The Guideposts senior editor explains the omniscient presence of God in all cultures.
Last weekend Kate, Frances and I rented a car and drove north to a farm run by nuns. Kate knows these nuns because she sometimes leads services at their house in New York, a few blocks from our church.
The farm is about an hour away in the semi-rural suburb of Putnam County. There several of the nuns raise chickens and ducks, grow all the food they eat and—this is why we rented the car—make maple syrup in early spring. Here’s something I didn’t know: Sap drips from trees with the consistency of water, tastes ever so slightly sweet and makes an astonishingly delicious cup of tea.
While we drove, for reasons that at first seemed random, Kate and I talked about an article we’d read in that day’s Times. The article discussed a book called Society Without God by Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor at Pitzer College in California. The book is an extended study of religion—rather, lack of religion—in Scandinavia, which has one of the lowest church-attendance rates in the world.
Reviews touted the book as refutation of the idea that a faithless society would necessarily be morally unhinged. Presumably there are militantly religious people in the world who believe this. But I think most smart people understand that it’s a relatively dumb idea, given that even a cursory knowledge of history shows that both religious and non-religious societies are capable of great good and great evil (see: slavery in the United States; civil rights movement in same; quality of life in The Netherlands; discrimination against Muslims in same).
Still, regardless of whether the book flogs the wrong horse, Zuckerman said some interesting things when the Times’ Peter Steinfels called to interview him. This startled me: Most of his subjects, Zuckerman said, “balked at the label ‘atheist.’ An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.”
Of course, most also disavowed Christian doctrine and displayed either total indifference or deep embarrassment when asked to state their thoughts on God and other religious questions.
Zuckerman took that as evidence of a society that had, in effect, moved beyond religion to a place where they could make moral decisions and live a happy life without reference to God—give or take a few purely ceremonial church weddings and baptisms.
I wonder. Could you not equally plausibly say that Scandinavians are reluctant to talk about God not because they don’t care or don’t know, but because their relationship with God—perhaps better to say, their way of living a godly life—is comprised of action, not statements and creeds?
A key element of American Protestantism is the idea that relationship with God begins with an affirmation of belief, then deepens with assent to a series of biblically-derived statements about God. The fruits of all that—abolishing slavery, say, or ensuring that no elderly person has to die alone in a nursing home—come later, if at all for some believers.
What if the Scandinavians do it in reverse? Or what if, having established a society that runs as much like the kingdom of God as imperfect human beings will ever achieve, they don’t need all those strenuous protestations of belief Americans cling to? What if such protestations are in fact sometimes a smokescreen, a way of avoiding engagement with the fruits of faith that God wants, indeed demands of us?
I thought about all of this when we got to the farm. There Frances emitted shrieks of delight as she fed the chickens (and even pet one that likes to be held, whom she christened “Mr. Cluck”), plucked eggs from the henhouse and watched Sister Catherine Grace prepare a great big bowl of sliced onions for that night’s meal.
The nuns drifted in and out of the kitchen on their way to various tasks—cleaning the house, sorting seeds for spring planting and, of course, prayer, study and worship. There was a groundedness to every one of those women, a settled ordinariness that transcended ordinariness into something almost unspeakably deep—the depth of relationship with God that comes when you let go your grasp on yourself and surrender to the often mundane (but no less beautiful for that) tasks that God sets for you.
The nuns were living the fruits of faith. Their talk about God would of course differ markedly from the average Scandinavian’s. But outwardly, minus their observance of the monastic hours, they run a pretty Scandinavian operation.
The language of doing, as opposed to the language of saying, or the language of believing. I think God speaks all of those languages, and God hears us when we speak them. Society Without God? That might be the one language God doesn’t speak.
Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at [email protected].