Much has been made of the "rise of the nones" — that is, the increasing percentage of Americans who identify with no religion. It is a fascinating and undeniable trend, and one that should catch the attention of religious leaders.
I know quite a few Nones. Few of them were raised in the absence of any faith tradition. Instead, most were part of a Christian denomination at some point, but consciously made the decision to leave. What interests me about their stories is this common thread: The majority left Christianity because of the attitudes of a person, and that person was not Jesus. It was an overbearing parent, or a judgmental minister, or a congregant who told them they did not belong because they were gay or they were questioning or they had conflicted ideas. In many cases, it was a combination of these types of influences.
Something is wrong when we drive so many people away. I think a big part of that something is arrogance.
This raises the question, then, of how to be a public Christian, even an evangelical Christian (which is how I identify myself), without running the risk of arrogance.
I don't embody the ideal I'm about to describe in answer to that question, but I know some people who do. These are the people who made me want to be a Christian. What I see in them are three key attributes: They are authentic, unashamed and honest.
By authentic, I mean a faith that truly reflects the narrative of the individual, one that is shaped by their own life. Because Jesus taught principles rather than one-size-fits-all rules (consider the two Great Commandments), his directives will ring true to each of us in a different pitch. It means something that Jesus didn't have a catchphrase. Instead, he spoke to everyone he encountered in their own context. It was not an accident that when he talked about "living water," he was addressing the Samaritan woman at the well.
By unashamed, I mean that Christians should talk openly and publicly about the way their faith influences their actions, even when this brings this into conflict with others. If we choose to do something or not do something because of our faith, we should say so. This is different than feeling the need to impose our beliefs on others; rather it means not changing ourselves to conform to the majority. For example, consider the important question of the Sabbath. A Christian should probably try to keep the Sabbath holy, since Jesus was so clear about this, and be unashamed to take those actions. However, we can do that without insisting that everyone else close down their businesses on Sunday.
By honest, I mean that we should not pretend that our faith or our life in faith is perfect, or makes us perfect, or is easy. We should be honest about our doubts, and about our own failures. Christianity is humbling, and we should be willing to be truthful about our problems and struggles. A Christian is not a perfected human, after all. I once heard someone say, "You can't be an alcoholic and a Christian," and I completely disagree. You absolutely can be a Christian struggling with that problem, just as we all struggle. To claim that Christians are different than others because they behave better is just not true, based on any honest evaluation. What makes us Christian is the struggle itself.
It might be that our first job in responding to the rise of the "Nones" is that we should stop creating so many of them through our own arrogance and our attempts to judge others (contrary to Christ's express instruction). People are drawn to those who are strong and humble; is there any more compelling combination of attributes? Perhaps it is now the time to be those things, as Christ was, rather than smug in the conviction that we are always correct, and always the best.
We are often wrong, and we often fail. Our victory is that we do so in the service of something greater than ourselves. Christ's flag may be one of victory, but ours is one of humility, and that may be as good as it gets.
Mark Osler is a Professor of Law at the University of St, Thomas Law School in Minnesota. A graduate of the College of William and Mary and Yale Law School, Prof. Osler is a former federal prosecutor whose work has consistently confronted the problem of inflexibility in sentencing and corrections.
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