I've reached that stage in life where almost everyone I meet looks like somebody I used to know.
I'm getting old.
Hedy and I recently returned from a Baltic cruise. We saw lots of doppelgängers aboard our cruise ship. It became a game. Someone would walk past our table, and I'd recite the name of the person I proposed to be his or her double.
Hedy gave me a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, depending on how close my candidate came to "dead ringer" territory.
At one point, we had lunch with a couple who resembled a pair of professors I knew when I was on staff at Orange Coast College. In "real life," the professors detested one another but, in my shipboard Bizarro World, they exhibited extraordinary tenderness.
While on our cruise, we made a port call in a land that perceives God as a nonentity. You might think I'm referring to Russia. Actually, no. I am referring to a Scandinavian country.
The atheists and agnostics among us in Orange County no doubt look to this land as a paradigm for our culture. I see it as stunted.
At the very best, the Scandinavian nation recognizes the creator as a novelty. Sitting astride Europe's upper latitudes, the country is much less religious than its less-enlightened and more-emotional southern neighbors.
This green and pristine land is not Utopia. It faces a rising crime rate, and one of the highest suicide and alcohol abuse rates in the world.
Something is rotten in Denmark.
While on tour, our guide took pride in informing us that her nation is adamantly secular. No messy God intrusions. Though the Lutheran Church is the official religion, it exerts little influence on the affairs of the day.
But, she says, there remain formal but tenuous ties to the Transcendent. And those ties are realized on three distinct occasions during an average citizen's lifetime.
"We still hold to tradition," our guide soberly advised. "Sixty percent of our children are baptized, 50% of our weddings are held in church, and 90% of our funerals are officiated by a member of the clergy."
Yet in the gaps between infancy, nuptials and demise, God goes unacknowledged. A European Commission report states that only 23% of the nation's people believe in God and a scant 3% attend weekly worship services. Except for hosting camera-toting tourists, the land's ancient churches stand empty.
This Scandinavian country provides stark contrast to Russia. Hedy and I visited St. Petersburg (once known as Leningrad), which is named for the apostle, not the czar. Churches are open everywhere.
The world knew Russia as the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 (World War II). It lost an appalling 23 million people during that ghastly conflict. Leningrad was a favored Nazi target.
What nation survives unfazed after losing 14% of its population?
Beginning in 1917, and through the early 1990s, Russia's churches were closed under Communism and turned into warehouses and museums. The nation was bereft of spiritual influence.
The churches are open again and attracting interest from a populace that was officially atheistic for eight decades. Russians seem hungry for the sacred; they've experienced the barrenness of naturalism. The most ardent atheist among us is forced to admit that Communistic atheism wasn't a walk in the park.
Many Russians have returned to churches — and to their faith. Many probably never left it.
"The emptiness that results from the loss of the transcendent is stark and devastating, both philosophically and existentially," writes theologian Ravi Zacharias in his book, "The End of Reason." "The momentary euphoria that may initially accompany a proclamation of liberation soon fades, and one finds oneself in the vise-like grip of despair in a life without ultimate purpose."
To that I add a hearty, "Ja, Ja!"
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun