Last week we looked at how people grow in their faith experience or become rigid or even static fundamentalists. This week a brief look at belief, religion, and the need for change – reformation.
FAITH EXPERIENCE: In the Faith Experience people do have an experience of the Divine, often described under various names: God, Creator, Father, Mother, Allah, the Ground of Being, etc. Sometimes people cannot put a name on their deepest human experiences. I still remember the observation by Dag Hammarskjöld who served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in September 1961. He wrote: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder the source of which is beyond all reason.”
And these days I resonate more and more with the words of Karl Rahner (1904-1984) one of the most influential Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century: “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, and inklings. We make faltering attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.”
BELIEF: Belief is the attempt to put into words the meaning of our faith experience. Belief is really theology which is “faith seeking understanding.”
RELIGION: Religion is an attempt to interpret and systematize belief. Any religion is a system of beliefs and practices that helps people understand and live their faith experience. Religion therefore gives people: rituals, ritual places, ritual leaders, sacred books, sacred places, sacred days and seasons, codes of morality and creedal statements. Religion provides helpful aids – MEANS – that point people to the Divine. That’s good and proper. But religion is not Faith. (Sometimes very religious people can be very ungodly.)
RELIGION LIFE-CYCLE: All religions go through a four-stage cycle:
(1) They begin with the charismatic foundational state, e.g. the primitive Christian community. Here men and women had such a vivid lived awareness of the Faith experience that they had little need for institutional structure. They relied on do-it-self and charismatic ways of praying, speaking, and celebrating. Men and women presided at Eucharist.
(2) Then when people start thinking and asking “how do we safeguard what we have and how do we pass this on to the next generation?” a religion enters stage two. This is the stage of institutionalization: important things are written down (e.g. writing the Gospels), set ways of praying are established (official sacramental rituals and gestures are established), properly authorized leaders are established (e.g. ordination is created as a kind of quality control mechanism to make certain that the Christian leaders are competent and reliable. Ordination was not originally about sacramental power!)
(3) After some time, a religion enters stage three. I call it the stage of self-focused short-sightedness. The institutional religion becomes so self-centered and so self-protective that it becomes less a means and path to the Divine and more and more the OBJECT of religious devotion. This stage comes close to idolatry. The church institution and certain institutional leaders, religious objects, and teachings are treated like IDOLS. People get so involved in acts of religious veneration that they miss or distort the Divine.
(4) When stage three happens, the only solution is REFORMATION. This demands a serious effort to regain the vision and focus on the Divine. To recapture the vigor and creative enthusiasm of stages one and two.
All religions need periodic reformations. The old saying in Latin ecclesia semper reformanda est was true yesterday and is certainly true today: “the church must always be reformed.”
So… how do we move ahead in the reformation process?
We need to be – and invite our friends to be – critical observers and prophetic change agents. We need to OBSERVE, JUDGE, and ACT.
The “Observe, Judge, Act” methodology was developed in the 1920s by the Belgian priest and later cardinal, Joseph Cardijn (1882 – 1967) in an attempt to mobilize laborers at a time when there were major industrial abuses affecting the dignity and well-being of laborers.
For us today, we need to Observe what is happening in the church, Judge what should be done about it, and then Act in reforming actions. (The same is true of course in politics. But my focus today is religion.)
Clues that we need reformation are found in signs of unhealthy religion:
1. Healthy religion is grounded in contemporary Reality with all of its ups and downs. Unhealthy religion is grounded in fantasy and longs for the “good old days,” which were not so great for most people. Unhealthy religion imposes, as well, the antiquated and discredited historical and theological understandings of the “good old days.”
2. Healthy religion builds bridges between people. Unhealthy religion builds walls and creates barriers separating people into qualitative classes of people. It demonizes “those who don’t fit in” and validates hatred and cruelty through racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
3. Unhealthy religion imposes power OVER people in often dismissive and demeaning ways through abuse, control, repression, and coercion. It uses guilt, fear, and overly-strict rules.
4. Healthy religion promotes hope-filled love, compassion, and collaboration.
May we all be alert and courageous reformers.
PS As I have now done for several years, starting next week I will be away from my blog for some late spring R&R and travel with my wife, as we celebrate 53 years of happily married life. I hope to return at the end of June with fresh thoughts. I often worry about becoming just another babbling old man.