The Spirit and Place Festival is an annual multi-day event in Indianapolis that takes place every November and is presently occurring. The festival’s mission is to “catalyze civic engagement and enduring change through creative collaborations among the arts, humanities, and religion.” During the ten days of the festival there are a variety of activities including lectures, panel discussions, workshops, concerts and art shows. A few years back, I attended a workshop on creative writing in which I learned some practices that I still utilize. The Spirit and Place Festival is a welcome part of autumn in Indianapolis. I once met a couple, both of whom are artists, who moved to Indy after coming from out of state for a couple of years to participate in the festival.
The theme of this year’s festival is “Risk: New Connections, New Directions.” In advertising this theme the festival website reads:
What issues need strategic risk-taking? How can we surf the space between safety and danger in ways that stimulate community vitality? What risks can we take during Spirit & Place to galvanize change for pressing social concerns?
Since I believe risk is a strong component of faith, I was glad to see this theme and scanned the many opportunities that were available. When I looked, there was open space in every event except one, an event titled: “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.” This event is being led by a former pastor and author of several best-selling books on religious themes. After twenty-five years as a pastor, he has decided that the religious life is no longer for him. The event is titled after a new book he has written with the same name, which offers a guide for those who have decided that the religious life “no longer works for them.”
I have to admit, I found it quite ironic that the Spirit and Place festival, which counts a variety of faith traditions among its supporters and which “embraces religion in the values of compassion, fairness, hospitality, and service that fuel our life in community” would host an event such as “Leaving My Religion.” (It is also listed as a Risk prize finalist. This means it has the possibility of winning a $2,500 prize awarded by the festival committee.) I also have to admit that I was not surprised, but was very sad, to see that this event had sold out. With the fastest growing segment of American religious affiliation being the “nones,” that is, those who don’t affiliate with any religion, it is little wonder that this event had no seats left.
The reason religious faith is on a decline in America is a complex matter that has many different contributing factors. There are the cultural matters that include America’s hyper-individualism, consumer mentality, and a 24 hour, 7 day-a-week busyness, that does not lend itself to participation in much beyond one’s self and family. There is also the rise of “scientism,” the mechanistic world-view that the only things that are “real” are things of material substance. “Scientism” should not be confused with science. It is instead the belief that the “only valid” way of knowing is through the scientific method. A world view that fails its own test, because it cannot be proven that the scientific method is the only way knowledge is acquired. This is simply to say that there are cultural matters that have impacted the decline of religious faith.
But the cultural factors should not preclude the church from taking a hard look at itself and how it has contributed to the religious decline. There is no shortage of books or studies which show that many people view the church as an anti-intellectual, anti-science, homophobic, judgmental group who condemns to hell those who don’t hold the same beliefs we do. We might want to argue with that perception of the Christian faith, and I know it doesn’t square with most of the Christians I associate with, but we have to admit that where there is smoke there is fire. And the truth is, many people have experienced a brand of Christianity that is a close description of the above.
Well, the thoughts in the two preceding paragraphs need a whole lot more time than I am able to give them in the space provided here. Let’s just leave it at this, there is no one reason for the decline of religious faith in America – there is a complex, multitude of reasons for why this has happened.
What I want to offer over the next few weeks is an alternative to “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.” I would like to offer “Staying with Faith: the Risks and Rewards of Sticking It Out.” My intention won’t be to critique the reasons for the decline beyond what I have briefly mentioned above. I simply want to offer to you why I have stayed with the life of faith, even when it didn’t seem to “work for me.” I want to share with you the places that I still find great beauty in the religious community. One pastor is sharing with others why he chose to leave. I want to share with you why I have chosen to stay. I want to state why I believe that the life of faith still has much to offer our culture and our world, it’s most important offering being a word of hope.