Jenny Mai: Agnostic, Free, and Drawn to Divinity School

Our faith traditions can seem like our entire world, and we are often prone to casting the faith tradition of others using our own language, forcing them into terms that allow us to categorize them and move on. Sometimes pausing to listen, to hear the faith expression of another, can remind us that G-d, or the Divine, is not easily categorized, and that we ought to not be so quick to categorize the faith position of another human being.  For this edition of our multifaith dialogue series, I spoke to Jenny Mai, a first-year Divinity School student. I have included an abbreviated version of our conversation below.

Q: How would you identify your faith tradition? Or position yourself theologically?

A: Faith-position wise, I identify a variety of ways, depending on the context in which I am in. 

I identify as an ex-Catholic.  I was born and raised Catholic, particularly within the Roman Catholic Church.  I stopped being Catholic from a really young age and was able to be free of Catholicism when I was in college – when I got to Wake Forest undergraduate. 

In undergraduate, I had no inclination toward religion whatsoever.  I had a deep respect for diverse religious traditions, but did not feel a call to one.

Now, within the Divinity School, I identify as non-Christian because the Div School is based in Christian tradition.

I identify as agnostic, which essentially means I do not adhere to a particular religious tradition but I do have some sort of connection to something—I don’t want to say higher, because I don’t know that I would define that hierarchy—it could be horizontal for me.  I do believe in the Ancestors, an Afro-centric Christian idea, even though I don’t particularly identify with Christianity.  The ancestors are really important elements to my movement in the world.

Overall, I don’t identify with a particular religious tradition.  I use “agnostic” because that is what most people are familiar with and it’s the only language that captures my experience.  

Q: What do you mean by “Free of Catholicism”?

A: That meant not having to go to church anymore, particularly the church in Charlotte that my family went to.  I was in Catholic school from elementary school through high school, so it was all-consuming during that time.  So, when I said “free” I meant free.  

Also, I am a survivor of conversion therapy within the Catholic tradition.  So, when I became free, it meant I didn’t have to go through that pain anymore and I didn’t have to be in a relationship with a god or a being in general and I did not have to be punished for my identity.  

I identify as a black, queer, non-binary, gender-fluid, gender-queer person.  It has always been my experience, but came to me after I left undergraduate.  My Catholic tradition did not let me be free in that sense.

It is part of the reason I identify as agnostic now.  I don’t believe in having to choose between any dichotomies in general — male and female, black and white, Christian and non-Christian. 

So, I identify as non-Christian because I want to exist outside the binaries within the Christian world.  If I’m not in a Christian context, then I identify as agnostic.  

Q: Why Divinity School?

When I was an undergrad, I studied sociology and women and gender studies, so I had a large, macroscopic, systemic perspective on life and the world and how it permeates existence around me and society.  

I was introduced to Divinity School by random encounters with Divinity students.  They were always at the coolest things I attended.  They were at a SpeakOut when the Mike Brown verdict came out.  They were at a lot of organizing spaces I was in.  I asked, “Who are these Divinity students?  What do they do? What are they about?”  

For some reason, I was drawn to the individuals who were at the Divinity School.

Also, I met Meagan McNeely while we worked together at the Pro Humanitate Institute.  I also talked with Hollis [Dudgeon].  I was trying to figure out the next stepping stone, the next space where I could get a scholarship, not go home to my parents, and learn some things and grow. I feel like I have time.  I’m 22, just came from undergrad.  The icing on the cake was that my partner, Demi McCoy, who was also a Div School student, gave me insight into the school.  She introduced me to community lunch – I love free food!  

I thought, why should I invest in Divinity School?  I can just talk with people from the Div School and not have to spend the time.  But I took Elizabeth Gandolfo’s Latin American Liberation Theology, and I thought wow; and realized there are things that can be reclaimed in theology—our conceptions about God.  It just seemed valuable to me.  Another class I took was with Ronald Neal in the Religious Studies department.  He introduced me to James Cone and also to Anthony Pinn.  Pinn identifies as an atheologian, someone who studies theology and is an atheist. I read his book, Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought, as I am very interested in embodiment.  I thought it was really cool, so I applied to the Div School.  

I found the love of God fascinating.  The mismatch between people’s actions and the love of God also fascinated me. I saw Div School as a way to shift the culture, be present, and get new language I could use to better understand myself and others, so I applied. 

I found compelling people’s emotions towards theology.  I could go to a sociology program, but theology people’s expression that they feel called and they love God—their entire essence is wrapped up in Div School and I wanted that.

Steve Gardner

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