By Donald Schell
Until yesterday morning, those billboard and bus signs had only annoyed me. I hated their cartoonish stained glass background and the smug large letters of the message. Of course, I also heard John Lennon’s line, ‘…and no religion too.’ Why’d Lennon have to add that? Then truthfully, somewhere in the back of my mind, I also thought, “Sorry, John, religion’s my work. You did your job; I’ll do mine,” but I hated that. I do not welcome my inner priest voice defending the religion business.
After seeing it so many times, this time I dropped my protest and simply read the “Freedom From Religion” ad as an invitation and got to work imagining.
Okay. ‘Imagine no religion.’ So, no Shakespeare. Ouch.
Biking through the traffic, I thought of Karl Barth and Rene Girard. Both argue that what we practice is no religion at all because Jesus refuses to tell us how to get our way with God and won’t bind us into stultifying groupthink. Good thoughts, but I was co-opting the billboard message. The red light stopped me, and I told myself no fancy dodges, no letting myself off the hook with religionless Christianity. What would be good riddance if we had no religion? I pedaled on.
No Spanish Inquisition.
No witch trials in Europe or Salem.
No Catholic-Protestant struggle in Northern Ireland.
No Serbia-Croatian War.
No Buddhists and Hindus fighting in Sri Lanka.
No 9/11? (but what warped Islam to get those guys flying the planes into the Twin Towers?)
The bus caught up with me at the next light. As I waited by the sign, I considered faces looking out the window above it. “Imagine No Religion.” Their minds were elsewhere. The light changed to green and pressed on.
No Religious Right.
No religious scorn for my gay friends.
No Aztec human sacrifice on the Pyramid of the Sun…but the sacrifices were done. So, just no Pyramid of the Sun. I remembered climbing it when I was fifteen.
I was pedaling uphill now.
No Genesis story of Ham to justify slavery.
Pushing my speed up on the hill, I thought again of Shakespeare. The imagining cuts both ways. What would we miss without religion? Immediately I noticed how personal this list was. What would make my world smaller without religion? The list is more idiosyncratic. What’s your list? Comments welcome! Here’s mine from the bike ride -
No Hagia Sophia in Istanbul,
No Bach Cantatas or Mozart’s Requiem,
No Peace Prize for Desmond Tutu, and no Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
No St. Francis,
No Teresa of Avila outwitting the Inquisition while she taught us how to be friends with God in holy community,
No Franciscan Third Order giving serfs religious basis to refuse their overlord’s call to war against neighboring dukedoms.
No Hospitals? At least we know Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims founded the first ones to care for the sick and indigent poor.
And Shakespeare? So am I certain Will Shakespeare was a Christian and that his glorious work speaks faith? I sense our faith in his plays, but some people don’t. But there’s no question that the Bishops’ Bible and Coverdale Psalter sparked his language.
No end to slavery? Ah, tricky one. Yes, religious justifications helped sustain slavery, but it was virtually universal in human history until priest and then bishop Bartolome de Las Casas made his heroic effort to outlaw it in Spain’s New World colonies. Like many good stories of religion, this one began in a muddle. Las Casas came to Cuba as young nobleman where, as a slaveholding landowner he surprised himself and his friends by becoming a priest, and when his prayers made him see the plight of his Indio sisters and brothers, he freed his own slaves and crossed the Atlantic almost a dozen times to convince King Philip II to do what no other monarch had ever done, outlaw slavery.
And our abolitionists? Two hundred years after Las Casas, Anglican Deacon Thomas Clarkson wouldn’t stop pushing, teasing, cajoling, demanding the church’s and Parliament’s repentance for the English slave trade. Clarkson plagued William Wilberforce when he gave up the fight. He berated John Newton and the Archbishop of Canterbury for the profits they made on the trade. He more or less invented community organizing, and in forty years got England to outlaw first the trade and then slavery itself. But bitter with the church’s long resistance he more or less became a Quaker.
I reached home out of breath from riding up the hill and parked my bike in the garage.
“Imagine no religion.”
No mystical poets. No Juan de la Cruz, no Emily Dickinson, no T.S. Eliot, no Mary Oliver, no Ephrem the Syrian, no Hildegard von Bingen.
Through the day I kept coming back to the billboard’s request.
Late morning I recalled 20th Century violence done in the name of Non-Religion. I decided a low death score in a Religion vs. No Religion doesn’t win any contest. Evenhanded remembering only gets to this – we’ve all got blood on our hands.
Just how do we imagine the dark side of this?
Dostoyevsky did it clipping news stories of the worst and cruelest things people did to other people. Believing Christ was drawing the whole world into God’s embrace, he felt the song of praise ready to spring even from humanity’s worst, but could he trust that without acknowledging
Readers – what would break your heart if we had no religion?
After lunch I remembered my widowed parishioner in Idaho who always brought a roast to our midweek Eucharist and potluck, saving up from her social security check to share something delicious with her friends. Communion.
Communion again holding the hand of the comatose, dying unbeliever, the father of two young children. “Even in coma, people hear,” I’d thought, so, speaking slowly with a confidence that came from something beyond me, I said he could continue loving his wife and daughters, but it was time to let go, and the next moment he took one long, last breath and died.
By the end of the day this priest was thanking the Freedom From Religion Foundation. FFRF’s invitation to imagine “no religion” puts us right back to the mystery of why we choose faith. Mixed bag? Amen! Religion has inspired the very best and much of the worst of who we.
In the end I remembered sweet moments of falling in love with Jesus again.
Keep our eyes open Lord Jesus. Make us truthful and humble. Show us how to repent of what we’ve done in your Name and make us grateful for what you do in, for and with us and for all humanity.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.