The lord works in strange and wondrous ways, they say, and even a casual observer of the religious scene has to agree with that statement on occasion.
I was doing exactly that kind of casual observing just this past Sunday — Easter Sunday, I might add. Looking out my window onto Park Place, halfway between the Princeton United Methodist Church to the right, and St. Paul’s Catholic Church to the left, I observed the passing Easter morning parade. And I made a few judgments, principally about the attire of God’s current flock. My gosh (if not my god): Women without hats is one matter; men without neckties, men in running shoes, and not on any Sunday — Easter Sunday.
Of course, judge not, lest ye be judged also. My companion, hearing my rant, gave me a dismissive look. True enough, I was sporting a ratty sweatshirt and wrinkled jeans, and I wasn’t even thinking about walking a half block in either direction for any reason, certainly not to church.
But, as it turned out, there was some wondrous action. And the faithful were reaching out to me even at that moment. First came the letter from a Franklin Park man, who questioned not our “Is God Dead? Hell, No!” cover on the April 4 issue, but rather the story that ran with it. He had hoped that the article would describe “how God was moving in the lives of those in the local community. And how they were being affected by God’s involvement and how that in turn caused them to affect others.
“What I got instead,” the letter writer continued, “was an article about local real estate projects.”
That letter prompted a little Easter day soul searching on my part. I re-read Barbara Fox’s article about the growth of Princeton Presbyterian Church, and noted the risks that the Rev. Ken Smith took in starting up the church.
Smith’s church building struck me as similar to Deborah Metzger’s leap into the unknown when she bought the old American List Counsel campus on Orchard Road in Skillman and began the extensive renovations required for her Princeton Center for Yoga and Health. It all worked out, she noted, fueled in large part by her belief that “the right people will come through the doors at the right time.”
In fact, as I have noted before, making a fast buck is often the last thing on an entrepreneur’s mind. George Gilder, the neo-conservative writer whose 1980 book, “Wealth and Poverty,” was the Bible for the Reagan administration, has noted that “the crucial source of capitalism’s fantastic efflorescence is compulsive creativity, a willingness to take risks, faith in the future, and the glory of human adventure.”
Sometimes, in short, business seems like a crusade.
Then I got a letter from a retired minister who appreciated the April 4 cover for what it was, a little word play. “We have not appreciated the gift of humor nearly enough in our spiritual journeys. Your ‘Hell No!’ TIME cover is refreshing.”
And he also appreciated the notion that, certain political ideologues notwithstanding, religions other than our own may have some value: “The 21st century compels us to pay greater attention to groups that are outside our traditional religious groupings. Often they comprehend aspects of our respective traditions that we have forgotten or overlooked.” (See page 2 of this issue for the text of both letters.)
At this point, as deep in spiritual thought as I have been in some time, I decided to go back and read carefully the March 10 New York Times obituary of William Hamilton, who died in February at the age of 87. The 1966 Time Magazine cover story put the spotlight on Hamilton, “a tenured professor of church history at a small divinity school in Rochester.
“The article, appearing in the season of Easter and Passover, gave a primer on the history of the war between religious and secular ideas in Western culture going back to Copernicus. It quoted Billy Graham and Simone de Beauvoir as exemplars of the two sides, and it introduced the world to Dr. Hamilton as the leader of a new school of religious thinking it called the ‘Death of God Movement.’”
Hamilton, the Times reported, “believed that the concept of God had run its course in human history. Civilization now operated according to secular principles. And churches should, too, by helping people learn to care for one another unconditionally, without illusions about heavenly rewards.”
The obituary continued: “Hamilton contended that many people had misunderstood him. He was not an atheist, he said, in the way that the evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins is. He considered himself a follower of Christ, but whether Jesus was the son of God or not, he said, did not matter so much as whether people followed his teachings.
“The ‘death of God’ is a metaphor,” he told the newspaper The Oregonian in 2007. “We needed to redefine Christianity as a possibility without the presence of God.”
I could go on here, but it might turn into a sermon. And I wonder: Would the congregation tolerate a preacher dressed in a ratty sweatshirt and wrinkled jeans?