Like everyone else I know, I am feeling the pinch of a straitened economy. I eat out less often, I drive less far and I write fewer checks to my favorite charities. These are all middle-class concerns, I know (does anyone admit to being upper-middle class?), which is why I hesitate to mention them.
The new atheist movement has reached its high-water mark, and there are signs that it is starting to recede. Wishful thinking, you say? Aren’t there more and more antireligious tracts on the bestseller lists? Aren’t these writers terribly clever? Perhaps so, yet somehow they fail to capture the imagination.
With one child in college and two teenagers at home, I learned vicariously about “being friended” and “facebooking.” My kids didn’t want me to join Facebook, but relented when I told them that our seminary students were forming groups on Facebook and inviting me to participate. I entered a new universe.
We live in an age of great conflicts and petty hopes. Take first our hopes. In the book The Real American Dream, Andrew Delbanco traced the history of the scope of American dreams—from the “holy God” of the Puritan founders, to the “great nation” of the 19th-century patriots, to the “satisfied self” of many today.
I teach a variety of courses at Piedmont College, but “Introduction to World Religions” is my favorite. I have taught it more than 20 times now, to more than 500 students. One of them tells me how different the news from Iraq sounds now that she knows the difference between Shi‘as and Sunnis. Another brings me pictures of a new Hindu temple going up in his old neighborhood, which he is able to interpret for his alarmed parents. Students who complete the class say they feel more at home in the world. They are less easily frightened by religious difference. They are more informed neighbors, better equipped to wage peace instead of war.The only place the course backfires is in the unit on Christianity. Students who have spent every Sunday of their lives in church may be able to name the books of the Bible in order, but they rarely have any idea how those books were assembled. They know they belong to Victory Baptist Church, but they do not know that this makes them Protestants.
Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, remembers Vincent Harding coming up to him at a church in Denver and suggesting that they work together. Patel declined, saying he thought the mission of his own organization didn’t mesh with Harding’s. After Harding died, Patel read his obituary and learned Harding was an unsung hero of the civil rights movement and a speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. Later, at an event attended by Patel and Harding’s widow Aljosie, Patel confessed that he had passed up a great opportunity. Aljosie said to Patel: “You should know that Vincent followed your work, and he loved you, and he forgives you” (OnBeing.org, June 9).