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Try a Little Selfishness

To the astonishment of precisely no one, the latest round of surveys from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life have painted a picture of an increasingly irreligious America. A full one-third of Americans under the age of thirty have no religious affiliation, apparently. And given that America is still more “religious” than most other parts of the Western world, I think we can safely assume that the situation would be even bleaker elsewhere.

What is at least mildly surprising is that when asked whether having “more people who are not religious” is a good thing, a bad thing, or doesn’t matter, a majority of people said it was bad. So, I suppose if one were to somewhat cynically summarize this latest round of findings, it might go something like this: “We don’t really have much use for religion ourselves, but gosh we sure wish more of the people we have to live with did.”

I’m never quite sure what to make of these surveys, to be honest. How do you measure something as fuzzy and hard to define as “religious?” Usually these surveys use some criteria like “attends a worship service 4-6 times a year.” Ok. I know people who come to church that many times a year out of pure guilt or obligation. Does that make them religious? Come to think of it, does parking one’s backside anywhere 4-6 times a year constitute enough evidence to make a weighty a pronouncement upon what kind of person they are? I’m not sure.

Nonetheless, the data do point to a trend that many of us notice—particularly those of us in the “religion” business. In hopelessly general terms, churches tend to be older and emptier than they once were. These trends are endlessly and tediously described, analyzed, and lamented on what seems like every third blog post/article/book I come across these days. The causes for this are equally well rehearsed. Postmodernity has rendered “metanarratives” implausible and unbelievable. Religion is oppressive, judgmental, restrictive, and [insert negative adjective]. People are increasingly individualistic, open-minded, consumeristic, globally conscious, selfish, enlightened and [insert appropriately effusive or condemnatory adjective here]. Whatever the causes and however it’s spun, the collective package spells bad news for religion.

These are all important trends to identify and at least attempt to understand. Probably. But for me, most of these trends all zero in on the far bigger (and more interesting, in my view) question about the nature of human hope and longing. We can tinker around the edges, but at the end of the day, the question that each of us is faced with is something like, “What is the nature and scope of the story I am/we are a part of on this planet?” For that matter, do we even believe there is a story to speak of? Or is it all just a collision of matter in motion with no discernible purpose to speak of. Or can we just not be bothered to care?

This morning on the way to work, a song by Nickelback came on the radio. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you will know that the appearance of Nickelback here usually means two things: 1) my son turns up the volume; and 2) his father subjects the experience to some painful theological analysis (see here, for the grisly evidence). Today’s musical treat was titled, gulp, “If Everyone Cared.” I’m not kidding. They really called a song that. Anyway, brace yourself for the lyrical profundity:

Nickelback-01-bigIf everyone cared and nobody cried
If everyone loved and nobody lied
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
Then we’d see the day when nobody died

Um, right. Well, thanks for that guys.

“So what do you think that song means,” I asked my son, attempting to keep a straight face with my assumption that “meaning” and “Nickelback song” could be forcibly wrenched into the same sentence without the equivalent of some kind of lexical explosion.

My son is wise enough to be exasperated before these interrogati…, I mean conversations begin by now, but he decided to humour me.

With a sigh, he said, “I don’t know, maybe they think that if everyone was perfect then we would all live longer?”

“Interesting,” I said. “And what do you think about that?”

“I dunno. It seems kinda selfish to me.”

Huh. Wasn’t expecting that.

As I thought about this conversation in connection with the irreligious landscape described by the researchers, I wondered if maybe we postmoderns need to be more, not less selfish. At least in a highly qualified way. Maybe we need to pay attention to the kind of things that our selfish selves long for—even when they are expressed as incoherently and, well, just plain old badly as in a Nickelback song.

Maybe we need to be selfish enough to consider a future for ourselves and our world that transcends what we can touch, smell, taste, and see right in front of us. Maybe we need to be selfish enough to think that loving, caring, and sharing could be part of a new world being ushered into existence—a world where nobody dies, where death itself is finally defeated. Maybe we need to be selfish enough to hope for a future in which the things we most long for are not only possible but promised by a good God who is guiding this narrative along, no matter how unlikely this might look at any given point in the story. Maybe we need to be selfish enough to believe that there is something good in it for us as we do our part in participating in the drama.

Who knows, maybe we even need to be selfish enough to park our backsides in a pew 4-6 times a year to look for clues about this story and what it might for us and for the world.

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