Years ago, I criticized atheists who wanted to dissuade believers of their faith.
My argument was always the same: Why don’t you just leave us alone?
Lately, though, I haven’t felt so sturdy. We never are going to see the best of religion reflected in its worst practitioners, but they sure can suck the life out of your faith — if you let them.
There’s a lot of good in religion. But at its worst, it protects pedophile priests and fuels extremists who kill in God’s name. It also emboldens the smallest minds among us who traffic in hate but declare themselves messengers of the Messiah.
Baptist minister Fred Phelps travels the country to protest funerals for our men and women killed in battle. Phelps and his fellow misanthropes hold up signs that read “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates homosexuals.”
Earlier this month, a smalltime minister named Terry Jones ignited international outrage after he threatened to burn copies of the Quran.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing among journalists over making this obscure and ridiculous man the biggest headline on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Too often, we navigate by the compass of the outliers, covering people and events we would have ignored before blogs and 24-hour cable. But after Gen. David Petraeus announced he was worried about the safety of our military overseas, we could not ignore Jones.
Unexpected good came from this coverage. Calls for tolerance and understanding launched tough conversations in congregations and in backyards across America. Sales of the Quran spiked on Amazon.com.
Still, recent events make it no longer possible for me to dismiss outright atheists’ objections to religion. My faith hasn’t faltered, but I admit to occasional struggles on that front. I blame myself, not God. To paraphrase my friend the Rev. Dr. Bob Gross, God is like a light bulb. If all you see are shadows, look around.
Bob was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Queens. He served in the Navy for four years and then worked for the celebrated Riverside Church in Manhattan while he attended seminary in the mid-1990s. For the past 10 years, he has been pastor of the mostly blue-collar congregation of Lake Avenue United Church of Christ in Elyria, Ohio.
He feels called to the heartland. “The salt’s gotta leave the shaker,” he said. “I could live in New York or Boston and be surrounded by people who look and think like me, or I could go where the congregation was diverse in its ideas and beliefs.”
Bob has a gift for connecting a wide smattering of dots. His dissertation mined the traditions of African-American churches for ways to reach white working-class Christians. I called him to talk about how Christians like me are fighting despair over charlatans’ attempts to hijack our faith.
“We’re all born children of God,” he said. “We’re not born Christians, Muslims or Jews. How we understand our relationship to God is diff erent, from you to me to the imam down the street to the rabbi across town. And we’ve gotten good at pointing out our differences, including among Christians.”
Last Sunday, Bob asked his congregation to make a chart of the phases of their lives, one decade at a time, by answering these questions:
1) What was going on in your life?
2) Who were the important people in your life?
3) Where was God in your life? Did you find God in your faith community? On your walks in the park? In the pages of a novel you were reading?
Bob suspected that, like him, most of his fellow worshippers could find evidence of God in the people around them.
“When I look at the highs and lows in my own life, there were always people who represented God,” he said. “They walked with me through the most difficult times and celebrated with me on the mountaintop.”
Bob’s reflections reminded me of a Sunday morning in 1988 when I showed up at a black church in Cleveland. I was a reporter full of questions but left with answers I didn’t know I needed until I heard the gospel choir sing, “You’re the only Jesus that some will ever know.”
Or as my mother used to say: Don’t talk your faith. Live it.
And when in doubt, look around.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer
Prize-winning columnist for The
Plain Dealer in Cleveland and
an essayist for Parade magazine.