People of religious faith carry a burden of belief around with them. In recent years, Americans have witnessed a rise in the maligning of Christians and dismissals of their faith and practices. I have come to believe this burden isn’t constrained to time or shifts of culture.
Some argue that the past few decades have resulted in a more secular society where citizens substitute a pursuit of moral truths for selfish endeavors. However, I don’t think the 21st century is the culprit for people of faith being put on the defense for their beliefs.
Religious groups felt isolated long before Twitter was an idea in anyone’s mind, and they will continue to. The call to a life of religious belief is a lonely one; it will set you apart, but it promises to give back much more. Separation is an anticipated sacrifice. It is a companion to the decision to live for a purpose higher than the mere physical world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor active during Hitler’s regime, repeatedly put his life at risk to decry injustices happening within Nazi Germany; he even lost his life doing so. But just like Christians today, he grappled with questions of how best to engage.
Examine Bonhoeffer’s concept of “religionless Christianity.” While he was imprisoned in Germany, he wrote letters to his friend, Eberhard Bethge, asking, “What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world?” He wanted to understand how people of faith should interact in the world without getting bogged down in inaccessible theology or swayed by non-religious values.
To be “religionless” while still religious means to engage with the secular world while maintaining one’s cherished belief system. This shouldn’t lead to religious doctrines being replaced with more world-friendly ideas. Instead, Bonhoeffer told Christians they ought to meet non-religious people where they were—all while sharing the love of Christ.
It isn’t only Christians who are at risk of being sequestered by the louder voices of the culture. Religionlessness is a complicated concept and best broached alongside people who share the desire to live a life of faith, even when their specific beliefs differ from one another.
When the beliefs of one religious group are deemed unfit for society’s trends, it is a threat to all types of thought; others should rise to its defense. Religious people can learn how to engage in the secular world from one another even when their specific practices are not the same. In these relationships, there is solidarity in a common mindset of faith and a desire to find meaning in a spiritual connection that humans cannot fully comprehend or explain.
The contemporary narrative about religion in America is not only negative, but it is diminishing altogether. It seems as if people who are not raised in religious communities tend to veer away from any curiosity about the great philosophical questions of history.
There is an opportunity for religious people in the United States who face the displeasure of the mainstream: If we keep to ourselves and do not engage with the secular culture—or with other religious groups—then we miss the chance to have these conversations about religion in a religionless world. When we allow the narrative to run as it pleases, we risk the conversation being extinguished altogether as groups remain close only to those who agree with them. More consequently, we make room for additional religious and minority groups to be excluded in the future.
This is not a conversation unique to the internet-driven 21st century, nor is it unique to Bonhoeffer’s era of dictatorship and genocide. It will arise again and again.
Throughout history, those who believed in a higher power faced disapproval. It is expected, but it should still be watched and monitored carefully. Even when a certain level of mistreatment doesn’t apply to us directly, we should speak out against it in defense of those who maintain cherished belief systems different from our own.
People of faith will always be sidelined. That is part of the promise, but we can look to one another to figure out the best ways to engage in a secular world.
I am not sure if Bonhoeffer found an answer to his question, or if it is possible to ever entirely resolve it. The obligation is to ask and not fear the criticism that comes when you live against the current.