We are meaning-seeking creatures. . . . [and] fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. . . . And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. – Karen Armstrong
The azaleas are in full bloom at my home in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, the winter having ended early this year with a warm front sending late-Spring conditions to the Philadelphia suburbs on the first of March. The trees are beginning to turn green again as the sun has taken a more prominent role in pushing forward the advance of an early summer. Nature has a way of transforming the soul, of causing one to reflect on the essence of creation and the meaning of the universe. For me, this has led to my search for God in Pennsylvania.
For much of my adult life, I have struggled with religion and faith. What do I believe? How deeply do I believe it? How committed am I to any one set of theological beliefs and living truths? I embrace knowledge and history, science and nature. I am a rational human being who eagerly accepts and actively participates in the modern world. And yet, there remains the quest for the divine, the search for a transcendent power that I cannot see or prove, but which in my heart I know is present, however irrational such a belief may be. Although I cannot begin to understand the revelations and manifestations of God, my quest for God is essential to my search for meaning.
I am the son of a Lutheran minister, raised in a family and household that took religion and faith seriously, yet implicitly understood Abraham Joshua Heschel’s suggestion that “[t]he road to the sacred leads through the secular.” I was neither sheltered nor walled-off from the surrounding world, and engaged humanity in all its messy, nuanced, and complex dimensions. Within the confines of my eastern Lutheran upbringing, I witnessed ministers, youth directors, and people of faith who did not shy from the social, political, and cultural dimensions of secular society. During the sixties and seventies, in my education, participation in sports, and social interactions, I experienced the humanistic world of modern America far more deeply than the insular world of church and faith. Unlike my parents, whose entire lives have evolved around the Lutheran church, its people and institutions, as the years advanced and my life progressed, I have engaged with a more expansive set of people and cultures, including friends and colleagues of many faiths, or no faith, or little regard for faith; some who viewed religion with skepticism, or worse, contempt.
I see no conflict between faith and reason. A belief in God does not require a disdain for science. A respect for scientific knowledge and advancement does not demand that one reject all belief in God. What the Greeks referred to as logos and mythos defined two different aspects of the world in which we live – the knowable and the unknowable. Logos refers to rational, pragmatic, empirical thinking and seeks to answer the question “How?” Mythos refers to the intuitive, subconscious mode of thought found in art, music, literature, and religion and seeks to answer the question “Why?” These are not mutually exclusive concepts. You can seek answers in both realms. Indeed, it is the tenuous co-existence between faith and reason, the willingness to ask questions, the constant search for truth that leads to the transcendent or the divine, a belief in God, with all its doubt and ambiguity.
To believe in God is not to reject reason, but to embrace it, to experience God’s creation in all its majesty and wonderment, the inherent beauty of the natural world, the diversity of humanity, and the emotional attachment to our souls. The more we learn, the more tools we have to better understand the magnificence of the universe and the majesty of God.
It is easy to grow frustrated with the widely shared perception of popular culture and the media that insists on viewing religion, and particularly Christianity, in its most dogmatic, narrow, and absolute form. On one extreme are those who hold religion in contempt and tend to define it in its theologically weakest expressions – Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, biblical literalism, and rigid orthodoxy – easy targets for anyone who requires rational, evidence-based thinking. On the other extreme are “Christians” who demand a literal and strict interpretation of Scripture and reject alternative readings based on historical and scientific insight which may conflict with what they perceive as the authoritative, absolute word of God. In each instance, the believer and non-believer alike present an either-or dichotomy – either believe in the bible literally or reject God altogether. It reflects the constant push for a world of black-and-white, an all or nothing mindset in which things are simpler and easier to understand, and to accept or reject.
Not surprisingly, the reality is far more complex. For me, and for the majority of people caught in between, who fall somewhere in that complex miasma of ambiguous faith and varying degrees of belief, the either-or dichotomy simply does not apply. We are instead entangled in a web of heritage, family and history that connects us to particular faith traditions and which stands a world apart from what much of the secular left and Christian right perceive religion, or Christianity, or divine authority to be.
“Religion is hard work,” writes historian Karen Armstrong in The Case for God (Knopf, 2009). “Its insights are not self-evident and have to be cultivated in the same way as an appreciation of art, music, or poetry must be developed.” Armstrong counters the simplistic notions of faith often used by religious antagonists and religious fundamentalists alike to define religion. In a 2009 article in Foreign Policy (“Think Again: God”), Armstrong discussed the new atheism of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens (I would also include the less scholarly Bill Maher), who have “denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.”
Armstrong understands and has written extensively about religion’s historical shortcomings, and she has consistently challenged the mistaken theology and incorrect assertions of Christian fundamentalists. And while she has “written at length about the crusades, inquisitions, and persecutions that have scarred human history,” she rightfully notes in response to many atheists and skeptics that past abuses and desecrations do not tell the whole story.
Religion is also about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning; it was not designed to provide us with the same kind of explanations as science, but to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition. As such, it continues to appeal to millions of human beings across the globe. To identify with its worst manifestations, claim that they represent the whole, and then demolish the straw dog thus set up does not seem a rational or useful way of conducting this important debate.
Failing to understand the complexity of religious life, the theological diversity within and among the many faith traditions, and how the typical practitioner views their faith and its meaning in their lives, does a great disservice to the shared humanity within us all.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 78% of Americans self-identify as Christian, yet when you hear the term “Christian” on NPR, Fox, and CNN, almost always it means “Christian right” or “Christian conservative.” Yet only one-third of American Christians are evangelicals (about 26% of Americans), and even this term includes a wide variety of Christians, such as born-again Christians, fundamentalists, and other non-denominational church goers with a diverse set of beliefs. Moreover, evangelicals include among their ranks not only political conservatives, but also a meaningful minority of political liberals (think Sojourners, Jim Wallis, and Tony Campolo). The remaining two-thirds of American Christians include Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, UCC, Methodist, etc.), and historically black Protestants (Baptist, AME, Pentecostal), with a smaller number of Mormons, Orthodox Christians, and other subgroups. As Timothy Noah of The New Republic noted recently, “To say that conservative Christians are the only Christians is like saying Hasidic Jews are the only Jews.”
Of course, very few of us really understand our own religions, their histories, traditions, and theological evolutions. Contemporary religious institutions ask little of its members, readily offering comfort while lacking the courage to challenge. Nearly a half-century ago, in “Religion in a Free Society” (The Insecurity of Freedom, First Noonday Press, 1967), Rabbi Heschel commented on the declining relevance of religion in modern life. “The trouble is that religion has become ‘religion’ – institution, dogma, ritual,” he wrote. While some people blame secular science and antireligious philosophy for religion’s descent, the blame lies mostly with institutional religion itself. “Religion declined not because it was refuted,” Heschel wrote, “but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; . . . when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”
Recently, I have been on a quest for finding a religious community at which I can feel comfortable – where I can learn and question and struggle without feeling judged as insufficiently committed or confused. I want a congregation that does not take a simplistic view of faith, rejects absolutes, accepts the equal validity of other faith traditions, and searches for answers to life’s most pressing questions; that strives for a just world here on Earth and is less concerned with the hereafter, and which sees the face of God in the ordinariness of everyday humanity. What I really want is a progressive Christian church with a Jewish sense of justice and history and a Buddhist sense of spirit. I’m a tough customer, I know.
In the end, however, it is really not about me, or my search for a comfortable religious home. As I walk through life’s pathways, I have learned that the search for God is an unending quest to better understand humanity and our place within it, our connection to each other, to nature, and our need to take care of all creation. “If you want to find Jesus,” the Reverend John Steinbruck, formerly of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., used to say, “go to where the outcasts are – the sick, the homeless, the poor.” Heschel, too, reminded us that “the task of the human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God.”
The search for God, wherever that may occur and at whatever stage in life, requires an openness to the beauty of humanity in all its diversity, pain, and struggle; in the natural wonder of the universe in all its vastness; in developing genuine connections with nature and with each other. In the end, I may only satisfy my search for God, or at least the transcendence we call “God,” when I accept, in the words of Karen Armstrong, that faith “is not simply a matter of subscribing to a set of obligatory beliefs; it is hard work, requiring a ceaseless effort to get beyond the selfishness that prevents us from achieving a more humane humanity.” As my search continues and the struggle to understand moves forward, I know the hard work required for a life of faith and understanding has only begun.