Monday, July 20, 2009

Truth, spirituality and religion.

On Wednesday, I had lunch with my old professor of Moral Theology. We have all had professors who demanded excellence from their students and somehow, no matter how hard they tried, students were never quite able to meet their exacting standards. With the passage of the years; however, I have come to appreciate both my old professor’s wisdom and the rationale for his high standards.

We sat their in a landmark Jewish deli in Los Angeles revisiting the past and discussing theology. The discussion turned at one point to the two camps present within Christianity today essentially, conservatives and progressives. Of course, those terms are themselves inadequate since they are borrowed from politics; however, they do provide a general starting point.

The central dividing issue seems to be how both camps view and understand revelation, or divinely revealed “truth.” Briefly, the conservative camp seems to view revealed truth as the final word. It has been revealed and is not open to any further discussion. The more progressive camp views revealed truth rather as a starting point for further meditation, prayer and deeper discussion.

If we turn to the Nicene Creed, which is the most common and ancient confession of the Christian faith, we find various items which Christians have historically held to be central or core beliefs which one must accept and confess in order to call oneself “Christian.” In Catholicism such items are called “de fide” the faithful are assured that these items have been definitively revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Church and as such they must be embraced by the faithful in order to remain in communion. Among some of these are the Holy Trinity, that God is one substance and yet three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Also, the Hypostatic Union, that the Second person of the Holy Trinity is both human and divine, Jesus the Christ.

Catholics recite this Creed at every Sunday Mass and for many of them that is it. It is settled, no need for further discussion or debate. There is something very comforting in such an approach to God and religion. There is crystal clear clarity. I know God, the Church and my place in the cosmic order. A difficulty occurs when this desire for clarity and immutability then flows over to other areas of theology, like moral theology. People who subscribe to this approach to God and religion become disquieted, when someone calls into question something, which has already been “defined” even if that definition is not granted the absolute level of certitude. Many faithful view any discussion or questioning of the hierarchy as a threat to their whole cosmology and, in fact, it is. This will provide an insight into both the language and the posturing employed by the “yes on Prop 8” crowd. “We must ‘protect’ marriage” “marriage is the basis for the social order” “marriage has always been between one MAN and one WOMAN” etc… This despite the fact that the Bible itself reveals an ever-evolving understanding of marriage.

The problem is that when speaking of God, say the Holy Trinity or the Hypostatic Union, although these are in fact revealed truths for a Christian, they do not and by definition can NEVER fully explain or exhaust the truth about that singular facet of God, let alone about the totality of God. Imagine yourself delivering a eulogy for someone who you dearly loved. You would probably go over a biography of your loved one. You would most probably describe attributes, qualities, values, etc which that person held. You would probably illustrate all of that by recounting personal stories, which you would punctuated with warmth, wit and humor. However, even if you possessed the eloquence of Cicero or Shakespeare, someone listening to your presentation would not fully capture the fullness of your experiences of that loved one, let alone the totality of that person whom you are attempting to describe. St. Augustine quipped that you could spend your entire life reading, studying, contemplating and praying over the Bible and, but scratch the surface.

St. Paul says, “We see poorly, as in a mirror” in his time, mirrors only reflected about 40% of the light cast upon them. Paul uses this as a metaphor for the Sacred Scriptures vise a vise God. They are merely a poor reflection of the truth about God. A Scripture professor of mine once quipped, “If God had written a book, He would have done a far better job [than the Bible].” This is not in any way intended to dismiss or denigrate the Bible but, it is intended to illustrate its limitations and that it is only part of God’s revelation to us, after all, the Bible is not God but merely a partial revelation of God and of our relationship with God.

How people approach God and divine revelation is significant. A philosophy professor of mine once remarked that the important thing is not the answer; but rather, the question. Most of us received faith as a gift from our parents. We were taught about God and God’s revelation to humanity. As we grew, our questions and understanding of God developed. Sadly, formal religious education ends for most people in grammar school or secondary school. That coupled with the vast plurality of religions in the USA leads to a popular reductive mentality regarding religion.

The psychologist Piaget offers an insight into the developmental attitudes of adolescents. Essentially, adolescents are prone to legal positivism that is “if it is the law, it is right.” One need only to consider the Nuremberg laws of 1937; Plesey v. Ferguson; segregation laws; laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage; etc, to see the fallacy and outright danger of this line of thinking. Only later in life, do we adopt more critical and developed understandings of what is right and what is truth. This is why the philosopher Aristotle argued against teaching philosophy to the young.

If you couple this popular “stunting” of theological study/reflection with religious institutions/leaders whom are all too willing to act as the conscience for individuals “for their own good.” You produce a dangerous mix in which leaders view the faithful as voting blocks to attain/maintain political power; as sources for material wealth to fuel their religious bureaucracies; as individuals incapable of adult independent thought to be directed in all matters of morality and faith. A former bishop of our diocese actually stated, “It is not good for the laity to know canon law.”

Theology and spirituality became the private preserves of a clerical class, which then, informs and directs the faithful. The fact is that one could take items from both major political parties’ platforms, which are consonant/opposed with moral pronouncements of the Catholic Church, i.e. abortion, capital punishment, war, same sex marriage, immigration laws/rights, stem cell research, the International Monetary Fund & the treatment of third world nations. This leaves the Vatican and the American hierarchy, in the position of being able to pick and chose, which “truths” to highlight and which “truths” to ignore. In contemporary America, this has come to mean cherry picking which positions (political candidates/parties) should be supported/opposed in elections.

The truth is that most Catholics are on “auto pilot,” currently most Catholic bishops do not possess an earned doctoral degree in theology and function more as “managers” than as well informed “teachers of the faith.” That office is in fact exercised by centralized Vatican bureaucracies and/or the bureaucracies of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. The average diocesan bishop receives an impossible volume of mail from the National Conference, for him to read, digest, and comment/vote upon. The net result is that a handful of bureaucrats issue statements in the name of bishops who have never actually read the statements.

The role of the laity? Pray, pay and obey as the old seminary saying cynically observed. Laity in the American Catholic Church have little or no voice in the actual governance of their local diocese. If they had actual authority in the area of finances and personnel, many of the current scandals from which the national church is suffering would have most likely been avoided.

Another contributing factor to the plight of popular Catholicism in America today is the primary motives for active involvement in parish life by lay people. Many Catholics chose to register in a parish after they marry and/or, have their first child. At the risk of being too blunt, many young spouses are motivated to practice their faith as an instrument of ensuring spousal fidelity. Once children come onto the scene, another prime motivator is formation of children in the faith. Essentially, this means making sure that they do not get into trouble, i.e. drug use, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, poor grades, trouble with the law, etc. While one can certainly empathize with any contemporary parent, these primary motivators cast the Church not as an instrument of spiritual growth but as a cosmic policeperson. God/religion is portrayed as judge/police and the mandatory nature of most high school faith formation/youth programs set them up for rejection by the adolescents, which they serve.

When I think back over my twenty-three years of active ministry and consider the many people who made appointments to speak with me as their priest, the overwhelming majority of those people came in for marriage preparation/counseling, family counseling, a young person in trouble with the law/drugs/pregnancy, etc. I would estimate that only about 5% of parishioners came into to discuss theology. Most of these discussions were with patients near death or, in RCIA and Scripture classes. In addition, the annual parish retreat drew about 4% of the parish. The weekly homily was the greatest tool for addressing spirituality and even that was limited to about 10 minutes.

It is no coincidence that in most parishes, it is roughly about 5% of the parishioners who are engaged in the active work of the parish. “It’s always the same people,” many pastors/staff have said, that you can count on for programs and outreach. The significance of all of this is that many contemporary Catholics view their local church as a service station for their periodic counseling needs and life ceremonies. As a Benedictine monk once said to our class in a lecture, American priests are becoming “technicians of the Eucharist.” With the ever-increasing shortage of priests in the USA, deacons, who receive an abbreviated theological education, are replacing priests in the role of pastor and an even more mechanistic vision of ministry is emerging.

Add to this a large influx of Catholic economic immigrants into the USA. Realize that most of these people have very limited educations and find themselves in a foreign and often hostile “host” culture. These immigrants are operating in survival mode and many of them turn to the Catholic Church as their protector in this new and alien land. Most of these people are very hard working, many of them make huge sacrifices for their families, they face discrimination, prejudice and outright injustice. They come from cultures, which tend to be authoritarian, sexist and socially stratified. In this way, they are primed for manipulation by Church authorities.

A seminary professor quipped that Jesus established a spiritual movement and Paul established a church. The truth he was communicating to our class was the danger of becoming “professional religious” the need for the faith to renew itself in each generation. The danger is not merely to become another institution, but to become a placebo for authentic spirituality.


Kevin said...

Great post Father. This past weekend, my church in the prayers of the faithful, once again, prayed to protect marriage. I wrote a letter to the pastor telling him to imagine how any homosexual would feel sitting in the pews listening to that. If you want to say that, then you must also say,"may homosexuals feel welcome in our church and may we be open to their god given talents"
He thanked me for the letter and said he would make sure that the church was more sensitive to how we feel. They may not change their minds, but I really felt called to tell them how anyone who is gay would feel deep inside.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father Geoff,
I love your posts. They so often mirror my thoughts and it's nice to have them confirmed by another.
I have thought that Paul started a church and Constantine turned in to a political entity. It's rather sad that we seem to have left the teachings of Jesus and the two commandments that he gave us to become mired in beliefs are more rote and duty than Christ's love.
OK, off my soapbox now.LOL

crystal said...

Interesting post, Father.

I wasn't raised a Christian and joined the church when I was an adult. I didn't know what to expect, but it seemed to be mostly about church protocol and nothing about spirituality, and after a few years I stopped going. A couple of years later I became interested in Ignatius of Loyola, made a retreat, and felt for the first time felt like a Christian :)

Denis Nzioka said...


Amazing piece of article. My own questions about some of these fundamental 'truths' that we are asked, nope, told is true, have never been answered fully.

At least now I can slowly begin to have a better understanding..all because of you.

Asante sana.

Bill said...

Mankind makes a habit of mucking things up. We like neat parameters and tidy definitions. I'm wary of anyone who claims to have all the correct answers when it comes to spirituality. I am reminded of the expression If God were small enough for us to understand, he wouldn't be big enough.

EddieL said...

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