Delighting in our Neighbors  Who are Non-Religious: A Lutheran Theological Proposal


[1] The Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community at St. Olaf College, which I direct, is charged with articulating why and how Lutheran theology, tradition, and affiliation still matter at an institution like St. Olaf that boasts an increasingly diverse community of students, faculty, and staff. The number of students identifying as Lutheran continues its steady decline, landing at 18% for the class of 2025, and like colleges and universities across the country, the number of those who say they have “no preference” for religion continues to rise, currently sitting at 43% of St. Olaf students in the class of 2025.1

[2] The mission of the Lutheran Center includes bringing people of different faiths and worldviews together to “enrich spiritual inquiry, foster love of neighbor, and deepen a sense of vocation in all.”2 The Center provides programming and support for all students, faculty, and staff regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. While Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist students have become connected to the Center and its work, one of the challenges for a Center with “Lutheran” in its name is to engage with those students (and faculty and staff) unaffiliated with religion.

[3] In 2019, the ELCA passed a “Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment,” a document that addresses how Lutherans are called to be in relationship with their neighbors who adhere to a variety of different religious traditions as well as no religion at all. This document illustrates how the practice of neighbor love in our current context is not just a practice of tolerance of our neighbors of other faith traditions, but a call to support, stand with, and advocate on behalf of those in our communities whose religious affiliation is different from our own.  The Declaration also acknowledges that our neighbors are also those who do not profess a religion, “including those who consider themselves atheists or agnostics or ascribe to other worldviews that are not explicitly religious.”3 At St. Olaf we often reference this document to undergird our claims that to be Lutheran in the 21st century is to be actively and enthusiastically inter-religious and  to engage those with no religion as well.

[4] While there is certainly more theologizing to be done in terms of what it means to be in relation with our neighbors of other religious traditions, I am interested in thinking theologically about the relationship between those who are religious and those who are not. I also want to think about institutions of higher education that continue to identify with a particular religious tradition while working to welcome all students, faculty, and staff who are part of the institution, regardless of their relationship to religion.


Plural Contexts, Identity, and Faith in a Plural Age

[5]  As Lutherans consider more deeply what ethical community with our non-religious neighbors looks like, it’s important to dedicate some time to understanding the wider societal context. The long-standing social-scientific secularization theory that claims modernity brings about a decline in religion continues to be challenged and reconsidered. While modernity has brought a significant decline in religion in many western European nations, this hasn’t been the case in the United States and other countries outside Europe. As sociologist Peter Berger insists, those who embraced the secularization theory believed that modernity and religion were related in an antagonistic way. However, there’s much evidence to support that religion can and does coexist with modernity.4

[6] Secularization theory is also being challenged by scholars of higher education. John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen Mahoney’s recent book on The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education, insists that religion is back on campus, and that we should consider our current campus contexts part of the “post-secular academy.”5 They point to significant philanthropy from places like the Lilly Endowment for theological exploration of vocation in the 1990s and 2000s as one of the reasons for this renewed attention to religious aspects of vocational reflection, as well as the growing religious diversity on campus as a second important factor in that resurgence.

[7] Even as scholars highlight the ongoing vibrancy of religion in the modern period, secularism continues to be a powerful force in contemporary society. Brian Beckstrom’s recent work, Leading Lutheran Higher Education in a Secular Age, locates the task of creating a compelling vision for Lutheran Higher Education amid demographics that are increasingly unfamiliar with Lutheran theology, history, and denominational polity, as a project being carried out in a largely secular context.6 Influenced by Charles Taylor’s work on secularity,7 Beckstrom focuses on how the relationship between our (secular) context and notions of self are being understood.

[8] In what Taylor calls the Secular 1 framework of the pre-modern period, people lived in an enchanted universe where supernatural forces were believed to act upon a porous self. According to Taylor, modernity ushered in the Secular 2 worldview where the sacred and secular became distinct from one another. In this context the self is understood as “buffered,” where transcendent forces like God are limited to sacred experiences outside of one’s secular life. This view of a “disenchanted” universe, Beckstrom claims, has not only been affirmed by secular humanists but also in many ways by the church, where the sacred and transcendence are limited to explicitly religious spaces.8

[9] Following Taylor, Beckstrom points to an emerging Secular 3 worldview that adheres largely to a notion of a closed universe where transcendence is generally unbelievable. According to Taylor, the Secular 3 self operates with an “immanent frame,” an understanding that everything in the world is part of a natural order and understandable without reference to anything outside itself.9 While some selves are closed to any possibility of transcendence, Beckstrom is interested in the selves who possess a curiosity about the possibility of the existence of something beyond the temporal plane.10

[10] Beckstrom acknowledges that secularization is more complex than originally understood, and that there are ways in which religion continues to be vibrant in what he calls our “post-Christian” age. I’d like to set Bergstrom’s characterization of our current context alongside a proposal from sociologist of religion Peter Berger that suggests we ought to move further away from secularism as the defining context in which we live. In his 2014 text, The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age, Berger proposes that we understand our context as “pluralistic” rather than “secular.” Berger acknowledges that “secular discourse” is most certainly part of our current zones of reality, living both in our “subjective minds” as well as in the “objective order” of our society.11 These are spaces (like modern medicine) where supernatural presuppositions have little to no weight. But Berger is quick to point out that secular discourse does not replace all forms of religious discourse. And for most people who are religious, secular and religious discourses go hand-in-hand.12

[11] Berger argues that he uses the concept of “pluralism” more pragmatically than philosophically, describing it as  “a social situation in which people with different ethnicities, worldviews, and moralities live together peacefully and interact with one another amicably.”13 As critics have pointed out, this definition of pluralism offered by Berger is more normative and ideological than practical, even though he intends for the term to be used descriptively. Given the debatability of whether people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives are actually living “peacefully and amicably” with one another, I will follow the lead of sociologist of religion Fenggagg Yang and use the term “plurality” to indicate a more descriptive reality than an ideological one.14 Berger persuasively argues that modernization has not led to secularization but to social pluralities, where people’s regular interaction with others who are different from them “does indeed present faith with a significant challenge, but it is different from the challenge of secularization.”15

[12] How does our context of plurality impact current understandings of “faith”? Whereas people used to grow up understanding their lives of faith as destiny, claiming and practicing faith is now a deliberate choice. This reality, Berger observes, leads to a growing distinction between individual and communal religious practices. It is the case that increasing numbers of people do not think communal religious practices need to be adopted fully.  Instead they consider these practices and the institutions that house them more like a toolbox from which people can draw as needed. As supporters of Berger’s proposal have indicated, using the language of plurality over against secularism opens up space to more fully honor the ways in which individual religious practices and experiences of faith persist among those who have largely left institutional religion and communal religious practices.16 It is to this growing gap between those who engage in communal religious practices and those who do not that we now turn.


Toward Multiple, Non-Binary Understandings of Religious Dis-affiliation in an Age of Plurality

[13] While it’s well established that religious affiliation in the U.S. is declining and the numbers of those who are not religiously affiliated is rising, the oft-used term “none” to describe the religiously unaffiliated reinforces a binary between the religious and non-religious that belies the variated self-understandings of those who are religiously unaffiliated. One text that offers a deep dive into those who are non-religious is Ryan Burge’s The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.17 A political scientist and a pastor, Burge begins by highlighting the challenges of classifying what it means to be religious. Studies focused on behavior are often compromised not only by the numbers of people who see themselves as religious but who cannot attend religious services regularly (due to age, disability, transportation issues, and more) but also by those traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism) where regular worship attendance does not correlate well to religious devotion. Studies focused on belief often neglect the importance of religious practice as an indicator of religiosity. And studies focused on belonging characterize religion as a social affair and do not account for individualized ways people understand themselves as being religious. Given these challenges, Burge opts for Pew Research’s twelve options for self-identification that allow a more nuanced view regarding beliefs, practices, and commitments of the non-religious.

[14] While Burge notes that there’s no single causal reason for the significant rise of the nones, his analysis of data since the 1990s suggests that secularization, politics, and the rise of the internet are three driving factors. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that the 50 million nones in the U.S. constitute a very diverse group. Burge parses out the internal diversity of nones, noting for instance the staggering jump from 20% of Generation X identifying as nones to over 32% of millennials.18

[15] What’s most helpful in Burge’s analysis is his careful distinguishing among the three main groups of those who are non-religious: atheists, agnostics, and those who say they are “nothing in particular,” which is by far the largest of the three groups. This group, he notes, is unified in their rejection of all labels, and might be “the most consequential religious group in the U.S.”19 This group is also the fastest growing religious group in the U.S. One in 20 Americans has become “nothing in particular” in the past decade.

[16] What else do we know about the “nothing in particulars”? Burge highlights that they are much more likely than atheists and agnostics to attend religious services. And 35% of the “nothing in particulars” say religion is “very important” to them.20 In tracking change in affiliation over time, those who are “nothing in particular” are the most likely among the nones to change their religious affiliation.21 The data confirms the increasingly plural nature of how individuals are relating to religion.

[17] A nuanced look at religiously-unaffiliated students is also happening at Lutheran colleges and universities. In his article, “‘Faithful Nones’ and the Importance of a Rooted and Open Pedagogy,” Lutheran pastor and Midland University staff member John Eggen researched those who identify as “nones” and how they talk about their relationship to religion. In ways that reinforce Burge’s analysis of the nones who identify as “nothing in particular,” Eggen has found that for the students he surveyed, the designation “none” is viewed as something positive and substantive. And just like the “nothing in particulars” discussed by Burge, Eggen found that a subset of nones also maintain a strong religious identity. Eggen also notes that one of the subgroups present at Lutheran-affiliated institutions are what he has termed the “faithful nones,” those who yearn for a deeper understanding of faith, religion, and spirituality that moves beyond a binary understanding of identity as either “religious” or “secular.”22

[18] Expanding on that last point, Eggen explores the ways in which this group has delinked “religion” and “faith.” This delinking, Eggen argues, exposes a gap in the scholarship, that studies on these issues highlight a disambiguation of religion and spirituality while the concept of “faith” seems to be at times synonymous with either.23 The college students in his survey challenged the notion that faith is subservient to religious identity or spirituality. Eggen highlights the importance of the “faithful nones” seeing faith as distinct from religion or spirituality and calls for a shift that clearly delinks faith from both spirituality and religion. Eggen continues,


     A differentiation between faith, spirituality, and religion as three independent elements

     calls for a more profound understanding of all three. A differentiated understanding of

     the three would call for a more concrete definition of ‘religion’ as a communal expression

     of faith that is based in culture and rituals, of ‘faith’ as a personal set of beliefs in a higher

     power, and of ‘spirituality’ as personal practices contributing to self-understanding and in

     support of their belief.”24


[19] To help move forward with these proposals, Eggen returns to Berger’s description of the individual and communal expressions of faith, with today’s individual expressions of faith being understood much more as choice than accident of birth.25 For Eggen, Berger’s distinction between individual and communal expressions of religion or faith highlight what is true for the “faithful nones” in his study: that there exists an important distinction between internalized forms of faith and communal expressions of it. What is evident in the unbundling of faith with religion (and spirituality) is what Beckstrom and Eggen both highlight as an increasingly fluid sense of identity among Gen Z and those who populate our universities today.

[20] Eggen concludes his article by suggesting that the claim by Lutheran institutions of higher education that they are neither “secular” nor “sectarian” but a “third path” is well positioned to meet these faithful nones where they currently live.


Beyond Theological Neutrality: Delighting in Our (Non-Religious) Neighbors

[21] In crafting a Lutheran theological response to those who are non-religious and potentially open to exploring faith in new and plural ways, it is important to acknowledge that Martin Luther was immersed in the deeply enchanted universe of the sixteenth century, where, as theologian Elisebeth Gerle says, “all reality was God’s reality.”26 The taken-for-grantedness of Christian faith and a Christian worldview of Luther’s day is no longer taken for granted. Even so, in attempting to connect with those who are religiously unaffiliated, Lutheran theologians could stress some of the ways in which Luther’s approach to religion and faith may resonate with them. Whether it be his call for the elimination of an institutional mediator from the individual’s relationship with God to the ways in which Luther and the Reformation offered freedom from outward religiosity and elevated the saliency of our inner lives,27 these challenges to the religion of his day could be places of fruitful conversation about how Luther helped imagine new ways of practicing faith beyond what he understood to be confining religious frameworks.

[22] Here I am helped by friend and recently-retired St. Olaf colleague, Hindu scholar Anant Rambachan, who penned a response to the ELCA’s recent Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment. Even as Rambachan commends the church’s call for interreligious cooperation that exemplifies “a shared commitment to justice, peace, and the common good,” he also expresses disappointment that the Declaration remains theologically neutral regarding what Lutherans might learn from people of other religions and no religion.28 The Declaration advocates for theological humility about the limits of knowing what is in other people’s hearts (and therefore, refraining from making assumptions about others’ relationship with God). That’s all fine and good, Rambachan notes, but the Declaration’s silence on how inter-religious dialogue and relationships impacts Lutheran theology disappoints. As one who writes and speaks extensively about how his interactions with Christians and others impact his Hindu self-understanding, Rambachan asks the ELCA, “Is theological neutrality the final word on inter-religious dialogue?”

[23] I hope the answer is “no.” Part of living into that “no” entails moving beyond theological neutrality regarding those who are religiously unaffiliated.

[24] Recent work by Lutheran feminist theologians helps reveal why a Lutheran worldview should compel us to talk about how we are impacted by our relationships, including relationships with those who are non-religious. Kathryn Kleinhans offers helpful insights from Luther’s imagery in “On the Freedom of the Christian” of the unity between Christ and the Christian. Drawing on Finnish Lutheran scholars and their challenge to a forensic reading of what happens within this union, Kleinhans suggests that Luther’s use of marital imagery suggests a fundamentally relational reality. Who we are is shaped by our relationships, which means that “identity is defined and expressed in relationship.”29 The Christian’s union with Christ leads to Christ’s “alien righteousness” engendering a “proper righteousness” in the Christian and frees them up to attend to the specific needs of the neighbor.

[25] Building on Kleinhans’ work, Elisabeth Gerle notes that this view of the self-in-relationship differs from the unitary subject from which some post-Luther Lutheran theology has often proceeded.30 Gerle also proposes that Luther’s privileging of a marriage metaphor over a monastic one helps emphasize that God’s creative activity is not limited to a religiously-designated sphere of life.31 This insight, Gerle insists, leads us to claim that God is also present in spaces that many today consider “secular.”32

[26] In addition, Gerle stresses that Luther’s use of nuptial imagery highlights the reality that the gift of freedom emerges from an experience of love. Gerle points out that for Luther, marriage is seen as not just the nurturing of love between the marriage partners, but also as a relationship that opens up care for those beyond that relationship. She then draws on Gustav Wingren’s vision of how Lutheran theology orients one toward the neighbor: “Delight at one’s neighbour [sic], that is love’s breakthrough . . . . There is no more delightful or loving creature on earth than one’s neighbor. Love does not think about doing good deeds, for it takes delight in people, and when something good is done to one’s fellow human being, it is not as a deed of love, but, on the contrary, merely as a reaching for gifts. Love must never do anything good. It may do it.” And delighting in our neighbors, Wingren insists, is central to our vocation.33

[27] How might delighting in our non-religious neighbors (and friends, and family members) prompt theologizing that reflects that delight?

[28] In developing a response, I have found Thomas Rodgerson’s Overhearing a Christian Apology to the Nones: Revealing Still Hidden Truths in Dialogue to be a good conversation partner. In it he models a process of dialogue between Christians and those who are non-religious, a process where Christians (and their partners) commit to “standing together where truths will emerge.”34 A key component of this process of dialogue is a practice of listening called “interpathy,” a combination of “inter,” “cultural,” and “empathy” where we attempt to imagine the world from the perspective of the other’s point of view.35 A Lutheran commitment to loving and delighting in the neighbor needs an interpathic approach to be theologically impacted by relationships with those who are non-religious.

[29] In his dialogue between Christians and those who are non-religious, Rodgerson holds on to the term “none,” even as he acknowledges problems with the term (most notably that it is almost never used as a self-descriptor by those who are non-religious). He continues to wonder, though, if the term might help increase Christian interpathy over why those who are non-religious have rejected religion. The first half of his book examines the many reasons nones reject contemporary versions of American Christianity, and Rodgerson models ways American Christians might apologize for the anthropocentrism, individualism, and capitulation to market capitalism that animates much of what counts for Christianity in our current context. Rodgerson proposes that this is a time to “do the spiritual work necessary to tolerate the anxiety, allow the stories we have told ourselves about our Selves, our religion, and our society to come to light for evaluation, and position ourselves as co-creators in an exciting time of ‘something is happening’ as we wait for the revealing of still hidden truths necessary to revise our stories.”36

[30] What might happen if Lutherans (and indeed Christians more broadly) were to engage more directly in this type of spiritual work? Borrowing from the insights of Caroline Fairless, Rodgerson proposes that it is on this “apophatic pathway” where Christians and those who are not religious might meet. “It is the pathway of unlearning, unsaying, and self-emptying where out of the ‘nothingness’ we find something new emerging in the space between things.”37 In committing to sustained conversation and relationship with those who have delinked religion from faith and spirituality, Rodgerson’s approach encourages more robust theological reflection on Christian understanding of this particular incarnation of self-in-relationship. Those of us who still identify as religious, he notes, are not Nones, but often are “not not-Nones” in our inner questioning and doubts, which make us open to the possibility of transformation. And many who are not-religious, as Burge and Eggen have pointed out, are “not Somes [Rodgerson’s term for those who are religious], but they are often not not-Somes in their prioritizing of relationships or their desire for truth.” Here we stand, at a threshold where we can move beyond binary thinking to plural realities ripe for connection. It is here that we might find an opening “to a place where we often must “sigh” because it is too deep for words. And in the sighing, we find ourselves resonating with something that is unspeakable yet happens to hold all things together and is pregnant with the possibility of revealing still hidden truths.”38

[31] In order to be good neighbors within an increasingly plural society where the numbers of people who identify as non-religious is growing rapidly, it is imperative for Lutherans to move beyond theological neutrality in our discussions about and living out of those relationships. This work is especially relevant for ELCA-affiliated colleges and universities that serve increasingly large populations of non-religious students. A Lutheran understanding of self-in-relation alongside the vocational call to delight in one’s neighbors compels us to move beyond a religious/non-religious binary, open to new spiritual truths that emerge through interpathic relationships with those who are non-religious.




[1] This article springs from a research presentation and conversations held at the 14th International Congress for Luther Research in 2022. My thanks to the participants of the “Luther and Religion” seminar. For more information on the religious affiliations of St. Olaf students, go to

[2] (accessed June 14th 2023)

[3] Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. “A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment”. Aug 8 2019. (accessed June 14th 2023)

[4] Berger points to the prevalence and persistence of religion in Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well as the prominence in the U.S. of Christian Evangelicalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Berger, The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014. 19-20.

[5] John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen Mahoney, The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education, Baylor University Press, 2018.

[6] Brian Beckstrom, Leading Luther Higher Education in a Secular Age: Religious Identity, Mission, and Vocation at ELCA Colleges and Universities, New York: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2020.

[7] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, reprint edition, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2018.

[8]  Beckstrom critiques ELCA college and university statements explaining their Lutheran affiliation for their lack of language about the transcendent, i.e., the activity of God. Beckstrom, Leading Luther Higher Education, 116-120.

[9] Taylor, A Secular Age, 539ff.

[10] Beckstrom, Leading Luther Higher Education, 120-122.

[11] Berger, The Many Altars, 52.

[12] Berger does a careful analysis of recent scholarship such as Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back and Robert Wuthnow’s The God Problem, to illustrate how scholars are tracking religious people’s ways of distinguishing between secular and religious discourses. Berger also makes clear that most people aren’t logicians; nevertheless, many modern people have developed the ability to manage both religious and secular views of reality at the same time. Berger, The Many Altars, 54-57.

[13] Berger, The Many Altars, 1.

[14] See the helpful critique of Berger’s use of pluralism in the “Response by Fenggang Yang: Agency-Driven Secularization and Chinese Experiments in Multiple Modernities” in The Many Altars of Modernity, 123ff.

[15] Berger, The Many Altars, 20.

[16] John Eggen, “Faithful Nones’ and the Importance of a Rooted and Open Pedagogy,” in Intersections, Vol. 2019, no 49 (2019) 34-40.

[17] Ryan P. Burge, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021.

[18] Ibid., 78.

[19] Ibid., 116.

[20] Ibid., 116.

[21] In the studies tracking change over a four year period, a solid majority of those who are “nothing in particular” remain in that category (62.1%), and there’s some migration toward atheism or agnosticism (13%), but Burge highlights that over a quarter of them moving toward a religious tradition (9% joining a non-Christian tradition and 16.4% identifying as Christian). Ibid., 119.

[22] Eggen, Faithful Nones, 36.

[23] Ibid., 37.

[24] Ibid., 38.

[25] Eggen, Faithful Nones, 38, Berger, The Many Altars, 49.

[26] Elisebeth Gerle, Passionate Embrace: Luther on Love, Body, and Sensual Pleasure, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017, 203.

[27] For the latter point see Paul R. Hinlicky, “Luther’s Atheism,” in The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in Lutheran Tradition, Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth, ed, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, pp.53-60.

[28] Anant Rambachan, “Is Theological Neutrality the Final Word in Interreligious Dialogue?” Dialog, 10 July 2019. 58, no. 3. 181-182.

[29] Kathryn Kleinhans, “Christ as Bride/groom : a Lutheran Feminist Relational Christology,” in Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives, Mary J. Streufert, ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010. 129.

[30] Gerle, Passionate Embrace, 25.

[31] Ibid., 203.

[32] Berger makes the point about the Protestant Reformation serving as a stepping stone to secular discourse, citing the desacralization of marriage a key illustration, Berger, The Many Altars, 60.

[33] Gustav Wingren, Luthers lära om kallelsen, Lund: Gleerups, 1942, 52-3, as cited in Gerle, 203, emphasis Gerle’s.

[34] Thomas E. Rodgerson, Overhearing a Christian Apology to the Nones: Revealing Still Hidden Truths in Dialogue, Eugene, OR: RESOURCE Publications, 2021, 5.

[35] Ibid., 15.

[36] Ibid., 15.

[37] Caroline S. Fairless, The Space Between Church and Not-Church: A Sacramental Vision for the Healing of Our Planet. Lanham, MD: Hamiliton, 2011, viii, as cited in Rodgerson, 177.

[38] Rodgerson, Overhearing, 216.



Deanna Thompson

Deanna A. Thompson

Dr. Deanna A. Thompson is Director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community and Martin E. Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Before moving to St. Olaf, Thompson taught religion for over two decades at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. Thompson is a sought-after speaker on topics ranging from Martin Luther and feminism to the intersections of cancer, trauma, and faith, and what it means to be the church in the digital age. She is author of five books, including The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World and most recently, Glimpsing Resurrection: Cancer, Trauma, and Ministry.