America's dividing line: Thoughts, prayers and belief in a transcendent God

Story highlights

  • John Inazu: The "thoughts and prayers" debate after San Bernardino exposes the real dividing line in American society
  • Each side can reach across that "transcendence line" and make a difference, he says

John Inazu is associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of "Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference" (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2016). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The war of words over "thoughts and prayers" in response to the San Bernardino massacre is the latest illustration that our culture is fractured not only politically, but also along the transcendence line: The line divides those who believe in a God who intervenes in the world and those who do not.

We see the transcendence line in sharp relief when some people are moved to pray in response to tragedy and others insist that prayer doesn't "work" and isn't "doing" anything. We see it in the puzzled and impatient reactions to the acts of forgiveness extended by the family members of those killed in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. We see it in critiques of Christian missionaries who care for the sick and dying in Ebola-stricken lands.
John D. Inazu
We see the transcendence line play out in other ways. How could those religious believers be so hateful and bigoted in their beliefs? How could those nonbelievers be so selfish and immoral? Our generalities and caricatures fuel our predispositions, and those on the other side of the line increasingly appear to us as less compassionate, less worthy and less human.
    America is deeply divided along the transcendence line. Tens of millions of Americans profess belief in a transcendent God. They include Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of many other faiths. Yet these generic labels are also imprecise; many self-identifying Christians and Jews reject the idea that God intervenes in the world in miraculous and supernatural ways.
    They may participate in religious practices. They may even pray. But they do not believe that prayer "works." They do not have a category of "forgiveness" that appeals to transcendent justice and mercy.
    They do not anticipate a transcendent world to come. Each of them lives out a kind of faith, but the content and contours of that faith is focused on the present physical world and the people in it.
    The transcendence line is not the difference between "belief" and "unbelief." Each of us lives according to strongly held commitments and values-infused beliefs. The liberal atheist who stands up for "equality" and "dignity" relies on foundational and tradition-dependent assumptions in much the same way as the religious conservative who defends "morality" and "truth."
    The transcendence line is not a line between good and evil. Some people professing transcendence lay down their lives for their neighbors; others kill their neighbors. Some people who profess nontranscendence are generous and self-giving; others live only for themselves.
    The transcendence line matters because it affects how many people orient the most fundamental aspects of their lives. And there is a great deal at stake in our differences over transcendence.
    Consider the words of the Apostle Paul: "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." If transcendent hope is misplaced, Paul says, then pity his delusions. Pity his prayers and his acts of forgiveness and his longing for a world transformed by transcendence.
    Those who share Paul's transcendent hope might recognize that people of faith have often flourished when others around them reject their beliefs. Rather than bristling at those who mock them, they might see a moment of opportunity for a clearer expression of faith, hope and love. And they might remember that transcendent hope often fuses acts of faith with worldly labors. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa prayed and forgave, but they also labored.
    In the other direction, those who reject transcendence can choose to extend charity in their bewilderment rather than trivialize acts of prayer and forgiveness. They might resist the urge to assume that those praying and forgiving are not also pursuing other forms of action. And they might hold open the possibility that Paul ought not be pitied after all.
    Our deep differences are not going away anytime soon. Our own friends, neighbors and colleagues will increasingly fall on both sides of the transcendence line. In light of this reality and other deep differences between us, I have elsewhere argued that we might move toward a "confident pluralism," where we might try to extend tolerance, humility and patience toward those with whom we fundamentally disagree.
    That's going to take work. It will require slowing down our social media impulses, drafting and redrafting our written words, and pausing before our spoken words. None of this will be easy. But the coming years will give us plenty of opportunities -- the transcendence line is here to stay.