Greater Than Ourselves

In finding common ground between those who have different beliefs, there is one unifying idea that is easily stated but very important: All of us, theists, atheists, and agnostics, can dedicate our lives to something greater than ourselves.

For some this means obedience to the will of God. But those who do not believe in God can devote themselves to another high purpose, such as allegiance to a set of core values. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until we find rest in thee.” A secular humanist might say, “My heart is restless until I rise above my own narrow interests.”

The crucial disagreement is not between belief and unbelief. It’s between those who are committed to a larger purpose and those who are unconcerned with the common good. Deep down we long to grow toward something larger and more lasting than ourselves, something that calls forth the best we can be.

When I think of focusing on the common good, I think of Frank Powell. I know Frank’s daughter Jean, who is now over 90. Jean suspects that her dad was an agnostic.

Frank was a dedicated humanitarian who founded the first bureau for handicapped children in Wisconsin and set up programs for kids with deafness, rheumatic heart trouble, and other ailments. When at last he was on his deathbed a local minister came by and asked him, “Frank, have you made your peace with God?” Echoing the words of Henry David Thoreau, the old man replied, “As far as I know, I have not quarreled with him.”

“Well then,” said the pastor, “are you confident that your soul will attain salvation?” “Reverend, I’ve spent my life up to this point thinking about other people and I’m not going to start worrying about myself now.”

At the funeral, that minister said he had to respect a man who could give those answers. Perhaps he sensed spiritual maturity in the old agnostic, Frank Powell.

Roger Christan Schriner

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1 thought on “Greater Than Ourselves

  1. Yes, there is often too much introspection going on in the Christian faith at least. Many people find more meaning in doing something useful and focusing on others than on worshipping God through singing, prayer and liturgy, it seems. Maybe the ones that go to church just have a particular spiritual learning style? I was just thinking this morning that many believers tend to think of people who aren’t committed to a church as being less/not Christian but perhaps that is just because church isn’t right for everyone? I have just stopped going (I don’t know if it will be temporary or permanent) and am quite happy doing my own times of prayer, meditation, contemplation and reading but more importantly, doing voluntary work and seeing my paid work and spending time with family as my way of joining in with God. I think though that not everyone naturally thinks about their values and purpose etc on a regular basis, either because they are too busy surviving or because that hasn’t been part of their upbringing and social norms. But it does seem the case that people can feel less guilty or regretful about the way they have spent their lives if they are able to inject some meaning and transcendence into ordinary life, like reasons why caring for relatives or doing a job well or not breaking the law are expressions of higher values. So rather than trying to convert people, perhaps Christians could see their role as gently prodding people into thinking a little more about those values and the direction of their life, without trying to get them to fit into their mould.

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