When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In a recent column in the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts, Jr. observes that we are “losing our religion.” In a poll conducted by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, the fastest growing religious group is “none of the above.” That “non-religious” group has grown from 8% in 1990 to 15% today.
April is “Religion in American Life” month; at least that’s what it says in my pocket planner. But religion is apparently as endangered as the pocket planner.
“Some have suggested our loss of faith is due to increased diversity, mobility and immigration,” Pitts observes. “I'm sure there's something to that, but I tend to think the most important cause is simpler: Religion has become an ugly thing.”
To paraphrase Holden Caulfield’s famous commentary on Christmas, from J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, “If Christ could see Christianity, he’d puke.” We’ve lost our way. From sex scandals with priests, to the attacks on science, to TV preachers saying idiot things (Katrina and before that, the 9/11 attacks, were because of our tolerance for Gays and the absence of school prayer), we find Christianity often associated with very unChrist-like things: intolerance, bigotry, scapegoating, literalism, and the celebration of greed.
Pitts asks: “Who can be surprised if the sheer absurdity, fundamentalist cruelty and ungodly hypocrisy that have characterized so much ''religion'' in the last 30 years have driven people away? If all I knew of God was what I had seen in the headlines, I would not be eager to make His acquaintance. I am thankful I know more.”
The Fundamentalists and Literalists feed the atheists and vice-versa. The “New Atheism” ignores the last 2,000 years of theological insights and biblical interpretation, and focuses all of its critique on biblical literalism. And the literalists have managed to so captivate the public perception, that the critique seems to work for many Americans.
Those of us who are trying to follow Jesus in a serious and thoughtful way find ourselves in a kind of “no man’s land” between these two warring armies. We are asked to choose between reason and religion, and it’s hard for the popular culture to understand that when we choose both reason and religion we are actually part of a long tradition of theologians and philosophers. This is not a new idea. But it needs renewed emphasis.
We are called to the love of God and neighbor. Jesus combines the “Shema” from Deuteronomy (Hear O Israel the Lord your God is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.) with Leviticus 19:18 (You shall love your neighbor) to form the great commandment.
And we are called to love God with our hearts and our minds. Faith has to make sense. The leap of faith is existential rather than intellectual (which only makes sense, since the phrase, "leap of faith," comes from the Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, the founder of Existentialism). It is about how we live. The test of Christian faith is not that we can believe strange doctrines or accept the literal meaning of some obscure passage of scripture, but that we live out the teachings of Jesus in love and compassion for our neighbors.
What the survey says to me is that it’s time for Christians to act like Christians.