EDITOR’s NOTE—We are pleased, this week, to publish a column by veteran journalist Martin Davis, a leader of the International Association of Religion Journalists.
As Editor of this magazine, I was wrestling with what we could publish as a Holiday Cover Story spanning Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s. Daily headlines about looming chaos in our world—much of it revolving around the instability in our own nation’s leadership—left me yearning for an honest and hopeful message to share.
Then, without any warning, Martin emailed his first-ever submission to ReadTheSpirit. In his own home office near Washington D.C., he had been wrestling with similar concerns and felt moved to write the following column.
Martin and I certainly are not alone. This New Year is the Centennial of W.B. Yeats’ most enduring poem: The Second Coming. Written in the wake of World War I’s devastation, Yeats looked clear-eyed into the yawning chasm of darkness in Europe. The lines Yeats wrote are some of the most frequently quoted in all of poetry. While he was painfully honest about the sorrows yet to come—and the apparent complacency of leaders to prevent it—Yeats also leaves us with the same question Martin asks:
What revelation will we chose to recognize in this New Year?
It is Christmas at my house, but not in my life.
Our home is garnished with all the signs of the season. A Christmas tree—for the first time, an artificial one—filled with memorable ornaments that mark our family’s life and lore. A Moravian star hangs in our home’s second-floor window, a remnant of my youth in North Carolina where Moravians settled and introduced this German tradition. Red and white lights illuminate our home. Statues of Santa Claus, collected over the decades, stand guard from tables and nooks and display cases.
My life, however, is devoid of any religious connection to the holiday. Attending services on Christmas Eve, ritually awaiting the arrival of a Savior, and the lighting of Advent Candles—these are in my past.
Now, absent any instruments of community spiritual connection, the experience of the season has changed dramatically. Christmas has become a secular holiday for me, as it has for many others. The focus now is family. Consequently, the optimism that marks the religious practice of the holiday has given way to sentimentality.
I am hardly alone in feeling a sense of disconnectedness this holiday season.
Just in time for the holiday news cycles, Pew Research released a summary of its latest Christmas Survey. While 9 out of 10 Americans are celebrating Christmas this year—a widespread level of participation that Pew says “hasn’t budged” in years—Pew found the religious meaning of the holiday continuing to erode for millions of us. The report included:
As long-simmering debates continue over how American society should commemorate the Christmas holiday, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that most U.S. adults believe the religious aspects of Christmas are emphasized less now than in the past—even as relatively few Americans are bothered by this trend. … Not only are some of the more religious aspects of Christmas less prominent in the public sphere, but there are signs that they are on the wane in Americans’ private lives and personal beliefs as well. For instance, there has been a noticeable decline in the percentage of U.S. adults who say they believe that biblical elements of the Christmas story—that Jesus was born to a virgin, for example—reflect historical events that actually occurred.
This isn’t surprising to anyone who has followed national trends over the past decade. While a majority of Americans still say they identify with religious traditions—millions are abandoning organized religion. Nearly a third of Americans tell Pew they now have no religious affiliation. Pollsters have dubbed them “Nones”—and their numbers are growing each year.
‘Surely Some Revelation Is at Hand’
I am not condemning Faith itself. That timeless human yearning is beyond extinction. As a journalist, however, I am peering across a chaotic landscape as W.B. Yeats did a century ago with an awareness that in this apparent spiritual anarchy—something will emerge.
Many of us would love to find our way to a religious community. Just look around. The reality is that few of us have abandoned “Faith.” Were that so, Christmas would have no hold over our communities. We would not cling to the symbols that are laden with religious meaning—trees and tinsels and stars. We would simply move on. That isn’t happening—not yet, anyway.
While the numbers of people attaching themselves to particular faith traditions continues to falter, what hasn’t slowed is the human experience of transcendence. Pollsters now regularly report on “The Rise of Nones.” One of the ironic benefits? Hey, we no longer feel isolated.
At the same time, spirituality is as popular as ever. Social media allows like-minded folks to share their redefinitions of faith and holidays online and to form communities around these ideas. In short, we are supporting one another, even as faith communities create more barriers of entry to their houses of worship.
Since the advent of Facebook in the late 2000s, a friend of mine has told the story of Jesus’ birth each year by daily posting verses from the Gospel of Luke’s Nativity Story. He is not Christian in any orthodox understanding of that tradition. So why partake in this exercise? I’ll let him speak for himself:
In all the troubles of the world, a baby being born transforms everything. As far as religious imagery goes, while I am pretty sure no angels sang at my kid’s births, I am sure I heard them nonetheless…. The hope and promise of this story speak loudly to me and I hope to you too, and that’s all there is to this.
Through my own years of seminary education, graduate training in religion, and reading more volumes of religious history and theology than I care to remember, I don’t believe I’ve ever read a more honest statement about the human experience of transcendence.
And about the wonder of Christmas.
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’
Those are Yeats’ lines—the turning-point in the middle of his Second Coming. One-hundred years later, his assessment is still prophetic.
There is no shortage of theories among religious leaders, today, about what drives people away from religious communities. As someone outside a religious community, however, I rarely hear discussed the two issues that have forced me away, as well as many I know who are similarly disaffected by formal religious practice.
One reason will not surprise: Hypocrisy abounds in many communities, and I believe many like myself could deal with this better if churches simply owned it.
The other issue may surprise: Many faith communities have simply lost any appreciation of wonder, or awe. Again, I know I’m not alone. Pew researchers have been writing in recent years about the dramatic rise in the number of Americans who say they “regularly feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe.” Half of Americans now make that claim!
That “deep sense of wonder”? That’s awe—an experience millions of us aren’t finding in most houses of worship. For all the celebration of an “infinite” god, the deity of many Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical communities is stubbornly “finite.” The god that many people are forced to accept in order to join a community of faith is more often defined—formally and informally—by what that God rejects: Homosexuality, abortion—or any understanding of the transcendent that is out of lockstep with accepted dogma.
The dissonance this creates is simply more than many people can bear. Their solution? To leave the church all together. Then, rather than seeing those who’ve left the practice of weekly worship as fellow travelers on a spiritual pilgrimage, far too many religious leaders regard us as “the lost.” We become people who need to “be saved” or “redeemed.” Or simply cast aside.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however. We are neither lost nor in need of redemption. To wrestle with transcendence is to recognize that we can, at best, capture one small glimpse of what that transcendence is. It’s all any of us can hope to do.
People who are sensitive to this reality tend to be less interested in answers, and more interested in the types of questions this raises about what it means to be human. And about what it means to experience transcendence.
Here’s the tragedy in this forced separation: Those of us who are pilgrims outside the walls still have a natural affinity with what houses of worship represent—a place to gather together and enter into sacred space. But not with the strictures religious officials place on what one must do to enter that space.
Is there hope? Yes, if we can agree to some basic principles.
The human quest for the transcendent in universal: Wherever you travel around the world, you’ll encounter people working out their experience of the divine. This reality should lead us to mutual appreciation and interaction; it shouldn’t divide us into warring camps. By making ourselves open to truly hearing what other people experience and how they try to understand that experience, we will come to appreciate one another better as humans. This leads us to the next principle:
Religion is at its core a human endeavor: Even so-called “revealed religions” concede that their understanding of god is defined as much by human culture and history as any direct experience. By embracing this historical reality, we can create common spaces for learning and sharing and growing together.
The Journey is more important than the end story: Surely there are many who will disagree with this. But even among evangelicals who insist that Jesus is the only way, and Muslims who insist that truth is only found inside the Ummah, there is an understanding that faith is a life-long journey. As “outsiders,” we can certainly appreciate people who earnestly travel this path inside one religious tradition. We simply hope that they will appreciate those of us who work out the same journey in a non-exclusivist way.
Following the Star
To those passing my house this season and admiring the star that hangs in our second-floor window, I hope that you can see how much we share with you.
I may not understand the star as a historical reality that led people to a manger, but I can appreciate that it symbolizes the journey we all take to understand our transcendent experiences.
The world is stumbling through a historic transformation right now. As Yeats glimpsed so clearly 100 years ago about the old walls that separate people: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
Like it or not: Something will emerge.
Right now, millions of us are trying to follow a star of hope. We take this journey not alone, but with a moral compass that helps to steer our course.
Right now, we are standing outside your houses of worship asking if there is room for us.
Perhaps in 2019, more people will say “yes” and open doors in true hospitality.
It really is that simple.