When I was gathering data for my dissertation on St. Peter’s Church in Chicago back in 1969, an elderly woman was robbed at 5:30 in the morning as she was entering the church. The most precious thing whose loss she mourned was her prayer book.
That reminded me of other prayer books I have seen: my mother’s, dog-eared and stuffed with prayer cards. Millions of people used those little books.
Prayer books are artifacts of folk religion, tools used by millions of people who exist beyond the world of graduate research and billion dollar foundations. What are all these people doing?
They are enjoying an everyday spiritual experience not unlike the experience that musicians or artists enjoy. On some days the enjoyment is calm, everyday, reassuring. On other days it is zestful, in touch with the gods.
The gods. We Christians speak of one God. One triune God. Father, Son, Spirit. Are we any more right than a Muslim who speaks of Allah, who is One? I cannot prove we are. I believe it. I accept the Father, Son, and Spirit on faith. That faith is not unlike the faith I have in a person who I know loves me. I could be wrong about that love. But I know I am not.
Prayer-book worshipers are not interested in metaphysics or theology. They are using a simple tool to experience their God. Theirs is an everyday God, a God to be enjoyed before breakfast.
That does not mean that prayer-book worshipers are devoid of large group experiences of God. Billy Graham revivals and papal stadium Masses provide a different experience of God, just like rock concerts do for so many people. Rock concerts make lots of money, and money leads to power. Where religions go off the rails is when religious gatherings turn into political movements, the marshaling of religious enthusiasm in the service of economic and political power. This has been the bane of Catholicism since Constantine. These days it’s the bane of Evangelicals.
When rock concert religion deflates to prayer-book religion all is well. Let the politics to secular politicians.
These days secular politicians seem to be religiously tone-deaf. Some of them are like Sigmund Freud, seekers of truth who believe that they must reconcile themselves to a disenchanted world. They pity the prayer-book religionists and tell them to grow up. But more likely those secular politicians are just thoughtless, too busy with Facebook. The prayer-book religionists pity both groups and tell them they don’t know what they are missing.
Religion is like music and art. Beauty leads one to God, no matter where you find it. When you find beauty, you know what faith is all about. Ask Beethoven.
Each morning I open my Kindle to the psalms of the day. This morning it was Psalm 119: “Sharing God’s words brightens everything, and gives understanding to young people.” Yes, I say. That’s what God’s word does.
There is everyday religion, and there is rock concert religion, and everything in between. Some people make religion into the center of their lives. I am one of those people. I love the Muslim Imam. I know what he is doing. He is helping other people to experience God on an everyday level.
Scientists may not be consciously doing things like that, but I hope that they look for the divine in what they observe. Politicians may be religiously unmusical, but I hope that they can see the beauty in their efforts to lead people toward more full lives.
To learn is to change your mind. When Jesus said “Make disciples of all nations,” he was saying, “make learners of as many people as you can.” He also told the apostles to baptize those learners, but the learning should come first, and learning cannot be rushed. When we came to the Americas and baptized people by the thousands, we caused way too much destruction. We became conquerors and oppressors. Not good.
The road to salvation is narrow and there are few who find it. When Jesus used that metaphor, he was not doing statistical analysis. He was saying that at any given moment, there are more people not yet ready to learn than there are actual learners. That doesn’t mean that hell is filling up. He also said that it only takes a little yeast to leaven a huge amount of dough. That isn’t a statistical analysis either. Learning is a slow business, but it does occur, and eventually it occurs for the majority of us.
The chattering classes, and I count myself among them, project the death of religion. I doubt it. There may be big changes in how people do religion, but that is us humans floundering around as we always have. A loving Lord is patient. All will be well.