The Nature of Faith

Last Sunday, we had a closing four-hour retreat for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Robert of Newminster. The session was pleasant and the people at that parish are really quite delightful. The experience, at the time when Palm Sunday opens Holy Week, reinforced for me a concept I don’t take seriously enough — that is, the role of religiosity in the lives of ordinary people.
The social scientists tell us that formal religious profession is on the wane. Only one in five Americans visits a place of worship in any given week. Although three-quarters of us confess Christianity, demographers project that Christianity will be a minority faith tradition by 2030 given that one-third of people under age 30 claim no religious affiliation whatsoever.
Yet the religious impulse, as a human phenomenon, is quite different from religious practice. For the unchurched or the atheistic, their religious impulses tend to find expression in other pursuits — sexual licentiousness, radical environmentalism, unfocused spiritualism, unfettered egoism, etc.
Look at the pseudo-messianic undertones of the climate-change True Believers. Some of them suggest that people who disagree with their interpretation of climate models aren’t just mistaken — they’re morally defective and ought to be silenced — or even put in jail. Look, too, at the furor over the departure of newly appointed Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. Some representative supporters of same-sex marriage have argued, loudly, that one man’s private donation six years ago is a public matter because he’s a public face of a company. Think what you will about climate change and same-sex marriage: The zeal to persecute non-believers is a religious impulse that goes beyond mere disagreement about facts, theories or policies.
The phenomenon is simple, really. Human nature is what it is, and that nature prompts us to seek to belong to a tribe. The evolutionary biology and developmental psychology of humankind is fairly well understood on the matter, thanks to pioneering work by researchers like Jared Diamond. Our tribes both fuel and channel our passions and inspire emotional bonds that transcend abstract, dispassionate reason.
Tribes are funny things. In simplest form, they’re society’s little platoons, the places where we discern meaning and level-set sociocultural expectations and find refuge in a like-minded community. In years past, tribes in the United States looked like ethnic bars, churches, fraternal clubs and neighborhood associations. Yet these mediating institutions, across the board, are failing. Gentrification is leading to the erosion ethnic identity for most white Americans; church attendance is on the wane; fraternal organizations are a shell of their former glory; neighborhood civic groups have been superseded by online communities.
So how do we find our tribe? How do we belong? We do it the same way we always have — we find people who “look like us” and share our worldview. Except now, we’re not finding communal solace in religion or civic virtue but rather in political and public-policy forums, and our potential fellow travelers don’t need to hail from our neighborhood but rather can come from anywhere there’s broadband access. Hence the polarization of the electorate: We’re sorting ideologically across party lines because we have fewer purely local social ties to bind us.
Religiosity, when channeled through institutions that have had millennia to develop, is mostly benign. Religiosity, divorced of anchor institutions and self-directed through political channels, is harder to manage. Harder to mediate. Without a diversity of those “little platoons” to provide a broad-based context, we fall into the solipsism of a single-issue messiah. Political activism sourced from a wholly self-contained belief system cannot be reasoned with; it can only be confronted or accommodated.
Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith compels us; even people who profess atheism nevertheless need faith in something. It’s hard-wired into us as humans. As the rich tapestry of competing loyalties — a diversity that helped to check the excesses of any single constituent part — fades for many of our fellow citizens into a single-issue monochromatic print, our faith loses its grounding.
Some may argue that religious conservatives are ignorant. Or superstitious. Some probably are. But their faith in something bigger than themselves offers their religiosity a more humble, more humane path. Those whose faith hails from their own privileged beliefs, answerable to no higher authority than their own egos, have a tougher struggle to maintain a similar humble, humane demeanor. And, in this poisoned climate, it shows.
As a Catholic, then, I must confess: I have not really appreciated the gift of faith until I finally understood people whose faith is little more than a megaphone for their own psyches.

God +20

On the 26th day of April, A.D. 1990, I stood before His Grace, the Most Rev. Robert J. Rose, bishop of Grand Rapids, and was Confirmed into the Catholic Church, at a special Mass held at St. Anthony of Padua church.

That was 20 years ago, tomorrow.

The Catholic sacrament of Confirmation is the final sacrament of initiation: It is the spiritual acceptance of a Catholic into full adulthood within the community of believers.

Much has happened to me, spiritually, over the last two decades:

  • I went to a Catholic high school and was lukewarm in faith, bordering on the agnostic;
  • I went to a secular university, discovered philosophy, and became a radical and committed atheist;
  • I made a series of bad judgements, rooted in youthful arrogance, that brought me a considerable amount of legal and financial trouble;
  • in desperation, I turned to God and (for reasons I never really did fully understand) went back to church, despite thinking it was a silly and superstitious waste of time;
  • I eventually re-embraced the Church fully, serving in my parish as a lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and sacristan — and eventually becoming the chief sacristan and long-running chairman of the parish liturgy committee;
  • I spent a few years in pre-seminary study and took a week-long retreat with the Legion of Christ in Connecticut to explore a priestly vocation (at which, I was blessed by a special encounter with the Divine);
  • I started volunteering through the diocese, eventually serving as a lay chaplain at a hospital and at a state prison, and contributing to the diocesan Office for Worship as a master of ceremonies to the bishop and lay coordinator for major diocesan liturgies;
  • and then,
  • acedia struck.

So I’ve pretty much moved full circle, from “cultural Catholic” to atheist to practicing Catholic to potential priest to non-practicing Catholic.

The spiritual journey has been curious.  I am not abandoning the Church; I don’t disagree with major teachings or think it’s silly superstition.  I will return to active practice.  Part of the issue may be burn-out — I was doing so much, so frequently, that I’d actually sit down to Mass with no “extra” obligation maybe only once per year.  That’s a lot; a person can spend so much time serving others that he loses the ability to service himself.

I am heartened by the path of the Church over the last two decades. I am a committed “Benedict XVI Catholic” — one who favors authentic liturgy, an inquisitive mind, and a charitable heart. I identify much more strongly with the academic/contemplative forms of prayer life than the evangelical/charismatic model, and I find some hope in the way the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments have taken a firm but gentle hand in correcting some of the liturgical abuses arising in the post-Vatican II chaos.

Like many Catholics, I regret the sexual abuse of some priests, even as I notice (in away the New York Times editorial board apparently cannot) that the worst of the crisis occurred in the generation immediately after Vatican II and that the abuse rate among Catholic clergy is still significantly below that of, say, Southern Baptist clergy, prison guards, or public-school teachers.

That said, I am presently in a spiritual rut that has lasted for nearly two years.  I am confident, however, that in due time, the rut will have run its course and I will once again be spiritually joined to the Church Universal.