- At the Desert Retreat House -
The latest poll conducted by the Pew Research Center has offered a striking blow to religious communities all across America- hitting Christians especially hard. There has been a steady decline in membership in religious institutions in the country, so much so that now, when asked “What is your religion?” one out of every four people respond, “none.” This new category of “nones” describe themselves as “atheist,” “agnostic,” “humanist,” or “nothing in particular,” and for the most part, this new category of “nones” range in age from between 21 and 35 – hardly a good portent for the future of religion over the years to come.
The social media has been deluged with analyses of the growing decline in religion, and I have read a number of responses; but one opinion offered as a “comment” to one of my recent blog posts struck me as being especially insightful. It came from a self-described 28-year old “agnostic” who sees herself as “spiritual but not religious.” She lamented the fact that, although she grew up in a religious family, she now feels as if she has no choice but to turn away from the church.
This very thoughtful young woman went on to say that the church she used to attend has ceased to have “meaning” for her. Now that she is an adult, the symbols and rituals that are used in church have no meaning, the stories told have no meaning; but perhaps the most telling of all her comments was her observation that even the people who tell the Biblical stories (leaders and clergy) don’t really seem to know what their stories mean.
I think there is a pearl of wisdom to be found in this observation.
Today many Christians celebrate the “Ascension of Jesus into heaven” - the day when, after his resurrection, Jesus goes back up into heaven to live with God forever. Many people hear this story and have one of two responses: for some, it seems ridiculous that anyone could believe that 2000 years ago a body floated up into the sky and lives up there for all eternity, a fairy tale told to children. The other response is “blind belief”- we don’t know how it happened, but it’s in the Bible so it must have happened.
But for me, whether or not this story really happened is almost incidental, the far bigger question is “what does a story like this really mean?” And if you can’t answer that question or address what difference this story makes in the lives of anyone who hears it, then maybe my young agnostic was right. Maybe in their insistence that stories like this really happened, today’s religious leaders may have lost sight of what they really mean.
Author and theologian, Daniel Maguire, offers this insight:
Fervent atheists join the faithful in reducing the infinitely varied and image-rich narratives in the scriptures to a literal reading as though they were historical tracts or a kind of ancient journalism. Anti-poets take teachings like “exodus,” “paradise,” “resurrection” and “ascension, ” and downsize them into happenings that could have been captured on film.
As I see it, all the language of every religious tradition is essentially poetry and, while there may be some historical basis, the vast majority of all biblical stories are metaphor – stories told to help open doors to greater truths.
So, for example, in Buddhist scriptures angelic creatures announce the birth of baby Buddha as stars dance in the heavens and sages from India come to worship. Virtually, the same story is told about baby Jesus – beautiful poetry about thin-place experiences of transcendence, not history but a doorway to a deeper truth.
So it is that stories like the story of the “Ascension of Jesus into heaven” are poetic accounts of unexplainable mystery- stories that open a door to an eternal truth, proclaim that we human beings belong to the cosmos, never limited by our physical bodies even in death…these are the deeper truths proclaimed by a story like this.
It may well be that one out of every four Americans has turned away from the religious institution. Who knows maybe that will be a good thing for all of us? Maybe it will be a prod in the side of religious people and religious leaders to rethink and “crack open” the “meaning” of the stories we tell, opening up their eternal truths.
Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"