Wednesday, September 1, 2010

So You Think You’re Not Religious?

Disclaimer-- I have the pleasure of knowing James Adams as a Harvard Square neighbor, customer, and friend; “he’s a gentleman and a scholar, and there’s dam’ few of us left.”

So You Think You’re Not Religious? A Thinking Person’s Guide to the Church
James Rowe Adams (second edition, 2010; St. Johann Press)

In So You Think You’re Not Religious, James Adams sets himself a formidable task: asserting the value of Christian faith and practice to skeptics, and overcoming their very reasonable objections. It’s perhaps in his favor that he’s an extremely reasonable man, and that many of these objections were his own, at other times in his life.

It’s also to his advantage that he is not trying to turn skeptics into believers, as such. In fact, he holds that the ability and willingness to question certitude are assets on the spiritual path: what’s required of the skeptic, in place of blind doctrinal assent, is a tolerance for the paradox and ambiguity so often found in the Bible, and in human communities. (It will help if the skeptic can locate a progressive, questioning church, and avoid over-literal fundamentalist groups; the book’s appendix provides practical advice about this.)

But if not a believer, can a skeptic be an honest churchgoer? The question is not whether we can believe six impossible things before breakfast, but whether we experience a longing for a truer way of understanding our place in the world. Adams says, “A thinking person with intellectual integrity is not likely to observe that life is largely nonsense and let the matter drop there. Such a person is apt to feel compelled to pursue the business of trying to make sense out of the nonsense.”

That pursuit can be immeasurably aided by companionship a church can provide, and by the ritual and study opportunities found there. Adams is himself our companion in probing some of the most familiar stumbling blocks, those found in the Gospels and the creeds. The word ‘creed’ itself points to quite a serious obstacle: the words “I believe in” have come to be heard as if they expressed an opinion about a factual state of affairs. A truer reading of ‘Credo’ would suggest a sense of ‘setting one’s heart on,’ whether longing for, or placing trust in, the promises of the Holy. After all, says Adams, “Any statement about God is bound to be both inaccurate and incomplete.” Our efforts to understand God with the head only, and not with the heart, are necessarily incomplete, and it’s not intellectually dishonest to acknowledge it.

It’s liberating to read the Gospels through the lens of myth, rather than taxing them with literal, historical demands they cannot meet . The recorded words of Jesus display a remarkable fondness for paradox; instead of answering questions, he often reflects them back on themselves, as if to cause a small explosion in the questioner’s mind, and ours. Adams muses on how the Jesus portrayed by Matthew is particularly close to those he calls, ‘you of little faith.’ Skepticism and doubt seem to be marks of the minds Jesus was most interested in reaching, and this should be a comfort to us in the midst of our discomfort.

Participation in a church community entails genuine risks; religious disciplines impose real costs. But much good may come of it: “Doubters and people of little faith may discover that Jesus would have supported them in their skepticism about organized religion. They may find that their questions have something important to contribute when they decide that their goal is not to abolish Christianity but to help fulfill its promise.”

Amen, amen. Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, safe travels to you.

September 1 2010


  1. Thanks for this. Here's a question for you (or for James Adams): what if a particular creed/credo isn't something you are the least bit interested in setting your heart on, or trusting in, or longing for?

    I guess I tend to see creeds as inherently political as opposed to religious or spiritual in nature. To my mind, any religion that values or promotes freedom of conscience has no business incorporating a creed into its liturgy, even if it's only there for the purposes of honoring a tradition. The Reverend and I differ on this. (;

  2. Hmmm. Political, yes--talk about not wanting to see how the sausage was made!

    And the harder they/we try to hammer out the perfect words, the sooner we lose sight of just how ineffable what we're shooting for is. Inevitably we miss the mark.

    Jim Adams's advice has to do with deconstructing the thing--"What can this possibly be talking about, that has anything to do with me?"
    I think this could easily be taken too far, or parodied, to the point of 'raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens', but that doesn't mean it's not true.

    Probably the creed is in the liturgy to help people form a conscience, whether by tasting it and finding it good, or by wrestling with it. (This is to give the mass of people too much credit, perhaps, but that's me being a snob. Ignore it.) Disputing it is taking it seriously, and that's plenty to ask.