Sunday, June 23, 2013

Churches Without God

Holy, Holy Holy, Heaven and earth are full of your glory!
(the desert skies outside my retreat house)

This Sunday, about 100 people will gather in a community center near Harvard University.  They will hear a sermon, listen to inspirational music, an offering plate will be passed, and the children in the congregation will be invited to attend a "Sunday School" class - sounds like what will be happening in any church across America today, except for one very significant difference.   The members of this church say that they do not believe in God; and in the service, God is never mentioned nor worshipped.

According to a report in a recent CNN blog, the "Humanist Community at Harvard University" meets every Sunday. It is largely composed of people (usually younger, well-educated) who, when asked about their religious affiliation, respond: "none." And, even though they say they do not believe in God, they don't want to be labelled with the more strident term, "atheist." 

Every Sunday they show up with their fellow "nones," and listen to a message about "compassion" or "gratitude." Their kids attend a "Sunday School class"  taught by a biologist from MIT. ( His topic this week is: "Evolution and DNA cells.")  Inspiring music is played and silence is observed.  Afterwards, they have coffee together when the hour-long service is over.

For the members of these newly emerging humanist churches, their community is a family. Their "Godless church" is a place where they can name their babies, celebrate a wedding, gather for a funeral - all done in the presence of their fellow community members.

The "Humanist Community at Harvard University" is but one of many such communities growing throughout the country, a palpable alternative to organized religion and traditional belief in God.

Recently I shared this story with an acquaintance of mine who is a long-time member of a traditional church, and sees himself as very religious. He found the idea of a "Godless church" to be ludicrous and insulting to believers.

On the other hand, I find the emergence of these humanist churches to be one of the first signs of hope I have seen in years that there may be a way for religion to become relevant again for that ever growing population of  "nones." - those people who have no use for "religion" in their lives.

I would love to sit in that community center near Harvard today and listen to what is going on.

Moreover, I would love to have a dialogue with those folks who say they do not believe in God. My guess is that the God they do not believe in is the same God I do not believe in - the "man" upstairs, distant, aloof, judgmental. My guess also is that if we were to sit together and see the rising sun over the desert mountains, we would be moved similarly by a sense of awe that there is something bigger than us in the world. This is the God I believe in, the awesome, abiding, uncontrollable, all embracing  Holy Presence. 

So maybe there is a way to have a dialogue with those people who do not believe in God but don't want to be called "atheist." Maybe the way to have such a dialogue is for religious people to re-imagine what they mean when they think about "God" and re-frame the traditional religious language they use when they talk about "God." 

Furthermore, I am very encouraged by the need for "community" which these gatherings of the "nones" are displaying.  Every day all of us find ourselves in all sorts of relationships, at work, at school, in the neighborhood; but that's not the same as gathering in "community."  When we're in community with others, we struggle with the deeper, more ultimate questions. In community with others, we share life's milestones. In community with others, we experience something bigger than ourselves.

Dare I say it, in community with others, you experience "God," even when you don't believe in God.

I think every bishop, priest,  rabbi,  minister, and "very religious" person in this country should take a day off, get out of the vestments and go sit among the folks in one of these "Godless communities."  Observe, listen, and dialogue. 

With a bold new vision and a willingness to do some serious re-imaging, there may yet be hope for religion in our day.

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