A homeless man named Roger lives on my block in the entryway to an abandoned building. He sleeps there every night, and every day he wanders around the neighborhood. We always greet each other; sometimes we stop to chat. He knows my kids and my dog, and they know him. He has never asked me for help of any kind. Most of our exchanges are absolutely ordinary—just small talk about the weather.
Except that it’s not at all ordinary small talk. There’s a forced breeziness on both of our parts. We’re both pretending that it’s normal for someone with a wealth of earthly possessions and social capital to be chatting about the weather with someone who has virtually none. We are radically Other to one another. We pretend that we’re commiserating about the rain when, in fact, the stakes could not be more different for the two of us. There’s no “co-miserating”; it’s misery for him and not for me. When we talk about the upcoming thunderstorm, for me it’s a question of whether to bring the kids to the park before or after the rain. For him it’s whether his sleeping area will be flooded, whether he’ll be safe from lightening, and whether he’ll be able to sleep at all.
And when I’m home and dry and the storm is raging outside and we’re counting the seconds between the lightening and the thunder, sometimes it hits me that Roger is still outside—right outside—not in the Sudan, not in Delhi, not even in East Harlem, but right outside, just a few doors down at this minute. He is sitting there alone in the pouring rain.
Liberal Religion’s Flight From Obligation
It is a well-known fact that religious congregations, particularly liberal ones, have been hemorrhaging congregants for the last fifty years. Theological updates, long overdue, have done nothing to staunch the outflow. In fact, in a July New York Times op-ed column, Ross Douthat observed that the decline of liberal religious denominations maps perfectly to their efforts to adapt themselves to contemporary liberal values. In a stark illustration, he notes that at the very same time as the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops was finally approving a rite to bless same-gender unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for the last ten years came out, showing that average Sunday attendance had dropped 23 percent and not a single diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.
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