I periodically listen to the popular podcast This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass. It’s hit and miss, for me, like most podcasts, but very often it will at least leave me with a lingering thought, an itch or two worth scratching. In this week’s episode, “The Weight of Words,” it was the prologue that provided the aforementioned itch.
Glass was introducing the theme, talking about the words we use, whether they mean what we think they do, or even what we want them to. He talked about his recent trip to the synagogue of his childhood to honour the anniversary of his mother’s death. He hadn’t been for years, he said, and was struck by how, despite all the changes he had experienced since childhood, the words of the prayers that were recited daily in synagogue never change. He spoke about how even though he no longer believes in the God to whom these prayers addressed, even though he didn’t believe in the central reality behind the words, they remained a strange source of comfort for him. They connected him to a tradition and history—familial, cultural, moral—that was important to him. Even though he found the language of praise to God foreign and probably even a little unsettling in a literal sense, he was able to transpose them into a different register where they became an affirmation of shared human values and aspirations, a strengthening of relational bonds, an identification with a tradition that had solidity and strength.
As I listened, it seemed to me that even though Ira Glass finds actual faith in God untenable or intolerable or whatever, he’s glad that other people have it. He’s glad that there exist more credulous people out there to populate and preserve the institutions and traditions of the faith he was raised in so that he can pop in every few years to experience a bit of connection to his childhood and to have a stable communal framework from within to metaphorically locate and interpret his own individual experience. There was no denigration of people who actually believe this stuff, in Glass’s telling. There was the occasional hint of condescension, but nothing out of the ordinary. He seemed genuinely pleased that there existed people and institutions for whom all of this “God” talk was important, believable, and, well, true.
I notice similar sentiments often in my own life and work. My daughter is working at a camp this summer but is home now while the camp has a one-week mid-summer hiatus. She brought a new friend from Europe with her. Her friend has no real church experience to speak of other than the occasional christening. But she came to church with us on Sunday and seemed to very much enjoy the experience, as she appreciates the prayers we offer before meals, etc. I imagine she views Christian faith as something of a curious relic from the past, one that is to be selectively appreciated and accessed for its occasional inspiring ethic, aesthetic, or ideal. Again, it seems like even though faith in God is not a reality for her personally, she’s very glad that it is for others.
And like many pastors, of course, I’m well-acquainted with the occasional attender who drops in a few times a year for some combination of community, curiosity, and duty but has their doubts about the whole package. Or the children and grandchildren of older generations who show up periodically (usually around Christmas and Easter). These people are usually generous in conversation, expressing appreciation for the prayers, the liturgy or even the sermon, speaking of their gratitude for the warmth of the welcome and the kindness of the community. Occasionally, there will be a wistful expression of longing for “something like this”—a recognition of its value, perhaps, or a fading half-memory of a time when they were part of it. But they can’t believe it anymore, or their priorities have shifted, or they don’t have the time, or they worship God in their own way, or they’re “spiritual but not religious” (groan). But yet again, they’re very glad that such communities exist. They’re very glad that pastors and a faithful remnant of “religious” people still shuffle off to church on Sunday mornings to keep the traditions, rituals, and language of faith alive for everyone else.
I do not, as it happens, feel personally slighted or offended by this idea (usually implicit, rarely stated outright) that “It’s a good thing some of you keep this alive for the rest of us to access at our convenience and according to our own preferences.” I don’t agree with it, obviously, but I’ve sort of come to a kind of grudging peace that at least part of what it means to be a pastor in the twenty-first century post-Christian West is to be a kind of placeholder, to have faith on behalf of those for whom faith is difficult or impossible right now, to tend the embers of a fire that is, if not dying, then at least not burning as brightly as it once did. This is part of the job description in this time and place. At least so it seems to me.
The question I have, though, is simple to state but profound in its implications: How long? How long will people like Ira Glass or my daughter’s friend or the innumerable post-everything citizens dotting the Western landscape be able to poke their noses into houses of worship and find a bit of inspiration or connection to tradition, family, and ritual, to rely on this solid reality to at least temporarily orient their experience? How long will the vocabulary of faith, prayer, and liturgy be around to tweak the memory or provoke the occasional question? How long will a God beyond one of our own preference and choosing be spoken of in stable communities with long histories and deep convictions?
My sense is that we are presently are in a cultural window where it is still possible to parasitically live off the ethics and assumptions bequeathed to us by the broad Judeo-Christian tradition and the faith communities that it has given birth to. And this will probably last for a little while longer. But it won’t last forever. Many religious communities are aging and dwindling. Resources are growing thin. The generations coming up simply are not interested in preserving or contributing to communities in the same way. This is a well-rehearsed narrative by now. I don’t know when, specifically, but I worry that even in my children’s lifetime, the primacy of the self and its myriad projects and constructions will fully and finally displace the institutional church. For better or, more likely I fear, for worse.
I worry, in other words, that there will come a time when the luxury of occasionally dropping in on a religious service and being glad that people still believe this stuff and keep the language of God alive for us to selectively access, to metaphorically ground our ethics, and to culturally locate our identities, or even to (sometimes very appropriately) react against will no longer exist. That sort of reality has a limited shelf life. The church can’t be a placeholder for a faith that people have a sort of ambivalent appreciation or nostalgic affection for forever. Eventually, there will be nothing left to drop in on.