“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 words and symbols. 

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. All of our concepts and all of our experiential interpretations are shaped 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. 

Right now a lot of my friends are talking about the Pew Research Center’s September 13, 2022 report “Modeling the Future of Religion in America.” That report predicts that, if current religious membership trends continue, Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades. That report estimates that in 2020, about 64% of U.S. Americans were Christian but that by 2070 that figure could well be at about 54% or lower.

The group that continues to expand is what we call the religious “nones” – those people who, when asked about their religious identity, describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”

Researchers suggest that the United States may very well be following the path taken, over the last 50 years, by many countries in Western Europe. Countries that once had overwhelmingly Christian majorities but no longer do. 

In Great Britain, for example, the “nones” had already surpassed Christians; and they became the largest group in 2009. In the Netherlands, the Christian exodus accelerated in the 1970s. Today about 47% of Dutch adults say they are Christian. In Belgium, where I currently live, we have a population of about 11.58 million. Just under 60% say they are Christian (most of them Roman Catholic) but less than 5% of them go to church regularly. Many unused churches are being converted into apartments, stores, bars, and restaurants.

Some observers blame secularization for our current situation. As an historical theologian, I understand the process of secularization; but blaming secularization is far too simple. As my friend and Leuven graduate, Ron Rolheiser, often observed “Bad attitudes towards the church feed off bad church practices.”

For example: Catholic teaching still forbids women from becoming deacons, priests, bishops, cardinals or popes, mis-interpreting Jesus’ and his disciples’ masculinity as sanctioning an all-male liturgy and clergy. (Of course there were women disciples and women apostles.) The church also condemns homosexual acts as a sin and considers gay individuals as “intrinsically disordered.”

People lose interest in institutional religion when they find that the church’s expressions of belief and what they hear from the pulpit no longer resonate with their minds, their hearts, and contemporary life experience. When a religion speaks more in the name of authority than with the voice of compassion, it becomes meaningless. 

We need to find ways to understand the Divine presence, not “up there” or “out there” but “here and now” at the center of all Reality, because that is where we live, love, and think. Perhaps we need to disconnect regularly from our cellphones and drop our earbuds. We need meditation times. We need a truly contemporary spirituality. Animated by the life, message, and spirit of Jesus, we can then move ahead in our life journeys  and accompany others in their own life journeys. 

There are good examples if we look closely. A Catholic pastor, whom I visited this summer, holds contemporary faith discussions in his home. He invites young women and men in their twenties and thirties to share, discuss, and reflect together with him about their faith and their life experiences.

Some other priests whom I know, and a good handful of bishops, are trying to “rebuild the church” by returning to a 1950’s style Catholicism. They now have Latin masses, done with their backs to the congregation. Many as well are contemporary book-banners. History warns us, of course, that people who ban books also ban people. 

A healthy spiritual journey moves forwards not backwards. 

Nostalgia is fun for a while, but there is no virtue in turning-back the clock. To become a religious child again would mean to abandon the 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 dangerous. It is a narrow and closed vision, which most-often nurtures fear and aggression. 

Thinking about our human life journey, I have always been greatly concerned about education. We must insist that broad-based and honest information be passed on to the next generation. But I am particularly concerned about the formation of teachers. Most students who fall in love with learning do that not because of their instructional materials and school curriculum but because they encountered a teacher who encouraged them to think – to reflect on life, to ask questions, and to search for answers.

When pondering our belief today we need to hear and to help people hear the “call” of the Sacred. We do this by interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. The truly contemporary believer has one foot anchored in contemporary life and religious consciousness and the other in historical critical consciousness. We value the past but we don’t live in the past.

Our communities of faith – our churches  — should be centers of excellence where people can speak courageously about their awareness of the Divine Presence and where continuing dialogue and collaboration are patterns of life.

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 resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures.

Truly authentic Christian belief, of course, can never be simply the expression of one’s individual and subjective experience. We are a community of believers – a faith community. We need each other. Expressions of belief are the result of deep reflection about my faith experience, 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!”

Belief relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. Nor can it just 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.

Christian belief, because its focus is on what lies within and yet beyond our culture, is continually engaged in critical reflection and critique of the contemporary and previous cultures. Critical thinking is a Christian virtue. Growth is part of life. 

And so we continue our journey.

12 thoughts on “Contemporary Belief

  1. There seems to be a substantial contingent among the nones who await a somewhat official acknowledgment of the litany of those theological beliefs that the institutional church organization has finally come to recognize, if not totally abandon. Among them would certainly be the ease with which one can merit or get sent to hell, the difficulty with prayers of petition being answered, that making Divinity a puppet master, and all sorts of nonsense about women, LGBTQ+, and a host of other outdated or contemporaries dismissed power retention devices. I suspect gatherings of nones expect these to be officially dismissed prior to nones being able to freely engage in some form of meditation taught by so called Catholic leaders.

  2. Great analysis and exposition of the results of the survey. An even better remedy: “Our communities of faith – our churches — should be centers of excellence where people can speak courageously about their awareness of the Divine Presence and where continuing dialogue and collaboration are patterns of life.” EXCELLENT!!

  3. You are so right that we have to at times disconnect from the noise of our digital devices and do some critical thinking and meditate. Our communities of belief should be a place where a free exchange of ideas and faiths can be expressed. Interfaith circles can open our horizons and broaden our scope. As you said, we do need others for deep reflection.

  4. Wow, Jack! You just get better! The Holy Spirit is clearly using you to enlighten and enrich our lives. You have made such an insightful and thorough analysis of where we are in our personal and Church faith journeys. I was particularly struck by these words: We need to find ways to understand the Divine presence, not “up there” or “out there” but “here and now.” The simple issue for me is to find the presence of Jesus in my life in a way that makes me live a life that positively impacts others because I live with God in my heart. I love that the Church offers me a way to pray in the communion with others and get sustenance through them. However, I have found that, as I age, I have gained enough confidence in my relationship with God that if something I see/hear that the Church declares to be “true” that conflicts with my life experience, I will live in a way that my conscience tells me is right. Do you think that many are reverting to the “old time religion” out of fear to think for themselves or to have a simple way to live; i.e., “pray, pay, and obey?” I am sending this piece to my wise old priest friend to get his reaction to your truly inspiring words!

  5. Thank you so much for this meditation and encouragement. Sometimes I wonder if the symbolic forty days in the desert was a crisis of belief for Jesus of Nazareth, fasting and grappling with demons of the mind, not unlike his cousin John the baptizer. This is what your phrase “a belief desert” triggered. The desert seems more real than “belief.” Once upon a time, as Frank intimated in his comments, belief was a comfoting dessert: a sweet ending, a little reward after the protein and vegetables preceding it (as I often remind my granddaughter). Here and now, at my age my gut cannot digest the sand in this current “belief desert” because of the grit in my mental teeth, stirred up by religions that serve up sand as the answer, the final solution, the only way to think. (So, no dessert for me?) You highlighted such dessicated silo thinking previously in your NAR alert, thank you, about nationalizing religion in service to despots and their ilk.

    Despotism, benign or not, fascism or liberalism, is not new, not from nowhere, not so modern really. Before I quit working at the Library of Congress a few years ago (for the second time in my work-life), the “nones” cadre was examined over a decade ago in Putnam & Campbell’s American Grace (2011). Our Library employees forum on comparative religions thought it might be worth meditating on “tribal religions” in Robt. Bellah’s “Religion in Human Evolution” (2011); Rene Girard, “I See Satan Fall” (2001); and yes, Juval Harari hit the mark too, in “Homo Deus,” and previously in “Sapiens,” and later in “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” Loyal Rue, in “By the Grace of Guile,” wrote: “Faith is not merely belief in what is unseen, it is refusal to see whatever might potentially challenge orthodox belief. It is the deliberate evasion of evidence… the elevation of credulity to the lofty status of virtue… systematic self-deception. And yet it must be said that this practice of faithful self-deception has helped to preserve the coherence of Christian culture by stalling out countless flirtations with doubt.” [Holy cow! and that’s from a Decorah, Iowa Lutheran in 1994.] Where does that leave Christian culture? Or, Where did it go? Has it survived?

    If survival of Sapiens is a prerequisite, and if the values of personal wholeness and social cohesion have any meaning, then must I not balance a certain amount of self-deception against the social pragmatism of adaptivity? How adequate is my perception of reality, such that I must either believe or adapt, comply or quit? Is truth-telling above every other value, without regard for the pain of it? (What is truth, Pilate scoffs blindly, face to face in private with Jesus, who remains mute.) Truth is plural, an imperfect balance, elusive and sometimes a momentary insight, an ephemeral moderation twixt extremes. Camus called it “la mesure,” symbolized heroically in the Sisyphean struggle, shoulder to the boulder, in which life is lived here and now, on Earth, in the only time/space mortals have. To exist as a human being is to insist upon rebelling, resisting and objecting against absurd polarities, taking the measure of what I think I know about what others need me to do now for them, in war, plague or famine, fires and floods, and to risk the outcome again, and to fail again. [Perhaps Sisyphus smiled, but seems at least not to have lamented.] The fault, if there is one, lies neither in humanity nor in the tender indifference of Nature, but in the collision of the two, in the decisions I am forced to make just from being here, and in the concussion to conscience, from which I am never fully free. (I realize this is not the fossilized consecrated language, outside the pall of Nihil obstat, damnably secular. Oh well.)

    I suspect that there is a moral struggle, and possible moral injury, at both ends of any axle, or any pole, whose wheels need balancing lest they fly off on the journey, leaving me and mine in the dust, or you and yours. To lament the polar or axiological situation, to wish “if only” the world were different doesn’t help, just as you say, Dr. Jack: “Blaming secularization is far too simple.”

    Sapiens is a complex part of the natural world, of these secular times, and: Yes, we are different and can make a difference, in the fleshy-now for this fragile Earth our island home, and for its passengers. Misplaced disappointment prevents me from seeing with clarity, thinking deeply, and doing ethically = observing, reflecting, acting, as you, Dr. Jack, always say. Reason and belief seem ironic, even risible, in the face of poverty and war, which are political; and in the face of tragedies that are natural. Both require of me deeds of compassion first for life, relief and refreshment, for healing, food and water, comfort in dying; logic and faith step aside, for the moment.

    By nature everyone is vulnerable to the “tender indifference” of the world: if there is tenderness, it exists in suffering humanity, and the world would be better for it. For example, the work of the French diplomat Louis Massignon’s Badaliya delves into solidarity among solitary co-sufferers, as an interior ascetic, bucking political and legal complications to pray together for one another, regardless of religions. Suffering is not a universal proposition, it is a plural situation on the ground, rife with contention, contestation, but also with communication, possibly, about existentially inclusive extremes.

    You remind us that we “necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals which are products of our culture.” The pain of war, whether by commission or collaboration, subjects the actors to inflicting “collateral damage” upon innocent bystanders who are sacrificial victims upon political altars. Soldiers returning “home” are often a nation’s victims of post-traumatic moral injury, at the level of consciousness and conscience (distinctly not PTSD.) Likewise, medical and nursing staff during this continuing pandemic suffer from moral trauma. Trauma involves trusting people with power who fail to do the right thing, or who condone violation of conscience. Fear is not the issue; imposition of unwarranted guilt is. There is as yet no nifty abbreviation for this unspeakable trauma, but the effects are Lazarean, ineffable, concentrationary, not unlike the revenants of the death camps and gulags. Society has no place for them. CBT doesn’t address the wounds. Pain shatters personal identity and social unities, breaks up self and cities. However, there is “non-denominational” spiritual support from medical and ministerial collaboration, so the healing effect of religion upon society does work.

    Yes, as you say, we can value the past, without living in it, but throughout the forever-wars and this current pandemic, what can we do about the traumatic past we have perpetrated or endured, without observing, acknowledging, reflecting and speaking about it, to one another? Push forward with a both/and balancing act: admit that trauma lives on, relationships break, and new ones might be forged? I think a balance can be found, if only for some precious moments, in offering beautiful quiet deeds, known solely to individual victims, symbolic, wordless, risking a bit of liminal holiness. In the desert of belief, the way forward is not the broken cycle of useless sacrifice, but maybe a taste of sanctity instead, for the sake of sanity, a glimpse of “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.”

    My personal prayer book is replete with archaic language that I can’t stand, so I edit, cross-out, and re-write the ancient spells and incantations, psalms and collects, dating the ammendments. One day this all will end, but meanwhile my PB is a physical reminder of an interior argument over the years, and now about my years, with a silent and obscure partner. I see and hear things differently now, with the aid of gizmos and prisms, often relying on context and situation to compensate for lost senses, trying to make sense of what is happening to me, my loved ones and friends. This is inevitable, maybe risible, but intuition hints at a real Presence, infinitely patient, who does not put me on hold with some godawful demonic music distorting our blessed silence…

    Last word to Thomas Merton, who wrote that “Camus could still pause and have scruples over the murder of an innocent child. He refused to justify that death in the name of God. He also refused to justify it by an appeal to history, to evolution, to science, to politics, or to the glorious future of the new man.” Here he touches on the “scandal” of the particular, of the individual seeking a way forward in a sandy situation where all around is absurdly blocked by sin and evil, to whom Jesus asks, “Where are your accusers? …Neither will I condemn you.” True courage, then and now.

  6. Jack, very true, “People lose interest in institutional religion when they find that the church’s expressions of belief and what they hear from the pulpit no longer resonate with their minds, their hearts, and contemporary life experience. When a religion speaks more in the name of authority than with the voice of compassion, it becomes meaningless.” A lot of the priests I know disagree and say those people are wrong. I’m glad I have my Army experience.

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