Faith’s endangered habitat

Teton presider

American Christianity is in numerical decline – no news to the inhabitants of graying churches. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 20% of the population has no religious affiliation. Just five years ago, that number was 15%. Among adults under thirty, 32% are unaffiliated, with little prospect that they will become more religious as they grow older. According to the study, affiliation does not increase as a particular generation advances through the life cycle. The younger generations will remain less affiliated even as they age. If each succeeding generation continues the trend of rejecting institutional religion, will churchgoers become an endangered species?

The habitat for practicing believers has certainly been compromised. The inanities and hypocrisies of media evangelists, the ignorant ravings of fundamentalists, the hatred and violence of religious extremists have all marred and polluted the public landscape of religion. But that in itself need not be fatal. Christianity has a venerable history of toxic clean-up campaigns, with saints and prophets leading the way. A far more serious threat is the steady shrinkage of habitable environments for faith communities, as individualism, materialism and secularization encroach steadily upon the perceptions and behaviors that make religion sustainable. How can the community of God’s friends persist when God has become, for so many, not just unnecessary but virtually unthinkable?

Modernity has, over the last 500 years, gradually detached western culture from transcendent necessities. God is no longer assumed to be the creator and sustainer of every moment, the all-encompassing reality in whom we live and move and have our being. While individuals might retain a strong personal connection with God, the social world is seen as a self-governing reality, not requiring reference to anything “higher” or “beyond” in order to function or develop. Once the sacred dimension was expunged from the world, and “the last king had been strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” human life could achieve full independence from the constraints of any sacred order or transcendent reality beyond itself.

With God demoted from the ever-present sustainer of life to its original but now absent designer, it was not long before God seemed no longer necessary at all for the construction of meaning or purpose. As Charles Taylor writes in The Secular Age, “The modern social imaginary no longer sees the greater trans-local entities as grounded in something other, something higher, than common action in secular time.” In other words, the inherited modern culture in which we live and move and have our being has no apparent or practical need of God to explain things or provide the sources of human flourishing.

When Christians worship or pray or converse among themselves, they radically contradict such premises of modernity, but in the largely unconscious, ingrained, or automatic behaviors of everyday living, it is hard not to find ourselves reverting to the default position of the culture: simply acting without God in mind. Or in our bones. In the words of German theologian Eberhard Jüngel, “It would appear, then, that God has no place in our thought and thus has no place in our language. [God] does not occur, has no topos (place, position).”

This “placelessness” of God is what I mean by the erosion of sustainable habitat for communities of faith. If God has no place in the behavior or even the thought of so many people, why would religion make any sense at all to them, except as a provider of purely human benefits such as community or charity? No wonder the churches dwindle.

Then what do we make of these statistics: 68% of the unaffiliated say they believe in God, 58% feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, 37% call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” 30% have had religious or mystical experience, and 21% say they pray every day. Evidently many are still trying to retain a connection with something deeper than the everyday, with a necessary mystery beyond themselves. However, only 10% of them are interested in seeking religious community. Most would rather be spiritual but not religious.

I’m not sure that’s really possible. We might wish to declare independence from the limitations and messiness of human institutions and opt for the purity of personal practice, but “bowling alone” (to cite Robert Putnam’s famous term for the erosion of civic and communal engagement in America) misses the point of engaging our deeper selves.

Christians say we are made in the image of a Trinitarian (= social and interdependent) God, and we best praise and contemplate and grapple with that communally complex divine reality in the company of others: not only joining with the local worship assembly or even the wider Church on earth, but with the friends of God in every age who cry “Holy!” for all eternity, dancing with the Triune Love Who Loves Us. You can’t worship by yourself anymore than you can be in love by yourself. Worship needs a choir.

Even in private prayer, you use words and images supplied by tradition, and reinforce deep connections with others now absent from you. Even beholding the beauty of a sunset, you do it in company with the poets and painters and photographers who have given you an eye for the beauty of things.

The difference between solo spirituality and religious belonging is like the difference between a lion in the zoo and a lion on the savannah. You need a broad and healthy habitat to flourish. Can the habitat of faith and worship survive and be restored? Will things which were cast down be raised up, and things which have grown old be made new?

God only knows.

Border crossing

An hour before the 1960’s ended, I left a noisy party in L.A. and headed for the ocean, craving some solitude where I could reflect on a memorable and formative decade before it passed. I drove into a large asphalt lot next to the beach, parking in a pool of light beneath a street lamp. There were no other cars around. The surf broke faintly in the blackness beyond the sand. Just before midnight I would walk out far enough to peer beyond the waves into the horizonless dark and wait for the future to roll on in. But for the moment, I propped my journal against the steering wheel and began to write.

I wasn’t alone for long. After about twenty minutes, a police car pulled up beside me. The patrolman got out and walked over to my window. He asked me whether I had heard of the Zodiac serial killer, who had been terrorizing northern California for the past year. Police were on statewide alert, and a single male, parked alone in a deserted spot around midnight, had aroused his suspicion. He wanted to know what I was doing there. I told him I was journaling. He asked, politely, if he could take a look. Instead of asserting my First Amendment rights, I was delighted to have found a reader! I handed over my notebook, and he began to murmur aloud from the first entry, written months earlier when the Clyde Beatty–Cole Brothers Circus came to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The magic of that circus – a tent of wonders suddenly erected in an empty field, only to disappear and move on the next day – had been, for those of us doing campus ministry at an Episcopal coffeehouse, a vision of the Kingdom of God. It arrived with little advance warning, defied the dominant order of gravity, hierarchy and death, then moved on to somewhere else before we could possess it for ourselves.

And so it was that on a bare asphalt stage at the edge of the sea at the end of the Sixties, a policeman performed aloud my whimsical musings on a day at the circus:

And those still endowed with the gift of longing caught another glimpse of the darkness and the dance. But the kingdom is not yet … The circus priests of pain and laughter remain on the other side, though for a day and a night they seemed near enough to touch.

These were not, in his judgment, the ravings of a serial killer, so he wished me ‘Happy New Year’ and departed in peace.

That surreal night comes to mind because I now find myself at the end of another sixties – my own. Tomorrow I turn 70. That seems officially old in a way that 65 did not. Of course I don’t feel old in the way my younger self once imagined life’s third act to be. “Old age isn’t for sissies,” my mother and her friends would joke in their nineties, as they struggled bravely with failing bodies. But I’m not there yet. No one rises to give me their seat on a crowded bus. I can walk 500 miles in a month. My work isn’t done. I am not tired of life.

But “70” feels like a border crossing, though the change may not be immediately apparent. When you travel Highway 5 from California into Oregon, the rainy land of evergreens is still far up the road. The dark green oaks scattered across the arid grasslands of southern Oregon look just like the landscape in your rearview mirror. It’s easy to imagine that you haven’t really gone anywhere. But somewhere up the road it will finally hit you: you aren’t in California anymore.

It still seems premature to brood on mortality. The question posed by one’s seventies (at least while good health lasts) is not so much about death as it is about time. How much time do I have left? How shall I spend it?

“Have you lived here all your life?” asks the Arkansas traveler in the old folk song. “Not yet,” the farmer replies. Exactly. My story is not yet done. But the number of pages preceding “the bookmark of Now” are far greater than the ones remaining. As always happens when the unread portion of a novel shrinks to a fraction of an inch, I wonder how much incident can possibly be crammed into the remaining pages. How will the author tie up all the loose ends in so brief a space?

I could panic over the ceaseless erosion of future; I could rue my wasted past. Or I could just keep on walking (as in this video from my Camino), thankful for a refulgent sun and fruitful earth, mindful of the privilege, for a time, of casting one’s own shadow upon this sweet old world.


We the People (Latina) poster

Artist: Shepard Fairey; Photographer: Arlene Mejorado

“Send them back! Send them back!” So shout the stony-hearted xenophobes in response to the unprecedented wave of Central American children entering the United States without documentation. The irony of this hateful war cry in a nation first forged by immigrants is breathtaking. Were such things screamed from the shore at Plymouth Rock?

Historical memory, never America’s strong suit, has become seriously eroded in recent years, due in large part to what Canadian scholar Henry A. Giroux has called the “violence of organized forgetting.” In a provocative essay (, Giroux traces the sources and consequences of “the emergence of a profoundly anti-democratice culture of manufactured ignorance and social indifference.” He begins with a resonant epigraph from a book about history and memory by Yose Hayim Yerushalmi:

For in the world in which we live it is no longer merely a question of the decay of collective memory and declining consciousness of the past, but of the aggressive [assault on] whatever memory remains, the deliberate distortion of the historical record, the invention of mythological pasts in the service of the powers of darkness.

While solutions to the current humanitarian crisis on our southern border may not be entirely clear, perhaps we should begin by remembering that we are all pilgrims and refugees in this life, that welcoming the stranger is a biblical imperative, and that everything is gift before it is possession, including “native” soil. So as an aid to memory and perspective, we might listen to some voices from the immigrant experience. An excellent collection may be found in Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan & Jennifer Gillan; Penguin 1994). Here are a few of my own favorites, from a florilegium I once compiled for a celebration of cultural diversity in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.

Carlos Bulosan came from the Phillippines to settle in Seattle, becoming active in the labor movement. In his book, America is in the Heart, he wrote:

America is the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job, the illiterate immigrant… All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native born or alien, educated or illiterate – We are America!

Armenian-born Gregory Djanikian emigrated to the United States as a child. His poem, “In the Elementary School Choir,” describes the experience of absorbing a new culture at a young age:

“This is my country,” we sang,
And a few years ago there would have been
A scent of figs in the air, mangoes,
And someone playing the oud along a clear stream.

But now it was “My country ’tis of thee”
And I sang it out with all my heart…
“Land where my fathers died,” I bellowed,
And it was not too hard to imagine
A host of my great uncles and -grandfathers
Stunned from their graves in the Turkish interior
And finding themselves suddenly
On a rock among maize and poultry
And Squanto shaking their hands.

Wing Tek Lum, born in Hawaii of Chinese-American parents, resolves the melting pot vs. salad bowl debate with a distinctively Chinese meal. The biblical image of the redeemed gathered for a sacred feast is clearly echoed in “Chinese Hot Pot,” which is not surprising for a poet who attended New York’s eminent Union Seminary.

My dream of America
is like da bin louh
with people of all persuasions and tastes
sitting down around a common pot
chopsticks and basket scoops here and there
some cooking squid and others beef
some tofu and watercress
all in one broth
like a stew that really isn’t
as each one chooses what she wishes to eat
only that the pot and fire are shared
along with the good company
and the sweet soup
spooned out at the end of the meal.

God forbid that the shouting mob at the border (and in Congress and the right-wing echo chamber) should have their way in the end, reducing the refreshing tributaries from other cultures to a trickle, condemning America to the parched national sameness described by Annie Proulx in Accordion Crimes, where a Polish immigrant is forced to conclude that “to be foreign, … not to be American, was a terrible thing and all that could be done about it was to change one’s name and talk about baseball.”

May we all recover our immigrant memory and our sojourner mind, and celebrate the inclusive richness praised by Native American Joy Harjo in “Remember:”

Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe
and that this universe is you.

Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.

Fourth of July

Eugene fireworks 2016 (1)

July 4th fireworks (Eugene, Oregon, 2016)

I love the Fourth of July. After beginning the day in the company of Charles Ives and Emily Dickinson, I will run a 5K, watch the ragtag town parade, take in some local baseball, gather with friends for croquet, barbecue and American folk tunes sung around an outdoor fire, and join the annual procession of neighbors to the end of our street for fireworks over the harbor. This in itself is enough to honor the day – life and community affirmed with our fellow citizens as we sound the resonant notes of tradition.

But the liturgist in me wonders if we might do something more consciously formative with our American holiday, as our forebears did. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the Fourth of July was an occasion not only to celebrate our ideals, but also to educate the public in the habitual virtues of public life by which those ideals might continue to be realized. A central part of this educative function was the Fourth of July oration, a long-winded address that recalled the great deeds of the past, tabulated the growth and progress achieved over the years, and exhorted the listener toward the same zeal for liberty and the common good that had inspired our founders.

The speakers all tried to tune their themes to the situation of their time. An oration given in 1838 before an abolitionist society noted the ironies of church bells and cannons sounding in celebration of liberty while in the same land could be heard the clanking of chains on the limbs of a million slaves. Another, given on the eve of World War I, called upon America to lead the way in the overthrow of war as an instrument of policy.

As a longtime lover of California’s mountains, I am especially fond of Thomas Starr King’s oration of 1860, delivered to the Episcopal Sunday School Mission Celebration in San Francisco, celebrating the fact that California had not seceded from the Union. “Thank heaven,” he declared, “there is no doubt of our geography. The Sacramento is an American river. The San Joaquin is not held by traitors. San Diego is an American port…” King then described the red alpenglow and azure shadows on the white glacier of Mt. Shasta as Nature’s emphatic salute to the Red, White and Blue!

The one thing these orations have in common is their assumption of a people, a public, who are committed to working together to implement the ideals that gave us birth. “We swear,” cried a young John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1793, “we swear by the precious memory of the sages who toiled and of the heroes who bled in her defense, that we will prove ourselves not unworthy of the prize which they so dearly purchased; that we will act as the faithful disciples of those who so magnanimously taught us the instructive lesson of republican virtue.”

In other words, keep your eyes on the prize. The watchwords of the Revolution – liberty and the common good – are powerful ideas. Even the most corrupt and cynical among us must still give them lip service if they aspire to political power. As Daniel Ellsberg once said, the best thing that you can say about the American people is that you have to lie to us.

The American experiment is not over. We no longer conduct it with the illusion that we are innocent of the old corruptions, that humanity’s darker impulses are somehow absent from the American heart. Holden Caulfield and Daisy Miller have grown older and wiser. And yet there are many among us who refuse to give up, who refuse to retreat from public life and the common good. There are many among us who continue to dream, continue to strive, continue to believe that we shall overcome, that “America the beautiful” is still a possibility.

I do not imagine that Americans will ever again submit to the custom of lengthy orations under a hot sun, but might there be other ways to mark the day with experiences, images and rituals which reconnect us with our ideals and with each other? I wouldn’t put any politicians on that planning committee, or preachers either. Instead, I would entrust the task to artists, musicians, poets and activists. My vote to head the enterprise would be the 8-year-old Hopi girl whose recurring daydream of a redeemed public life is recorded in Robert Coles’ The Spiritual Life of Children:

All the people are sitting in a circle, and they are brothers and sisters, everyone! That’s when all the spirits will dance and dance, and the stars will dance, and the sun and moon will dance and the birds will swoop down and they’ll dance, and all the people, everywhere, will stand up and dance, and then they’ll sit down again in a big circle, so huge you can’t see where it goes, or how far, if you’re standing on the mesa and looking into the horizon, and everyone is happy. No more fights. Fights are a sign that we have gotten lost, and forgotten our ancestors, and are in the worst trouble. When the day comes that we’re all holding hands in the big circle – no, not just us Hopis, everyone – then that’s what the word ‘good’ means…and the whole world will be good when we’re all in our big, big circle. We’re going around and around until we all get to be there!