This past week, I heard Kenneth L. Woodward interviewed on his 2016 book, Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (Penguin Random House). I was intrigued by Woodward’s vast experience as the former religion editor of Newsweek, where he went from observations in Omaha to visiting the White House and a host of places in between. In particular, I was pleased to hear someone both learned and cosmopolitan who could explore the role of religion in the American experience with candor, insight, and respect. Rather than trafficking in silly tropes and easy jabs, Woodward seems possessed of an appreciation for the influence of metaphysics on the common man—which is to say the worship of “that which is higher than I.”
So, I purchased the book and began reading this weekend—and it’s a page turner! Specifically, Woodward points out how diverse the American experience was, immediately following World War 2, in communities of ethnic and religious variety that were anything but boilerplates. In fact, “The Bogey of Conformity,” as Woodward describes it, is largely a myth produced by the Boomer Generation, in celebration of their contributions to modern America: the revolutions of the 1960s. It may be a handy, rather self-serving myth, whereby subsequent generations have convinced themselves “that everything that happened prior to their arrival on the scene was merely prologue to themselves as history’s main event.” What Herbert Butterfield famously called “the whig interpretation of history.”
So, what are we to do with those men and women of good will who simply have had no religious upbringing? For those who have had no experience with rituals and rites in houses of worship, where do we find common ground? How should religious and a-religious citizens relate to one another?
I would suggest by acknowledging our common experience of awe and wonder. While those with religious experience may speak of the wonders of worship, areligious persons are not unfamiliar with experiences that prompt genuine awe: loving relationships, extraordinary feats of human enterprise, noble exemplars, natural beauty, etc.
Such areligious awe seems to be the experience of the narrator in David Mason’s poem, “A Thorn in the Paw.” Whereas “[o]thers grew up with chrism, incense, law,” the narrator describes being “exiled” from such experiences, which leaves him with a gnawing sense of a “bogeyman, Author,” whom “I can’t get rid of.” Yet, the “airy hosannas” of birds in flight or the majestic roll of “the shore / of the marvelous” remain for the narrator a “thorn” of doubting belief—in something. Or, as Mason so perfectly puts it: “Nobody gave me a god / so I perfect my idolatry of doubt.”
Like Woodward, those Americans with a religious tradition can and should bring their faith to the public square, as a formative aspect of the human experience. At the same time, like Mason’s narrator, there is plenty of room for the areligious members of our community, for we all seek to understand the relationship of doubt, belief, and our common experience of wonder.