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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ultimate Questions

The Internet and news media have been all abuzz with the latest findings by the American Religious Identification Survey which reveals that more and more Americans claim no religious affiliation and that fewer Americans call themselves Christian than a generation ago. It is the third such survey conducted by ARIS.

The headline of their report reads: "Catholics on the Move, Non-religious on the Rise." Reportedly, more Roman Catholics are moving from the Northeast to the Southwest, while secularity continues to grow in strength in all parts of the country.

Here's what it says, in part: "The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent. Given the estimated growth of the American adult population since the last census from 207 million to 228 million, that reflects an additional 4.7 million "Nones." Northern New England has now taken over from the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the country, with Vermont, at 34 percent "Nones," leading all other states by a full 9 points."

Well, first of all, a 6.2% jump in 11 years is pretty significant, but a .8% increase in eight years, while cause for some concern, is hardly worth a screaming headline.

The frustrating thing about the report is that it is only a survey. There is no analysis of the data, no indication, much less hints or guesses, as to why this may be so.

I suspect there are many reasons, but one among them is the failure of churches to deal with the Ultimate Questions in life - at least, with honesty and relevancy and hope.

One of the literary giants of our time, John Updike (who died a few weeks ago at the age of 76), once said that, as he sat in a church pew on Sunday mornings, he admired and was interested in clergy because week after week they try to help people deal with ultimate questions.

Well, if we're smart, we don't just do it on Sunday mornings.

Last night, we watched the second in our Lenten series of NOOMA videos. I've written about this series before (you can read it here) and Rob Bell, the founder of Mars Hills Bible Church in Michigan, who wrote and is featured in this series.

Last night we watched "TREES". In this 10 minute DVD, Rob plants two tress while talking about how the Bible begins in the Garden and ends in the garden. And, in the middle of both gardens is a tree.

He says that our lives stand between the two trees of God's reality - the God of our antiquity and the God of our future - and that God stands with us in our present.

As he pulls a ready-to-plant tree from the back of his trunk, he wonders aloud something like, "There is evidence of God's fingerprints all over our world - or, maybe they're our fingerprints in God's world."

WELL! That's really all our group needed to talk about Updike's "ultimate questions."

Questions like: What is God's will for us? How do we know when we are doing it?

And: Is it simply a matter of following The Golden Rule or The 10 Commandments? Is the Bible a 'rule book' or a 'guide book'? Are we to simply sit in church and nod our heads at the correct words and bow our heads at the right moment and then go home?

And: Why are we here? Are we just to hang around, waiting and 'hoping against hope' and praying, until we get to heaven? What is the purpose of our lives? What provides meaning in our lives?

And: Is God locked safely away in between the dusty pages of a bible, or is God somewhere 'out there' or 'up there' in heaven - wherever that is? Or, is God here, now, in the midst of our pondering and wondering, our struggle and our strife?

And: What is eternity? What is eternal life? What is resurrection and how is it different from reincarnation?

We even talked about The First Law of Thermodynamics ("Matter/Energy can neither be created nor destroyed") and Einstein Theory of Relativity (E=mc2). And, we wondered, what might these scientific theories teach us about the theology of resurrection?

Which led us to talk about living from a position of scarcity or abundance and the nature of our relationship with God.

It was absolutely fascinating. I came home 'jazzed' and, even though it had been a long, somewhat difficult day, which included a visit to a parishioner who is on a locked ward in a psychiatric facility about an hour's drive away, I was unable to fall asleep easily.

These Ultimate Questions took up a great deal of space in my head, and they simply wouldn't stop bumping into one another like electrons on crack.

Updike had a great gift in being able to apply his writing and observational skills to the most mundane of subjects - like, the joys of walking in the late autumn sun. I fell asleep with these words of Updike in my head:

"Why do we love them, these last days of something like summer, of freedom to move in few clothes, though frost has flattened the morning grass? They tell us we shall live forever. Stretched like a rainbow across day's end, my shadow makes a path for my feet; I am my path."

Lent is a wonderful time to delve even deeper into the Ultimate Questions. You know, I don't think the rest of life would be worth much without them.

Come to think of it, organized religion in general and church in particular, are, neither one, worth much of anything unless they help people to more deeply engage the Ultimate Questions of life - their life - our lives of faith.

Oh, yes. I should mention this in closing.

The DVD ends with a shot of this run down neighborhood, somewhere in some city in Michigan. A chain link fence protects an empty lot, overgrown with a stubble of dead grass and litter. In the distance, you can see the outline of a city.

The two trees stand there, on the sidewalk, as people walk by the newly planted life in their midst, seemingly oblivious to their beauty. Oh, yes they may not know it, but an illegal act has just taken place. We've been watching it all along.

The notes on the DVD report that it is illegal to plant trees without the permission of the municipal government. In fact, heavy fines may be imposed if the 'planter' is caught.

While the ARIS report was interesting, I have far more interesting questions:

What did you do with your one life today? What risk did you take to make this world a better place than it was before you got here? What are you doing with your relationship with God in Christ Jesus, to give honor and glory to what was, what is now, and what will be?

If your church isn't challenging or helping you with these questions (not necessarily providing the answers, but leading you to questions that help you find answers that work for you), put on your big people pants, pull up your socks, wipe your nose, dry your eyes, and demand that it does.

Or, find one that will.

The ARIS report didn't say this, but I will:

This world is often too broken and hurting a place, and life is too short and too precious a gift to waste on mediocrity.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

Wow...the ultimate questions. I bet there was some very interesting discussion!

That business of "how do you know you are doing the right thing/have made the right choice, etc." is very close to an e-mail discussion I had with my priest. After finishing "my daily Psalm trip," we decided my next project was the last third of Isaiah. I had cued up on Isaiah 62:2, "The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give."

I got to musing about how just like we have nicknames and pet names given to us that are special and unique to us and the person using it, that maybe God has a pet name for each of us...

...and then I said, "But you know what? I want to believe God really DOES have a pet name for me, just between me n' Him, but I'm not sure he uses WORDS when he calls me by my pet name! That kind of makes it tough to figure out if he's talkin' to me." LOL

David@Montreal said...

'This world is often too broken and hurting a place, and life is too short and too precious a gift to waste on mediocrity.'



Malinda said...

What did you do with your one life today? What risk did you take to make this world a better place than it was before you got here? What are you doing with your relationship with God in Christ Jesus, to give honor and glory to what was, what is now, and what will be?

Isn't there a Mary Oliver quote something along the lines of "what will you do with your one wild and precious life..."

I'm about 10 hours into a diocese-sponsored anti-racism training - about 12 more to go. It is incredible, all the more so as it is a pretty equally mixed racially diverse group which is a rarity here in the Old Dominion.
The shared stories, the ways of delving deep into our conscious and unconscious judgments of each other based on skin and clothes and other assumptions is just another call to live with my eyes open. This might be about racism but it lis similar to experiences I have had learning to and working with sexual minority youth and doesn't just teach me about one population, it reminds me and informs me about how I am to be with everyone, how I live into this one wild and precious life God has given me - or how I ignore it and just use up the air on the planet.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yes, that was Mary Oliver. Her poetry rings in my ears all the time. Re: Anti-racism training. I have been through several of them and you know, the quality really depends on the skills and abilities of the facilitator. It also needs some serious update, which I understand 815 is working on. I'm so glad you are having a good experience. If Christianity isn't transformative, it simply isn't of Jesus.

Malinda said...

Yes, my mantra (borrowed but good) is that we inform to form to transform - if we are not about that then let's just be another happy social club.