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Suppose all the faith communities just disappeared

A few weeks ago in this post, I introduced you to a new book by Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith America. I did that even though I hadn't yet read We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy.

Religions-of-the-worldNow I have read it. But instead of telling you all the reasons you should read it (you should), I want to focus on an excellent point he makes in just one of the chapters, which is this: If all the houses of worship in the U.S. vanished tomorrow, our society would look much different and also much, much worse.

It's a point I have made before here and in other venues, but at a time when there's been a diminishment of religion in our culture in recent decades, it's easy to forget all that religious institutions have contributed to our society.

Patel writes that if all religious communities in your town disappeared, "the social consequences would be at least as devastating as the spiritual ones. Where would the local Alcoholics Anonymous group meet? Who would organize volunteers to go visit the senior center? What would happen to all the families who rely on the food served in the soup kitchens?"

But it gets worse.

Think of all the hospitals that faith communities have started. Just in Kansas City, Episcopalians, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Catholics, Jews and others have been contributors in this field. And where would the thousands of kids who attend area YouthFront (a Christian organization) camps go to summer camp if that agency didn't exist?

What about the colleges with religious roots? Some of those colleges remain ministries of one or another religious tradition, including Rockhurst and Avila universities and Donnelly College (all Catholic) and MidAmerica Nazarene University. And I haven't even mentioned the several seminaries in our area.

Add in charitable organizations (maybe start with Catholic Charities and the Jewish Community Foundation) and you start to see what trouble our community would be in without the religious heart for giving to sustain the needy. (Yes, we should debate whether the need for so much charity indicates that we have systemic failures in our economic system. We do. But even if faith-based groups responded only to emergency needs, they would be busy.)

Patel quotes Robert Putnam from his book Bowling Alone this way: "(Religious communities) provide an important incubator for civil skills, civic norms, community interests and civic recruitment. Religiously active men and women learn to give speeches, run meetings, manage disagreements and bear administrative responsibility."

Patel doesn't ignore the religious decline in the U.S.

"(A)s the numbers of people involved in those religious communities decline," he writes, "so does the strength of faith-based agencies. There are fewer volunteers, less money, lower morale."

The question, of course, is how faith communities adapt to new, more secular times. And what the whole of society might lose if religious congregations and organizations die off.

One of the primary lessons of the world's great religions is that God's love and grace are free. But to maintain an organization that can deliver that good news is not free. And when faith communities shut down, the whole society loses something. In a time when we Americans are badly divided over so much, we'd do well to appreciate -- and, where appropriate, support -- faith communities, which are woven deeply into our social fabric.

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One recent day my wife and I took our two youngest grandchildren to the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, just a block or two from where we live in Kansas City. The current exhibit theme is "America’s Monsters, Superheroes and Villains: Our Culture at Play." Notice the "at play" aspect of that. Americans tend to tame their monsters. But it turns out that monsters also play a fairly prominent role in the Bible, as this article from The Conversation points out. They may not be quite everywhere in scripture, but it's kind of hard to miss them. As Madadh Richey, assistant professor of Hebrew Bible at Brandeis University, notes, "The Bible is full of monsters, even if they’re not Frankenstein or Bigfoot, and these characters can teach important lessons about ancient authors, texts and cultures. Monsterlike characters – even human ones – can convey ideas about what’s considered normal and good or 'deviant,' disturbing and evil." Perhaps this is one more reason to understand that the Bible makes the most sense when it's not read as literal history or science. Its purpose, instead, is to explore the questions of who God is and who we are in relation to God. To do that, in addition to some actual history, it uses myth, metaphor, allegory and the occasional monster.

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P.S.: You get a bonus today: This lovely piece from the Jewish Telegraph Agency about one beautiful way to think about the astonishing photos you're seeing from the Webb telescope. A sample: "We are the universe coming to know itself. We are the eyes of God peering out into endless darkness, lighting fires of imagination and ingenuity that allow us to reach into our bodies to make them well, and to travel to the great orbs in the sky, and to look deep into the past, with a golden vessel like the altar of incense overlaid in gold, burning through time and thick with the fragrance of memory, hiding its illuminations somewhere beneath the smoke."


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