A Way for Non-Believers to Find their Place Among Us: Old First E-pistle 03.29.17

A Way for Non-Believers to Find their Place Among Us: Old First E-pistle 03.29.17

A non-religious friend of mine sent this report from Reuters, about the political opposition to Trump being mounted by the “religious left.” Or maybe about some surprise that there is even such a thing in America as the religious left.

My friend wondered (from well outside any institutional interest or religious community), “Could mounting an effective resistance to Trumpism re-people progressive religious communities?” I often joke that, “We have been waiting for the next wave of German immigrants.” But, imagine, “What if, instead, our growing edge would become native-born, political refugees?”

I explained to my friend that certainly there has always been a strong religious representation in activism on the American left. Many of us read our faith in Jesus to translate practically to standing with the oppressed, speaking truth to power and working tirelessly for justice. Organizers on the left know that, and UCC pastors regularly get calls from movement leaders hoping we have rank and file people we can send to support this or that issue.

Of course, participation in progressive religious communities doesn’t often work quite like that — with such discipline. Or even necessarily activism. Or free time! When I was a young adult in the church, there was much more grassroots activism by our people, evidenced in coffee hours that were rarely without some petition or sign up for something. Coffee hours these days are more social than socialism! Likewise, in our freedom of conscience hearts and minds and with overbooked communities, few pastors can give overt “marching orders,” sending significant numbers of people to any specific protest or community meeting.

That said, there are few progressive events that don’t include the presence and even leadership of progressive religionists. And for those of you who were in church the Sunday after the women’s marches in January, if you are like me, you are probably still feeling confident that we are doing well translating our faith into the change we want to see — a good ⅔ or ¾ of our worshiping congregation that morning had participated in marches and protests during the previous week.

But I also added to my friend, “Though the religious left was instrumental in anti-war protests during the Vietnam era, it was really hard on the churches. Instead of ‘political conversions’ to the anti-war position that church leadership thought faith called Christians to, many members simply walked away. They left for congregations that shared their support of the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia, or to congregations that were at least more apolitical. Or folks in the pews simply walked out… leaving the communal practice of their faith and participation in any church community behind completely. That era began the exodus from our pews.”

My friend wisely pointed out that “The 60′s was a hard time in American cultural life for institutions and traditions.” True that. But the the issue of slavery also drove a wedge through — actually divided 19th century churches, divisions that lasted well over a century in some cases. And I wonder, if maybe the forces of secularization aren’t on their own, longer term track, and an even greater challenge to belief than the loss of confidence in tradition and institutions that the Vietnam War and Watergate and political assassinations occasioned.

My friend, like some cheerleader for the religious left, wondered, “There seems to be leadership vacuum that could be filled by left-leaning churches, synagogues and mosques.” He — someone without any experience in a faith community — also added, “Everybody wants, maybe needs, to believe in something. It creates a sense of security in a chaotic world. It doesn’t have to be religion of course. But it could be religious belief.”

We have had stronger attendance since the elections. And one newcomer answers “Why start coming now?” by saying he needs support from like-minded people these days. Likewise, a not so regular participant who has been seen more lately explained “I need my fellow-travelers now.” And I believe we religious folk might have an advantage in hard times: one can’t simply tell God “Sorry, no more; I’m tired and overwhelmed.” We might have in our faith some extra motivation for the long road ahead and the multiple fronts on which we need to struggle.

But the conversation also made me think about how high a bar faith can seem in a secular age. I sometimes wonder if or at least how people who don’t believe can come to believe. Our tradition suggests that it’s a gift of God. And when people new to church ask about how they might come to believe, I always advise, with honesty and confidence, “Simply take up the actions of the faithful. Act as if you believe. Pray, for example. Come to church. Start trying to live as you learn Jesus wants you to. Don’t worry about hypocrisy if your intent is to enter into faith (even if you don’t yet believe)! Many of those who you see as ‘solid church members,’ they have their doubts too. Just start living it, and see if ‘meaning’ is in fact added to your going through the motions, the ways you begin in faith to lead in action first.”

But in talking to my friend, I came up with another way to describe this strategy for coming to faith. I guess since it’s an allusion from drama, it might be the same recommendation — about the importance of taking on the role, of play, of ‘fake it until you can make it’ in living out a religious life, but in a slightly more theoretical form. I suggested, “…more aptly put, maybe we should be suggesting to people who would like to believe but don’t, that they approach faith like they would a play in the theater. If they can suspend their disbelief, they will find themselves suddenly involved in the play and drawn into the truth it carries. They might suddenly find themselves on the religious stage, acting out that truth of Jesus with their whole heart and soul.”

I wonder if there are ways we could offer “the suspension of disbelief” as a way into the life of faith? As an invitation to church. “We don’t leave our brains at the door. But we try and check our disbelief by the stand for the wet umbrellas!” It might feel like a lower bar to get over, a more welcoming way in for anyone who feels heavily their lack of faith. “A deep and abiding faith” is a wonderful gift, even something to share. But it’s not any standard for participation, or even the price of admission. But if people felt truly invited or empowered to enter into all that they experience at church asking the questions, “what if these stories and parables and illustrations and promises were true?’

See you in church,