“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.