Sunday, July 19, 2009

Imagine No Religion

Driving down the highway the other day I saw this huge billboard smack dab in the middle of the Alabama Bible Belt. “Imagine no religion.” Hmm. No religion? I thought as I drove. Without religion I don’t know if I would have made it. Growing up in a family with a lot conflict barely underneath the surface, I found solace in a little mill church up the street. They befriended me and loved me. Later they would take up nickels, dimes and dollars and send me off to church camps and much later to a Baptist college in Birmingham. There I found myself stretched in ways that still boggle my mind. Doors and windows that I did not even know existed opened little by little to a larger world. No wonder I found myself as a Minister years later.

I began my internship in as predictable as any little white clap-board church on side road could be—outhouse and all. On Sundays some members would show up bringing the resentments of their hard lives. A few took their pain out on me. I have bumped into that judgmental mean-spirited in every church I know. But these have always been in the minority. I remember in that first church the folk that joined together to put up a farmer’s hay when he was in the hospital. They brought casseroles and sent little sympathy cards when people there lost loved ones. They hugged the kids and knew their names and even sent one off to college, to Seminary and then to Africa as a missionary. There is a genuine goodness and love that still makes me a believer after all these years. The Apostle Paul said that we have the treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. I have been the earthiness of those all-too-human vessels but I have also witnessed a wonderful transcendence in this very human place called church.

The good side of church and religion can be seen in almost every good cause that we have. Without healthy religion there would be no hospitals, no orphan’s homes, and no charity work that spans the globe. There would be no Salvation Army or Red Cross. All our major universities began as religious institutions. And every year believers, flawed and human, board planes and travel to far away places to help hurting people around the world. Yet we cannot ignore the dark side of religion. Sunday worship might just be still be the most segregated hour of the week—not only for blacks but for gays and immigrants and those who don’t have the right kind of clothes .And yet this same church has a wondrous side. From our earthy ranks have come Martin King and Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa and a multitude of others. All these have helped change the world.

As I drove along I tried to imagine a country without religion. How poverty-stricken we would be without the great music and art and breathtaking architecture that has come from this all-too-human institution. .

It looks like atheism is gaining some ground in our time. In a recent poll the number people that say they are Christians has fallen by 11%. There are a number of best sellers that tell us that religion has had its day. Many of them judge the institutions of faith by the mean-spirited that have blocked almost every step of progress along the way. If this was all there was to faith I would agree with our critics. But we cannot judge any institution by its shabbiest examples. When we are fair our yardsticks measure by the best models. So we judge our doctors by those that still see their work as a profession. We judge our nurses by those that have made an incredible difference when we were sick. We judge our Coaches by those that have helped produce character that lasts a lifetime. We do not judge business folk by Bernie Madoff but rather those who really do care for the common good. The church should be judged by these same standards.

It would be unfair to judge religion by Rev. Phelps in Kansas who waves “God hates fags and Jews” signs everywhere and pickets cemeteries when our fallen in Iraq are being buried. Neither should we judge Islam by fanatical fundamentalists. Every faith group has a group of destroyers.

No, I cannot imagine a world without the contribution that faith has made in my own life. One of the Latin roots for the word, religion means to bind. That binding does not mean to tie down or to restrict. Poor faith does that. This binding, I think, is something like a rope--a strong cable has tied me to other people and a wide and wonderful world of hope and possibility. Without that kind of religion the world would be poorer indeed.

The above article appeared first in the Sunday Birmingham News, Op Ed section, July 19, 2009.

(The above stained glass window can be found in the village of Iffley outside Oxford, England in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The church was built in 1170 and is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in England.)

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