Living Religion Beyond Belief
A few weeks ago I gave a talk at a local chapter of Sunday Assembly, a gathering started by British comedians Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones that was briefly known as “the atheist church” and that, ironically, draws on the “seeker sensitive” church planting methods of conservative megachurch pastor Rick Warren. A few months into the meteoric rise of Sunday Assembly communities across the globe—there are now some 70 Assemblies in 8 countries, with 20 or so in the U.S.—the leadership dropped the “atheist” business. They worried that it was off-putting to less strident freethinkers, agnostics, and humanists, who may like to maintain a little wiggle room in their rejection of a supernatural being or force that transcends the ordinary, material realities of life that can be explained (sooner or later) through rational thought.
The move also served to distinguish the Sunday Assembly from the New Atheists of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins fame, who are known for their often-bombastic arguments against fundamentalist Christianity in its most dumbed-down forms and Islamism at its most radical and violent.
Turns out even atheists don’t much like an angry, argumentative atheist.
That was more or less fine by me, as I’d been invited not to argue about belief, but to talk about “Choosing Our Religion,” my recent book on the spiritual lives of America’s Nones. (In its now-famous 2012 report “Nones on the Rise,” The Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life defined “Nones” as people who do not identify with any religion.) Though most Nones do believe in God or a cosmic life force of some sort, many of the Nones I interviewed across the US were not such believers. Nonetheless, they maintained that “spirituality”—mostly referring to the human spirit or an animating spirit within nature more broadly—accurately described important, integrating facets of their lives. These “non-religious Nones,” as researchers often call them, report feeling a deeper awareness of a human or natural spirit when they’re caring for others in family life or through community service, when they’re nurturing their own well-being through practices like yoga and meditation, when they’re engaging the natural world through hiking or gardening, and so on. Nothing terribly out of the ordinary, except that Nones don’t track what they experience in these practices to a transcendent being or force. They’re good without God; blessed without believing.
And, yet, belief seemed to lurk all around the Assembly that Sunday. Several of the participants talked with me after the service, sharing their own experiences with the spiritual, and their own definitions thereof, which mostly tracked with the Nones I’d interviewed for my book. They also asked lots of good questions about things my research might have missed or misunderstood (as is the case with all research).
They also wanted to know where I stood in terms of belief: Was I a religious believer?
It’s a harder question to answer than many people might have expected. I identify religiously as a Christian, as an Episcopalian—of sorts. And there’s the rub: I’m of the sort whose religious and spiritual identity has very little to do with belief, at least as far as affirmation of, say, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth or the bodily resurrection of Jesus as the Christ is concerned. I mean, who knows, right? There’s no actual, empirical proof, and I’m far too postmodern to equivocate with quips about faith being that which “goes beyond the evidence,” as the Christian apologist Alister McGrath put it.
For better or worse, I’m too well grounded in the politics of religious history to set aside how the promulgation of one doctrine over what was often a host of competing others benefited certain groups—most often élite, clerical men (was that last bit even necessary?) and their patrons—and disadvantaged those on the margins. I therefore don’t imagine for a minute that any doctrinal orthodoxy is some kind of “pure,” disinterested representation of “Truth” with a capital “T.”
So, am I a “believer” of the sort I suspect the kindly folks at Sunday Assembly had in mind? The sort who believes that, literally, an angel of God caused a talking donkey to sass the errant prophet Balaam? That God rained down manna and quail to feed the hungry Israelites? Um, no.
Okay, but do I at least believe that Jesus healed the blind and the sick, fed the hungry, and wrestled with literal demons? Actually, I don’t.
“But cripes, Elizabeth,” you might say, “if you don’t believe in any of that, how can you possibly believe that Jesus was the Son of God, the Suffering Servant of biblical prophecy, the promised Messiah?”
“And what about all that stuff in the Nicene Creed? What about the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine? The sacramental gift of God’s grace? What about heaven and hell? Do you believe in those things?”
I think I’d have to answer “not so much” to all of the above—at least if you’re inquiring about whether I embrace the sort of literalist answers that strident Bible Belt Evangelicals might offer, or that my freethinking Sunday Assembly interlocutors might expect a “Christian” to give. But if I question or reject most of the traditional theological tenets that undergird the preceding questions, then what sort of “Christian,” and what sort of “Episcopalian,” can I possibly be?
One answer is certainly, “not a very good one.” Another is, at least in my experience and observation, “one like many—if not a silent majority—of the rest of them.”
The Truth—and I mean that in the biggest, most counterfactual and experiential way—is that many so-called “believers” don’t much believe. Our faith, our spirituality, our religion feels much more than it thinks. It lives at the level of everyday practice much more than it does in Sunday preaching.
Here’s an example of that from one of my undergraduate classes this past quarter. I showed a short excerpt from a documentary on the travel photographer Richard I’Anson, who specializes in photographing religious festivals. In this particular case, he was immersed in the Hindu festival of Holi, which involves frenzied local pilgrimages from one holy site to another, the flinging about of colored powder by clerics and the faithful in general, and a weirdly delightful practice of women ripping the clothing off men and flogging them with cloths. Among other things.
“Based on what you’ve seen,” I asked students, “what do Hindus believe in?”
“Joy,” one student said after a bit of a pause. “They believe in joy.”
Hardly the stuff of systematic dogma, but indeed they do.
So, too, I believe in what it feels like to be in a church full of people kneeling uncomfortably on needlepoint cushions to confess their sins outright, to release their shame, and to marshal a wobbly sort of hope that will surely fail—in my case, more often than not, in the church parking lot after coffee hour. Mark Collins, of last week in Bearings fame, puts it this way in his endearing book “On the Road to Emmaus”:
I squirm under the weight of my trespasses—things done and left undone—and feel liberated by the undeserved love of another: the gifts of God for the people of God. At the consecration, while others bow their heads, I raise mine; I want to witness the sight of my roommates on this planet, all of them on their knees. During the week their lusts rage, their cars won’t start, their checkbooks won’t balance, their prejudices run amok; but for this singular moment, they are humble in spite of themselves. Together, we foolishly resolve to mend our ways starting first thing tomorrow—knowing tomorrow will begin like any other Monday, with one finger out the window on the Parkway.
So, I believe in that because I feel like that. A lot.
What’s more, I believe in all of the other times in recorded human history that people felt the need to tell stories of trauma, of injustice, of healing, of hope, of frustration, of joy, of confusion, of loss, and, again and again, of redemption that reach toward something else, toward something beyond our venial existences, toward someone divine, even, because, sweet Mother of Christ, if it’s up to us in our broken humanity, well, I’m often just not sure I can put my faith in that.
I also believe all the stories I have would make little felt sense if I had been born in a different place and time, in which case I might think they were irrational or superstitious or primitive or just plain stupid. Ultimately, I believe what I believe because it feels how it feels where I live and with the people who matter in my life.
And, I believe that if I happened to come up as a chimpanzee, once in a while I’d feel an overwhelming desire to mosey over to that pile of rocks my mates have been collecting by the big grove of trees and heave one of the rocks at one of the trees. Then I’d dance and scream like, well, like a chimpanzee … for no immediately discernable evolutionary reason beyond some sort of proto-spiritual bliss. Because Jesus. Or not.
All of this, I realize, makes me a pretty poor example of a “believer” either within or outside of the Church. It makes me a failure as an Atheist as well.
What often brings the failed Christian and the failed Atheist in me together, however, is the failure to find a collectivity that ministers to the felt, relational, perhaps bio-cognitively inherent spirituality that seems most authentic to my experience. I’m pretty sure I think this is also the case for the many people who are experimenting now with new modes of gathering, celebrating, and serving together. As we move into Holy Week—the believe-iest season of the Christian year—I wonder again what it might mean to minister beyond belief, into the fraught richness of human be-ing and the promise of human becoming that I am most able to believe in when I am able to believe in anything at all.