Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Camp Fire and Human Religious Impulses

When I first became a Christian, I thought that spiritual life was about doctrines and individual prayer and study of scripture. Then later, when I became a leader of a religious community--i.e., a pastor of a church--I realized the congregation cared more about narrative and ritual and community. 

And that led me to think about something: if we as human beings are marked by religion or spirituality, if we are homo religioso as the scholars would say, then it’s no surprise during the November 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise-Chico and our neighboring cities, our religious drives were present everywhere.

Let me put this another way: the bestselling author and scholar Stephen Prothero lists the four Cs that define religion: creed, cultus (or worship), code, and community. In this post I will focus on community. Because the Camp Fire has brought out our human drive to be with others—whether it’s at B Street or Secret Trail Brewery for a beer, more traditional religious settings like churches and synagogues, or even the Walmart impromptu shanty town, I simply have the sense that people want to be together. And that's the basis of religion. It's what draws us together as churches.

As a scholar of religion and science, I can’t help but think about what has created this drive for community in our evolutionary history. Fighting against other animals and the elements—like horrific firestorms—means that we do better when we band together. This is one of the surprises of evolution in the past two to three decades: the realization that we do better—and literally survive—when we band together. And that’s the evolutionary source for collaboration. We feel “warm, and safe, and dry” as I’ve heard in so many songs and poems. We also stay alive. And staying alive is the core of our religious instinct. Even more, religion and spirituality (I’m willing to use them interchangeably here) is about becoming fully alive or flourishing as human beings. 

Something that marks contemporary religious life, especially among 18-30 year olds, is a countervailing trend: what Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow has noted as individual religious “bricolage” or tinkering (and as I’ve written elsewhere.) In fact, the “I’m spiritual, not religious” slogan often means, among other things, that I create what I do for my soul. But this drive toward community needs commonality. A natural human response to trauma is to look for those who are like me because I need literal safety. And there’s where I sense the need for something closer to traditional religious life and the community it provides. 

This emerging adult tinkering is a beautiful and indelible contribution to American religious life. And, at times like this tragedy, of course we need to respect our individual experience. But we also need our shared humanity. It’s not the just the glory of our uniqueness, but also our community humanity, that we need to celebrate. 

(P.S. Some version of this will appear in the coming months in Chico State's Comparative Religion and Humanities newsletter.)

An offer

If you'd like to hear more from me weekly about how to flourish in faith and life in our contemporary technological and scientific age, send your email to And if your request it, I’ll send you my book on spiritual discernment, A Time for Yes: Enjoying What’s Best in Life, Work, and Love.

No comments: