By Tom Robotham

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. – Matthew 22: 37-40

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about religion. 

That’s not unusual. It has fascinated me since childhood, when I was drawn to the beauty of the Episcopal Church that my family attended every week: the dappling of the light, filtered through stained-glass windows, the worn oak pews with their red-velvet cushions, the brilliant white linen that draped the altar, the richness of the pipe organ in harmony with the choir, and, after my confirmation, the gleam of the wine chalice as the priest administered Holy Communion. 

In my late teens, I became interested in other religions as well—and a half century later, the attraction remains undiminished. Over the last few weeks, however, my contemplation of Christianity, in particular, has grown even deeper.

One reason is that we’re in the midst of the Christmas season. The secular rituals no longer have much meaning for me. I haven’t put up a tree—or even a wreath—in 17 years, and I no longer exchange gifts, except with my two grown kids. I know I’m not alone in this regard. I’m acquainted with a number of people for whom Christmas is just another day. I don’t feel that way, though. Having stripped away the commercial trappings of the holiday, I find that my focus on its religious significance has grown more intense. 

There is, however, another reason for my renewed reflections. I’ve been struck, lately, by the expressions of hostility toward Christianity that I see every single day on social media. 

“Christianity is a religion of hate,” proclaimed one Facebook friend just a few weeks ago. He’s hardly an outlier. YouTube videos of Christopher Hitchens vilifying religion—which he did, late in life, with the obsession of Ahab pursuing the white whale—seem to be capturing the imagination of a new generation. The argument, put succinctly, is that religion is the root of all evil.

I know other people who are a bit more tempered. They don’t express outright vitriol of the sort mentioned above. They simply reject Christianity as childish and anti-intellectual, and greet any defense of it with patronizing dismissal. 

“Anyone who’s religious is a moron,” another acquaintance told me. 

The irony would be amusing, if it didn’t irk me so much. After all, such comments are a reaction to evangelical attempts to force their brand of Christianity on everyone. And yet, in their zeal, the fiercely anti-Christian folks are engaging in a kind atheistic evangelism, devoid not only of curiosity about other people’s religious experiences, but also of any respect. 

For my part, I share Thomas Jefferson’s view: “It does me no injury,” he wrote, “for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no god.” I also believe that the wall of separation between church and state is the very cornerstone of the American experiment. What right-wing Christians fail to understand is that far from being anti-religion, it was this “wall” that allowed Christianity—in all of its diversity—to flourish in the United States. 

What troubles me about the anti-Christian sentiment expressed by many on the left is that it’s based on extremely narrow assumptions about what Christianity means. In some cases, these assumptions are understandable, since they stem from bad experiences with churches and religious leaders. If I’d been subjected to the harsh glare of sadistic nuns back in the early ‘60s, as many of my friends were, I might well have turned my back on religion too. All the more so, if I’d been born gay and told that I was therefore going to hell. 

In other cases, though—and I’m basing this on countless conversations—the narrow view is rooted not in personal experience, but simply in superficial judgments: the conclusion, for example, that the tirades of fundamentalists define the entire religion, and that anyone who finds value in the Bible, prayer and church rituals is not only hateful, but also anti-intellectual.

To that assertion, I would ask this: Was Rosalynn Carter’s deep faith ridiculous and infused with hatred? Was President Carter’s? How about the faith of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.? 

In my experience, these people were not rare exceptions among Christians—though they had far greater influence than most of us can ever hope to. On the contrary, in the ways in which they lived by faith—as well as intellect—they represent the vast majority of Christians I’ve known. 

THE POWER of Christianity, for me, isn’t easy to explain. As a young man, I wrestled with it. As I came of age, and broadened my study of world religions, I was particularly turned off by the notion that Jesus was the “only son of God” and that only Christians would be granted eternal life. 

For that matter, the very notion of heaven seemed increasingly untenable to me, based, as it is, on the idea that my ego will live on and that I’ll someday be reunited with my loved ones. 

Who knows, of course. If you believe that, far be it from me to tell you you’re wrong. I just happen to think it’s too simple. I do believe that our energy lives on. But what happens to it—whether it endures as a “soul” or it simply dissipates into the universe, like a glass of water poured from its individual vessel into the ocean—is beyond our comprehension. 

At any rate, contemplations of an afterlife have never been the heart of my religious life. Nor, certainly, have those passages which seem to suggest that Christianity is the only way. I’ve long embraced an interfaith approach, as did all of the spiritual leaders whom I’ve admired, from Thomas Merton to Thich Nhat Hanh. (A wonderful book I recommend is Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ.) My study and practice of Zen Buddhism has also been important to me, and that’s in no way at odds with my practice of Christianity, any more than it was a contradiction for the Catholic priests and nuns who regularly meditated at a New York Zen center when I used to go there in the early ‘80s. They said it deepened their spiritual practice. 

And yet, like them, I’ve never regarded myself as a Buddhist—nor have I ever identified as “spiritual but not religious,” as a growing number of Americans do. The Christian tradition in which I was raised remains at the core of my identity, and I always come home to it, no matter how far afield my explorations may take me.  

The power of its draw for me was illuminated in 2018 when I visited Notre Dame in Paris. Millions of people find beauty in that ancient cathedral, of course, but for many it’s no different from the beauty they find in the Louvre. For me, a simple tour wouldn’t do. I wanted to attend mass. Interestingly, though it was in French and Latin, I knew right where we were in the service the entire time—and when the priest placed the Communion host on my tongue, I felt a profound sense of peace come over me. 

Was some higher power at work? Or did the ritual simply connect me to the innocence of childhood? 

I have no idea. But does the answer really matter? Presumably, none of my atheist friends are contemptuous of people who take antidepressants. But somehow, if you find comfort in faith and religious ritual, you’re a fool.

I suppose I should thank them, though. It’s in part because of the steady stream of hostility toward Christianity that I’ve gone deeper into this meditation. 

In recent years, I’ve fallen out of the habit of attending church services—but not because I see no value in it. To be honest, it’s pure laziness—on most Sunday mornings, I’d rather stay at home, sipping coffee and doing the Times crossword puzzle, than get dressed and head out the door.

The time has come to change this. To that end, I plan to be at midnight mass on Christmas Eve—something that I hope will renew a practice that used to serve me very well: attending Sunday services throughout the year, reading daily from the Book of Common Prayer and trying to live by the only message I ever got in church as a child: You are loved. Love others in the same spirit.