A God-Sized Hunger
Some of the people who returned to traditional worship realized they were entering spaces where much is required of them
BY: Richard Mouw
They all came back to our local houses of worship--our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples--for a brief visit in the hours and days immediately following the September 11 destruction. And then just as quickly they dispersed again, returning to routines where organized religion had no real place.
That's the short version of the story. And it is tempting to leave it there, as many of the experts have done: it was all a momentary blip on the religious screen with no lasting significance. But I think that is too simple.
For one thing, the "blip" theory focuses primarily on the fact that the folks who flocked to worship soon went their own ways again. But that ignores an important question: Why did they flock in the first place? I know at least some of the folks that we're talking about. They are the people who like to say, "I don't belong to any church, but I still consider myself a spiritual person." And they mean it. They buy read books about meditation. They listen to the Celestine Prophecy tapes as they jog. They regularly play CDs of real monks chanting. If the local bookstore sponsors an evening discussion about The Tibetan Book of the Dead, they will show up.
None of this was quite enough for them, though, when September 11 happened. They wanted to join other people in a well-defined sacred space: They needed pews, a choir with robes, and a prayer book to hold. They wanted ministers, priests and rabbis to point them to mysteries that are best described in words and symbols that come from those who walked the ancient paths.
I like Pascal's observation that each of us has "a God-sized vacuum" inside us, a spiritual hunger that can only be satisfied by a relationship with our Creator. That's why I don't simply dismiss the interest in free-floating spirituality. The spiritual seekers of our day are naming the hunger. But I don't believe that a personalized designer spirituality is enough. I'm a Christian, and I believe the hunger can only be truly satisfied when we repent of our sins and accept God's offer of salvation in Jesus. And this means going to church regularly.
I'm not surprised that people flocked to places of worship last September. For me it is evidence of the hunger that resides in each of our souls. We saw our citadels of economic and military strength instantly destroyed, and our deepest impulse was to flee to the only true places of safety--"the shelter of the Most High" (Psalm 91:1).
Nor am I surprised that many stopped coming when the initial shock subsided. The religion I care about is a serious matter. God wants us to to confess our sins on regular basis, and to plead for the grace to live in obedience to the divine will. None of this sits well with our sinful impulses. It is easier to put together a spiritual package that makes fewer demands on us.