Becoming a Cosmopolitan Faith (Again)

Practicing Christianity beyond Belief

This week the Pew Forum reported that belief in God—the transcendent, supernatural being who intervenes in human history and forms often deeply personal relationships with humans, according to the scriptures revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims—remains strong among Americans, with some 80% answering “yes” when asked whether they believe in God.

But what that belief means is changing. A slim majority—56%—indicate belief in the Great I Am of the Bible. Another third of Americans (33%) believe in a less specific, perhaps less theistic “higher power or spiritual force.”

As we’d expect, belief in God is much lower among Nones, the growing group of people who do not identify or affiliate with an institutional religion. Nearly a third (27%) profess no belief in God, a higher power, or spiritual force. Among those who do indicate some sort of belief, a scant 17% identify the subject of that belief as the God of the Bible.

But that’s not the end of the story. Another 53% of Nones believe in some other form of spiritual power or force in the universe. Even among self-identified Atheists, 18% think there is some sort of power or spiritual force.

Now, there are usually two ways that this nonreligious spirituality is read. Among the leading lights of nonreligion, the claim is often made that most Nones are really secret or repressed Atheists who have not had the courage or social support to “come out.” Susan Jacoby expresses open disdain for those who temper their unbelief by identifying as “spiritual-but-not-religious”: “The statement ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ makes me want to throw up. What this sentence means is I’m not religious, I don’t go to church, but I am a good person. And this word ‘spiritual’ comes to stand for being a good person…”

On the religious end of the spectrum, Nones—especially Atheists—who believe in a cosmic spirit, life force, or human spirit, are often seen as expressing a repressed or undeveloped theism. If only they really, truly knew the Gospels! If only the music at church were better! If only the sermon were more like a TED Talk! “Everyone is seeking,” a woman at a local church insisted after a talk I gave recently on Nones. “The thing is that, these days, there is so much more to distract people from the beauty of the Christian story. It just takes more time. We just have to be patient, and we have to find ways to open the story to the Nones so they can find their way into our communities and into our story.”

Well, sure. Except probably not.

Strike that. Almost certainly not. Nones, the cold truth is, are simply not looking for a path to Christian community. They are not aimless seekers just waiting for the right version of the Christian story, the right church community, to click for them. They have, in the main, sorted out their take on religion and spirituality, and come down on the “no, thank you” side of the conversion question. What’s more, they very often have quite vibrant, creative spiritualities through which they enrich their own lives, connect deeply with others, and serve those in need in the world around them.

The challenge for communities and people of faith, then, is not how we “capture” the Nones, but how we engagewith them in the ministries that are both central to Christian teaching and, it turns out, morally and ethically meaningful to the nonreligious.

The challenge for communities and people of faith, then, is not how we “capture” the Nones, but how we engagewith them in the ministries that are both central to Christian teaching and, it turns out, morally and ethically meaningful to the nonreligious. Because, the need for works of mercy, compassion, and solidarity with those in need has hardly diminished along with the declines in belief in God or affiliation with religious communities. The only way, it seems to me, we carry the Christian mission into the future is to develop our capacity for engagement beyond our institutional structures, identities, and particular beliefs – to follow where the Nones lead.

This is what Pope Francis was pointing to when he told the crowd gathered for a morning mass a few years back, “…we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father. I am an atheist!’ But do good. We will meet one another there.”

But how do we “meet one another”—Atheists, Agnostics, the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious, and other Nones in their diverse array—in the work of “doing good”? How do we cultivate relationships of caring and commitment without pressing toward affiliation or identification with our own traditions?

For a long while, an attitude of religious pluralism—a certain humility with regard to the truth claims in one’s own tradition and an openness to and curiosity about other traditions—has been advocated as a mechanism for engagement. And it certainly can be, as John Hick has argued most influentially. Religious pluralism can press us away from exclusivist evangelism that seeks to convert (or condemn) those outside a particular religion. It can also press us toward an inclusivist tolerance that accepts the reality of genuine good in other traditions, but this good – unbeknownst to adherents – is read as actually reflecting the greater truth of the good of our tradition.

Pluralists, allow that there is some truth in all religions, that multiple truths can address the same reality depending on a believers’ relationship to that reality, and that no one religion contains the fullness of truth. Every religion, according to Hick, has insight into the “ultimate truth,” so it is important to explore as many as we can in order to understand that “truth” with greater depth and nuance.

One mountain, many paths, as the saying goes.

And there’s the rub as concerns not only Nones, whose spiritual, religious, or philosophical beliefs and modes of practice are diverse and dynamic, but also people from other religious traditions. It turns out there are many mountains, many ways that people experience and conceive the spiritual, the sacred, the divine, and the transcendent that do not converge as a single, universal reality. Such a totalizing view of the holy tends, as is the case for example in Eboo Patel’s work, to insist on identifying, bridging, and nurturing commonalities without tending to real and meaningful differences that bear on even those elements different religions might share. While there are of course practical benefits to this bridging, it is not without problems.

An Evangelical Christian and an Agnostic feminist might both be concerned about sex trafficking, for instance, but their conception of who women are and why objectifying and selling them is wrong are very different. Approaches to “doing good” for women that focus on maintaining women’s sexual “purity” or insisting on the (godly) role of men in protecting them would be problematic for advocates who see amplifying the authority of women over their own bodies and lives and cultivating a deep respect for women as more central. When we believe that such differences can be muted by more robust celebration of commonalities, we undermine a deeper kind of engagement that attends specifically to difference.

This is a way beyond pluralism that I would argue leads us in the direction of cosmopolitanism—an approach to engagement that begins in an understanding of our shared human dignity and our obligation to do good beyond the confines of our own communities, with people very different from ourselves, and in places very different from our own. What is this cosmopolitan path? Popular culture presents the cosmopolitan as a cultural élite of great wit and sophistication. Perhaps its most famous rendition was in the “Sex in the City” television series, which included sweet, pink cosmopolitan cocktails as the favored drink of the series’ glamorous protagonists.

Current political culture paints cosmopolitanism more darkly. In this view, the cosmopolitan is the advocate of one worldwide government, centered in the United Nations, and undermining the distinctiveness and progress of different nations, largely by redistributing wealth to non-western peoples.

But cosmopolitanism has a more venerable history, beginning in fourth-century BCE Greece with the philosopher Diogenes, and wending its way directly through the Christian tradition by way of Paul and the churches he helped to establish. As the story goes, Diogenes, when asked from whence he hailed, made the quite radical move of identifying himself as a kosmopolitês—a citizen of the world. In doing so, he placed his allegiance to all of humanity – and therefore his human rights anywhere he might be – before his allegiance to his home city-state of Sinope.

The cosmopolitan idea developed over the next few centuries, becoming more fully articulated in the first centuries of the Common Era, when Paul was ministering to local house churches in the diverse Greco-Roman world. In the more developed Socratic and Stoic form that influenced Paul, cosmopolitanism was about doing good for all human beings equally, no matter where they came from, no matter what their status, rank, or religion. It also called on people of good will to serve humanity where their gifts were most required, even if to do so took them beyond the boundaries of their home communities and countries.

The Gospels point to this embrace of cosmopolitanism, with a bit of a twist, when Jesus argues that we must “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). The Stoics argued that the cosmopolitan must work to improve the lives of citizens of the empire and citizens of the world alike. By contrast, the early Christians insisted that the more universal project of caring for the people of God wherever they were was separate from political obligations to any local government; it was also more important, precisely because it was the work to which God called them. The divine cosmic reality transcended any local reality, and the commitment to care for and heal all of God’s creation transcended attention to more parochial needs.

This cosmopolitan Christian orientation, Paul insisted to the church in Ephesus, changed who they were:  

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,  built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spirituallyinto a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:19-22; emphasis added)

It is true that over the centuries, many Christians have read Paul’s embrace of cosmopolitanism in more exclusivist terms, arguing that only people who accept the God of the Bible are included in this divine household. But by the eve of the Reformation, as ancient texts were rediscovered and made their way into developing forms of Christian humanism, cosmopolitanism was again embraced as a key to fomenting lasting peace. In a world of tremendous violence and suffering, and whose spiritual core would eventually be riven by the effects of religious dissent, Erasmus of Rotterdam argued that the natural state of humanity was one of sociability and harmony that could—and should—be cultivated through a cosmopolitanism that paid no heed to national or religious distinctions. The era of discovery, conquest, and colonization would mute much of this Christian cosmopolitan impulse, but it remained very much at the very heart of the Christian tradition and would, indeed, have a profound influence on the structuring of religious freedom in the United States.

Christian cosmopolitanism invites to see ourselves, others, and the world around us in ways that are at once new and firmly rooted in the best of our traditions. It allows us to connect with those who are perhaps most different from us in belief and practice but whose difference may enliven and illuminate the beauties of our faith.

Today, an embrace of Christian cosmopolitanism seems essential in a time when more exclusivist constructions of Christian community and ministry are failing. However, I point us in a more cosmopolitan direction not merely to suggest a way to perhaps save ourselves in institutional terms, but because it is our calling as co-creators of the Kingdom of God. This present-and-not-yet sacred reality is premised on a belief in our common humanity imago dei—in the image of God—and a Samaritan love of neighbor not limited by ethnicity, race, gender, nationality, or religion. In this construction of our shared reality, the neighbor doesn’t go to our church or live on our block. The neighbor is anyone in need, anywhere we might encounter her or him, and—importantly, critically—we must join with whatever person of good will we might to offer care, nurture healing, and bring about the kingdom. That includes the Nones—Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, Secularists, Spiritual-But-Not-Religious, Wackadoodle Woo-Woo, and so on. On their own terms. Exactly as they are.

This embrace calls for a radical shift in the congregational communitarianism that has long defined our churches. Cultivating cosmopolitanism takes practice, but there are two modest starting points I suggest as good beginnings to the process:

  • Diversified Reading Practice. According to philosopher Martha Nussbaum, reading cultivates empathy for others and helps to develop our moral imaginations,. But Nussbaum cautions that we often read chauvinistically, “reading the strange exactly like what is familiar”—looking for, imagining, or even inventing commonalities that erase meaningful differences and mute our own ability to engage difference. Reading diversely, globally, beyond our usual tastes allows us to see others as they see themselves, to hear and take their voices seriously. In faith communities, we can practice this by setting aside the latest progressive Christian bestseller in our book groups and adult education forums in favor of titles that open us to more diverse others.
  • Putting Ourselves on the Margins in Service. Individual Christians and Christian communities do tremendous amounts of service in the world. But, for many reasonable, practical purposes, we typically center that work in our own institutional communities—Habitat for Humanity, World Vision, denominational charitable organizations—where we, or people very much like us, drive the approach to service and define those who will be served. “We must meet one another doing good,” Pope Francis has advised us, but we will not meet Nones if our service is centered in our own organizations. Considering ways to engage as Christians with others in nonreligious service settings—the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, the Trevor Project—gives us the opportunity to give up the reigns while opening ourselves to people of good will who, while unlikely to ever darken the doors of our churches, are very likely to teach us different ways of experiencing the holy that will enrich us deeply.

Christian cosmopolitanism invites to see ourselves, others, and the world around us in ways that are at once new and firmly rooted in the best of our traditions. It allows us to connect with those who are perhaps most different from us in belief and practice but whose difference may enliven and illuminate the beauties of our faith. Practicing Christian cosmopolitanism gives us new ways to understand the neighbors we are called to love and, through shared work for the common good, gives us new strength and capacity to create the blessed Kingdom we were called by Christ to announce and create.

cosmopolitanism, Nones, Nussmbaum, Pew Research, pluralism, St. Paul

Elizabeth Drescher

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is the editor of Bearings and a Consulting Scholar at The BTS Center. She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press, 2016), Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse 2011), and, with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012) and Click 2 Save: Reboot (Church Publishing, 2018). Her commentary on contemporary religion and spirituality has been published in Alternet, AmericaThe AtlanticSalon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, Religion Dispatches, The Washington Post, and other national publications. She is a much sought after speaker for religious and academic groups engaging the changing religious landscape in the United States. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter @edrescherphd.


Cover photo: Annie Spratt, “Art Spotting” (May 8, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Inside photo: Maxime Bhm, Untitled (July 11, 2016). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Inside photo: Thought Catalog, “Rainbows and Beautiful Colors” (November 28, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.