“Faith seeking understanding” is a good definition of belief. Faith is our experience of God and belief is our attempt to express that experience in word and symbol.

When we attempt to describe our experiences of God, we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals that are products of our culture. In fact, all of our concepts and all of our experiential interpretations are shaped and influenced to a great extent by the culture and the language out of which they emerge.

There is no belief without culture; but there can be a culture without belief. This of course is the situation in which many people find themselves today: in a belief desert. This happens when expressions of belief no longer resonate with contemporary life experience.

It happens as well when people substitute fidelity to doctrinal statements for openness to the Divine presence in all of life. I was there and did that once upon a time. One day, however, I moved from considering God as an article of belief to appreciating God as an element of my experiences. My eyes were opened…. Those experiences convinced me that “God” is real. Now I continue my own belief journey: pondering what I experience, determining how to express that in contemporary language, and connecting my experiences and belief with the experiences of other believers and with Christian scripture and tradition.

We need to find more effective ways to articulate the human experience of the Divine that reduces it neither to the extreme secularity of the “post-theistic” thinkers nor to the unthinking and closed-minded certitude of the “hyper-theistic,” whose god is mostly the creation of their own fantasies.

We need to find ways to understand the Divine presence, not “up there” or “out there” but “here and now” at the heart of all Reality, because that is where we live, love, and think.

Animated by the life, message, and spirit of Jesus, we need to set off on our own spiritual journey.

So……A good project for the New Year. It is best done with a group of friends.

Some spiritual direction for along the way:

(1) A healthy spiritual journey moves forwards not backwards. Nostalgia is fun for a while, but we really cannot turn-back the clock. To become a religious child again would mean to abandon the adult capacity to think and make one’s own judgments on the basis of critical principles. That is why the upsurge of fundamentalism today is so offensive. It is a closed vision and fundamentally faulty.

(2) Pondering our belief today we need to feel and experience the “call” of the Sacred (the Faith experience) by interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. The truly contemporary believer must have one foot anchored in the present and the other in the tradition of the past. There must be a dynamic tension between contemporary religious consciousness and historical critical consciousness.

(3) When we explore our belief – when we reflect in depth about our Faith experiences – we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words and rituals which are products of our culture. We also look for the resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures.

(4) Truly authentic Christian belief can never be simply the expression of one’s individual and subjective experience. We need each other. Expressions of belief are the result of deep reflection about my Faith experience AND your Faith experience AND the Faith experience of the community. As I told one of my bishop friends: we need you but you also need us!

(5) Belief relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. Nor can it unthinkingly venerate any particular culture. Some Roman Catholic Church leaders, for instance, are locked in a late medieval culture and still dress and think that way. Nevertheless, when belief becomes so locked within a particular culture that it is hardly distinguishable from it, we are on the road to idolatry.

(6) All cultures perceive reality through their own particular lenses; and these lenses are shaped and adjusted by shared human events and great movements in human history. Change is part of life.

(7) Christian belief, because its focus is what lies within and yet beyond culture in all of its historical manifestations, is continually engaged in critical reflection and critique of the contemporary and previous cultures.

Happy New Year!

Epiphany still happens.
I look forward to traveling with you in 2016.


(Sorry for the old picture but it seemed to fit….)

7 thoughts on “Our Challenge: Belief and Contemporary Culture

  1. January 3, 2016

    The good news for the day

    When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judea, in the era of King Herod,
    surprisingly, Zoroastrians astrologers arrived in Jerusalem from the East, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2, 1)

    The “Magi”— prominent officials in politics and the Zoroastrian religion—expected to find that new prince in a Jerusalem palace. These Magi—foreigners in both geography and religion—“had seen his star (rising).” The image of a comet moving across the sky comes to mind. To dedicated astronomer-astrologists, though, it is a matter of detecting changes, appreciating “signs,” and working from science and knowledge. (Today, you can find astrologers who for fun or not can create “your chart.”)

    Our story tells you that “signs” of God’s coming into your world appear, but you have to be smart enough to notice them—to see, hear and sense a sign is talking to you by being ready, by thoughtfulness and attention.

    It is not that you see some THING in a different way (a possible kindness, courage to tell the truth, a moment of forgiveness). No, your eyes and heart SEE differently. It is the transformation of your whole self that counts, not some passing incident. You SEE your world flooding with possible kindness, as consistently encouraging your courage, and every moment offering insight into the appearance of what is right, noble and valuable.

    The Good News is that you, too, are a Magus-seeker humbly searching, discerning and acknowledging miracles and mystery; you too come from afar with your smartness and your wealth to honor someone greater than you, who looks like everyone else but with great hidden nobility, suffering and goodness—people who live & work in stables, grocery stores and insurance companies. On your quest, you are figuring out the “least of the brethren” and then valuing, respecting and honoring them.

  2. Jack, this so well expresses what I have been thinking and feeling but have not been able to describe, so i have been adrift wandering in a desert much of the time.

  3. Jack, so wonderful to read your thoughts again. Your Spiritual Directions, particularly #5, really hit home for me. Our parish seems always to be “blessed” with pastors who embrace the medieval culture, wanting to take us backwards, rather than forward. Why they don’t see the Spirit and the beauty of the changes in our culture baffles me. If our Church would simply embrace the fact that if The Bible is truly the living Word of God, then the scriptural interpretations should always be changing as well, or it is certainly not alive. Happy New Year, Jack and Family.

  4. Jack, I agree with Susan that you well express what I have been sensing and experiencing. You have a way with words, and a deep pastoral sense. I especially like “when expressions of belief no longer resonate with contemporary life experience”. Your words “moved from considering God as an article of belief to appreciating God as an element of my experiences” describes my journey through the years and even today. I have learned to be careful where and with whom I talk about this, although mentioning it in homilies seems to be received very well, as happen today. As often happens, I used many of your turns of the phrase in my homily. You have, and are, a great gift.

  5. I think that I have never seen so good a description of the problem. Many thanks.
    It comes to my mind that maybe Jesus came into a similar situation: The penetration of Greek and Roman culture to the Jewish nation changed the daily experience of people and the pharisees couldn’t any more hold the wine in their old bottles.

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