The fall fair was in full swing. Tent kiosks in neat rows, a band playing, people having a great time. The RCMP had a recruiting tent. Even some of the churches had tents. I chatted for a while with the Unitarians who I knew through social justice work. A couple of tents further on I noticed the Humanist Society. I didn’t even know there was a Humanist Society. At least not in our town. I glanced at their display and something caught my eye.
It was the bus ad. You know the one. It made quite a splash in the U.K. when it appeared on buses in London last year. The ad is very clever. All it says is, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” That’s it.
I admire clever ads.
The first four words set the scene: “We don’t pretend to have all the answers, we’re happy to be in conversation about it, and we think there’s no God. Would you like to join in the conversation?” And then the punch line. “You are supposed to enjoy your life. If there’s no God you can stop worrying about being oppressed, and be who you really are.”
Those words carry three messages. First: We are just like you. We don’t have all the answers either so you can trust us. Second: People were meant to be fulfilled. It’s good to become who you are. And third: The good news-the gospel-is that we can be free to be ourselves when we realize there is no imaginary being oppressing us.
So I stopped at the Humanist Society tent and told them how much I liked the bus ad. With my clergy collar on, they were predictably astonished. “You like it? But you’re a minister!” So I told them why I liked the ad. But I did manage to get out of there before they asked me to sign up.
Churches are getting really worried about why people aren’t coming to church anymore. And the incarnation is a big part of the answer. Incarnation means getting right into the life of the other-taking them really seriously. Just like God did when Jesus was born among us. Christmas and liturgy and processions are such a big deal for us because they are about incarnation
Today, incarnation for us means getting inside the minds of the Humanist Society and taking them seriously. This wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. The Bible is full of stories about how God worked through unbelievers. Ruth, an non-believer, was one of Jesus’ own ancestors, the foreign slaving Midianites made it possible for Joseph to end up in Egypt, and God used the unbelieving Cyrus to return the Jews to their promised land.
In our day, the atheists may turn out to be our best teachers. So, what can we expect to learn? First, we can learn how to communicate better. Perhaps your church might consider an ad that says: “God’s probably in love with us. So relax, everything’s going to be fine.”
It’s important to say “probably.” It sounds more open to loving and being loved than someone who claims certainty.
Second, the atheists are teaching us about God. The bus ad actually supports our proclamation about God, and we should count the humanists as allies. The whole point of Christ being born in a stable and dying and rising for us is that the gods of this world who oppress and destroy creation no longer have any power over us. We should thank the Humanist Society for saying it so effectively.
Quite probably, God is speaking to us through the secular world. So let’s relax and listen to what he is saying.
Canon Harold Munn is rector of The Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, B.C.