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.


  1. Jack, have a fun, refreshing and safe holiday!

    Two points Dr. John mentions:
    1. 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.)
    2. …. beliefs and practices that helps people understand and live their faith experience.

    Quotes from my brief paper, available at
    A Different Understanding of God’s Presence: God Within
    The New Testament testifies over and over again the concept of “God within”. The English word “enthusiasm” is translated from the Greek, God within enthousiasmos “divine inspiration”; as well as enthousiazein “be inspired or possessed by a god.”
    Here are five texts of many, to make my point:
    • Ephesians 3:20 – 20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine….
    • Luke 17:21 – 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”
    • Luke 24:32 – 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us (other ancient authorities lack within us) while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
    • John 15:5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
    • 1 Corinthians 6:19 – “19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple (or sanctuary) of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”

    With “God within,” one way we are created in God’s image is to be born with a conscience. A conscience that is not developed renders a person unable to distinguish right from wrong and make loving and forgiving decisions. Among others, a narcissistic psychopath has a conscience that may be no more developed and sensitive than it was at the person’s birth. Rather than thinking of the traditional image of the “heart,” God residing in our conscience is a concept that can help us understand what it means to be human, created in God’s image.
    As a 21st century viewpoint, I suggest the conscience better qualifies as “…‘the primary ‘spiritual member’ of the body”. I suggest having more respect for and identification with your conscience will help you better understand what it means to be are created in God’s image.
    This is an example where conscience is not as emotionally “heart felt” as heart where God resides. Maybe we can merge the images:
    Heart is God in terms of love. Conscience is God’s love in terms of how we live.
    If God resides within us, how can we better understand how this relates to prayer?
    For the record, I have sympathy for pantheism and panentheism (Pantheism means that all is God; panentheism, that all is in God); but each is only the opening concept from which the thought can advance to a modern, scientifically and biblically consistent idea of a God within who relates with us in prayer.
    Praying in Self-Talk: Wouldn’t praying to God within us be like talking to ourselves?
    There is that, for sure. I suggest this new understanding of God within may help bring talking to yourself to a divine level of human life at its fullest. ….

  2. Enjoy your time away with your wife. Any thought of joining us in San Diego June 13-15 for AUSCP gathering at University of San Diego. Massimo faggioli will be speaking among others. Theme is synodality. Would enjoy meeting you in person. Peace!

  3. Dear Jack,
    Firstly, may you and Joske have the best time possible in your “getaway.” There is nothing more soul enriching than being together with and enjoying company of the one you love who loves you in return.

    A wise priest taught a men’s spirituality workshop with the focus on relationship in faith. His contention was that men innately live by “rules” while women are moved by “relationship.” Men like to follow the rules so that they know when they are good. Women build connections that invite goodness. There are exceptions, of course, but he has fundamentally changed my concept of faith, religion, and God. I realize that no matter how much information, knowledge, study, and discussion I engage in about God, I know nothing. Theology and religion are essential to help us keep our focus on living a “meaningful” life but what do all the words mean? Jesus told us “The Rules:” Rule 1. Love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, whole mind, and whole soul. Rule 2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

    You have given us a clear delineation of the evolution (devolution?!) of religion with each new complex interpretation of how to live “right.” Isn’t it interesting that reformation has a bad connotation when, in fact, isn’t reformation a good thing if done properly? I love when Jesus points out that the simple can confound the wise by living simply with love and Godliness in their hearts.

    Again, Jack, you have offered us awareness of how to live with God in our hearts. I suspect S/He knows when we are trying our hardest to connect with the divine.

    Peace and Happiness to you and Joske!

  4. Jack….I am a ninety year old ex priest, confused agnostic who looks forward to your blog with hope and anticipation. I see no signs of babbling. Your work is of major importance to me and I believe so many others. Please keep thinking,searching,writing and sharing. We need you. I need you. Thank you for all your effort!

  5. Happy Anniversary to you, and your dear wife, Jack. Prayers for safe and enjoyable travel and time together.

  6. Dear Jack,
    You are not an old man babbling on–you are writing epistles for our time.
    My favorite quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas is
    “We cannot have full knowledge all at once.
    We must start by believing; then, afterwards,
    we may be led on to master the evidence for ourselves.”
    You are living the essence of this insight of Aquinas, and helping your readers to recognize the need for ongoing education and reformation.
    Thank you, as ever, for leading us to “read the signs of the time,”
    and renew our faith lives.
    Pat Walsh

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