Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #022. First published in the St. Cloud Times May 26, 2009

Earlier this month a local pastor complained that there is not enough about religion in the Times: "Certainly not for all, but for most Central Minnesotans, faith is a major factor in their lives. As newspapers struggle to keep their heads above water, it might make financial sense to give readers articles that speak to who they are and the world in which they live."

Executive Editor John Bodette replied that the paper could do more, and said, "I would welcome an invitation to speak with a group of local pastors and other leaders of all faiths to discuss possible story ideas and trends in our community."

Three features of this interchange set me to thinking.

First, who would extend the invitation to Bodette? I know of no ongoing, regularly functioning association of most religious leaders in the St. Cloud area.

This lack became visible on April 20 at the "volunteer summit" sponsored by United Way and the Central Minnesota Community Foundation. There were 110 participants, and I didn't see a single clergy person among them (though I certainly didn't recognize everybody).

You might say this is because congregations are already sources of volunteers, so there was nothing for their leaders to learn. Even if this were true, there is certainly much those leaders could have offered by way of advice and inspiration. I suspect that they simply aren't sufficiently in touch with one another to urge at least a few of their number to show up.

Second, for many of us for whom "faith is a major factor in our lives," articles that "speak to who we are and the world in which we live" often touch on our faith without any specific reference to "religion" as a separate compartment.

To take a specifically Christian example: In Matthew 25, the portrayal of the last judgment, those who get a divine thumbs-up didn't even know they were doing anything for Jesus when they fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, visited the prisoners.

Newspaper stories that tell me of people caring about other people, even if the subjects of the stories make no direct reference to religion or religious institutions, encourage my faith. Stories that tell me of people excluding, demeaning, or hurting other people, even if the subjects of the stories make explicit reference to religion or religious institutions, ignite my faithful anger.

In short, "secular" news often resonates with faith as a major factor in my life better than news overtly about religion does.

Third, "story ideas and trends in our community" that Bodette would like to discuss might surprise many readers. I suspect these trends would reflect, to a degree, large-scale national characteristics reported recently by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Numbers of those who claim no religion are rising (many of them say they are spiritual though not religious), and "about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives."

Most intriguing, however, are the statistics of those who do not believe that theirs is the only way.

When, in a book published 11 years ago, I said I believe as a Christian that God wanted the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to remain a Jew and the late Thai monk Buddhadasa to remain a Buddhist, I thought I was "way out there."

But in late 2008 the Pew Center reported that 65 percent of American Christians, including 84 percent of Catholics and 47 percent of Evangelicals, agree with the proposition that "Many religions can lead to eternal life." I doubt the percentages are quite this high in the Times circulation area, but I imagine they are a good deal higher than most readers assume.

Conclusions: It would be good for the religious leaders in our area to get together more regularly. The Times publishes many faith stories, even when "church" or "religion" doesn't show up in searches. And the religion story itself is more complex — and a lot more interesting — than we suppose.