I am a professor granted a sabbatical for spring semester 2017. Yeah!! Grateful to President Mallard and Vice-President Mark Rogers, I will be traveling for six months for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. In keeping with the sabbatical guidelines, I have a purpose for these months. My sabbatical is to enable me to revise a set of course materials that I wrote in the summer 2008 for my “Moral Responsibility in the Twenty-First Century.” This course for lower-level students consists of looking at how various major world religious traditions look at basic issues of life, the five “S’s”, sex (intimacy and family life), sweat (the world of work and employment), shrubs (our physical environment), strangers (those who are hospitable and those who are terrorists), and sickness (from caring for those who are sick to mourning their death). My twist has been to begin with actual metro-Atlanta religious communities as illustrative and embodying features of each religious tradition’s basic beliefs and practices.
While I’ve done my fair share of talking with local religious figures and reading about these religious traditions, I seek to “take the next step.” During my sabbatical, I will be able to meet representatives of these religions “on their home turf.”
My Experiment of Mind centers on this sabbatical project. I’ll meet and converse with members of the Buddhist Fo Guang Sho Monastery in Taiwan, Kolkata’s Hindu Ramakrishna Institute of Culture, and Jerusalem’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute as well as with ordinary people on trains and in cafes. While I’m no Huston Smith or Krista Tippett, I believe that conversing with individuals about their religious faith and their approach to handling basic issues of life is worthwhile. However, while this is my most immediate purpose, I have two other purposes.
The Experiment of the Spirit purpose is for me to learn about me! This purpose is inescapable because of the length of time I am away from my home, my college, and my country. I am sincerely grateful to Reinhardt for previous trips, but in these time periods of less than six weeks, I could look forward to a quick return to the familiar. Since this sabbatical in foreign countries could last six months, I have many questions. How will I feel about having to make my plans every day while welcoming serendipitous events? How do I handle exciting or disappointing new sites in Taiwan, Myanmar, India, Egypt, Israel, and Spain? How will I also handle the long days of travel, the loneliness of not having Mary alongside, of being surprised or disturbed by new foods? As I observe myself with all these feelings in these new and different settings, what will I learn about me?
Finally, another purpose is an Experiment with the Body. In my previous trips, I’ve been fortunate, primarily because I have not fallen on my face on uneven sidewalks, nor found myself incapacitated by eating appealing but deadly street food. This time I am taking stomach pills and malaria pills for unpredictable bodily experiences. At the end of the sabbatical, I hope to walk the 485 mile French Way of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. In the Atlanta area, I have walked 20+ miles a week, so one day of 10-15 miles does not bother me. But I am not sure my body can handle 40 days of 10-15 miles a day. Writers about pilgrimages assert that the body’s struggle to keep going benefits not only the body but also the mind and spirit. We’ll see.
So, Sabbatical 2017 is both typical and atypical. As expected for sabbaticals, there is a serious set of questions I bring with me in order to help my students learn about various religious communities and traditions. As an Experiment of the Mind, these questions make my experience typical of a professor’s semester of reflection. However, Sabbatical 2017 is also atypical because it includes Experiments of the Spirit and Body, stretching toward fuller understandings in ways that I may also share with my students and colleagues as they too seek to be balanced and authentic persons.