Encountering non-religious pilgrims along the Oregon Trail.
“You have died of dysentery.”
Those ominous words, one might recall, were the worst words any eight-year-old could read on the screen while playing The Oregon Trail—that folkloric, now ancient video game those of us of a certain generation played after school on our Apple IIGs’s before mom and dad returned from work.
Fording our way across raging rivers, hunting rabbits and bears with our muskets, and looking for hospitable fort towns where a store could be found, we journeyed across the great unknown to a land they called Oregon. We knew the journey had a price. Financially. Emotionally. Physically, even. We got sick. Some got dysentery. Many lost wives or children or fathers. Others themselves died.
But everyone came to Oregon looking for something.
Cascadia has been seen as a land of “new starts,” a place where people can trade pain, or oppression, or mistakes for a new lease on life.
People still travel the Oregon Trail. While the divots of the wagons are overgrown with grass—and the green glow of the video game has faded—the trail has a new generation of journeyers. For centuries, people have been making their way to what has come to be called Cascadia—a land of enchantment and adventure. Cascadia has been seen as a land of “new starts,” a place where people can trade pain, or oppression, or mistakes for a new lease on life.
But a “new start” always implies something has ended. In order to come to Cascadia, one must be willing (or wanting) to leave something behind. Because so few people who live in Cascadia are actually from Cascadia, that means a lot of things get left behind. One of those things is religion. Sociologists of religion describe Cascadia as the land of the “Nones”—those who, though often spiritual, refuse to identify with any one religion. A lot of “Nones” live here. More than anywhere else in these United States, in fact.
What is it, exactly, that makes Cascadia such a hard place for religion in general and Christianity in particular?
Portrait of a Cascadian
My friend, Patricia Killen, a sociologist at Gonzaga University, has explored this question carefully. In her article “Faithless in Seattle?,” Killen explores three aspects to what she calls the “social ecology” of Cascadia.
First, there is a general disconnect to the past for those who come to Cascadia. If someone comes to Cascadia, it is for a reason. No one takes the Oregon Trail accidentally.
Second, there is a “low cultural density”—meaning that people are dispersed over greater distances than elsewhere in the country. Because of that, people are less likely to have ongoing contact with people who think differently than they do. Cascadia is a great place to remain anonymous and isolated.
Third, there is a phenomenon of physical and social mobility. People come here from elsewhere. And, once they relocate to Cascadia, they move around more than anyone else. Adventurers have long been drawn to the great expanse of this place.
Moving. Religion. Is there a connection between the two?
Killen thinks so. “Moving,” she theorizes, “disconnects people from social pressures to conform.”
That certainly has been true in my experience. Every time I have moved, I had a great sense of renewed freedom and excitement to try new things and retire old things. Moving gave me a clean slate. It dethroned old commitments and responsibilities and gave me a bright new future unencumbered by the restraints of home.
Killen’s research has helped me in my role as a pastor in Portland. Mostly, it explains why people identify as spiritual and not religious in Cascadia. I know countless “spiritual” people who would not be caught dead on a dreary, Oregon Sunday in the pews of a church. And even those who are religious tend to be pretty halfhearted about their brand of religiosity.
Down with Religion
I can still remember after Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz came out. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people moved to Portland to find this non-religious church where they could love Jesus but not be constrained by the religious straightjacket of their homelands. These weren’t the unconverted moving to Portland. These were Christians looking for, as Miller’s subtitle put it, “non-religious spirituality.”
We taught them how to hate religion! When you spend all of your time spouting nonsense clichés like, “I don’t believe in organized religion but in relationship with God,” what you preach will eventually come back at you.
As a pastor I find the trend towards “spiritual but not religious” disturbing. We’ve been preaching the death of religion for a long time. We’ve been portraying organized church as the enemy of Jesus. And our message has hit the hearts of people. So we shouldn’t complain about people not coming to church, or giving, or joining a committee. We taught them how to hate religion! When you spend all of your time spouting nonsense clichés like, “I don’t believe in organized religion but in relationship with God,” what you preach will eventually come back at you. But religious passion is good. It gets things done. It feeds the poor. In fact, that is how true religion is “good” in God’s eyes, James tells us, isn’t it?
There is a title of a recent book by David Dark that caught my eye: Life Is Too Short To Pretend You Aren’t Religious. I can’t wait to read it! The title is so true. Almost every “spiritual but not religious” person I know is rather quick to quote his or her favorite Bible verse, or favorite Catholic social worker, or favorite U2 band member, or favorite Buddhist thinker to get a point across. When it comes down to it, we’re all religious—just in different ways.
This leads to a kind of approach toward religious truth some call eclecticism. New Testament scholar Walter Liefeld describes eclecticism in clear terms:
Eclecticism is a way of looking at religion and beliefs in which one is not committed to any one religious organization or belief system, but instead chooses aspects of these at will. Any teaching or ethical yardstick that is personally appealing is considered valid.
Cascadians are quick to choose, eclectically, from the religious buffet the truths that fit their worldview. This is the sloppiest form of religion imaginable. Why? Because eclecticism—while gathering lots of good quotes and bumper sticker fodder—doesn’t take seriously the actual intent of the religious teachers who spoke those truths. Eclecticism seeks to draw ideas from people and disconnect them from the intent of those people themselves.
If Jesus knew—as a good, temple-going, circumcised, Sabbath-keeping, Jew—that his teachings would be used to create a kind of eclectic religious soup that undermined the love of Yahweh, he would be pissed. To disconnect the ideas of Jesus from his religious identity as a faithful Jew is absurd.
But we do it all the time. Why? Because we can only receive religious truth as long as it fits our own non-religious identity.
Yes, we need to confess and repent when Christianity has done wrong, but then we need to move forward, continuing in our love of Jesus and neighbor.
I think it‘s time for Christians in Cascadia to re-embrace religion. Yes, we need to confess and repent when Christianity has done wrong, but then we need to move forward, continuing in our love of Jesus and neighbor.
Jesus critiqued religion, challenged it, pushed it, and turned its tables over. But Jesus never abandoned it. You don’t spend that much time and energy critiquing something you don’t love. Jesus spent time on things he believed in. His motivation was different than ours—he wanted to renew religion, we want to cast it aside.
In other words, we can still be pioneers. But’s lets not forget that we have a trail, one we should call fellow Cascadians to journey with us on.