Last week I offered some reflections about inter-religion dialogue. This week’s focus is on the “nones” the non religiously affiliated. According to a Pew Research Center study, about 30% of U.S. American adults are now religiously unaffiliated. Like Michael, my university student whom I mentioned last week, they are disenchanted and disengaged from institutional religion.

In a recent email, Michael told me that he and his fiancee are now “searching non-believers,” but that they are both greatly attracted to the historical Jesus. I believe they and many others like them today are truly asking the bigger questions about life and meaning. In their own way, they are searching for an authentic “spirituality,” even though they might not use or even like that word. I think they would have resonated with the young men and women who were followers of the historic Jesus. In Jesus those people back then, around 29 CE, found someone who respected them, listened to them, and searched and explored with them. 

As an older historian, I have often wondered about those young men and women. They became Jesus’ disciples and later apostles. Were they perhaps disenchanted young Hebrews who felt institutionalized religion had lost its credibility? A hypothetical question of course. Jesus was a Hebrew believer but also highly critical of organized religion in his day. As a young adult, the historic Jesus, known as “Yeshua,” was a member of the religious group led by John the Baptizer, the Hebrew preacher active in the area of the Jordan River, which flows into and out of the Sea of Galilee. Some scholars suggest that John may have belonged to the Essenes, a semi-ascetic Hebrew group who expected a messiah and practiced ritual baptism. In any event we do know, from several New Testament accounts, that some of Jesus’ early followers had also previously belonged to the group around John. On his own spiritual journey, Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus heard the Divine voice: “You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

There are many ways to describe the Divine Presence at the depth of Reality, just as there are many ways to describe what it means to love someone and to be loved. Here symbol and metaphor become important. Some of the old images of God may no longer speak to contemporary people. There is no God up there above the clouds sitting on HIS throne, manipulating everything down below. And there is no angry self-centered God who demanded the terribly painful death of his Son on a Roman cross. But the authentic God is a loving God who has not abandoned us, even when we might not realize it.

The German philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) argued that there is one common factor to all religious experience. In his book The Idea of the Holy he identified this factor as “the numinous.” The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a “holy other.”

The religious questioner’s journey is not a dead end. As one of my former Leuven Professors, Jan Lambrecht SJ (1926 – 2023), so often stressed, the biblical account (Luke 24:13-35) of the journey of the couple, Cleopas and Mary, disciples of Jesus on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus is really about being a religious questioner. Having witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross, they moved from great sadness and despair about Jesus’ death to the joyful realization that he was not dead but truly alive and present with them. This narrative, Lambrecht stressed, is a model for everyone’s journey to discover a deeper faith experience. It also serves as an instrument to help others make their own religious-exploration journey. As I told my student Michael at the start of our ongoing conversations: “Be patient and open. God is closer to you than you realize.” Or as a very good spiritual advisor friend reminded me recently: “God is in our life as it really is, every part of it. We don’t so much ‘find’ God as ‘recognize’ God having been there with us all the time.”

We need to listen, to reflect, and to journey with the questioners and searchers. We need to listen to our own questions. We need to reflect on better ways of conceptualizing and speaking about our experience of the Divine. Asking questions is important. 

Having a glass of scotch with him one evening, I remember a long discussion with  a U.S. archbishop who was on sabbatical at our university. We talked about young  people today and about contemporary gender and sexuality issues. The archbishop, was open and friendly. He asked me: “Do you think we will ever ordain gay men?” I chuckled and replied: “Well archbishop I suspect we have been doing it for about two thousand years.” He took a big drink and stared at me. I took a drink, smiled, and continued. “Archbishop,” I said “now I have a question for you. Thinking about young people today and their religious questioning, when did you last feel the presence of the Divine?” Acting very surprised he looked away for a a few seconds. Then, with a bit of emotion, he said: “When I was a very young priest.” I asked: “And now?” He stared at me, took another drink, and replied: “These days I am on automatic pilot. I say the words and I do the things bishops are expected to say and do.” 

As our conversation continued, the archbishop said he really wasn’t all that certain anymore about a personal God. I told him I wanted to continue the conversation and reminded him of the comment from Dag Hammarskjöld (1905 – 1961) the former Secretary General of the United Nations, in his book Markings. Hammarskjöld left behind the manuscript of this book to be published after his death: “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.” The archbishop and I stayed in close and supportive contact for many years, right up to his death.

Yes. We need to ask questions and we need to invite and welcome the questioners and the seekers. There are probably more people than we realize who struggle with doubt and belief questions as they try to make meaning of their daily lives. We can participate and journey with them. We need to listen to young people at the start of their adult lives. (Right now, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24 in the United States.) And we need to listen to and journey with older people, like my archbishop friend, as they confront their own questioning and life transitions.

I want to repeat a thought I have expressed a number of times: Our communities of faith – like our schools, study groups, and our parishes — should be centers of excellence where people speak courageously about their awareness of the Divine Presence through personal shared faith stories, through drama, through music, and through art. 

Regardless of our place in the human journey, The Gospels remind us that God lives and walks with everyone: all races, all nationalities. God is not focused on gender or sexual orientation. Matthew 25 is very clear: “’Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

Writing my reflection this week a lot of thoughts were going through my head: the archbishop, my student Michael, and George a good friend who died a few days ago in Detroit. I have been thinking a lot about George because he and I were once young questioners and searchers who supported each other. We were in college seminary together in Detroit. Later we were fellow-students at the Catholic University of Leuven, called “Louvain” back then. Like me he did not seek ordination. He got married as I did.  He became a “lay theologian” and a university professor in Michigan. Our journeys together were truly life-giving. Yes. I know. Life is changed not taken away. Sometimes, however, the change is hard to get used to.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life” Jesus says in John’s Gospel. (John 14:6) 

And so my friends we continue on our journeys.


18 thoughts on “Religiously Unaffiliated

  1. Thank you for your wisdom, compassion and guidance. As your anecdotes demonstrate, we need to listen to “seekers” with open minds and open hearts.

  2. So, Jack — Let me begin by thanking you for this week’s meditation/invitation. It has plenty of meat in it. I was gratified to see a foundational reference for what Roger Haight wrote about the Emmaus account in “The Nature of Theology.” In relating to those who have walked away from denominational religion, I don’t think it is helpful to either allow them to self-identify or to identify them as “nones.” I view that as equally as troubling as the arrogance of Catholics referring to all other practitioners as “non-Catholics”. There are subtle ways that men in leadership exercise this kind of power, and I would draw your attention to those who join hands at Eucharist to share the Lord’s Prayer. How many men place their hands on top of their female spouses? It may be unconscious or subtle, but it is an expression of domination/power; and I make it a point not to do it, and when there is a puzzled look, I explain my rationale after the prayer. Bottom line, Emmaus lays the foundation for evangelization: experience, puzzlement, questioning, explanation, acceptance, wonder. Thanks again!

  3. Jack, another beautiful from the heart as well as head. Of course, I share your concerns and your hopes for the young and the old like you and me. Keep writing honestly. I share some of your messages with concerned friends. Peace, Louie

  4. Dear Jack,
    Again, so many insights and stimulating observations! From you and your readers, it seems that it is only natural to have questions, confusions, and (dare I say it!) doubts when seeking the answers to questions of personal relationship with the Divine. I greatly admire those who seem to have it “figured out” and appear to cruise through life with a confident, secure assurance that what they are doing is truly correct. But I also sometimes wonder if it is actual clarity or a lack of questioning. Fr. Jim O’Leary, a truly inspirational role model, used to say that connection with God is best achieved by relationship rather than rules. In “Eager to Love,” Richard Rohr explores the faith of St. Francis and his aversion to ritual for its own sake and that living the Gospel is best done “….through actions visibly done in love; by a nonviolent and humble, simple, but liberated lifestyle…” Perhaps Nones are less inspired by traditional ritual, forms, and rules. The admission of your bishop friend was supremely telling and revealing. I, personally, feel somewhat consoled that there is nothing inherently wrong with admitting to sometimes feeling confused, doubtful, and insecure. The best reassurance is that we have our loving Jesus leaving signs along the way. And you, friend Jack, are one of his guides leading us forward.
    Frank Skeltis

  5. Jack, some things look familiar. I think my wandering and searching began while I was in the Army, but it really took after off after I retired from active duty. I’m not sure after my first few Army years that I really bought into the system, although like the archbishop I was a lot on automatic pilot. I feel I am definitely wandering and wondering. I feel a draw towards Jesus and the Gospel, to the institution and its system, not so much. Also, I agree with your last lines, ” Life is changed not taken away. Sometimes, however, the change is hard to get used to” especially during these last few months in my life.

  6. Alonzo, I cherish your reflection today. It does not waste anyone’s time. I am very grateful for your blog and encourage you to keep your Bic lubricated.

  7. Thanks so much, Jack, for sharing your reflections and personal experiences with us. Your words are a great encouragement to me, an older woman by now, words which give me “permission” to not only ask questions but to also feel assured that it’s perfectly okay to not have all the answers. Thanks, too, for the reminder to listen to the young people (and anyone, actually). Any young person today who’s paying attention has to be very concerned about their future and wondering how to navigate through their world. We’ve probably all experienced how very supportive it is just be heard and valued by another. It’s really a mark of respect to hear and acknowledge another’s worries or concerns. I too, pass along your weekly letters sometimes. So please keep writing.

  8. Dear Dr. Jack,
    Meaning, the means of seeking meaning, the statistical mean, and the meanness of self-righteousness== these are terms that sometimes appear in “For Another Voice,” about truth in life and living it, and now your reflections and the comments have edged into the terroir that the Nones tend.  I suspect the “mean” point of goodness and faith in the spirit of humanity [as Dr. Schweitzer called it] would be graphed out more highly among the Nones than Putnam and Campbell first suggested back in 2012, in their book “American Grace.”  Probably more than 25% of ordinary people are Nones, by this metric, but I haven’t detected self-righteousness so much as discouragement and a certain loneliness in being ordinary.  Pigeon-holing and shelving people with terms like “cafeteria Catholics” and “Nones” could be mean: where is the virtue in that?  Instead, a transformative respect with hospitality and the milk of human kindness engenders insight for life to evolve more fully.  “Life is changed, not taken away,” as you remind us.  To live is to change, to evolve, which involves mutation, something that takes getting used to, which as you say, is hard, particularly in thinking differently about what is different, every day.   

    Maybe too much of living happens “on automatic,” as the late venerable archbishop confessed to you.  Frank Skeltis comments that signs require our vigilance.  One sign that appears is the mission-creep of AI, which lately purports to be the “conservator” of the activities at our fingertips on a laptop, tapping out our daily lives, an unwitting trove for data-mining robots.  I have to remind myself to be vigilant about such assaults on free will and intentionality, so thank you, Frank, for highlighting that sign.  If “spiritual but not religious” is a different data term for the Nones, then how can I know what “spiritual” means to others, unless we talk or write?  Polling is not the same as conversing.  I have my own senior intuitions, aging hints, quantum memory entanglements, and gut feelings, as did the psalmists, the prophets, and Jesus himself, about the religious traditions that try to encounter and recognize the Ever-Present Origin of all that is.  It is ineffable, no words for it, except one.  Like Frank says, the fullest embodiment is Yeshua, The Word, the Incarnate One, this particular Jesus encountered by faith in the present, in the Presence, by the lake shore, or in city alleys, or on the road to Emmaus, living in love with others, forever. 

    So, as my confessor the late Gene Walsh SS often said, If anyone offers you a better deal, take it.  No one has.  Embodying the Word, or finding words to embody the experience of Original Presence forever, is an impulse to be fostered and defended, not forefended, in conversing with both the young and the well-seasoned listeners to hard words.  

    In a sense, faith embodies in words the historical beliefs once garnered from the experience and reflection of those who have gone before us.  Rites and liturgy embody the beliefs that we, the living, forge for the seasons of being present in space/time, provisionally, saved and watered by historical statements– artifacts really– that require of us respect and accountability in handling them.  I get rueful when reciting the Nicene Creed, for example, which sometimes sounds like a Constantinian political oath, i.e., needing revision or replacement for our times.  But those are lonely thoughts of a private heretic, as an Algerian Jewish scholar/friend once called me.

    The point of “For Another View” has always been the Little Gidding nugget, “last year’s language and next year’s words awaiting another voice.”  To quote my SPS alumnus John Elbert Dubord, I relish your blog, though it now takes me longer than a couple weeks to ruminate in silence and formulate something to cherish for “next year’s words” in another’s voice.  So much to mull together, to transcend, to see through to what is real and not ephemeral, wonder beyond all reason, not to mention pondering the really big question mark in the cosmos, shown in the JWST lab photos.  Now, THAT makes me hit the pause button, and put down my Pelican pen for a few minutes.  [I hope I can find it again, harhar.]

  9. My comment is in response to this paragraph:
    “I want to repeat a thought I have expressed a number of times: Our communities of faith – like our schools, study groups, and our parishes — should be centers of excellence where people speak courageously about their awareness of the Divine Presence through personal shared faith stories, through drama, through music, and through art.”

    I facilitate the Women’s Awareness Salon at the Franciscan Spiritual Center. We have been meeting for over 10 years and typically have about 50 women at each Salon. With 250 on the email list, the mix of women is always different.

    We have a speaker on topics far and wide, then small group discussion on the topic. Interspersed we have meditation, music, art and prayer. Sometimes we have an anointing or a laying on of hands. As Jan Phillips says, “to reveal ourselves is to heal ourselves.”

    Here are some of the topics: restorative movement, mandalas, gestalt therapy, sound healing, essential oils, Roman Catholic Women Priests, Mary Magdalene, and drumming to name a few.

    I am always inspired by your writing and look forward to each edition. Our women’s group
    Is leading the way in being inclusive, educational, and definitely inspiring.

    Marge Richards

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