Thursday Reflection: Roots, not Borders

Is Vermont as irreligious as recent polls tell us? Or is it increasingly multi-religious in such a way that we don’t recognize our neighbor’s religious sensibilities?

Gallup tells us Vermonters don’t attend religious services nearly as much as folks in, say, Mississippi. But Diana L Eck tells us one of the realities of 21st Century America – from coast to coast and everywhere in the middle (including the South) – is that folks have moved in from all over the world, and they have brought their religion with them. Native peoples are still with us in spite of efforts to put them out and keep them at bay. Their spirituality is part of the fabric of our county. Someone whose opinion I trust who works with the more marginal populations in the Burlington area says that one can not make assumptions about a person’s spiritual pedigree based on class or appearance. And contrary to the idea that we are a “Judeo-Christian” nation, the truth is that we are an amazingly religiously diverse nation – the most religiously diverse nation in the world according to Dr. Eck.

Some students from Champlain College will be visiting First UMC Burlington next week. In preparation for their visit I am reading one of the textbooks for their course. The course is called: The Secular and the Sacred: What roles do religion and spirituality play in society? The textbook is by Montana Methodist, Harvard-trained professor Diana L. Eck. The book title: “A New Religious America: How a Christian Country has become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation”. This American brand of religious diversity is having an impact even on agnostics and atheists, writes Eck.

On the surface of it, the results of the poll and the insights shared by Dr. Eck might seem to be mutually exclusive. As she reviews some of our nation’s political, constitutional and religious history, Eck made a comment in her book that sticks with me. As a Methodist, Eck writes that she has to define her faith “not by its borders, but by its roots.”

What wisdom might there be in that notion as we consider what it means to be followers of Jesus in 21st Century Burlington, VT? Perhaps we need to be careful not to draw any lines in the sand. Maybe we can learn to hold our convictions firm while keeping our hearts humble. Is it possible we will decide – yes, decide – to commit to a faith community, not because the community always gets it right, but because we believe there is something to be said for a faith that is “incarnational” – not only “God with us”, but us with each other? Isn’t that at the root of what Jesus of Nazareth imparted to his disciples? Somehow he is with us – always.

Religion – it is so much more about roots than it is about borders and boundaries. And roots have a mysterious way of getting intermingled, tangled, wrapped around other roots. That’s the wisdom in the notion, I think: that if we can recognize how much we are alike beneath the surface of things we would be more apt to see our similarities in the sunlight.


A 2008 Interview with Diana L. Eck

Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.