Does It Matter What You Call Yourself?

The short answer to that question is no.

Today’s inspiration comes from two magazine articles.  One was a thought provoking piece by Jon Meacham in the April 13th, 2009 issue of Newsweek, entitled “The End of Christian America” and the other was published recently in the January 26th, 2010 issue of The Christian Century with the heading “More people are praying, but religious ties are fraying”. Statistics cited in Newsweek were as follows :

-The number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, from 8 to 15%.

-The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76%.

-The number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990, from 1 million to 3.6 million.  Meacham adds, “That is double the number of say, Episcopalians in the United States.” 

These numbers reflect a bending towards a spirituality that is a result of personal and personal soul searching, people looking to develop an inner life that is both meaningful AND practical. Christianity is unequivocally included in the mix, but not unexplored, unquestioned Christianity.  These trends validate what I have experienced over the years with those who form a wide swath of religious affiliations and spiritual practices.  While the idea of “taking what you like and leaving the rest” is an anathema* to many of my colleagues in theology, the notion of freedom is primal to the American psyche.  It permeates our daily living, in ways both conscious and unconscious.  And, at the end of the day, if you don’t buy into some religious idea, no matter how many times you repeat it at church, at some level you’re still not convinced.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  Practicing within a specific faith tradition, being steeped in it, does bring rich gifts that mere dabblers will never enjoy.  I also deeply believe in the need for a faith community that both supports and challenges you on your shared journeys.   However, we need to find people where they are, not where we are.  If one’s job is to help grow a soul (and that is my occupation, present company included) that means listening to hear where people find comfort or courage or meaning.  People want their faith to make sense.  Whether you are a member of a mainstream religious denomination or are an unchurched atheist, taking care of your spiritual health needs to have some pragmatic benefits just like taking care of your physical health does. And that would include using a holistic, even eclectic approach to the care of one’s inner life.

And that is demonstrated in the data listed in The Christian Century, “The number of  Americans who are praying is increasing at the same time that more of them say they have no formal religious affiliation, according to a major polling organization.” While adults who practice daily prayer has risen from 52 to 59%, those who never attend a religious service has also risen from 13 to 22%, an increase of 9%.  Omar McRoberts, a University of Chicago sociologist and researcher, states, “This represents an apparent shift in patterns of spiritual practice and identity away from the familiar institutions.  We are witnessing a decoupling of ‘spirituality’ from ‘religion’. I think we can expect to see yet more novel versions of religiosity appear, in response to changes in spirituality.”

What does all of this mean for the individual and for the community, in the best sense?  It means an opening, it means hope for interfaith dialogue and a loosening of prejudices and opportunites for conversations between the believer, the agnostic, and the atheist.  Where does each of them find spiritual sustenance?  What seems to work and what doesn’t?  It means that those who are Catholic or Lutheran or Jewish, may also incorporate Buddhist meditation techniques in their daily routines.  It means that the atheist may be able to read the Bible with a little less skeptism and a little more curiosity.  It reflects a softening and a turning away from the harsh rhetoric of so many of our so-called spiritual leaders.  And, finally, it allows for expanding notions of what constitutes the Gospel, the good news.

*anathema-Latin for ‘doomed offering’, it presently means a formal church ban, usually including excommunication.

Book of the Day: Thirst by Mary Oliver

Quote from the Book of the Day (actually a poem):
When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees/especially the willows and the honey locust/equally the beech, the oaks and the pines/they give off such hints of gladness.  I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself/in which I have goodness, and discernment/and never hurry through the world/but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, “Stay awhile.”/The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say/”and you too have come/into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled/with light, and to shine.”

Tomorrow’s post: “Putting the Joy Back in Jihad”

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