In Terence Nichol’s 2003 book The Sacred Cosmos: Christian Faith and the Challenge of Naturalism he begins with an anecdote where two sets of Catholic children are asked the question “Where is God?”
One, a group from the West, and another, a group from the East, answered very differently. The children raised in the West answered by pointing to the sky. The children raised in the East pointed to their Heart.
It is no secret that religious affiliation is changing worldwide. The media likes to tout the phenomenon being called the Rise of the Nones. The new religion in the room is not a religion at all. It’s a lack of one.
While many perceive this to be a rise in atheism, that’s a little too simple. The unaffiliated come in as many shades of grey as there are on the spectrum. Ranging from atheist to mystic spiritualist there is a wide variety of new religious experience.
I am a “None” myself. Though culturally Christian, it’s hard for me to claim the title. I was baptized in the ultra-liberal United Church of Christ, but my sister and I were raised to be secular. My grandfather is a self-described humanist and frequently claims to be an atheist. My two grandmothers are Congregational and Lutheran respectively. My parents are indifferent. The only one who actually goes to Church is my grandfather… so he can sing.
I stopped attending my Church at age 13. We were Easter-Christmas Christians before that. Sometimes we would go on the occasional Sunday and at various times in my life our attendance ranged from semi-frequent to not at all. But by the time I was to be confirmed, I had practically no interest. I found it to be mostly a waste of time, especially considering the limitations of it being one single religion.
My early education was at a very small Montessori school which had a heavy dose of the history of religion. By first grade I had been taught about Zoroastrianism, the Norse, Egyptian, and Greek pantheons, and the teachings of the Buddha. That is not to say I understood them, just that I was aware they existed. My education in religion was strong in basically everything but Christianity.
When confirmation started I was unruly. I felt like I had to one-up our Pastor and show her that our UCC tradition was limited and confined. Why was she so sure Christianity was the faith for me? Why was she so sure it was the faith for anyone? I was not convinced she had the authority to teach me on matters of faith when it seemed to me she herself was totally unaware of the broader religious proclivities of human beings worldwide.
At age 13, I felt I knew everything there was to know about religion. Though I never doubted the existence of God, I was sure that religion was a tool for human development. It was not ever true in the sense we think of Truth. But rather, it was whatever that culture needed at the time to lift themselves up further and further out of the darkness. I had no interest in Christianity because to me, Christianity was the worst tool of them all.
Myth was the basis of the Christian religion, not true revelation. I did not believe Jesus literally was the Son of God, born of a Virgin, or raised from the dead after the crucifixion. I still don’t. But at that point it was not a much studied position, but a reaction to what I saw around me.
Like many in my generation losing their religion, I saw the vast injustices perpetuated in the name of Christianity. The more I learned about history, the more I thought it was prevalent throughout all time. This was not just our generation having to deal with their bigotry, but all generations before us. I thought it was absurd that the Vatican could be so rich while our brothers in the Horn of Africa starve to death daily. I thought it was absurd American politicians could invoke the name of Jesus to spread lies about AIDS. I thought it was absurd that Christians pretended to be friendly to Jews when all throughout history they raped and displaced them. Basically, I was an anti-Christian. And I assure you, I am not the only one.
“My religion” was lost. If it was ever there, I had no intention of keeping it. But before I left my Church, “my religion” was complicated and compromised. In 1999 my grandfather did a genealogy project and it turned out that our Dutch ancestry wasn’t Dutch at all, but German Jews. While not “Jews” religiously, we were Jewish enough to have several members of our family killed in the Holocaust just a few generations before me. Needless to say, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was not merely Christian, not even culturally.
By 2000 I had sworn off Christianity all together. I was going to begin a new spiritual quest outside the boundaries of tradition. Anything goes. If it exists and I could relate to it, it was mine to claim.
Like I said before, I never doubted the existence of God. This may in fact be the big difference between the multitude of Nones I know personally and myself. Many, with good reason, are going through a spiritual crisis. In fact, many of them doubt the existence of God and more importantly doubt the existence of their own Soul. This is not a crisis I shared. I was more interested in defining myself by what I believe rather than what I disbelieve.
That said, this shift is very real. I would say that the majority of my friends are practical atheists. By this I mean they either are self-defined atheists who, in fact, reject religion (and by extension God) and are adamant about this rejection. Or they are atheistic in that they simply have no religion, no interest, and do not think or talk about it. The former is the kind purported by someone like Richard Dawkins; the latter by someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson. I am indifferent as to which is better or worse. They both seem like reasonable responses given the circumstances and I’m glad both kinds exist.
Many Nones I’m meeting lately, however, are like me. They do not necessarily reject the God-concept. They plausibly follow Francis Bacon and see an essential unity to the world’s religions, and find that secondary causes are insufficient in explaining the universe. Materiality is fine, but it doesn’t get to the heart of… well, the Soul.
It reminds me of the song Keep the Faith by Michael Jackson. He says:
If You Call Out Loud / Will It Get Inside / Through The Heart Of Your Surrender / To Your Alibis / And You Can Say The Words / Like You Understand / But The Power’s In Believing / So Give Yourself A Chance / ‘Cause You Can / Climb The Highest Mountain / Swim The Deepest Sea, Hee / All You Need Is The Will To Want It / And Uhh, Little Self-Esteem
The song has always been one of my favorites. King Michael and I go back as long as I can remember. He has been a hero of mine since I was a small child. Say what you will about his character, but his words are more wise than people realize.
But this particular song is good because it is encouraging you to look at the movement of the Soul inwardly. Many people who want “proof” of God or of the Soul are particularly concerned with external proofs. They want to see evidence that God or the Soul exist by way of justifying the miracles taught in religions, by extreme acts of interference by God (i.e. healing the sick, feeding the poor, etc.), or by some sort of measurable quantity we can define as the “soul” or “God”. To me, this misses the point.
In my view, a good way of thinking is the Cartesian one: I am. God is. That’s it. I think by looking inwardly at your own personality you recognize that, like Schleiermacher said, you can see a total dependence on being-itself. This whole experience you’re having is predicated on something far beyond yourself or humanity or Earthly life. And it’s not merely “science” or secondary causes… truly, it’s beyond being.
The way in which we can understand something like this, in my opinion, is movement in the Heart. Like the Indian children described in The Sacred Cosmos, I think you have to point yourself in that direction. Don’t look at the sky, but look in your Heart.
I’ve believed this since I was fairly young. This isn’t ‘wisdom’ I’m trying to impart to you; it’s simply what I believe and I would say was disposed to believing through my upbringing and education. Surely, not original thinking at all. But to me it always broke my heart that Christianity seemed so far removed from the concepts of inner spirituality. At least… until I started studying it!
Now here’s the kicker… I never really gave Christianity a fair shake. And I suspect many of my fellow Nones haven’t either. It seemed that everything else, including atheism, was fair game and a valid approach to the “Problem of God”. Christianity was the one religion with which I had serious problems and it was because I felt like it was forced upon me. Honestly, it really wasn’t. It was merely the circumstances to which I was born and I was disposed to it in only one facility, namely the Church.
But I think I’ve made it clear, Church isn’t the limit or end of Christian religious activity. Especially if you believe in the motion of the Soul. If every human is naturally endowed with a Soul and that Soul has the potential for growth towards and away from its own divine perfection, surely Church is not the key to its salvation or justification or development or anything like that. King Michael says is it’s the power of belief. I agree with him.
Of course you can be a skeptic and look for external proofs of measurement and that’s fine by me, but I don’t look at it like that. Some may say that’s wishful thinking, or not using “reason” (surely, you’ve heard that one before), but I disagree.
Christianity, as I began to study it more seriously, was just as rich and involved as every other faith tradition in the world. In fact, all of the things I loved about the Egyptian myths, the teachings of the Buddha, or the cosmology of the ancients, I could find right there in Christianity if I looked hard enough. That isn’t to conflate any of their elements, or disregard any of the unique characteristics of the Christian tradition, but to say that I saw more of what I “believe” in Christianity than what I disbelieved for the very first time.
I fell in love with Origen of Alexandria, Empress Theodora of Byzantium, Hildegarde de Bingen, Albertus Magnus, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and many, many others. They were exactly what I was looking for. They had rich theologies, rich histories involved in the development of the tradition and the faith. I realized that I had been looking at the religion in the wrong light. There is more to Christianity than meets the eye. Appearances can be deceiving.
Recently, in a class I am taking on St. Paul the Apostle and the Buddha our teaching fellow reflected on a comment she had heard from the Dalai Lama some time ago. He said that Christians should remain Christians “if they can stomach it.” Of course, this is paraphrased, but his point was that we in the West have incarnated this way because of our Karmic disposition. It was not something to be rejected in favor of what’s more exotic, but to be embraced as our cultural basis.
This was a striking comment because it is exactly how I’ve been feeling over the last 7 years as I study Christian theology in the Academy or Seminary. And historically it’s precisely characters like the Dalai Lama (who I actually got to see speak on Mother’s Day 2011) that helped me reconcile and create a new accountancy of “my religion”. I agree with him. I am who I am, and Christianity is a big part of that. I hate to say it, but there’s really no such thing as a “None”.
Ultimately, all I want to say is the same thing as King Michael: Keep the Faith. You really don’t know where it will lead you. You might find yourself a Buddhist, you might find yourself an atheist, or perhaps you’ll find yourself exactly where you started: a Christian. The spiritual quest is a life-long love affair with faith, the ultimate concern. To be sure, I believe there is no one religion higher than Truth.
For many, it’s precisely where you start that ends up being the problem. If you want to begin solving the Mystery, turn your eyes away from the sky and as Albertus says, “fix thy gaze upon thy Heart.” You might be surprised as you begin to find what you lost in the first place.