The woman hesitated a split second, and he could see she was calculating. Then she said: “I’ll send a card. Would she like that?”
“I’m sure she would,” he answered. And he thought to himself: All things considered, I guess that sending a card will earn her as much merit in God’s eyes as actually saying a prayer would do.
As the woman promised, the man tells me, the card—a stylized Christmas tree—arrived a few days later.
In telling this story, I don’t mean to equate greeting cards with prayer. But this little encounter was one of those signs of the times that bears reflection. As faith declines in our increasingly secularized society, religious believers need to make adjustments in how they think about the non-believers all around them—not to place non-belief on the same level with belief, but to factor in God’s immense generosity and try to share in it just a little.
This is in line with the thesis lately advanced by Joseph Bottum in an interesting essay in The Weekly Standard. With the collapse of the mainline Protestant churches in America, Bottum argues, something he calls—borrowing from author Flannery O’Connor—the Church of Christ Without Christ has taken their place.
One consequence, in his view, is that America is “awash in unconsciously held Christian ideas broken from the theology that gave them meaning” and now finding expression in appropriately secularized ways. Sending sick, bereaved, or otherwise troubled people sympathy cards instead of praying for them is, I believe, one fairly common instance of that. The substance—compassion for someone else in pain—remains, but it’s externalized in a very different form.