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Religion News Service

What is killing the American synagogue?, by Jeffrey Salkin

Monday, June 3, 2019

Monday, June 3, 2019

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Part

Grief Without Faith: What the Total Absence of Belief in God Looks Like in the Aftermath of Crushing Grief

Theology was big in the headlines of The New York Times yesterday, one story particularly heartbreaking. The article in the review section was by Amber Scorah. The title: “Grief Without God.” The subhead: “I Had Lost the One Thing That Could Have Offered Answers.” This is an absolutely heartbreaking account of a woman who lost her faith, and then lost her child—actually, a very young baby.

She began the article writing, "Several years after leaving my religion, I felt sure I had encountered all the situations I might possibly need to get used to in my new life. What I had not prepared myself for," she wrote, "was death, grief without faith, which is to say death without hope."

Now, that's a quintessential statement of nihilism, and it is particularly sad when you're looking here at a grieving mother. You're looking at the reality of death that is not denied, and you're also looking at the crushing reality of grief, but this grief is infinitely compounded by the fact that the writer of this article no longer believes in God. She no longer believes in any life after death. She no longer believes in any future existence for her child. She never expects to see her child again. As I said, the only word that fits for this article is “heartbreaking,” but it is also incredibly revealing.

As the article unfolds, Scorah writes, "Religion was born for this. When my father died, I was a devout Jehovah's witness. I was 18 years old. I was sad, but I wasn't that sad because I believed what my religion had taught me, that death was of no great consequence, as long as we remained faithful."

Now, at this point, we need to remind ourselves that the Jehovah's Witness worldview is profoundly unbiblical. It is in direct contradiction to much of what is revealed in Scripture. It has no relationship legitimately with Orthodox Christianity.

This means that Christians understand that Jehovah's Witnesses do not know Christ. They have not come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, but Christians recognize several dividing lines in worldview. One is the dividing line of salvation. Jehovah's Witnesses are on the other side of that line. There's the dividing line of Christian Orthodoxy. Jehovah's Witnesses are profoundly on the other side of that line.

But at the basic level of worldview, there is also a divide when it comes to theism versus non-theism, and Jehovah's Witnesses are theists. That's what's important to recognize in this article. The writer is writing about a loss of any faith in the existence of God, and that means that death becomes something quite different than death represents in every theistic worldview.

Scorah writes about losing her faith. She said, "But then, I left my religion behind. I moved to New York and built a new life. I found ways to earn money. I had relationships. I learned not to think that every thunderclap outside my window was Armageddon."

She went on to write, "I tried hard to make sense of a life without belief." She wrote about the years that passed and said that she thought she had settled all these issues in her mind and in her heart, but then, she had a child.

She wrote about this turning point, "My grief over the loss of my belief system had run its course, and I was renewed, full of love for life, which felt even more precious now that I knew it would not go on forever. When my son was born," she wrote, "and I sat, nursing him in the night, I was delighted to find that all residue of my bereavement was gone," speaking of the death of her father and the death of her religious faith. But then, she wrote these words, "And then my baby died."

She spoke of those who tried to assure her because of their own theistic faith and confidence, but she didn't share that confidence, not in any form. She did not doubt the sincerity of those who tried to encourage her, but speaking of her own lack of faith, she said, "There is no heaven, no door at the end of my life that I will find my boy behind, no paradise Earth. He simply had ceased to exist."

She went on to say, "I suspect that these people rushed to save me because deep down, somewhere unacknowledged, they too knew the truth. We all know that there is something desperately sad that we have to protect one another from. Our stomachs know it, our spines know it. Our humanity doesn't want to let us believe that this is all there is, that a child can just disappear, and that," she said, "is why these strangers cared so much about a stranger like me."

With bracing honesty, she continues, "What I had not anticipated about the cost of losing my faith was that it would no longer be possible to deceive myself. I could no longer make a pact with any higher being. No hours of service would convince a God that I deserved to have this child again. Whatever I had done to deserve him once, I was not worthy of him twice."

Speaking of her turmoil, after her child's death, she wrote, "If belief were a choice, I might choose it, but it's not. I don't trade in certainty anymore. If there is something more, it's not something we know. If we can't even grasp how it is that we got here, how can we know with any certainty where, if anywhere, we go when we die?"

Her closing words were these: "The question of my son's death, the mystery of it, why he vanished remains without answer, and so I asked the questions of life, 'What force grew this little child? How did those limbs form themselves from nothing inside of me? Why did I have the power to make him, but not to bring him back?' 'Why are the things he saw on this planet so beautiful? Why did his eyes look at me the way they did? Where did love like this come from?' I will never know who my child would have been, but I know his love. If there is a god, this is what he gave me."

This article is taxing emotionally and theologically. It's difficult to read. It's even more difficult to read out loud, but we are looking here at something that is profoundly rare. We are looking at a first person testimony in the pages of the Sunday edition of The New York Times of what the total absence of God looks like, and looks like most particularly in the aftermath of crushing grief.

One of the so-called Four Horsemen of the New Atheism, Daniel Dennett of Tufts University has suggested that like everything, religious faith must be explained by evolution, and in his own evolutionary worldview, he says that, "Evidently, religion, including religious emotions, and experiences, and doctrines emerged from the human need to give some kind of meaning to life after death."

Of course, Dennett doesn't believe in the meaning of life after death. He doesn't believe in God. That's how he became known as one of the world's most famous atheists, but his explanation, according to the theory of evolution as to why religious belief exists, points to the fact that when you are looking at the human experience of death, and even the anticipation of death, it does bring to the foreground undeniably the most essential and inevitable questions about the meaning of this life. Of course, this doesn't mean merely our own lives. It also means the lives of those whom we love, particularly thinking here of a mother grieving the loss of her just months old baby.

Next, I have to go back to another word I used earlier in relation to this first person account. That's the word “honesty.” In this case, you have an author of remarkable candor, understanding the implications of her non-theism. She understands that she cannot sugarcoat, she cannot act out, she cannot artificially engender a confidence in the future life of her baby and the meaning of that baby's life, as well as her own life without belief in God. Without belief in God, everything becomes merely a vapor.

Nihil is the Latin word for nothing. Nihilism is the worldview that means in the beginning and in the end, everything is nothing, and that means you can come to do the math yourself. If in the beginning and in the end everything is nothing, then in between, everything is nothing as well.

It could well be that one of the problems in the background to this woman's loss of faith is the absolutely bizarre and untenable beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses. That is a belief system that simply cannot stand theological scrutiny in contrast with Orthodox Biblical Christianity. But we're also looking at the fact that this writer does not tell us exactly why she lost the faith that she once had, but she does write bracingly about its consequences.

She also makes an interesting argument about halfway through the article, I remind you of her words, "If belief were a choice, I might choose it, but it's not." So, is belief a choice or not? Here's where the Christian biblical worldview reminds us, that it is and it isn't. It is not merely a choice. It is not merely an operation of the human will, but we also come to understand that our beliefs at the deepest level cannot be separated from our will.

We are composite human beings. We can't operate in our reason at one moment, and our emotion at another moment, and our will is operational throughout the entire process. This is an understanding that is made very clear in biblical theology as you look at the entire flow of the Scriptures, but it is also important that we recognize that it is not merely a will to believe. It is a will to believe that is based upon evidence, and furthermore, it is a will to believe that we understand based upon the Scripture, is because we are made, every single one of us, in God's image. We are born, then you might say, because of our creation with a will to believe, a disposition to believe.

Specifically, we speak there of a will to believe in God. Something has to overcome that in order for someone to be an atheist. That's the reason why atheists are, percentage-wise, so few. It takes an enormous act of the will, not just of the intellect or the reason, to declare oneself an atheist. Atheists often want to describe their experience entirely in rational and logical terms, but we are not at any point merely rational and logical creatures.

Our will is always involved. C. S. Lewis made this point in the last century when he underlined the fact that one of the reasons people do not come to faith in Christ is because they do not want to. Often, it's because of some moral or lifestyle issue that would have to change if they did come to faith in Christ. Lewis was making the point that we can never leave behind our “want to,” even when we are dealing with what we believe. The “want to,” the “ought to,” and “I believe,” they are all combined in the human heart and mind in ways that can never be surgically separated.

When we present the gospel and call sinners to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, when we are in conversation with someone individually or speaking to a larger assembly, the point is the same. We are speaking to the will, but we are also speaking to the reason. We are speaking to the heart, and we're speaking to the mind, and we come to understand that all are involved in the response to Christ. All are involved in the basic construction of worldview. At the end of the day, we have the worldview not only of which our minds have been convinced, but we have the worldview that our hearts have chosen to embrace.

Finally, the most important issue about this article by Amber Scorah is the fact that she is absolutely right. The basic dividing line, the most fundamental dividing line in all of human experience, past, present, and future, for time and eternity is whether or not there is a God. That is the most fundamental issue. If there is no God, if there was no Creator, if we are merely accidents, then every part of our life is an accident, and there is nothing after our death. It is simply a matter of atom and molecules that were once together that then fall apart. The universe doesn't care.

It's hard to read this article as a Christian. Imagine how hard—hard is not even the word—how hard reading this article would be for someone who isn't a theist, who doesn't believe in God, and certainly one who doesn't have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. How then would one read this article? How could one stand it?

Why did The New York Times decide to put this article on the front page of its opinion section yesterday? There has to be an answer to that question. The New York Times put theology on the front page of its section—theology disguised as a-theology.

Part

The Nuns and the Nones: Millennial Post-Christianity in a Convent

Next, the other major article in yesterday's edition of The New York Times was actually the front page of the style section. That's culture. It's not supposed to deal with the big issues of life, but rather, with the style that now marks contemporary culture.

The big headline in the article is “The Sisters Project.” The subhead of the article: “Religion-Free Millennials Move Into A Convent Seeking A Roadmap For Spiritual and Social Development.” The article is by Nellie Bowles in this Dateline from Burlingame, California, and we are told about a group of young millennials, young men and young women who decided to move into a nunnery, with a declining and aging population of nuns. Now, what makes these millennials interesting to The New York Times is that they are nones, N-O-N-E-S. They have no religious affiliation. They are, we are told, representative of a highly secular age and a very secular generation, so you can see where this article is going.

It is nones, N-O-N-E-S choosing to move in with nuns, N-U-N-S. Yes, the declining population of Roman Catholic nuns. The article is very interesting and it underlines some of the ambiguities and ironies of a secularizing age. The population of nuns, that is Catholic nuns, in the United States has been in a free fall from something like 180,000 just a few decades ago to about 50,000 today, and we are told that the average age of a Catholic nun is now about 80.

Bowles describes the situation by talking about the aging and reduced number of nuns, that is the Catholic sisters, and then goes on to say, "Meanwhile, millennials are the least religious group of people in America. Only about 27% attend weekly religious services. Young women who aspire to lives of good works without the burden of a husband are quite able to do that now without Roman Catholicism." That's an interesting sentence just taken alone. Then, Bowles continues, "Yet, for small pockets of the young, urban, and progressive, the convent is calling. Their radical politics took them all the way around, and back to the Roman Catholic church."

Now, this points to one of the most interesting and puzzling dimensions of Roman Catholicism in the 21st century. Beginning in the last half of the 20th century in the United States, nuns became particularly liberal, so much so that during the pontificate of conservative popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, some of the key tension within Roman Catholicism was between a conservative papacy and a liberal group of nuns, especially in the United States as represented by the nuns organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Why would these young religious nones, N-O-N-E-S, the millennials, find the Catholic nuns, N-U-N-S so interesting? Well, it's because of their passion for social justice and because of their spirituality. Now, here's where The New York Times article becomes particularly clever. It points to the fact that millennials want spirituality and they have a deep hunger for liturgy, but they really don't want theology or doctrine, and that comes coincidentally in the same generation where the nuns, at least as a generalization, became far less doctrinal and far less theological, and became far more committed to progressivist visions of social justice, and at that point, the secular millennials and the Roman Catholic nuns find a common cause.

There's also the basic issue of real estate, which is that the nuns own a lot of residential property, that used to house a large number of nuns. With a smaller number of nuns, they're having a hard time holding onto the property, and having young millennials move in means that there is now income to maintain the properties.

The article becomes particularly interesting in trying to point out the commonalities that the older Roman Catholic nuns discover with the younger millennials, but there's also an indication here of just what happens when you try to have spirituality and liturgy. You have ritual without doctrine. It turns into a perfect mash, including of the vocabulary.

For instance, one of the issues central to being a Roman Catholic nun is a commitment to chastity. That is the virtue of sublimating sexuality to obedience to a vow. To put the matter bluntly, nuns do not have husbands, as much as monks do not have wives. But chastity, when it comes to the millennials is something they want to embrace, but even as the millennials embrace it, it doesn't mean chastity anymore. Trust us, it really isn't about giving up sex.

A 31-year-old man, as one of the millennials who had moved into the convent, he's described as an academic tutor, an education activist, he said, "Chaste also means devoted to a way of life." Well, that's sort of true, but it totally evacuates the word of meaning. Later he said, "Chastity has been about taming the work beast and reorienting from that and towards a primary orientation toward spirit and community."

Let's just state the obvious, that's not what chastity is meant in any previous generation, but this generation of millennials is not, in the main, interested in anything like sexual chastity. As the article says about this young man and his vision of chastity, we are told that he "will be leading a food justice course for high-schoolers in the Fall," and chastity has meant for him, "Saying no to more things and keeping his calendar emptier." Again, that's not only not exactly what chastity meant in the past. That's not even close to what chastity meant in the past.

The reporter had the wisdom to point out that the Roman Catholic nuns, who though more liberal than the Vatican are still officially committed to official Roman Catholic teaching against same sex marriage and abortion. How does that fit with the young millennials? Well, as one of the millennials said, "We engage in dialogue about that."

By the time you reach the end of the article, it appears that most of the young millennials involved in these experiments in several American cities have moved on. The nuns, aging and fewer in number, have stayed on. As the reporter tells us, "When the millennials moved out in mid-May, they scattered back around the country. The Sisters of Mercy remain at the convent."

The payoff after reading this rather large article in The New York Times in yesterday's edition is the fact that even though this is presented as a very big thing and a likely sign of the future, it didn't turn out to last very long. The experiment of nuns and nones is something that has a relatively short shelf life. But once again, it does provide some really interesting insight into the fact that again, as made in God's image, we have an absolute hunger within us for God, and that's why so many of these millennials who claim no religious affiliation find themselves yearning for liturgy and ritual and spirituality. But the superficial nature of that is indicated by the fact that it is just something they want to come and experience for just a little while, before going back to their otherwise typical millennial pursuits.

It is important to recognize that the key root meaning of the word religion is “to bind.” If you are not bound, you are not religious. It turns out that the nones, N-O-N-E-S really are pretty representative of what it means to have no religious affiliation, no binding at all.

Part

When Synagogues Disappear: If You Don’t Believe in God, You Don’t Need a Synagogue

Finally, along similar lines, an article in Religion News Service that ran just over the last several days, Jeffrey Salkin, a rabbi is the author of this article. The headline from RNS: “What is Killing the American Synagogue?”

He writes, "It's not as if I have not seen synagogues in ruins before. I have," he says, "in photographs of Kristallnacht." That was the infamous night with the Third Reich moving against Judaism and showing the deadly nature of its anti-Semitism, but Rabbi Salkin goes on to say, "This however, is something entirely different." He writes about the merger of several Jewish congregations in New York, forced by matters of demographics and economics and numbers.

He points to the demolition of one of these synagogues, Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow, New York. He writes, "There are many reasons for the demolition of Emanu-El's building, some of which have to do with structural issues, but still," he said, "to see a synagogue in ruins is ghastly." Well, no doubt it is. If you're a Jewish rabbi looking at the demolition of a synagogue, there has to be a deep sense of loss. It has to be a deeply moving experience, again, not only emotionally, but theologically. That raises the issue, "What's really going on here?", and the importance of this story is how it demonstrates the larger pattern of secularization that is taking place in the world around us.

Salkin writes about growing up within the Judaism of Long Island. He writes about booming synagogues that had hundreds of teenagers, but that's contrasted with the fact that there are so few relatively now. The numbers have been so significantly reduced that many of the synagogues, many of the Jewish congregations can no longer survive.

Writing from Long Island, the rabbi spoke of what he called the two B's of the apocalypse, Boca and Boynton. He said, "People were moving to Florida." That was a major evacuation of the Jewish population to sell Florida. But the other B he identified was Beth Moses, speaking of a very well-known Jewish cemetery, as he wrote, "People were dying and moving to that cemetery in Farmingdale."

He then summarizes, "Over the past 30 years, there have been several mergers of Reform synagogues on Long Island. Others simply disappeared. In other cases, synagogues withered to half, and then one-third of their 1960s and 1970s sizes. More mergers are coming."

He also writes with lament that some of the synagogues, especially in Manhattan closed too soon. There was a rebirth of the Jewish populations within some of those neighborhoods, but because the synagogues had been sold and the real estate prices in New York had become so absolutely astronomical, there's no hope of having such a facility for synagogues again. A footnote here: that ought to be a warning to many churches and denominations as well.

It's also very interesting to have this Reform rabbi say that one of the problems that led to the evacuation of these synagogues is that they were so child and youth-centric. He writes about the fact that they had largely become Bar and Bat Mitzvah-centric. They got used mostly to having a synagogue and going to a synagogue in order for that particular ceremony in Jewish life. He also points out that in Reform Judaism, many people decide to buy tickets for High Holy Days rather than to practice membership within the synagogue.

The rabbi does get the theological reasons when he writes, "Jews exhibit lower levels of religious commitment than the U.S. general public. Among whom, 56% say religion is very important in their lives, and an additional 23% say it is somewhat important. The comparable figures for Jews are 26%, saying that religion is very important and 29% saying somewhat important. That leaves an awful lot saying, ‘It's not important.’"

In what will surely shock many Christians, the rabbi sites, the Pew study saying, “Belief in God is much more common among the general public than among Jews. Even among Jews by religion, belief in God is less common than among members of other U.S. religious groups."

Summing this up, Christians need to remember that there are at least three major branches of Judaism in the United States. There is Orthodox Judaism. That's the group that is most associated with Jewish beliefs and tradition and teachings, and in population, it's growing as compared to the other two major branches. On the left wing is Reform Judaism. That's what's represented by this rabbi, and in Reform Judaism, there's absolutely no mandated belief in God at all. Conservative Judaism, as it's called has been in the middle between the Orthodox and the Reform, but it has been moving in considerably more liberal directions over the last half century.

The bottom line in this article is that if you don't believe in God, you do not need a synagogue. You don't need to attend the synagogue. Unless for reasons of ritual and communal meeting, you might want to attend High Holy Days. And if you are going to organize your entire ministry around children—as in Judaism, it's traditionally the Bar Mitzvah—then when the population of children goes down, the reason for having your synagogue goes down, and there's really nothing to do before or after the Bar Mitzvah at about age 13.

The most important insight for Christians is the understanding that the central issue is and must be religious belief, and if one does not believe in God—here we are going back to that first story, heartbreaking as it was—if you don't believe in God, you don't need a synagogue, you don't need a church, you don't need a cathedral, you don't even need a chapel, you don't need a convent. All you need is you and your own customized spirituality. If that worldview wins, the synagogue disappears, but if that worldview wins moving into our world, your local church will disappear as well.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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