Finding the way to fill spiritual interest

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sigmund Freud, perhaps the most memorable name in history when it comes to analyzing the human mind, was an atheist. And apparently a frustrated one.

In a book written late in his life, Freud wrote the following: "The whole thing [religion] is so patently infantile, so incongruous with reality, that ... it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life."

Some readers of this column will recall the "God is dead" movement of the 1960s, which brings to mind a story that is almost certainly apocryphal. Apocryphal or actual, it is too juicy to resist retelling. A man begins his descent during morning rush hour from the street to a subway platform somewhere in New York City. As he begins to walk down the steps, he glances up at a billboard strategically placed to catch the eye of underground commuters. The sign reads: "God is dead. -- Nietzsche." The man processed the message and went on his way. That afternoon on his way home, the man gets off at the same subway stop and climbs the same steps to the street. As he turns toward his home, he glances up at the same billboard he saw on his way to work. Someone had taken spray paint and changed the message. The sign now read: "Nietzsche is dead. -- God."

Reports of the death of religion over the years have been greatly exaggerated. Peter Berger once forecast the fading away of religion in a 1967 book, predicting that a scientific, secular worldview would in short order begin replacing religious worldviews of every variety. More than 30 years later, Berger recanted this prophecy. In a 1999 book titled "Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics," Berger ate a little crow: "the assumption that we live in a secularized world is false. The world today ... is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled 'secularization theory' is essentially mistaken."

St. Augustine of Hippo memorably wrote poignantly that the hearts of men and women are restless until they rest in God. Some have paraphrased those words to say that there is a vacuum in every human heart that only God can fill.

In 2009 the U.S. Army implemented a spiritual fitness exam after determining that soldiers serving in forward areas who display religious or spiritual inclinations tend to be more "resilient" than those who do not show such interest. The exam, which the Army claims has no effect on performance reviews or promotions, is intended to encourage service members to consider reading devotional literature, to engage in prayer and meditation, and to attend religious services. (A lawsuit aimed at stopping this exam was expected to have been filed last week, by the way.)

The fact that people -- in the main -- are interested in the spiritual world, in a divine-human connection, is hard to deny. But the organized church too often is not seen as the vehicle for fulfilling that interest. Books on religion and spirituality continue to be a growth area for publishers and more and more people buy and listen to Christian contemporary music. Bibles are reliable bestsellers year after year. But church attendance overall in the United States continues a steady decline.

My late stepgrandfather used to say that if the fish aren't biting, it's not their fault. We're just not presenting the bait to them correctly. Since most of Jesus' first disciples fished for a living, maybe this is a metaphor the organized church ought to be taking seriously.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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