One Question Our Spirituality Must Answer

My Reflections on “Making Sense Out of Life: Secularism vs. Faith” with Ross Douthat

On April 2, The Chapel hosted an evening with Ross Douthat at our Montclair campus. Douthat, a Catholic, is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and a film critic for National Review. He covered many topics during his 40-minute lecture and 30-minute Q&A session, but for me there was one concept that stood out, and it’s really valuable. Here’s my quick summary…

Although our culture is becoming more secular, as evidenced by the rise of the “nones,” in reality the majority of Americans will continue to find pure secularism to be very unsatisfying. An increasing number of people will embrace a “spiritual but not religious” self-identity. And for many of them, the brand of spirituality that will seem most attractive is some variety of pantheism: the idea that God is not a personal being distinct from creation; rather, God is a divine energy who is in everything and everyone. This world view is appealing for many reasons, including the fact that it makes very few moral demands of us and is generally very inclusive. In other words, it seems to satisfy our heart’s longing for a higher power, without all the rules and judgmentalism of other religious systems.

But pantheism has an Achilles heel.  One of its core ideas is that there is a beautiful harmony to the universe, and that spiritual growth means recognizing the oneness and harmony of all things. But our experience tells a different story: although there is undoubtedly harmony and beauty all around us, it’s hard to deny that the world is broken. Our everyday experience is marked by pain, disappointment, sickness, environmental decay, terrorism, war…and the list goes on. When a person’s young spouse is suffering and close to death from chemotherapy treatments, telling them that suffering is an illusion, and that they should just meditate on the harmony of all things, seems naïve at best and possibly downright cruel.

And Douthat suggested that this is where the Christian world view has a distinct advantage over pantheism: it provides a more coherent, hopeful, satisfying answer to the brokenness of the world. As John Stott has written, “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” And Jesus was not immune: he entered our broken world to suffer with his creation, and then in the central event of Christianity, he went to the cross to suffer on behalf of his creation. The suffering of Jesus fully acknowledges the evil present in our world (and in ourselves), while offering us hope that the world’s (and our) brokenness will be redeemed through Christ. Just as Jesus’ death was followed by resurrection, we have reason to believe that all death will ultimately be overcome by life. So, while faith in Christ does not remove nor fully explain life’s suffering, it offers rich resources to help navigate it.

I’m grateful for this nugget from Ross Douthat. He reminded me that whatever spirituality one embraces, it must somehow answer the question of life’s brokenness…and he reminded me that Jesus answers that question in a uniquely satisfying way.

Another Mass Shooting: What Can We Do?

Maybe the most effective response is deeper than changing laws.


Americans seem to be reaching a critical point in our response to mass shootings. In the wake of the most recent tragedy—10 dead and 9 wounded at a community college in Oregon yesterday—President Obama rightly said that “our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” The outcry has reached a crescendo: “Let’s put the heat on our lawmakers, and finally institute the kinds of policies that will put an end to the madness.” Isn’t it obvious?

Well, sort of. If you listen to the debates, there are two main changes being proposed: stricter gun laws, and better mental health policies (or some combination of the two). No doubt, our country could use a sane, research-based, bipartisan discussion on both those issues. And if we improved our policies in both areas, it is possible we’d see fewer mass shootings. But I don’t think that gets at the heart of the problem.

Here is what I’ve noticed: almost every perpetrator of a mass shooting is described as a loner. Antisocial…disconnected…friendless. Yes, there is often a mental health issue involved as well. But at a very simple level, people who commit these crimes are profoundly lonely.

And that tells me that maybe the most powerful remedy to this mess is not anything politicians or lawmakers can do; it’s something regular people like us can do: we need to start relating to the disconnected people in our world the way Jesus did.

When you read the Gospels you see it over and over again. A woman whose notorious promiscuity excluded her from the social fabric of her village: Jesus met her by the community well, where she was all alone, and befriended her. A Jewish man who was despised because of his traitorous career as a Roman tax collector: Jesus requested the intimate fellowship of sharing a meal in his home. A woman whose chronic physical illness made her untouchable to her neighbors: Jesus gave her his time, touch, and attention. And Jesus’ habit of getting friendly with outcasts seems to have rubbed off on his brother James, whose letter directly challenges church leaders to stop showing favoritism and treat those on the fringes of society with respect.  

What if we focused less on changing laws, and more on loving people?

Here’s one reason we don’t: in many cases, there’s a reason people avoid loners. They can be socially awkward, emotionally draining, and sometimes downright mean. It’s much more convenient to simply avoid them, and spend our time with more healthy people. It’s what most of us do. But Jesus was gripped by the conviction that every single person has profound dignity and value, and breaking through to the more difficult cases is worth the effort. Isn’t it time we tried his approach?

This week, I’m asking God to open my eyes to lonely people—people who, if left isolated, could one day be driven by their loneliness to commit desperate acts of violence. I’m praying for the Christ-like character to notice them, care about them, engage them in conversation, and look for ways to include them in my life. I’m praying that my church community will increasingly reflect Jesus in this way, and will be known as a place that includes people who are painfully accustomed to being excluded by the world.

Is it possible that mass shootings could be eliminated through something as simple as friendship? This morning, haunted by images of a devastated Oregon community, I’m thinking it’s worth a try.