The Challenge of ‘Spiritual, but Not Religious’

“When people say (as they do, it seems, with increasing frequency) that they are more interested in ‘spirituality’ than in ‘religion,’ they usually seem to mean that they prefer the balm of private fantasy, the aromatherapy of uplifting individual sentiment, to the hard work of thought and action, the common struggle to make sense of things, to redeem and heal the world.”  — Nicholas Lash.

Most “spiritual but not religious” people I know would never say, “I prefer private fantasy and uplifting individual sentiment to the hard work of healing the world.”  There are probably some, but they would probably not make very good friends, if a friend is someone who goes outside her own fantasy and sentiment in order to know, support, wonder, and grow with another objectively real, free person.

In fact, many of the people I know who are deeply thoughtful but alienated from institutional religion are wonderful friends who are also engaged in real efforts for justice and peace.  These efforts are a true gift to the world.

Yet we have to be honest that there is a real temptation in our world to stay “independent” rather than make commitments, to minimize cost to ourselves rather than give freely, and to stay comfortable rather than open up to transformation.  This temptation affects all of us, and it lurks behind “cafeteria Christianity” even while there are legitimate reasons to feel frustrated by, and alienated from, organized religion.  We must also be honest that on our own, what human beings can imagine for ourselves and our world, and what we can do, is limited in a real way to what we have already seen – in the past, and in the present. What can expand our imagination the rest of the way?  What would truly fulfill us, and is it possible?

When we believe and live according to the promise of Christ, with other people, we are no longer limited by our personal faults and the faults of our communities become potential signs of redemption.  They become those real problems that are still smaller than Christ’s love, those real problems despite which we are still beloved, and despite which we try to live with one another in Christ’s love, in such a way that transforms the world in love.  Our struggle to transcend ourselves in love is a struggle that takes place with and for other people.

Other people, the people of the Church and especially the saints, expand our opportunity to love and our ability to hope for something-in-particular, for a particular kind of transformation.  But ultimately, it is Jesus Christ who reveals the whole truth about who we are and who we can be — servants of one another, beloved children of God, people who break the Bread of Life together, people who take up our crosses (including the cross of dealing with other people’s sin and our own sin) and follow him even to death because love is stronger than death.  We know that is who we are because we know that is who Jesus is, and we know him not in the abstract but very personally when we receive his love, forgiveness, healing, and joy in the sacramental life of the Church and in the life we share as a community of love and service.

Furthermore, we get to know Jesus in a very particular, personal way when we share in his committed love for the particular people who make up his Church.  This is the Church whom he brought together to belong to him in love.  He does not divorce himself from his Spouse, but instead remains with all of his brothers and sisters in spite of everything, living with us and belonging to us, even when he is left broken, alone, frustrated, and thirsty because we do not love him as he loves us.  We are called to love the People of God like this, to love the ones whom our Savior loves.

In the New Evangelization, it is our task to communicate that the life of the Church – that is, as a particular form of religion – is Good News.  Our task is to communicate that the Good News that constitutes the Church is fulfilling, challenging, and salvific news for each and every person in a way that “spirituality” alone cannot be.Top of FormBottom of Form

Let Us Grow Together in Holiness

In political campaigns and religious statements, we spend a lot of time talking about our brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, and pew-mates who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and about what they do. We spend significantly less time listening and speaking to and with one another as brothers and sisters. The questions we are addressing as a church and a society relate to the core questions of what it means to be human: how we must act, what rights human beings have, and who we are called to be.  The questions involve our profound human desire to communicate oneself in intimacy to another, the fulfillment of which is not necessary for survival but the desire for which is essential enough to warrant description in our primordial memory of creation (Genesis 1-3).  And the questions involve the relation of this desire to the ultimate happiness of human beings.  But the questions are secondary; the people are primary.

We face these questions in a context of sin. Just over fourteen years ago, on Friday, October 12, 1998, Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered.  He was gay, and he was apparently tortured and murdered for this reason.  There is something profoundly disordered, evil, and false in every part of the chain of events that have created the environment in which this particular instance of evil is imaginable, let alone actual.

And the chain of events that creates this environment implicates all of us.  We as twenty-first century people — in light of modern philosophy and in the wake of bloody 20th century – know that sin has both personal and social aspects.  Sin, that which separates us from God, is not merely something an individual person chooses.  It is also something that a social body “chooses” in constituting itself through a particular pattern of thought and relationship: a pattern of that makes it easier for people to be good or a pattern that separates us from God, a pattern that either dignifies or objectifies people.

The core of the social sin related to the murder of Matthew Shepard is the choice of our social body to dehumanize a group of people in both hidden and public ways.  This is intolerable.  We the church must be the prophetic witness that points out, by our words and by our life, that what allowed Matthew Shepard to be killed also kills the rest of us because it hurts the Body of Christ.  We must not be divided in the sense that we must not let the questions we face prevent us from proclaiming the Gospel through our unity in love. What is primary is that all of us are created in the image of God and beloved by God.

There is so much we collectively — ecclesially, societally, culturally — are still learning about homosexuality.  But we do know the ever-new Good News and that our context demands its proclamation once again in new terms.  We know Christ and we know our brothers and sisters. We know many among us are struggling and suffering profoundly. And on the whole, we must more urgently listen and proclaim to one another what we agree on by virtue of our baptism into Christ:

Only by having you in our community, sisters and brothers, with your unique experiences and struggles, are all of us, the Body of Christ, capable of understanding and proclaiming the Good News most perfectly and authentically, which is our whole purpose  (and there is no need to generalize as to “how”).  In knowing you, we know Christ.  Period. Because of who you are, you can serve in a way that others cannot.  And we cannot specify what that way is, because to specify what your purpose is would reduce the mysterious depth of your personality and your vocation.  Christ seeks you out and has found you.  He desires that you belong to him in a personal, profound, life-giving and beautiful way and that you continue daily to become a sign of his love for his people.

Thank you for being who you are.  We love you. May we accept the grace to grow in holiness together.

Notre Dame’s Presidential Invites Go Unnoticed

Three-and-a-half years ago, I sat in a coffee shop in Kampala, Uganda, sipping my brew and listening nonchalantly to the sound of world news coverage.  I had heard about the brouhaha surrounding Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to deliver the 2009 commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate.  Nonetheless, it was a surreal experience when the world news coverage shifted from the swine flu, global food riots, the economic crisis, and maybe even Balloon Boy (or was that not until October?), to coverage of my home university.

Now, the University of Notre Dame has invited both President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to speak on campus (press release, 24 September), to relatively little fanfare.  Catholic pro-life advocates including Ann and Eric Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League have expressed little concern over the latest invitations.  (It is worth noting that both invitations have been the latest installments in a long-standing tradition.)  Setting aside the 2009 events, by inviting the two presidential candidates to speak on campus during this election season, Notre Dame models the allegiance-to-no-party and conversation-with-both that ought to characterize U.S. Catholicism at the institutional level today.

If the 2009 events managed to raise the question of what constitutes scandal, the 2012 invitation to both candidates, should they oblige, can model in another way the authentically Catholic citizenship that the U.S. Bishops describe in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (2007).  How?  Not least by an effort to ask the kinds of questions we all should ask:

(1) Unlike many voters, Catholics agree fundamentally on a moral framework that guides our discernment as voters (Forming Consciences 9-12).  The formation of our consciences, which is to take place before any party allegiance, involves study of the teaching of the church.  Our main questions are about how the values we share can be reflected in the laws of this country.

“Governor Romney, because we believe that every person has a right to affordable, accessible healthcare, your overt intention to repeal the healthcare bill raises questions for us.  How are you going to ensure that people with pre-existing conditions, middle-class people, and especially the poor and vulnerable can access affordable health care?”

“President Obama, because we believe that ending the life of an unborn child is always evil, we cannot support your policy position.  How are you going to reduce the number of abortions?”

(2) This shared moral framework impels us not to ask narrowly what the candidate can do for us, but to ask what the candidate can do for the common good and to uphold human dignity, especially of the poor and vulnerable (Forming Consciences 50-51).

“President Obama, ending the wars is not enough.  What will your administration do to end the U.S. role in the arms trade and aid refugees?  How will you reallocate the human and financial resources now available for the benefit of the poor?”

(3) We never fit comfortably into either party but continually press both parties for better policies (Forming Consciences 14, 16, 55, 58, etc.)

“Governor Romney, making abortion illegal is not the same as ending it.  How are you going to reduce the number of abortions, before or—hypothetically—after Roe v. Wade is overturned?  How will you make sure expectant mothers and fathers have the resources they need?”

In addition to these questions, Notre Dame students—and all of us in our own communities—must make a prudential judgment about the likelihood that each presidential candidate will actually enact his policy positions, in light of the current political climate, the candidate’s integrity, and the powers of the presidency.  We must discern, using our formed consciences, which issues matter most.  We must discern for whom we should vote.  And finally, after the election, we must continue to advocate for just policies.  All of this, of course, is also true for state and local elections.

By inviting the two presidential candidates to speak on campus, Notre Dame is already modeling the independence from political parties that must characterize U.S. Catholic institutions today.  If the candidates accept, Notre Dame has the chance to also model the kinds of questions Catholics can use to discern whose box to check on Election Day—questions about priorities, integrity, power, and effective policies.

And, perhaps most importantly, all of us this election season have the chance to witness prophetically to the love of Christ—not only in the policies we support but in the way we interact with other people.

St. John of the Cross

Frogger, John of the Cross, and Embodied Love

Once upon a time, boys and girls used to approach a video game console, turn it on, and practice manipulating a two-dimensional frog across a street in order to get their thrills.  Today, the stakes have changed: we have only one life to start with, the screen is smaller, and what is on the screen has little to do with whether we get hit by a truck.  In a new way it is possible to never be alone, and in a new way it is possible to be completely alone in a crowd of any size.

Without lessening all the good that smart phones can help us do, there is on the other hand something undead, disembodied, uncollected going on when we start running into stuff that is right in front of us (which is one reason it’s funny).  And there is something not quite alive about the way we can let other people become objects to us, like trucks to be avoided so that we stay in control.

When we use our phones, we are pretty much in control of our communication.  When we only use our phones, we miss out on something wonderfully human about the risk of knowing and being known beyond texts, beyond words.  A zombie could never narrate the following lines about a “lover’s quest,” but only a living, embodied person could say:

So dark the night! At rest
And hushed my house, I went with no one knowing
upon a lover’s quest
-Ah the sheer grace! – so blest,
my eager heart with love aflame and glowing.

In darkness, hid from sight
I went by secret ladder safe and sure
– Ah grace of sheer delight –
so softly veiled by night,
hushed now my house, in darkness and secure.

Hidden in that glad night,
regarding nothing as I stole away,
no one to see my flight,
no other guide or light
save one that in my heart burned bright as day.

Surer than noonday sun,
guiding me from the start this radiant light
led me to that dear One
waiting for me, well-known,
somewhere apart where no one came in sight.

Dark of the night, my guide,
fairer by far than dawn when stars grow dim!
Night that has unifed
the Lover and the Bride,
transforming the Beloved into him.

There on my flowered breast
that none but he might ever own or keep,
he stayed, sinking to rest,
and softly I caressed
my Love while cedars gently fanned his sleep.

Breeze from the turret blew
ruffling his hair. Then with his tranquil hand
wounding my neck, I knew
nothing: my senses flew
at touch of peace too deep to understand.

Forgetting all, my quest
ended, I stayed lost to myself at last.
All ceased: my face was pressed
upon my Love, at rest,
with all my cares among the lilies cast.

(“The Dark Night,” St. John of the Cross, trans. Marjorie Flower OCD)

The narrator leaves her safety and control behind to meet her Lover in person.  Fr. Franz Jozef van Beeck, SJ, observes that human beings, because we are embodied, cannot help but communicate ourselves, that “while we are physically with others, we are bound to convey something.”  And that “to exist as a person is to self-communicate,” even when we are simply sitting or reading or running.  At the same time, “to exist as a person is to invite the self-communication of others.”  Something wordless but real is shared between two or more people, namely, the reality and goodness of each person.  Their identities cannot be confined to the body of each person; rather, they communicate something of themselves that is accessible to the other person(s).  Because we can choose whether to respect this fact of self-communication, an ethical point follows: “Persons are valuable, not just derivatively, by reference to an extrinsic set of moral norms, but originally and inherently.  The simple givenness of a person, therefore, is not a bare, neutral fact; it creates an ethical situation; each and every person intrinsically demands to be responded to, in a way each and every thing does not” (“Divine Revelation: Intervention or Self-Communication?” in Theological Studies 52 (1991): 211-212).

The strangers in my daily life whom I barely notice demand to be responded to — not because some ideologue has convinced them they are “entitled” to be responded to, but simply because that is what it is to be human.

And to them, I either respond or do not respond.  To not respond is its own choice.  To choose not to be present to the reality of another person is to use my freedom in a way that makes both of us less authentically human.

That is what makes life an adventure.  In every moment, each of us cannot help but choose either to love or to overpower, to see or to cover our eyes, to destroy or to create.  It is a risk to choose to love, to see, to create space for another, because although each of us too, by our very nature, demands to be responded to, we cannot force anyone to respond.  Everyone else might remain a zombie, safe, with nothing to lose.  Jesus, being fully human, did not force anyone to accept him.  Yet he chose to communicate the divine nature to us so that we could take the risk of authentic love.
Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day said we must try to create a society in which it is easier for people to be good.  If today we respond authentically to the presence of our friends, family members, and the strangers we meet, we will gain the habits we need to be more just and loving participants in a global economic and political system that too often separates us from the intrinsic dignity and creative capacity of our brothers and sisters.

Honda Civic

A Labor Day Reflection

Honda CivicSince Colette, my 1998 Honda Civic, recently celebrated 217,000 miles, I worried for her health as I moved from Iowa to Boston.  Instinctively, I considered whether to pull over in Maryland to give her a break from climbing upward and coasting downward, turning, and plowing through downpours.  At some point I realized a rest probably would not help.  My car is not human.

When things are functioning properly, the only sense in which my car gets “tired” is in running out of gas, needing an oil change, or the like.  Colette does not need sleep and her muscles do not need time to repair themselves.  Too much walking will not break the bones in her ankles, and if she sits too long in front of the computer, she will not get sore.  If she spends a day in the sun, her dashboard might crack.  She will not, however, get a sunburn or sun poisoning or develop skin cancer.  The dashboard can be replaced.

Yet when things are functioning properly, the only sense in which my car is capable of anything is insofar as she can obey the laws of nature.  There is no freedom involved on the part of the car.  No consideration of what is good, true, or beautiful “motivates” the car’s movement, and the car does not know where she is taking her passengers or why.

Although Colette didn’t need to stretch, sleep, or talk with friends during the long drive, I did.  I am not a machine, and so I am capable of choosing health, a destination, and where to stop along the way.  The economic system in which I live, by contrast, tends to mistake persons for machines and mistake the economy (and economic institutions) for persons.

The United States Catholic Bishops call for the re-ordering of this relationship: ‎”All human beings are ends to be served by the institutions that make up the economy, not means to be exploited for more narrowly defined goals. Human personhood must be respected with a reverence that is religious. When we deal with each other, we should do so with the sense of awe that arises in the presence of something holy and sacred. For that is what human beings are: we are created in the image of God” (Economic Justice For All, 28).

Labor is a precious aspect of human life in which our power and our vulnerability both emerge.  We rely on labor because we are enfleshed.  Enfleshed in time, we are in constant need of energy to maintain our homeostasis.  We can be hurt because we are enfleshed; we heal because we are enfleshed; we can create something that we imagine because we have bodies.  We have both the need for labor and the capacity for labor because of our materiality.  And it is our flesh, in its connection to our spirit, that the Lord has promised to sanctify with our co-operation.

Personal sin prevents us from co-operating with the sanctification of our own and others’ flesh.  So do structures of oppression and violence form our minds, hearts, and bodies in such a way that we fail to uphold the dignity of labor.

May every human being be set free from sin and oppression — free to create, to cultivate, to advocate, to repair, to serve, to construct, to heal, to clean, and to teach — free to be fully alive, for the glory of God.  May the labor of every human being contribute to this freedom for all.