4th Sunday of Easter (B)
Last month on Facebook I happened upon a lively conversation between my friend—a respected environmental activist—and his friends, on the relevance of religion in today’s world.
In his original post my friend made a proclamation of faith stating he would persist in his practice of Catholicism—which he strongly identifies with values of charity and justice—and partake in the sacraments as is his right, despite what he called the antithetical “contempt for the lives of their fellow humans” exhibited by certain Catholic Cardinals (i.e. the largely dismissed, but widely quoted Burke). If I could have “liked” his post a thousand times I would have.
I did not know my friend was religious, or Catholic for that matter. But what followed was a series of challenges to his (and my) belief system, some of which may have been driven by curiosity or a sincere desire to understand, but my sense was that most of the challengers’ questions were based on the logical conclusion that “it doesn’t take a creed or cross to understand the difference between right and wrong” (quote paraphrased from the conversation). This statement is a sad reminder to me that for many, the beauty and vibrancy of faith and religion is lost, and the grandeur of God, on which the poet and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins muses (you may read the poem at the end of this post), that surrounds and saturates every waking hour and all of creation has been hijacked by moralists and functionalists.
My friend responded with the utmost kindness, patience and clarity to his readers’ questions such as whether religious institutions teach anything that cannot be found in the writings of great philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hume. My friend provided personal experiences from his younger days and concluded that being educated in philosophy does not make one a moral being, impart a desire to care for others, increase empathy, or instill a love or reverence for other humans or creation.
Another reader opined that religion is the source of authoritarian power against poor, helpless masses. He challenged my friend to name one thing, other than religious doctrine, that a church can offer which cannot be found elsewhere. My friend pointed to the radical examples of faith from people like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Tom Berry and Paul Mayer, and questioned his friend’s premise that the presence of secular moral teachings that parallel those of Jesus indicate Christianity has run its course and is obsolete. He also noted that the actual cause of the world’s problems are money and power, both of which are capable of contaminating any institution including government, religion, education, media, and business. Of these, he said, “Christianity at least has values and beliefs around which one can build a life and community.”
Believers are frequently confronted with questions like these, which seem to ask “How can you, an otherwise normal and intelligent person, believe this stuff? It gets tiresome. But, in many cases, I think people really want to know what makes believers, believe. I have to admit, if I did not know God and was standing on the side of “I can be a good person without religion” I would have questions for my believing friends, too. It’s true.
But the purpose of religion is not to teach us how to live a “goal-filled life characterized by moral direction,” as one of my friend’s readers suggested. The purpose of religion is union with God; the act of religion is grounded in love of God, the creator, the higher power, or the “something greater” sensed by many people. Religion is God-centered, not self-improvement centered. Why do we do this? Because we want to know God, and when one has an experience of divine presence and abiding love (which by the way happens all the time if one is attentive), it’s pretty hard to understand how all people aren’t actively seeking the same.
At some point in life, maybe as a child, maybe as an adult, maybe at the point of death, believers come to see that regardless of our imperfections, God loves us with a radical love. And as author Cathleen Falsani writes in my new favorite book, “Disquiet Time,” “God loves me. Just as I am. (…) God fights for me. God pursues me. God never gives up on me. God never stops loving me.” (Grant and Falsani 2014)
The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. —1 John 3:1b
This personal knowledge of God’s deep abiding love does not arrive by stork or magic or by lightning. People of all faith traditions have devoted their entire lives to the quest of knowing God. Spiritual practice is work; that is why it is called a practice. It requires conscious awareness, detachment and a decision to forego functionalist thinking, to follow that nagging “what if?” and traverse the jagged, unknown regions of life.
When we walk the earth with wonder and revere the miracle and dignity of every man, woman and child, every living creature, our planet and the universe, we make room for God and our hearts fill to the brim. It is entirely possible to become aware of God’s grace, God’s full-out mercy, and God’s limitless generosity. Here’s how: Remain open. You are beloved. Accept it like a soaking rain. This is the most profound statement of faith anyone can make. And the fact that one can deny it does not make it any less true. Sure, it is possible to be a good person without religion. And, let’s be honest. It’s damn hard to be good all the time. But religious people believe there is more to life than being good.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
** Grant, Jennifer, and Cathleen Falsani, eds. 2014. Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels. Jericho Books. page 6. You can find the book here