Nones vs. Nuns (or why I’m not losing my religion).

A lot has been made lately of the “nones.”  It’s an odd word to use in describing someone, but it’s popping up a lot lately in conversations about faith and spirituality and religion.  The term refers to those people who claim no religious affiliation.  They are not Reformed.  They are not Catholic.  Neither are they Hindu or Buddhist.  They don’t even claim to be atheist or agnostic.  They are simply “none.”  They may pray or ponder the divine or do good works, but the what and the who and the why are left unanswered.  Recent studies have said that 1 out of 5 people now fit in this category and that number is increasing rapidly.

For many in the congregation that I serve, the rise of the “nones” is another in a long list reasons we are in a societal decline.  They are worried that children no longer pray in school.  They are concerned that we say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  They are distressed by the push to remove the word “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.  For many of them, their religion was the fabric that held society together and now they are afraid that it’s all coming apart.  I share some of their concern, but for different reasons.

I’m not so worried about schools organizing prayer for my kids.  I’m happy to play that role.  I’m not so concerned about the watering down of Christmas.  Black Friday does more damage in that regard as far as I’m concerned.  I’m not so distressed about “God” and “country” being separated in a pledge.  Some pretty awful things have been done when the two have been joined together.  What does make me pause, and even worry, is to see how people who are afraid of society falling apart at the seams are hunkering down into small camps of like-minded individuals.  They aren’t taking up arms (at least not all of them), but it does feel like people are building up walls of separation and preparing for battle.

Our Reformed tradition puts a big emphasis on the sovereignty of God.  Think “almighty” or “all-powerful” or “all-knowing.”  The idea is that God rules and reigns in such a way that “not a hair can fall from my head” without God’s knowledge and will.  It has led our Reformed tradition to some pretty cold and calculating conclusions about God and God’s decisions, but it is meant to be a comfort.  The sovereignty of God is meant to console us with the trust that God can and will turn all things for good for those who love him.  The sovereignty of God is meant to build us up in faith.  For me, faith is the opposite of fear.  For me, too many people have put their faith in cultural habits that they have been able to control.  These cultural habits might speak about God, but they are not God.

The problem is, once culture changes, so does the control.  So, they are afraid.  We live in a time now where people are grasping at every possible thread and trying to stitch together a society that is most comfortable for them (i.e. the one that they control).  In a growing multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-sexual society such as ours no one group will be able to control the cultural habits for everyone else.  So, we have division.  That division is nurturing a societal infection that is called suspicion and is threatening to become the full-blown disease of hostility.  The decline in morals and the rise in violence that we are experiencing isn’t about a decrease in religion but an increase in fear.  People will do just about anything to retain some control and relieve their anxiety.  And, that’s the reason that I’m not ready to lose my religion.

As far as I’m concerned, the only way to navigate this is to trust that God is sovereign; a faith that says God is so sovereign that he can turn even the tragic death of his Son, even a hostile death on a cross, into an opportunity to give life to everyone who will believe.  It’s a faith that says that God’s got this; a faith that trusts that God is in control regardless of what the culture is doing.  It’s a faith that calls me to cross boundaries and take down walls, not just in my personal and private views, but out in public for the world to see (religion is nothing more than a group of people putting their faith into public action).  Not so much because God needs it, but because the world could use it.  So, I don’t plan to become a “none,” but I would consider becoming a nun.

Now, I’ve never been slapped on the wrist with a ruler by a gowned woman at a private school.  My picture of a nun is a rather idealized Dorothy Day/Mother Teresa type of woman.  Still, I admire how everyone is a “sister” regardless of where they have been or what they have done.  And, I admire how their faith is generally out there for all to see.  It’s a very public faith.  Not to mention, I’ve never known a nun to be afraid of much (o.k. so the connection is more for a catchy title than anything else, but the point is the same).  Their life is rooted in a firm belief that God is in control and will work all things for good for those who love him.  It’s expressed in their attempts to share that love with everyone else.

I think the “nones” are growing because the cultural habits that have been passed off as religion have done nothing to address the fear and anxiety in their life and the hostility they see in the world.  If anything, religion has contributed to it.  But if we all pout in our rooms until we get our own way, nothing is going to change.  If, however, we will acknowledge that God is not contained “by the art and imagination of mortals” and that “we are God’s offspring” (Acts 17:29), we might start to see one another as sisters and brothers regardless of our differences.

Q. How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us?
A. We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing in creation will separate us from his love. For all creatures are so completely in God’s hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved. – Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 28

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9 thoughts on “Nones vs. Nuns (or why I’m not losing my religion).

  1. Fantastic post, Peter.

    During contentious elections, I often remind myself, and then remind my congregation and those I know and love that we were electing a president or governor, or whatever — not God. Although Christians ought to be good citizens and vote, the sun does not rise or set on the party in power or the politician in office.

    Such an important topic you bring up, particularly as the “sovereignty of God” has seemingly become, in many circles, a bad word.

  2. That difficult part is that when you advocate for something as good, even the sovereignty of God and religious expression of it, plenty of people can point to harm done in its name. I wish I would have made the post more inquisitive and left it open for “nones” to share what benefit they see in leaving religion behind.

    From my view becoming a “none” is a kind of resignation and doesn’t offer any answer to the fear and suspicion and hostility of the world, but I may be wrong on that. It’s just I that when I begin to think about “losing my religion” I end up where Peter did with Jesus: “where else would I go?”

  3. I love what you said here Peter: “We live in a time now where people are grasping at every possible thread and trying to stitch together a society that is most comfortable for them…That division is nurturing a societal infection that is called suspicion and is threatening to become the full-blown disease of hostility. The decline in morals and the rise in violence that we are experiencing isn’t about a decrease in religion but an increase in fear.”

    Probably because I see this happening so much in the RCA over so many issues. I wonder what would happen if we stepped out in courage instead of cowering, crouching, and lashing out in fear. I feel like we resemble frightened animals much of the time. And I’m not meaning to be mean here, or pass judgment, though. This is just how I’m seeing it. And I wonder how I can be a part of changing the reaction.

  4. Thanks.

    Of course, it’s always easy to fear in those on the other side and not in our own camp. I struggle to figure out how to let everyone have their own space to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” without circling the wagons. How do we continue to engage and celebrate what we have in common together despite the differences we have with one another?

    At the same time, Jesus drew lines about who was and could be in his kingdom and who was and could not be in his kingdom. It’s maddening to try and figure out what that line is in our time and in this place so far removed from him. And, it doesn’t seem any more right for me to draw a circle around my peers as it does for anyone else.

    So, again, how do we extend trust and fellowship to those with whom we disagree? How do we engage and disagree and resolve conflict without hostility?

    If the church could model that, I think religion would be more attractive to those who want none.

    • My thoughts exactly. How do we do as Jesus did, and demonstrate that we have boundaries and standards and adhere to them, but do so in such a way that still shows love? Because Jesus clearly stated his boundaries and people still walked away feeling heard and loved and validated and valued. This world, particularly its teenagers, is hungry for real faith, real church, and we keep watering it down to the lowest common denominator because we think that’s what they want.

    • I think humility is a necessary ingredient here. Every religion, philosophy, denomination, etc. is simply an expression of one perspective, conditioned by all sorts of things—culture, time, politics, etc. No single or particular one of them can be “The Whole Truth.” I see the ocean as a good symbol for TRUTH
      and all the religions, etc. as islands in that sea. I like the Sufi mantra “What do I/we know?” Not much, let’s be honest. Not much. Our efforts should be to row in boats of friendship to other islands, and try to understand those who live there, rather than putting most our energy in defending our own island, maybe even erecting barricades.
      Maybe some “nones” see it this way too. A lot of the ones I know are followers of the interfaith movement. Like Gandhi, when asked if he was a Hindu, said he was, and he was also a Christian, a Muslim, a Sikh, etc. Maybe the time has come for the human race to stop living in religious boxes.

  5. Peter, I deeply appreciate this post. Last week when I read it I refrained from comment because I was worried I might let slip how many days I feel I straddle the fence between being a Christian and becoming a none. I appreciate you offering your reasons for not losing your religion. I do not want to lose mine either. But increasingly I find myself identifying more with the questions, ponderings and hopes of my friends who are self identified nones than I do many Christian friends filled with the kind of fear and anxiety you have described so well here.

    • Wayne, just want to let you know that I understand where you’re coming from. I think when you’re in the position you’re in, where you wonder about the validity of your call, and the church keeps shutting the door on you, it’s very tempting to want to wash your hands of the whole thing. Even for me in a position in the church, I ask myself whether or not this is all worth it, because the position does not fit my best gifts, and I know God has created me for something different. But this seems to be all that the church is willing to offer me. I have often thought to myself, especially recently, “If this is what the church is, then I want no part of it.”

      • Thank you Jill! The solidarity you offer means a great deal to me! Continue to pray for me and I will pray for you. And once again I affirm your gifts and passion for ministry!

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