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.