A Minister’s Search for Faith in a Skeptical Age
by Robin R. Meyers
I initially read this book because I thought Meyers was going to relate religion to quantum physics so I wanted to highlight inevitable errors non-scientists commit when discussing science. However, this didn’t happen, and the book surprised me with its insights.
Meyers’ ponders, I have wondered if the decline of organized religion has less to do with secular humanism and more to do with the suffocating way in which people of faith speak about that which they do not know.
Organized religion is on the decline, and writers have offered multiple reasons for this. Dave Adamson thinks people feel too restricted[i], while Thom Rainer says the church should monitor attendance for each member and make them attend membership classes[ii].
Rainer also incorrectly thinks the problem isn’t fewer Christians, but fewer Christians attending church. He’s wrong. There are fewer people identifying as Christians[iii]; therefore his “solution” does not address the issue.
Meyers’ solution was initially unclear. There were sentences like, Christians need new ways to be in relationship to the sacred and one another; to move from a theology of obedience to a theology of consequence.
Later, I understood (I think). He is calling for people of faith to see their actions as a means to care for others rather than using actions to please a distant God. He argues churches put too much emphasis on what to believe with lesser emphasis on what to do[iv].
Meyers’ says that in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount there is not a single word about what to believe, but only words about what to do and how to be. Three centuries later when the Nicene Creed is written to codify Christianity there is not a single word about what to do and how to be—only words about what to believe.
Meyers’ says Christians need to see themselves and their deeds as connected to everything else. The current view that religion and behaviour are seen as separate[v] is because humans model institutions on the prevailing physics of the day[vi]. Physics was based on the atom. The individual becomes the atom. Nations, communities, churches, families all reducible to the individuals who make them up. If someone steals food to feed their child it is the individual who is punished without ever looking at the broken society that forced the parent to steal.
This model creates an illusion of separation that works to shield us all from our collective responsibility. We can claim “I am not one of the broken parts so I don’t bear responsibility about the failure of the machine”. In this way evil is just an individual phenomenon, not a collective phenomenon.
The idea of evil as just an individual phenomenon, says Meyers, is a source of the deep sickness of our time. He brings in his quantum physics analogy. In quantum physics everything is connected, sometimes in ways that aren’t fully understood or in ways that seem contradictory.
Therefore, let’s rid ourselves of the old worldview based on the physics of the atom, and view our society, our churches, our political systems through the lens of quantum physics where everything is connected to everything else.
If science points us towards an undivided physical universe, then why can’t religion point us toward an undivided ethical universe in which no action, no matter how small, is inconsequential?
Don’t pray to God to pull strings for you, but consider that maybe God is the string. Each small good act done vibrates the strings, and maybe the whole universe shivers. Maybe justice happens.
The prophets spoke against injustice many times such as during the reign of Jeroboam II, 8th century BC, when the gap between rich and poor continued to grow. In the Old Testament Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah said if justice is not practiced then God doesn’t want prayers and sacrifices[vii].
Centuries later, Jesus had the same message: participation in empty ritual without personal and societal transformation is a mockery of prayer; to express a good thought (“thoughts and prayers”) is not the same as to have done a good deed.
In today’s church, Meyers says, the people preach, pray, pray more, pray without ceasing, sing, and baptize; justice work is optional “if you are into that sort of thing”.
God often speaks of rejecting prayer in the absence of justice, God never speaks of rejecting justice in the absence of prayer. In the absence of justice, prayer is offensive.
So completely has the church replaced the ethics of Jesus with doctrines about Jesus that if you ask someone on the street today what it means to be a Christian, she or he will probably begin by listing a set of beliefs. Seldom does anyone begin by saying, “It is a radical and dangerous way of being in the world, and a threat to the empire.”
Meyers’ continues, if organized religion is to survive, and not destroy us, then we will have to recognize that God does not do anything. But that without God, who connects all things to all things, nothing gets done.
The idea that faith can be personally redemptive without being socially responsible may be the most destructive theological myth in the church (Meyers). Redemption is easy. Righting social wrongs is hard especially if you’ve benefited from those inequalities.
As parts of the book are unclear it is worthwhile making notes. I only began to understand more of his message as I reviewed my notes to write this post.
Christians who read this book will likely fall into two camps: the “preach it, brother” side, and those who will find reasons to dismiss his uncomfortable words (“he’s not a real Christian, you know”).
Personally, I want to avoid organized religion. It’s refreshing to see a minister recognize the problems with it, and calls for Christianity to become a radical way of being that looks out for everyone, especially the orphans, the widows, the homeless, the hungry, and the strangers in a strange land.
[iv] The church often emphasizes salvation by grace rather than by works, and de-emphasizes James 2:14-26 that talks about faith without deeds being useless. Martin Luther called James “the epistle of straw”, sought to remove it from the New Testament, and did not hold it to be of apostolic authorship as it clashed with his “faith without works” viewpoint.
[v] My experience is that most Christians do not view religion and behaviour as separate, but perhaps I misunderstood Meyers’ context. Or perhaps Canadian Christianity is more oriented towards social responsibility than the US politicized version.
[vi] It seems to be more of an “Art imitates life, life imitate art” type of relationship. If we model our institutions upon physics, we also model our science on the prevailing culture and institutions of the day. E.g., the workings of a cell were often described in mechanical terms, as if with cogs and gears, which reflected the leap forwards in industrial mechanization in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had similar views; all you needed were the parts and the add “vitalism”, which in the book was sparked via electricity.
[vii] Old Testament verses showing how God felt about rituals, prayers, songs, and sacrifices when justice was not practiced.
Amos 5:21-24 : I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Isaiah 1:16-17: Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”
Micah 6:6-8: With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?…He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Jeremiah 7:5-7: If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.