One of the hidden pleasures of having a public religious identity is that people talk to me about things they might not bring up with anybody else. Those who know little of religion in general or of the Catholic faith in particular often want to test pre-conceived notions or finally put an old curiosity to rest. Some people want to reminisce about long-ago experiences in religious institutions or share personal stories of pain or joy. Where there is some misunderstanding, I can occasionally offer words of healing; at other times, the best I can do is simply listen. Just because I may have a different perspective on a matter doesn’t mean I always need to share it.
I was conversing the other day with a former lay colleague I am friendly with who professes an open agnosticism. He would likely describe himself as ‘spiritual but not religious’… Without closing himself off against the possibility of mystery, he avoids the language of ‘God’ and says that the Divine he imagines would be infinitely greater than any anthropomorphic or anthropocentric conception, certainly greater than any Jesus. He distrusts religion because he sees it as a way for people to seek easy answers to tough questions. For him, religion provides little more than a set of constrictive rules that govern thought and behavior. He sees me as an exception to the archetypal religious person that he imagines because we have spoken enough for him to see my own openness to serious questions and different viewpoints.
Religious adherents as imagined by my friend certainly exist, but not so much among those I know. There are some perspectives I would have liked to have shared and maybe will next time. The majority of practitioners I know do not feel bound by rules or doctrine to which they unthinkingly submit. As a Marist Brother dedicated to “making Jesus known and loved,” I wish I could have introduced him to the Jesus that I have come to know. My role in that particular conversation though was primarily to listen.
I did tell my friend that I do not look to my faith primarily to find answers, but rather to ask better questions than I otherwise might. I’m not sure whether I can communicate to him my inability to separate my faith from my compassion or desire for justice. Biographically, I lived about thirteen years away from the Church, during which time I generally tried to remain a good and compassionate person. In my own personal experience though, these values have been more thoroughly integrated and consistently lived the deeper I have grown into my faith. Far from losing myself in religion, developing my relationship with God to a fuller maturity has required a deepening self-transparency. I have never liked telling lies consciously, but now each year strips away another layer of unconscious self-deception as well.
As much as I may fixate on rules when trying to keep order or stay organized, I am not a big rule-follower in my moral decision-making. Neither was my Jesus, who reminded us time and again that our rules and regulations are meant to uplift humanity, not the other way around. There are some disciplines I have developed over time because I recognize they are good for me. There are some habits I have adopted because I appreciate them. Coloring within the lines, when done selectively, helps me to create something more beautiful than the chaos that would ensue if I tried to act without any structure whatsoever. That said, the only ‘shoulds’ I experience with my faith though are those that challenge me to be more generous and loving to those I encounter. I ‘should’ always try to be a better person, and I ‘should’ be gentle with myself when I fail to do so, just as I ‘should’ be gentle with others who are presumably doing the best they can as well.
If my friend ever wants me to introduce Jesus to him, I hope he is able to recognize the ultimate source of love that I see. This Christ is an infinitely great God who freely cast off all power to take on infinitely vulnerable weakness out of love for us. This is not a God essentially in our image, but rather a God who adopted our image to show us how to love better to the point where we ourselves enter into God. God is both expansive and intimate enough to engulf even me.
Paradox, mystery, questions. But all is at the service of approaching the core of reality. Some people like to speak of the Bible as Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Instead of a rulebook or a storybook though, at this moment I prefer to see the Bible as a coloring book that offers me enough structure and allows for enough creative freedom to create something truly beautiful with my life.
This week’s ‘ear candy’ is a favorite love song of mine that is also about fidelity to doing the right thing. Johnny Cash walks the line not out of externally imposed obligation, but rather freely embraced love: a model for the virtuous life. The offering for ‘brain food’ expands what we may think of when we read about ‘religious liberty’ issues. If tending to our vulnerable and marginalized sisters and brothers is indeed a religious value, is this not one that should be protected by law? In this country however, ‘religious liberty’ concerns seem to almost exclusively revolve around culture war flashpoints involving sexuality. Is that the way it has to be?
Ear Candy: “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash
Brain Food: “Whose Faith Matters? New Report Challenges Current ‘Religious Liberty’ Narrative” by Elizabeth Reiner Platt
Come back next Saturday for a new post!