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Open letter to ‘nonbelievers’

A man from Vienna, Georgia, sent me a beautifully written letter and says he reads my column every Sunday. He’s a Southern Baptist “believer” and was saved at 9 years old. Despite this, or maybe because of this, I never shake his belief when I write. He can read my questions about Christianity and my problems with the Bible, and still be comfortable. But he’s worried about nonbelievers, those with weaker faith or no faith at all, and wonders if I might be encouraging them to avoid seeking a “personal relationship” with God.

So, today I write to you “nonbelievers:” to you Catholics who love our new pope, but can’t stand the laws against birth control and divorce, or the pastor who preaches but won’t listen, and have stopped going to Mass. And to you Protestants who have thrown off the myths of your childhood and now dance and drink with joy and attend your church events but not many church sermons. And to you “unattached” Georgians who have left — or never joined — any organized religion and no longer have, or never did have, a personal relationship with God.

My Vienna reader — and others — feel this personal relationship is essential. They believe all of us need to believe in a personal God who can hear us and maybe even talk to us, and surely one who changes the course of the hurricane or the speed of the runaway train as it’s careening down the tracks. If I pray hard, they would say, God will keep my baby daughter from dying of crib death. And when God fails to do this, I must say it’s “God’s Will,” and continue to pray to my personal God (who wasn’t that personable) without “losing my faith.”

And I think anyone who can do this should not be questioned. But what if I can’t?

There are millions of Americans who believe in a God, but can’t talk to her. She is just not available for conversations. These Americans don’t believe they have lost their faith; they have simply altered the way they imagine God. For them, God is not “up there,” but inside; inside themselves and those they love, and inside this whole fantastic creation. They don’t have to talk to a God who doesn’t answer; they can find their answers when the poor and homeless say “thank you” for the food, and when they see the birth of a child, or the smile on their loved one’s face, or yes, when they read many of the words (not all) of sacred scripture.

This is a different form of Christianity. It is religion without ritual. It is a God without myth, but a God still full of magic. It is a life full of giving and sharing and loving.

If you are one of these “nonbelievers” and you find my columns helpful, I think it is because I understand you; I’m one of you. And if you’re a “believer,” I hope I don’t offend you because that is not my intention. I was one of you for many years. I was raised in an Irish Catholic family and became a faithful Catholic priest and monk who spent four undergraduate years and eight graduate years of study in sacred scripture. (Two of those years in the Vatican.) I love the Bible. I know what you believe and why you believe it, and I think your form of faith is beautiful.

But I think both forms are beautiful. I think anyone can find a “God” through love. I agree that believers can find their personal God in the words and rituals and fellowship of an organized religion and talk to this God on a regular basis. But I also maintain that millions have found their own God in the fantastic love that surrounds them and they can live their lives as true followers of Christ — without much help from a religion — and without a personal relationship with some God up there.

I don’t think it’s necessary to “walk down the aisle” to be saved.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.

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