and non-religious individuals. He serves as the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, and the Emeritus Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He also founded the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status.

Chris’s engagement with issues of faith in society is the culmination of a life-long journey. Chris was raised in a secular home but converted to evangelical Christianity after being invited to church by friends at 11 years old. After years of wrestling with theology and his sexual orientation, Chris left the Christian tradition and spent some time exploring. Eventually he recognized that he was an atheist and secular humanist.

Chris writes for The Huffington Post Gay Voices and The Huffington Post Religion, where his work is among the most commented upon in the site’s history, and he is the youngest panelist for The Washington Post On Faith. He is at work on a memoir for Beacon Press (2012).

On November 15, Chris will be part of an event on Humanist Community and Interfaith Work at Park51 in New York City (find the link below in Connections). We hope you’ll join him for what promises to be a thought provoking evening.

1. What is your hometown?

I was born and grew up in and around Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, and I’ll always be a Minnesotan at heart. Despite Michele Bachmann’s cultural omnipresence, I can’t say enough good things about that state.

2. With what fictional character do you most identify?

I’m not sure I can pick a single fictional character that resonates with me, but in high school I was deeply impacted by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. In it there is a moment where the protagonist envisions herself perched in the split of a sizable fig tree, frozen by indecision. As someone who has struggled with making important choices, this passage really stuck with me:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

I have a tattoo inspired by this quote as a reminder of the importance of the importance of making choices, even when I struggle to do so. Our decisions matter, and apathy — choosing to do nothing — is a decision with as many ramifications as any other.

3. In the movie of your life, cast an actor to play you.

Oh man, that’s a tough one! I wish I could say James Franco, but it’d probably be Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Or someone even nerdier, to be honest.

4. What work of art speaks to your soul?

Every one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories gives me goosebumps. Her prose is artful and illuminating, and it moves me in a way few others things can. Also, I’m fascinated by people’s tattoos and the stories they contain — which is probably why I never shut up about my own.

5. What books are you currently reading or recommending?

As an interfaith activist, I really recommend Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith. Right now, however, I’m re-reading The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by French philosopher André Comte-Sponville. But really, there are so many books I would recommend that my answer to this question could go on forever!

6. What song or album is currently in heavy rotation on your iPod?

This is the hardest question to answer because I just want to list my entire iTunes library. Anyway, the weather cooled very quickly in Boston this fall, and cloudy, chilly weather puts me in the mood for music that’s lush, sweeping and full, and a bit dark. So I’ve been spending a lot of my time listening to Maria Mena’s new album “Viktoria,” John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark,” Joan as Police Woman’s “The Deep Field,” Sufjan Stevens’ “Age of Adz,” The Weeknd’s mixtapes, and new albums by My Brightest Diamond and St. Vincent. Blustery falls days are also perfect for an all-rap soundtrack, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Kid Sister, Flosstradamus, M.I.A., The Fugees, Clipse, Drake, and Kanye West lately. Also, I unironically love Britney Spears.

7. What’s the last movie that made you cry?

Lately, I’ve been crying in nearly every movie I see. Seriously. Like, I’m pretty sure I cried in My Idiot Brother and Contagion. As a friend of mine says, “I’m sensitive and I’d like to stay that way.” I say that half-joking, but I actually really mean it. Even a few years, I rarely cried, but these days it doesn’t take much to trigger an emotional response. I think that’s a good thing — I feel really aware of my emotions and how they’re guiding my decisions, and I think it’s probably directly related to the fact that the work I do hinges on being empathic and open to messy, challenging inter-cultural exchanges. Or maybe I’m just not getting enough sleep, ha.

8.  Cat person or dog person?

I love dogs so much — but I’ve got enough room in my heart for both. Now, if only I had enough room in my budget for even one!

9. What is more important, truth or kindness?

Both; but the greatest truth I’ve learned is that our collective existence depends on our ability to be kind to one another.

10.    How do you define sin?

The religious concept of sin is an attempt to grapple with the difficulty of being human and of making hard choices — especially those that run counter to our own selfish instincts. Though I’m not religious, I appreciate the idea that we need to be conscious of the ethical implications of each choice we make.

11.    How do you define virtue?

Virtue is moral good, and again I think it is contingent on the ability to take into consideration the needs and desires of people other than oneself, which is why I’ve committed myself to working with others to foster tolerance, inclusivity, and collaboration.

12.   Design your headstone: What does it say? What does it look like?

I don’t want a headstone. Put me in a cedar box and throw me in the ground somewhere. If I have any kind of legacy, I want to live on in the people I loved, the compassionate actions I undertook in collaboration with others, and the earnest words I wrote.

Bonus Question: Who would you like to see answer these questions?

I know so many incredible, committed atheist and interfaith activists that I’d love to see answer these questions! Our culture privileges lifting up the stories of those in positions of power, so I’d like to circulate these questions among those who don’t have a voice. Everyone has some insight to share, and we all benefit when we’re exposed to diverse ideas and experiences.
Chris Stedman
NonProphet Status
Center for Inquiry Event on Humanist Community and Interfaith Work
One Comment leave one →
  1. November 9, 2011 17:29

    When people want to bitch about the younger generation not “getting it”, I like to point them to Chris Stedman. The guy oozes sincerity and thoughtful ideas about engaging our similarities. Thanks for the interview.

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