I reckon there are going to be some who won’t much like some of what I have to say this time. Apologies for that in advance; it is never my intention to deliberately offend, even on those occasions when it might actually be justified. (Hey, it happens…)

But one thing I learned from my late parents is that, whether we like it or not, there are times when giving offense simply cannot be avoided - and I suspect this is going to be one of those times. But seeing how this is America and I have the right, I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway…

Let me start by confessing (and not for the first time, for whatever that may be worth) that when it comes to matters of religion, I have never laid claim to anything resembling any level of expertise. Truth be told, I’ve never claimed to be much of an expert about anything - and there are readers who will gladly attest that I prove this here on a regular basis. But there are some topics about which I am far less learned than others, and if religion isn’t at the top of that list it is certainly in the top five. (That’s something else I learned from Mom and Dad: We all have shortcomings, so we might as well own up to them.)

Okay, yes, I earned my bachelor’s degree at a four-year church-affiliated university - and somehow even managed to get pretty decent grades in the required religion classes. Yes, in recent years I have become an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church - and I have the certificate hanging here on my office wall to prove it. And yes, I have seen every religious-themed movie Charlton Heston ever made. (My favorite was that one that centered around the Theory of Evolution and had those talking apes… but I suppose that’s a topic best left for another time.)

But you can take all those ingredients… stir in the year I spent on our church’s quiz bowl team when I was in high school, and the year my wife and I spent teaching a third grade Sunday school class not long before we moved to Oklahoma… season it with those hymns Mom used to sing to herself while doing the housework, and top it all off with that award I won a few decades back for a column about something my old college chum James Tew referred to as “Generic Christianity”… and it STILL doesn’t add up to me being an expert. 

What I am, to put it as simply as possible, is a product of my upbringing by two loving parents who were believers, each in their own way, but saw themselves as being “spiritual” rather than “religious” and instructed their children to think for themselves and make up our own minds when it came to developing personal beliefs. “That’s why God gave your mind to you in the first place, so use it,” Mom was fond of saying, and I for one took it at her word. 

Mom’s the one who first suggested to me, back when I was a wee nipper, the notion that God probably prefers kind, loving, honest atheists over hateful, hypocritical Christians. At the time it seemed like a strange thing for her to have said, but over the years I came to realize that the idea is, in fact, rooted in Scripture - and that none other than Pope Francis said much the same thing during a 2017 homily in Rome.

Eventually I also gained a better understanding of what Mom was trying to say through personal experience. One of my dearest friends in the world - truly a brother in spirit, if not by blood - is a writing colleague and fellow pop culture enthusiast named Chuck “Kreegah” Loridans. It originally seemed like an unusual, perhaps even unlikely, friendship, given that Chuck had warned me early on that he was an atheist. But I’ve seen, through his words and his deeds and the manner by which he lives his life, that Chuck is one of those kind, loving, honest atheists Mom was talking about… and he, in turn, once paid me the unexpected compliment of stating that he wished more Christians were like me. 

I don’t know what Mom would have thought about that. But I do know that Mom would have loved Chuck, every bit as much as I do.

As for Dad… well, he didn’t have much stock for organized religion in general, regardless of denomination or sect, in large part because of the childhood experience of his own father’s unsuccessful efforts to indoctrinate him into a sect that Dad wanted no part of. That said, he DID have a favorite Bible verse which I saw as a re-enforcement of what Mom had told us: “Test everything, retain what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

Years later, while taking one of those aforementioned religion classes in college, my professor shared a quote from the French mathematician, scientist and philosopher René Descartes which said essentially the same thing: “If you are a real seeker of truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” 

At the time I thought it odd that the professor - himself an ordained minister - would hold with such a point of view. But as I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand a little better where he, Descartes and my father were all coming from… and near as I can tell, those lessons have stood me in pretty good stead over the years.

In part because of Dad’s experiences, in part because of my studies of American and world history - and in part because of a few unhappy incidents of my own while growing up (a story I might just get around to telling someday… perhaps) - I’ve always taken issue with that brand of evangelism that relies on the use of proverbial two-by-fours to the spirit as a means of convincing the would-be convert that he is bound for hell if he doesn’t straighten up and fly in accordance with that preacher’s dictates. 

There are those who call it “witnessing” - but in my mind, the best way to share witness about your religious or spiritual beliefs is to simply live your own life in accordance with those beliefs, and let the rest of the world see how well it works for you. 

I think Thomas Jefferson may have said it best: “Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life; if it has been honest and dutiful to society the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.” 

What a far cry from those European zealots who launched the religious wars which historians call The Crusades. 

Or those early settlers who came to the New World seeking religious freedom, only to develop a society that spends a lot of time trying to deny that freedom to others. 

Or that pastor’s wife who stuck her finger in my face years ago and snarled that I had condemned my sons to hell, simply because I let them watch Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings movies...

I have written in the past about my frustration over the fact that, every Sunday, there are millions of upper-middle class Americans who put on their expensive clothes, load themselves into expensive cars “witnessing” by turning a blind eye to the needy, spewing hatred towards anyone they deem “different,” and essentially thumbing their holier-than-thou noses at such concepts as “do unto others” and “love thy neighbor.” I guess they skipped the Sunday school lesson that focused on the idea of leading by example…

(I am reminded of Mark Twain’s observation that there are two types of Christians: Professing Christians and Practicing Christians. From where I'm sitting there seem to very few of the second type these days, at least here in America. Jesus never spat on the homeless, nor did he attack those trying to better the world. He did attack money lenders and those who sought to profiteer their neighbors. He distributed food to the needy, and I'm pretty sure He is saddened at best and angered at worst at the manner in which so many so-called "Christians" today treat their fellow man. If you'll recall, Jesus warned about these kinds of hypocrites. He said many would preach in his name, yet they would not be of his fold. I believe that's what we're seeing more often than not these days.)

I’ve found that the older I get, the deeper this sense of frustration is becoming. Perhaps that’s why a recent Facebook post by my dear old friend and former youth minister, Dave Clark, struck such a chord with me.

Dave shared an essay he found on the Red Letter Christians blog site, in which authors Brian McLaren and Patrick Carolan advocate the idea that modern Christianity can benefit from what they call a “Franciscan Renaissance” - a movement that would address crises in both the world-at-large and today’s Christian church by embracing the beliefs and examples of St. Francis of Assisi and one of his earliest followers, St. Clare.

While acknowledging that they are not professed Franciscans themselves, McLaren and Carolan believe that such a movement can have a positive impact on both the religious and secular challenges facing the world today - challenges which, they say, have become “so enmeshed as to be inseparable,” ranging from ecological and economic concerns to violence stemming from arrogant nationalism and racial, sexual or religious discrimination.

“We could wish that the leaders of our Christian faith were paying attention to these crises,” McLaren and Carolan write. “A few are. But many - too many - are obsessed with preserving their power, protecting their privilege, and perpetuating their institutions… More than ever at this moment, we need the vision of Francis and Clare for an interfaith solidarity.

“In our work and travels we both have encountered Muslims, Jews, Hindus and even atheists who have a deep respect for St. Francis, his life and works… We need a spiritual vision that integrates love for God and love for our neighbor with love for the earth — exactly the vision of St. Francis and St. Clare and the movements that they gave birth to.”

The writers are quick to acknowledge that such a movement will not come easily. “After all,” they write, “if renewal were cheap, easy, and convenient, it would have happened already.” But they make a strong argument for the positive impact such a movement can ultimately have, both here at home and around the world, if only enough people of every faith - or who practice no faith at all - will simply come together and work to turn the idea into reality.

Consider the following scenario: A Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist and an atheist all walk into a McDonald's...

...and they talk and laugh and sip their Cokes and share their fries and end up becoming good and true friends.

It’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s the sort of thing that can actually happen when people stop acting like bigoted morons, demonstrate a little brotherly love and focus on the things we all have in common instead of the things that separate us.

Which suddenly reminds me of the words of an old Harry Chapin song: "Well, I wonder what would happen to this world?"

My hope is that there are enough people of like mind in the world today to link arms and say, “Let’s do it!”  

But my fear is that those “obsessed with preserving their power” may have already placed such a stranglehold on the world that it cannot be overcome by the noblest of intentions or  the words and deeds of good people.

I’d like to think this is not the case. 

But I have been wrong before...

(Copyright © 2023 by John A. Small)