"To all of our atheist friends: Thank God you're wrong."
Move over, We Buy Ugly Houses.com and Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa. Here was religious faith on a billboard, refuting non-belief in letters three feet high. I was visiting Los Angeles, driving with a friend along La Cienega Boulevard, when this king-size ad for religious certainty smacked us in the eye.
Turns out that Answers in Genesis, an evangelical organization with money to spend, took the God debate to billboards this month in New York and Los Angeles. They were pushing back against a group called the American Atheists, who at Christmas time last year sponsored a billboard featuring images of Jesus and Santa Claus with the words: "Keep the Merry, dump the myth."
OMG, a billboard war about the existence of God. The whole thing agitates, for me, an endemic cultural despair that has little to do with the point of view of either organization. Well, we've reduced politics to an advertising game, not to mention health and love and pretty much everything else -- that is to say, we've reduced all that was once sacred to commodities with price tags -- so why not the whole God-vs.-science thing, i.e., reality? It's already been reduced to a survey question.
Gallup.com "has been tracking American opinions about creationism" for the last 30 years, CNN reported. As of last year, "46 percent of Americans believed in creationism, 32 percent believed in evolution guided by God, and 15 percent believed in atheistic evolution."
God wins. Any questions?
What shakes me to the core about all this is not the results of the survey or the ultimate winner and loser of the billboard war but the fact that we live in a culture that plays these kinds of games and takes them seriously. Reducing "belief" in all its complexity and wholeness to such tiny, predetermined "answers" (remember, you can only choose one) is the equivalent of the choice King Solomon gave to the two mothers: "And the king said, divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other."
Aren't we playing this game with the whole planet, not to mention one another? The difference is that Solomon didn't mean it.
What I'm saying is that the wholeness of who we are is what matters and we need to live in a way that honors this, not in a way that dismembers it. We need to live more with reverence, which can't be reduced to a billboard slogan, than with certainty, which can. Not to do so is the equivalent of slicing the baby in two -- or at least that's what I felt when I saw the God debate go commercial on La Cienega Boulevard the other day. Which part of the baby do you believe in?
We have bigger matters to address. Consider Pope Francis in Sardinia last month, remarkably linking God and belief to something relevant to all our lives. Speaking to thousands of economically devastated people in Cagliari in September, he said that the global economic system could no longer be based on a "god called money."
This is a point of enormous import, and not just because the pope said it. As Charles Eisenstein explains in his extraordinary book Sacred Economics: "It is hugely ironic and hugely significant that the one thing on the planet most closely resembling the forgoing conception of the divine is money. It is an invisible, immortal force that surrounds and steers all things, omnipotent and limitless, an 'invisible hand' that, it is said, makes the world go 'round."
Money, whatever it is -- a medium of exchange, bits on a computer -- is something pretty much everyone, atheist and evangelical alike, believes in ... or maybe I mean BELIEVES IN! You know, in big, unquestioned, god-fearing ways. We devote our lives to its "worship," doing what it asks of us so we and our children can live in dignity and empowerment. Furthermore, our belief in it is pretty much unquestioned, unchallenged -- indeed, without awareness that it's a belief at all. No one ever asks, snidely, "Do you believe in money?" We're simply told how much it costs.
This is the belief system I'd like to see challenged, by which I mean dislodged from its hidden, capricious domination of the global economy: the belief that a soulless, abstract entity and the values it embodies, which include its own endless growth and the expendability of all that is human and natural -- all that is sacred -- runs our lives. I mean, what if it didn't?
Pope Francis, according to Reuters, told the crowd of unemployed, "To defend this economic culture, a throwaway culture has been installed. We throw away grandparents, and we throw away young people. We have to say no to his throwaway culture. We want a just system that helps everyone." He also chanted a prayer for "work, work, work" and, later, said that real men and women must be at the center of our economic system, not an abstract concept that is indifferent to their needs.
I'm not sure how this change begins. But I know that economic fairness won't be real if it goes no deeper than government bureaucracy. We have to start believing that something more sacred than money is at our economic center.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.
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