Yesterday, I spent some time reading Elizabeth Drescher’s Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. It is truly an excellent book.
This book is a result of research project in which Drescher traveled across the country and conducted in-depth interviews with people who are religiously unaffiliated. Often, when asked about their religious affiliation on surveys, a sizeable, growing portion of people in the United States choose the answer ‘None.’
This only represents a demographic bracket, of course. Those who choose this answer are not monolithic in their beliefs or practices. Drescher seeks to enter deeper conversations that hear religiously unaffiliated people on their own terms. This is why I like her work so much. Many of the studies out there define Nones — even through the word None itself! — by what they are not (religiously affiliated) rather than who and what they are. Drescher takes a completely different approach. A much better one, I believe.
Yesterday, while reading her chapter about ethics, I found this to be interesting:
Of the 100 people Drescher interviewed about ethics, 20 people independently brought up the parable of the Good Samaritan in their conversations. They shared that they admired this story and wanted to see people live this way.
It’s kind of stunning that this came up 20 different times. Some of this, undoubtedly, is connected to the fact that many Nones were raised in Christian congregations before they deaffiliated. But the content of the story itself resonates with a desire to see ethics practiced in a particular, relational way. One that is willing to love to the point of risk, even when — and perhaps especially when — presented with difference.
Drescher writes, “The appeal of Jesus to Nones has nothing to do with the institution developed by his followers, but rather with his willingness to walk across religious and other social boundaries, through the lives of ordinary people, attending to their suffering, healing their afflictions, welcoming them into conversation, and sharing stories of hope. For Nones, this stands in contrast to the doctrinal professions of faith of that have characterized the Christian tradition since the Reformation.” 1
Simply put, many Nones responded that they don’t often see these kinds of ethics practiced in Christian congregations:
“Few churches, it seemed to Nones, expressed their identities in prophetic, radically other-oriented registers, even to their own members. For many, Jesus is the cute, swaddled infant of Christmas pageants; the kindly Good Shepherd who leads us beside still waters; the regal risen Christ who triumphs over sin and death. But, he is not often a dude who would leave the comfort of a cozy church coffee hour with folks of his own social milieu to part with cloak and coin for the benefit of the dazed Iraq war vet with two pit bulls at the highway underpass down the road from church.” 2
Not all interviewees were directly critical, but they expressed a desire to see people stretch their ethics of care beyond their own circles:
“Still, even those who did not criticize or condemn churches and their members for failing to live up to the Good Samaritan ethic seemed to feel that institutional religions were not up to the challenge of offering genuinely self-sacrificing service to others. Lily Hampton, an Agnostic, argued,
‘The big church organizations— Habitat [for Humanity] or whatever— will do things like that. Or, maybe after a hurricane. But day to day, week to week, you don’t really see [church members] where you live being involved— out on the streets with homeless people or protesting injustice. I think most of them are just trying to hold on to the members they have, to make them happy and comfortable. They take care of their own, in my experience.'” 3
Even if Christian congregations practiced such ethics in ways that were more visible, Nones would not necessarily affiliate in traditional ways. There are other cultural factors that influence how Nones relate generally to affiliation.
But. . . may I share one more quote? I also ran across this one yesterday from Walter Bruggemann:
“The crisis in the U.S. Church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.” 4
I think many religiously unaffiliated people would love to see Christians live in greater alignment with Christian ethics. We Christians (I am one of them) fall short even when we do seek to practice them, but. . . have we allowed such ethics to be crowded out by other drives and forces?
This parable came up 20 times. Perhaps our ethics need conversation and confession.
1 Drescher, Elizabeth. Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Kindle Locations 4671-4672). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
2 Ibid. (Kindle Locations 4645-4649). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Ibid., (Kindle Locations 4629-4634). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 You can find the Walter Bruggemann quote here.