Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Living Without God?
I recently attended my nephew’s wedding. Set on a bluff in a state park overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the service was planned by the bride and groom, featuring as participants their siblings, graduate school colleagues, and childhood friends. The person officiating had been licensed for the occasion and teaches college level music theory and composition. The readings were poems from the Persian Sufi mystic, Rumi, and the spiritually eclectic Arab writer Khalil Gibran. The music included classical pieces from Dvorjak and a Chinese folk song sung by the bride’s mother. There were no formal sacred texts read, no invocation of or prayer to any deity, no reference to transcendence of any kind.
The setting was gorgeous, the couple bright and in love, the gathering of family and friends gratifying, and the service well designed and presented. It was a wonderful celebration of the possibility and the hope for enduring, rich, and fulfilling human relationships. The rows of rented chairs, the arc of pergolas defining the space, the trellis and flowers around the wedding party and the ocean vista beyond hinted at a sanctuary, but did not necessarily create a sense of sacred space (especially when military helicopters flew past on a training run from San Diego’s nearby naval bases!). It was a wedding without God appearing to imagine a world without God.
As I write this I fear I sound judgmental. I am not. In some ways it was refreshing not to have to endure the veneer of religion or the pretense of divinity among a group of people for whom it has no real meaning. The memory of the couple’s grandparents was noted with gratitude in the program, a gracious reference to the communion of saints. Yet save for a few vestiges there was little tradition in a service that seemed intent on avoiding traditions, and no acknowledgment of the great Tradition of either Judaism or Christianity which so shaped those grandparents’ lives and worldview. It was hard even to gain a sense of the much heralded “spiritual but not religious” ethos; the elements of the ceremony seemed selected more for their aesthetic than their spiritual content.
We’ve read a lot lately about the “rise of the ‘nones’,” the rapid growth of the percentage of persons who claim no religious affiliation. Intellectually I grasp it. Watching it unfold in front of me was, frankly, breathtaking. Steven’s grandparents were pillars of the church and temple. His parents and uncles are regular attenders of church and temple. His aunt’s husband is a rabbi. One of his uncles teaches in a seminary. But for him, his bride, his sister, and his cousins, none of this seems terribly important or interesting. It’s as if he and his generation have emigrated to a new place, leaving us behind in the old country.
This is not, of course, the whole picture, as if we could vote God off the planet or out of the cosmos at will. And many people, including those in my children’s generation, can no more imagine living without God than without Facebook! A week after my nephew’s wedding I listened to a pastor from a neighborhood in Chicago challenged by poverty and violence talking about the blessing of serving a community where God is experienced and faith is expressed in passionate and palpable ways. But living without God, or at least the traditional communal expressions of faith, is the story for a growing number. What do we make of this?
Traditional answers don’t satisfy. My nephew’s life is marked by the kind of generosity of spirit and compassion one would hope to see in a “good Christian” or a “good Jew.” I don’t pity him or assume he suffers from an impoverished emotional or spiritual life; he seems genuinely happy, joyful, hopeful. And I don’t worry about his eternal destiny any more than my own, having long since given up a theology that establishes certain sacramental, moral, or spiritual requirements for meriting God’s eternal love. I find myself resonating with a colleague-friend who, upon nearing retirement, wrote me, “I think the cultural ground has shifted to such a degree that I honestly don’t know what to do anymore.” And this from a person of deep faith, a gifted pastor, a highly respected church leader.
In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on the day of his great nephew’s baptism probe similar dilemmas:
In these words and actions handed down to us, we sense something totally new and revolutionary, but we cannot yet grasp it and express it. This is our own fault. Our church has been fighting during these years only for its self-preservation, as if that were an end in itself. It has become incapable of bringing the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to our world. So the words we used before must lose their power, be silenced, and we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings. All Christian thinking, talking, and organizing must be born anew, out of that prayer and action. By the time you grow up, the form of the church will have changed considerably. It is still being melted and remolded, and every attempt to help it develop prematurely into a powerful organization again will only delay its conversation and purification. It is not for us to predict the day – but the day will come – when people will once more be called to speak the word of God in such a way that the world is changed and renewed. . . . Until then the Christian cause will be a quiet and hidden one, but there will be people who pray and do justice and wait for God’s own time. (May, 1944)
For all of its delight, Steven’s wedding was sobering. The point, of course, is not to morbidly ponder the worth of nearly forty years of ministry, or to parse my responsibility for the church’s institutional creaking and groaning, but to ask, “What now?” Bonhoeffer says at another point, “We shall have to bear our lives more than to shape them, to hope more than to plan, to hold out more than to stride ahead.” These words are not easy for a generation born at the high water mark of modernist optimism in the future and confidence in the permanence of our institutions, a generation taught to shape, plan, and stride ahead. Are we prepared to accept that our “cause” may be a quiet and hidden one? It is humbling to consider, but certainly a thought worthy of carrying toward Holy Week and the Cross.
John H. Thomas
March 21, 2013