During my years of doing college ministry at the University of Kentucky, I regularly received questions from college students about the people shouting at them in the “free speech zone” formerly located between Limestone Street and Alumni Gymnasium. At various times during the academic year, “preachers” would occupy this area and shout at students about sin and the coming judgment of God.
While I certainly believe in sin and the coming judgment of God, it always seemed to me like these “preachers” missed the main point of preaching. Yes, judgment is coming because of sin, but Jesus took the judgment we deserve upon himself on the cross and our merciful God stands ready to receive any who will repent and turn to him by faith. The Christian message majors on grace and mercy.
I was surprised several weeks ago when a different “preacher” showed up at the Little League ballpark where my kids play baseball. Just like the ones at the university, her message was one of sin and judgment, and she didn’t seem too interested in grace. She wasn’t condemning people over immodest clothing, weekend partying, or premarital sex. Her anger was directed at something she considered far worse: people at the ballpark were not wearing masks.
My purpose here is not to further the debate over mask-wearing. Instead, I want to draw attention to a deeper phenomenon that is showing up in many places: Traditional beliefs about God may be declining in America, but Americans are more religious than ever.
“Religion” is notoriously hard to define, but let’s go with this from Merriam-Webster online: “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held with ardor and faith.” Assuming this definition, it’s hard to deny the religiosity of even some of the most secular members of the general public.
Several years ago, the conservative intellectual Charles Murray made national headlines at a scheduled speaking engagement at Middlebury College in Vermont. Because Murray was expounding ideas that challenged the prevailing views of the student body, his talk was interrupted by a mob of protestors who would not allow him to speak. Upon attempting to leave campus, the mob followed him to his car and even physically attacked his faculty host.
This new secular religion has no tolerance for contrary opinions. As Andrew Sullivan wrote at the time, “If you happen to see the world in a different way…you are not just wrong, you are immoral.”
Religious devotion is everywhere. It motivated that lady to drive to the ballpark to shout angrily at families trying to play baseball just as much as it did the sidewalk preachers at the University of Kentucky. It’s what motivates ESPN to turn every athlete who chooses not to kneel during the National Anthem into a headline news story. It drives the social media activity of millions of adherents on both the left and the right who unthinkingly share the memes and headlines that justify the righteousness of their respective causes.
As traditional religion declines, all of that religious energy has to go somewhere. Some cause must take the place of the God we were created to worship. Privately, it drives the individual to achieve an identity that others will affirm and celebrate. Everyone scrambles to be successful enough, happy enough, thin enough, wealthy enough. We post our pics online and wait for the satisfaction of the cyber-affirmative “thumbs up” and “hearts.” We edit our lives to make them appear better than they really are.
But now there’s new social pressure. As if meeting the standards of cultural righteousness wasn’t hard enough, now you have to prove that you are “woke” enough on the left or “tough” enough on the right. Some rush to prove that they line up with the progressive orthodox on public safety, mask wearing, and social justice. Others strive to show that they’re “Trumpist” enough about immigration, law and order, and personal freedom.
But there’s something missing from these secular religions. There’s no God. And because there’s no God, there’s no salvation, no hope. When we remove God from religion, all we’re left with is a sad grasping for whatever can be salvaged from this momentary life. All that’s left is the futile attempt to hold on as long as we can.
As Saint Augustine said many centuries ago, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” Religion without God is exhausting because religion without God depends wholly on your own ability to prove yourself, save yourself, and provide happiness for yourself.
What if I told you there was a better way? What if I told you God intends to save you and you don’t have to prove anything because Christ is the “enough” that you’ve been seeking all along? All you need is him. And he invites all who are weary and heavy laden to come and find rest (Matt 11:28).