Irma and the Foxhole Theory Print
Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
October 2017

Musing on the state of faith

RPix_JohnIse_10-17emember the old saying about etiquette at cocktail parties -- never talk about politics or religion? The late great Charles Schultz, creator of “Peanuts,” said there were actually three things he learned not to discuss with people: religion, politics…and the Great Pumpkin.

I’ve written much on the local political scene, but never on religion or the Great Pumpkin, until now. Don’t worry, no proselytizing here. But as I write this, Hurricane Irma is churning away in the Caribbean as a Category 5, Texas-size monster of destruction, and we’re in its path, so my mind wanders to questions of mortality and meaning.

I guess I could say a kind of “no atheists in foxholes” sentiment washes over me, which gets me to thinking.

Surveying the spiritual lay of the land in the greater Miami Shores area, one is struck with the plethora of churches. The tri-village area of four square miles is, shall we say it, blessed with no fewer than eight houses of worship, each of which seems to have found its unique niche and developed its own character.

To get an idea of the numbers, stand on the corner of NE 103rd Street and NE 2nd Avenue, and you’ll see three churches within a baseball throw of one another.

St. John’s Lutheran, the Universal Church, and a block south, the Miami Christians Fellowship Church, which bills itself as an Ethiopian and Eritrean evangelical church. South, there’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall and, in Biscayne Park, the Harvest Miami Chapel. Just north of downtown Miami, Temple Israel, founded in 1922, serves much of our Jewish population.

The largest congregations are undoubtedly Miami Shores Presbyterian and St. Rose of Lima Catholic. St. Rose serves much of our Catholics, with an abundance of programming and a K-8 school. Having weathered a divisive internal controversy last year regarding the behavior of the previous priest, the St. Rose congregation seems healed and relatively healthy. For the nonmember, St. Rose is primarily known for the grandest annual fall carnival in the area -- I once got physically sick in a trash can after riding the “Cyclone.”

Miami Shores Presbyterian, founded in 1937, has a large membership, a popular elementary school, and a looming steeple (that also doubles as a cell phone towner). And while St. Rose has its carnival, Miami Shores Presbyterian hosts an annual Halloween pumpkin fundraiser for the school. The pumpkins come in all shapes and sizes, some small, some great (I knew I could work in a Great Pumpkin reference).

A quick jaunt a few blocks west, and one comes across Miami Shores Baptist Church and Miami Shores Community Church, both of which have historical roots to the earliest years of the village back in the 1940s. Miami Shores Community Church (disclosure: I’m a member) bills itself as a church for the progressively minded. Socially and politically engaged, the church prides itself on adopting an “open and affirming” commitment to inclusiveness, regardless of race, color, age, ability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It’s the only church I know that hosts a children’s choir fundraiser with a professional drag queen performance.

With all these congregations and religious institutions, one might assume the state of faith in the area is robust and expanding. But according to the American Community Survey, 60 percent of respondents in Miami-Dade answered “none.”

A hard, honest look at religious belief in the modern era is the story of the belief in “none of the above.” In fact, the percentage of adults who describe themselves as religious has dropped by nearly a percentage point every year for the past decade, according the Pew Research Center.

The drop in religious adherence is particularly stark among millennials, which may be result of being young, footloose, and far from the experience of ill health and mortality for which religion serves as a balm. Couple that with a rise in individualism and the broader culture wars in which many religious institutions have become immersed (think the gay marriage debate). The unfortunate truth is rather than being a force for unity, too much of modern religion has been used to drive political wedges in our society, and many independently minded have opted out.

Another modern challenge for faith institutions is how faith and/or religious beliefs can sync and coexist with science. Is there an intellectual path between faith and reason/rationality/science in the modern world?

Yet consider that even as increasing numbers declare themselves without religious belief, the individual quest for spiritual meaning remains strong.

I posted these two questions to several local clergy, and received an immediate response from the Community Church’s Rev. Meg Watson: “We take the Bible seriously, but not literally. Our faith is 2000 years old, but our thinking is not.”

As for the spiritual yet nonreligious question, Rabbi Thomas Heyn of Temple Israel stated that the root cause seems to be “…because most religious institutions are not evolving fast enough to keep up with the way young people think and live. Reform Judaism…adapted to societal changes and yet stayed connected to its core Jewish values.”

As someone put it to me: You can’t think people should check their brain at the church door.

Robert Wright’s 2009 book The Evolution of God, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, seeks to thread the science-religion needle with the analogy of a tiny electron. You remember from middle school that the negatively charged electron particle circles the positively charged proton. That has been proved wrong!

Modern quantum physics has discovered that invisible electrons behave in ways not fully understood and are waves of both energy and particles -- in other words, something physicists can sense but not actually see. There’s even a minority of quantum physicists who question the very existence of electrons. But the idea of electrons real or imagined helps science understand the broader truth of quantum physics and allows for broader practical applications.

Psychologist William James once wrote that religion “consists of the belief there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” It seems that James’s notion here could work for the religious, the non-religious, and everyone in between.

So perhaps what really matters is not so much the literal truth of religious or spiritual beliefs and deeds, but rather the broader truth that makes you a better person. Whether it’s your faith or meditation practice or communing with nature or yoga practice or just marveling at the awesomeness of a solar eclipse -- all these things, irrespective of literal truth, can mold you into a person more connected and in sync with the rhythms of life.


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