The created world is continually decaying, even as new life bursts from the ground every spring. Great trees succumb to disease and fall, mountains gradually erode away, sometimes with terrible swiftness, as we saw recently in rural Washington state. We baby boomers, who once felt invincible, have been alarmed to see decay working in our own bodies; many of us have already lost friends to cancer.
Our relationships, too, have a tendency to crumble, but here the cause is not external to us, but inside of us. The process begins when we turn away from those we love, a turning away that is always preceded by a turn towards someone or something more to our liking. In turning away, we focus our desires, our love, the creative forces of our hearts on someone else, which inevitably makes us neglect our first love. That neglect leads to decay, to the deterioration of all that was once beautiful, and to the loss of things we once thought precious.
Disaffection leads to disinterest; disinterest leads to disintegration – literally, the breaking apart of things which were once united.
This common human tragedy also sums up the state of Israel’s relationship to God in 1 Chronicles 34. Josiah, son of Amon, was made King of Israel when he was just eight years old, after his father was assassinated because his own advisors who could no longer tolerate his corruption. Amon was only the last in a succession of kings who had abandoned the worship of the God of Israel for other gods. During their reigns, the great temple of Solomon fell into decay, and Israel became a place rife with narcissistic spiritual experimentation.
But young Josiah was made of different stuff. He embarked on a bold spiritual housecleaning, first by tearing down the pagan temples, then by gathering up and destroying the idols and objects that had taken the Lord’s place, and finally, by embarking on a project to rebuild the decaying temple in Jerusalem. As the work progressed, Hilkiah, the high priest, discovered the scroll of the Book of the Law of God gathering dust in a closet, a sign that Israel’s drift had not been an act of open hostility towards God so much as one of neglect, of spiritual drift and disinterest.
Spiritual drift and disaffection are as common in our time in Josiah’s. Allan Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, has been studying data from the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, an ongoing analysis of US societal attitudes and practices that began in 1972. Downey has been especially interested in what may be causing a steady decrease in religious affiliation in the US. In 1990, only 8% of the American population claimed no religious affiliation; by 2010, that number had risen to 18%. (How the Internet is Taking Away America’s Religion, MIT Technology Review, April 4, 2014)
In the Chicago data, Downey found several factors that seem to contribute to a drift away from religious faith. Not surprisingly, growing up in a religious home strongly inclines children to adopt religious beliefs and practices themselves; as parents increasingly abandon their religious faith, so do their children. Downey also found that going to college can move people away from religious belief, something social scientists have known for a while.
But among the most interesting correlation to religious disaffection Downey discovered was internet usage. As internet usage has increased, religious affiliation has decreased. Downey calculates that as much as 25% of the blame for our growing American spiritual disaffection might be laid on the influence the internet is having on society.
The Chicago data isn’t proof, but it suggests a strong link and a need for further study. Downey controlled for everything that might have skewed the data, and still found a very strong connection between internet usage and religious disaffiliation.
If the correlation is correct, how might it be possible? Perhaps the connection lies in the way we have come to use the internet. For more and more of us, the internet is a technology that has created a new sphere of possible social relationships. The internet was developed as a humble tool for information sharing, but has grown into a “place” where we can experience countless new opportunities for social connectedness quite apart from our traditional community connections, religious or otherwise.
And when it comes to religious faith, the internet is a place that permits, even encourages, the easy exploration of other belief systems, with opportunities to interact with adherents and seekers, all from the comfort of your bedroom. It is a place that appeals to our human need for relationships, our human need to be part of a group that shares our values. It is a place that offers answers to questions about who we are, a place that helps us discover, and even create, a sense of identity.
Our senses are constantly being engaged by the world we live in. Our minds are continually tickled by new ideas. Our hearts seem to always be on the lookout for something fresh, something better, something that more precisely meets the needs and desires, the yearnings that drive us.
Robert Robinson recognized in himself that spiritual wanderlust and wrote a confessional prayer about it in the well-known hymn, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing:
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.
The simple truth is that many things compete with our affection for God. Our hearts are promiscuous and prone to wander. External mechanisms like the internet merely encourage us to act on the impulses already at work inside of us, impulses that tempt us to leave our first love and search for another.
A tiny bird has landed on a spindly tree branch outside of my window, on a morning when the wind is blowing fiercely. The branch is whipping wildly up and down, but the little bird stays upright, perfectly balanced. He is committed to the branch. His feet are locked to it with a mighty grip, his muscles are actively compensating to shifts in his perch, his wings are occasionally flapping to push himself against the wind. He stays anchored to the tree by the simple but difficult strategy of remaining vigilant and staying committed to the tree.
Disaffection, whether religious or otherwise, ultimately begins with a choice to let go of the branch and let the winds carry us away. As Easter approaches and we remember the God who demonstrated his loving commitment to humanity by sacrificing his only Son in order to invite us away from our disaffection, it seems a good time to reconsider our spiritual commitments.
Grab the branch of God’s salvation and hold on.
Art credit: Original watercolor by David Hayward, the naked pastor