The Pew Poll that 20% of Americans have no religious preference shocked people. But I truly believe it needs to be rephrased. Wording in polls, after all, is key. But this poll still captured my interest. I just had a hunch this was, like most polls, a semantic significance, so I informally talked to my own soldiers at my annual training as we had talks with “chappie” over coffee et alia. Mind you, I WAS NOT proselytizing (as this is verboten now, but we can always talk matters of faith). I just love talking to my soldiers. Service members are a true cross section of culture. Soldiers don’t mince words when talking to me. They will cuss like they are sailors, say they’re sorry and progress to tell me the BLUF, bottom line up front. They will honestly tell you exactly what they feel or think. Kind of like your older relatives, who have reached twilight years and who open their mouth and will tell you exactly what they think of “aunt Betty” or “uncle Ralph.”
Universally what I saw was not as dismal as prognosticated. While they certainly did not identify with a particular faith group, they did affirm the essential concept of the Christian dogma that God is love. This is the Person they said they believed in. Not a Jewish conception or Muslim or Christian, but still affirmed God’s essence as love. So invariably, I would ask the service member how they thought Christian teaching related to this love. What I observed was there was a disconnect between this concept of love and the dogma of the Church and worship. Many knew Bible facts, but few of how they fit together in this scheme of love, which, after all, is the whole purpose of the Law and Prophets. So I was afforded the rare pleasure of talking with some folks, sometimes for hours, about how mercy and truth are met together.
Atheists are not moral reprobrates. They are genuinely sincere people
Now let me swing to the atheist discussions. Atheists are not moral reprobrates. They are genuinely sincere people, for the most part, who have legitimate concerns with organized religion as such. So one particlar officer said, “chappie I am an atheist. I believe in Newtonian physics.” Of course, this is alright with me. He then saw morality as following a Newtonian sense that every (moral) action has an equal and opposite reaction. Wow, who can resist seeing the thoughtfulness here? This led to a long discussion about the nature of love, and on a deeper level, in Orthodox theology, the divine energies. By the end, he was wanting to visit church for a liturgy. He saw how faith and science intersect.
Let’s go further down the atheist road. This member was a devout Christian, then abandoned his faith for just a raw militant spaghetti monster style faith, Richard Dawkin’s style. He is open about the apparent contradictions in the Old Testament and the seeming barbarity of it. Do we dismiss these arguments? Or can we say we reason together with them, like Prophet Isaiah said to do? I took him back to the maxim, God is love. He affirmed it, but could not make sense of the stuff in between. We had a nice cup of coffee together and talked about this. He attended my service the next day and we had a great discussion about the nature of revelation and it’s record in the Old Testament. Now he is still an atheist, or as he puts it now, quasi agnostic, but he sees I am not just following something blindly, and he is open to possibilities.
Love alone is credible. Cardinal Balthasar
This all led me back to an interesting set of essays by Cardinal Balthasar that love alone is credible. The universal belief of all those I talked with, who said they had no religion, was exactly that. The Christian message is still in our culture, it just needs to be connected to dogma, namely, the conscience of the Church, and liturgy, the worship of the Church. So I remain optimistic. The 20% are just honestly trying to find where the expression of what they already believe, that God is love, and alone credible, lies. This presents a challenge; belief and ethics, faith and works, must coexist in a community. May I, as a pastor, be shepherding with this in mind.