Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Are Americans losing their religion?

"More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether."

That's a quote from the new report on the state of religious affiliation in America from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The Observer's story on the report is here, and the full report, which is well worth exploring, is here.

The report paints a picture of spiritual restlessness, of adults being dissatisfied with the "faith of their fathers," or at least their father's denomination.

Cause for panic? Or cause to celebrate?

I say the latter. And I say this as a member of a mainstream Protestant church -- a group whose numbers are in decline. Why celebrate? I can think of two reasons:

1. It shows that people are not willing to settle for boring, irrelevant services and dry theology. They are seeking communities where they can authentically encounter God and learn to love one another.

2. It's a wake-up call to all houses of worship that they won't keep their members unless they are willing to engage and challenge them on every level -- providing spiritual depth, mental stimulation and opportunities to serve those in need. Being a Sunday-only, mindless, see-and-be-seen, believe-what-you're-told-and-shut-up-about-doubts club won't cut it.

Yes, the study shows there are many who turn away from organized religion altogether. But are they so much worse than pew-warmers who go through the motions but haven't let faith transform their lives?

Perhaps Americans are not so much losing their religion as finding it for themselves.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Which fights will seem petty in 500 years?

Isn't it interesting that posts about prayer or personal spirituality receive so few comments, while posts about theology draw so many ("Prayer lost in the clutter": 3. "Reading the Bible as non-literal truth": 156 and counting)? I'm not surprised.

Perhaps the posts that receive little response are so boring that nobody has any desire to comment (possible) or that they cover the topic so well that nobody has anything to add (I seriously doubt that!). It's more likely that people are reluctant to open up -- even anonymously -- about something as personal as prayer in something as public as a blog.

But part of it, I feel sure, is simply that theology lends itself to argument in a way that spirituality doesn't. Dogma separates, while the experience of mystery unites. This is true across religious lines as well as within a particular faith or denomination.

I remember being horrified when I read about the bloody struggles between Catholics and Protestants in 16th-century England. Believers were burned at the stake over differences that strike us now as petty. Political power struggles were given a veneer of pseudo-righteousness when opponents were decried as heretics or papists.

How we love to insist that everyone believe exactly what we believe! But creeds don't transform lives; prayer does.

It makes me wonder which of today's debates will make our descendants shake their heads in disbelief. My guess: the bitter fights over homosexuality and the leadership of women.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Prayer lost in the clutter

Yesterday I sat in the chair where I most like to pray ... only this time I couldn't. It wasn't a crisis of faith, just a crisis of clutter.

After clearing some folded clothes off the chair, I settled into prayerful silence. But the rest of the room shouted chaos and neglect, and no matter how I tried, I couldn't shut it out. The lack of order was as noisy as a jackhammer, as distracting as a buzzing mosquito.

Now, I confess to being an indifferent housekeeper with a high tolerance for disorder, so this loss of serenity surprised me. It got me to thinking about the ways we fill our lives with clutter -- not just things, but tasks and projects and obligations and habits -- and how that clutter keeps us from being with God. We try to squeeze our spiritual life into the cracks between mounting piles of acquisitions and accomplishments. And then we wonder why God is so hard to find.

I went to a somewhat more orderly room to finish praying, and part of that prayer was an acknowledgment of my need for clear priorities and sacred simplicity.

Then I spent the rest of the evening cleaning the room that was too noisy even when silent.

Do you find that the clutter of your life pushes out God? What makes prayer difficult for you?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Archbishop pushes Islamic law?

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans, poked a stick in a hornets nest last week. According to media reports, he said it "seemed unavoidable" that Britain would have to adopt elements of Sharia law, the Islamic legal code. Here's a good explanation of the controversy, from the Sunday Times of London.

A frenzied swarm of critics quickly emerged, from Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the tabloid Sun ("It's easy to dismiss Archbiship of Canterbury Rowan Williams as a silly old goat. In fact, he's a dangerous threat to our nation.") to fomer Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey ("His is a view I cannot share. Acceptance of some Muslim laws within British law would be disastrous for the nation.")

As the Times reported, "He produced one of the most unlikely coalitions seen in Britain in recent times. He was attacked by conservatives, liberals, all three leading political parties, fellow Christians, Jews and, indeed, some Muslims. "

The repeatedly stung archbishop attempted to clarify his remarks on his Web site, including links to the original speech and his interview with the BBC.

Rowan Williams is a brilliant man whose deep theological musings tend to be misunderstood when simplified into sound bites. I think it's clear that what he intended to say was far less radical than his critics accuse him of saying. A partial accommodation of religious law -- as is already done with the Orthodox Jewish community -- is far from the parallel legal system that some accuse him of advocating.

Still, even if it was the right thing to say, it was the wrong time to say it. At a time when Western democracies feel threatened by immigration's effect on culture and militant Islam's use of terror, suggesting that Britain's legal system make room for Sharia law was incredibly brave, stunningly oblivious or simply foolish.

What do you think?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Wayfaring strangers, homesick for God

j.j. asked (Feb. 8, 7:14 AM): "I believe God put it into our hearts that we are all strangers in this world, and never quite feel 100% comfortable. Is it because we know we are going to die or is it because he wanted us to long for Him (or both)?"

j.j.'s question reminds me of the haunting Appalachian spiritual "Wayfaring Stranger," which can be heard here. "I am a poor wayfaring stranger, wandering through this world of woe. But there's no sickness, toil or danger in that bright land to which I go ... "

There seems to be an innate human longing for something more, something beyond this life. The death of loved ones is hard to endure without that hope. I don't think, though, that this longing is simply shaking our collective fist at mortality. It feels more like a yearning for an existence we know but have forgotten. Homesickness for a home we can't describe.

French scientist and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."

This is sometimes called the God-shaped hole -- the emptiness in us that can only be filled by God. As St. Augustine put it, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

One reason for the tradition of giving up something for Lent is that it helps us to see how addicted we have become to whatever we use to satisfy our cravings, to fill that hole. And when we encounter that terrifying emptiness, that "infinite abyss," while disarmed of our usual defenses against it, we are more likely to stop and look deeply into it. We are more likely to find what truly belongs there.

So, j.j., my answer would be "both." It is both a hope for life that endures beyond death and a realization that this material world is only part of our existence -- that we are spiritual beings who find our purpose and fulfillment in God. Whether God planted it there or it is a logical outcome of being mortal yet spiritual creatures, I have no idea.


Thursday, February 7, 2008

Shadow of death puts life in new light

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Those words are spoken as a priest smears ashes in the form of a cross on the foreheads of worshippers. It's the solemn mark of Ash Wednesday, and I came home with that mark last night.

The ashes felt more real this year after having held and scattered the ashes that are all that remain of my husband's flesh and bones. This year ashes were not a metaphor of death but a real, tangible link to loss. That loss also marks me -- less visibly, perhaps, but it doesn't wash off.

Remember. As if I could forget that he is dust. That I am dust.

But the point of the Ash Wednesday service is not just to rub mortality in our face but to remind us to live. It kicks off the season of Lent, a time of self-examination and repentance. It's a time to look honestly at how far we have wandered off course and to turn back, trusting in God's guidance and forgiveness.

The shadow of death puts our lives in a new light. Priorities shift. Time is too precious to waste. Life is too short to squander.

Because, although it is true we are dust, that is not all that we are.