In 1990, Chris and I left the NJ/NY area for a 4-year stint in Cincinnati. She matched there for her Ophthalmology Residency (and eventual Pediatric Oph Fellowship), and I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Cincinnati. I also took an appointment with a small inner-city congregation, Mt. Auburn United Methodist Church. After two weeks, I quit the Ph.D. program. It wasn’t that it was too hard – it was because I wasn’t allowed to talk about God in any way, shape, or form. UC had been founded as a secular school, and no religion was allowed to be taught or, at least according to my professors, talked about. For me, this was not just difficult (I do love to talk about God); it was non-sensical. Here we were, studying Western philosophy through the centuries, and even if the topic came up in our reading, we had to ignore it. After two weeks of this, I bailed.
It is often said that one never talks about religion or politics in polite company, but for me, those are really the only, or at least, the most important, topics of conversation. I love to play sports, and I sometimes like to watch sports, but my version of hell is being stuck in a sport’s bar with lite beer and endless conversation about batting averages. I have no interest in gossip or reality tv, and while I love my dogs a lot, talking about how cute they are when they get excited lasts about 2 minutes. The things that matter: how we live, who we are, what we believe, how we care for others – all of these are guided by politics and religion. This may be why we clergy people tend to spend time with each other – what we do really matters to us, and many people don’t want to talk about it.
Why? Why can’t we talk about religion? For many Mainline Christians, who were taught that religion is a private matter, and it feels uncomfortable to express what we believe about God. We don’t want to offend others – which is a good thing – and we really don’t believe that it is our place to possibly pass judgment on those who are not of our faith. It also may be that most Americans, as I have conjectured for decades, are illiterate in the ways of faith and Scripture. Even those who believe they go to “Bible Believing” churches know only what their preacher tells them. They rarely go through the entire Bible to learn and understand it; if they did, their heads would explode!
And there it is: religion has been used for so long by so many people to legislate and moralize and decide who will enter the kingdom of heaven that we can’t seem to discuss our faith beyond those illegitimate purposes. I say illegitimate because 1) in America, religion should never be used to make secular law, 2) because morality is not completely decided, and 3) it is not our job to say who goes to heaven and who does not. When religion/God is used in these ways, we are actually taking God’s name in vain! We waste so much time on this nonsense that we miss the real purpose of being part of a religious community: to do good works.
In Matthew 5, Jesus told the crowd that they needed to let their lights shine in doing good works, so that God can be glorified (or made known). In Ephesians 2, Paul wrote that we were created to do good works. In Titus, we are told that the whole purpose of faith is to be busy doing good works for others. Sure – we are saved by grace, but our faithfulness is defined by what we do for others. We should talk about God – it allows us to learn from each other. If that talk isn’t turned into good works, however, we are wasting our breath. We should talk about God so we can figure out how to help others, not so we can bully them into believing. If you see me some time and want to talk about God or religion, please do: I won’t condemn you or dismiss you. I’m pretty sure we will find some common ground in our humanity. That’s what it means to be human.
Prayer – Forgive us, God, if we have used our faith or the Bible as a weapon to put people down. We just want to help – show us how. Amen.
Today’s image is called “Community” – it won first place in the Scottish Interfaith Art Competition in 2018. The artist is Elaine Pomeransky.