“Religion is a fairytale,” someone scribbled on a wall in pink sidewalk chalk outside Carmichael’s Bookstore on Bardstown Road.
A few days later someone smudged out the word “Religion.”
It wasn’t me.
Even if I am a company man, I’m also a Baptist of the Roger Williams variety. Williams believed that “the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries.”
That is, people should be free to hold and express either their faith or their absence of faith.
Truth is, I sometimes find the no-faith crowd more interesting and intellectually honest than those whose religious faith is strong but unexamined.
The no-religion folk have the strength of conviction to be in the minority and to say that they detect little or no evidence of God, or whatever word one uses to name what one theologian describes as “the More.”
I had a conversation with such a person just last week. Well-read, happy, hardly a trouble-maker. Just no God.
As a minister it can feel awkward to talk with someone whose views imply that you’ve based your life on a ruse. It’s even more awkward when the view expressed comes as a challenge to put up my theological dukes and fight.
It’s tempting to take the bait and engage in a face-off like the story from 1 Kings of Elijah versus Baal’s prophets.
But that kind of win-lose match leaves me cold, not only because of my poor track record in coaxing God to rain down fire from heaven on enemies, but more because these kinds of battles seem contradictory, like all religious wars.
Fighting over God is like spanking your kid for hitting.
Instead, how much more life-giving is a sustained conversation where we talk about what we mean by “God,” what might constitute a religious experience, and whether there is an element to life that we might agree is sacred.
Is there anything about this life that transcends the sciences? Is it simply black and white or is there Technicolor to every examined life? Rationality is important, but does it cover the whole waterfront of our experience as humans?
In such an exchange I’m not arguing to gain converts. I’m entering into conversation that might lead to a deeper understanding and common ground.
On Sunday, an expectant father described the emotion of feeling his child move in his wife’s womb for the first time.
“I know this has happened millions of times in history,” he said. “But I not only felt the baby, I felt something more.”
Or as the theologian would write: More. Something, whether a God far away or a spiritual awakening deep within, was at work in this young father, inviting him to see life anew.
Maybe this gets at the essence of the much-worn phrase “born again.” That is to say, there is a recognition – sometimes startling, other times familiar – that life is more beautiful and bigger than the sum of its parts. There is a reality that is both “in” the event, but more or bigger than the event.
We feel it at the death of a loved one. Our reaction is not merely brain synapses checking off the tasks for terminating a relationship.
Rather, there are the raw edges of love that grieves, desires, longs for more. Or More.
Or take the experience of sitting silently and entering deeply into one’s mind (or heart or soul or being). If you wait with openness, a peacefulness comes – for me it is like a presence – that focuses your eyes, reboots your purpose, anchors your life.
Or what about the experience attested to by many of being in a crowd of strangers and feeling a deep connection and affection for them?
You sit at a swimming pool and watch the parade of people – children free of worries, young parents scurrying after their children the same way you did with yours and your parents did with you, older people no longer self-conscious of their body’s flaws – and it’s just so beautiful that it melts your heart.
Instead of arguing over the Bible, or this or that ritual, or whether this or that religious story can claim to be the lone legitimate account, why not focus on those moments where we can join hands to celebrate the sacred and reveal its beauty no matter who gets the credit?
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.