We are all searching for meaning in our lives, regardless of our beliefs or lack thereof.
In the past few weeks, I have attended or read about four completely different events about the act of seeking, and my mind is reeling. This is not unusual when you are working on a religion Web site such as On Faith. There are days when I feel schizophrenic: participating in religious events, being on panels, giving speeches, doing interviews, writing pieces or reading submissions for the site. I always try to identify with the person who is writing or speaking or to whom I am listening or watching. The whole point of starting On Faith was to learn about faith, to understand the different beliefs and the people who do not adhere to any religion. I am totally pluralistic in my approach.
Having majored in theater in college, I studied the Stanislavski method. The idea is to not just act the role but to become the person you are playing. I continued this practice when I was doing profiles for the Style section of The Washington Post. I tried to identify with whomever I was interviewing, to try to find out who they were and why they did and said what they did. It’s the same with my approach to religion.
So one day I am Jewish, the next day a devout Catholic, another day I might be an atheist or Humanist, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Wiccan. I’ve been reading a lot about Jesus. Recently I’ve spent time immersed in spirituality and the SBNRs (spiritual but not religious). I have identified with the “nones” (those who, when asked about their religious affiliation, will say “none”). I see honor and truth and beauty in all of these. I also see many things I don’t like. What I do see most of all is the struggle. In all of the interviews I have done over the past seven years, only once has someone said to me that he had absolutely never had a doubt about his beliefs.
I didn’t believe him.
I see many people trying hard or pretending to believe in something but not making it. I see a lot of grief and suffering because of guilt over not being able to believe. I see a lot of emptiness from those who have no faith but also feel a lack of meaning in their lives. No matter who you are or what your experiences, I know of no one who is not searching for the divine, searching for something transcendent, whatever that might be.
Two weeks ago, I went to an evening of Pub Theology at the Bier Baron, where a group of young men sat around to discuss religion. They were there instead of at church because they couldn’t seem to find what they needed in church. One of the participants described why he was there drinking beer instead of going to church. “Young people in church are not being able to say ‘I’m struggling with my belief now,’ ” he said. “To have something like this you can kind of think and struggle. The younger generation has lost the ability in church to say, ‘I’m struggling’ with anything. They feel like they have to have the perfect persona in church.”
The following week, at Calvary Baptist Church, tattooed Lutheran pastor, weight lifter, stand-up comic, former alcoholic and drug addict and hard-swearing Nadia Bolz-Weber packed ’em in (more than 800 in an overflowing space) with her shockingly irreverent approach.
Bolz-Weber, who has referred to herself as the anti-pastor, read excerpts from her new book, “Pastrix,” pacing up and down in front of the altar in jeans, boots and a casual sweater, her tattoos exposed. Then she sat for an interview. She had the crowd in the palm of her hand when she tampered with the microphone, referring to it as a “spongy condom.” She can be hysterically funny. She dropped several F-bombs and several times referred to bull excrement as she went along. “Some people think clergy shouldn’t swear,” she said to the adoring crowd, “but I think clergy shouldn’t try to be something we’re not.”
She talked about “the nonsense spawned from bad religion,” and she talked about an irreverent piece she wrote about Garrison Keillor to much hilarity and how so often the church represented “corporate American values.” She mocked the idea of church development.
“I reject the premise,” she said. “We have no outreach strategy.” Since she had no office, her office hours, she said, are in a coffee shop. But she is full of contradictions. She hates “praise music,” she said. “We sing old hymns in church. I know it’s not cool.” And she believes everyone should have equal opportunity to be “uncomfortable in church.” She’s gotten a call from Oprah.
Last week, I went to Asheville, N.C., to celebrate the 95th birthday of Billy Graham, the Evangelist preacher and spiritual adviser to presidents. Seeing Graham and watching the Fox News video “The Cross” — with footage of Graham giving his last sermon and flashbacks from his heyday, when he drew millions to hear him in person and on the radio and television — was like being in a time warp, a reminder of good old-time religion in all of its glory.
“God loves you,” Graham said in the video. “He’s willing to forgive you for all of your sins. . . . There is no other way to salvation but through the cross and Christ. . . . Jesus is the only one born in this world without sin. Today I’m asking you to put your trust in Christ.”
And then there were the atheists, who last week held the first Washington meeting of the Sunday Assembly. According to reporter Michelle Boorstein, who attended, some 60 people turned up. The group is led by British comic Sanderson Jones, who has had great success with the Assembly in London and is on a 40-city tour of the United States. The participants spoke about gratitude, listened to an atheist poet, played games and sang, arm in arm, “Lean on Me.” The idea was to have fun.
“The best parts of religion — with awesome songs,” Jones says. If Bolz-Weber is the anti-pastor, Jones is the anti-angry atheist. Participants deliberately do not call themselves an “atheist church,” and they want to make sure there is nothing anti-religious about their meetings. According to Boorstein, they are seeking two things: community and wonder.
Aren’t we all?
I really do love my job.