WE HAVE FORGOTTEN OUR STORY
by Ted Schmidt
Religion is totally at a loss at how to respond to the emerging culture, and to the disaffected at least, they no longer look to religion for a hopeful response.
Diarmuid O’Murchu in Religion in Exile
People aren’t leaving their churches. They just aren’t going to them.
Sociologist Reginald Bibby
The churches may have the water of life, but less and less people want them anywhere near the fire.
Ronald Rolheiser in Holy Longing
There is a spiritual hunger in the land. In my role as the editor of the Catholic New Times, I get to experience this first hand and it is fascinating. Present in the myriad calls, emails, and letters I receive is the omnipresent desire to come to terms with God in the world. It is obvious that good people are searching for ways to be authentic, to be holy, to do God’s will. There is, however, extraordinary confusion, anxiety, fear and great concern afoot. Why this confusion? With the help of a few writers, I wish to try and unpack some of this huge problem which the churches are dealing with.
Let me start with one word, modernity.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt correctly saw that modern life, with all of its technological advance, its brilliant scientific breakthroughs, its increased speed, would inevitably wreak havoc with religion whose central forms were formalized in more sedentary times. Arendt correctly saw that modernity would jettison tradition, authority and religion. Skeptics like Marx, Freud and Nietzsche have all hammered away at religion as outmoded, a fossil best relegated to humanity’s past. Well, religion has proven remarkably resilient not disappeared. But certainly the institutionalized brand has been dealt a formidable blow. Many people today define themselves as "spiritual" but not "religious"
Diarmuid O’Murchu, a popular priest-spiritual writer, maintains that modern people are quite correctly disengaged from musty institutions which have not adapted to modernity. He says that churches are much too wedded to word and place. People today have had it with words which are overused and emptied of meaning. And as far as the place, churches are just too small to contain God whose creativity has been operative for billions of years before we used language. God’s "word" is beyond the verbal and besides, the sacred text has been used as a method of control over patriarchal structures. Only a male priesthood has had access for far too long, and modern people are simply not accepting this anymore.
You may, or may not, go all the way with O’Murchu on this, but he certainly has a point. Many Christians have moved beyond the Bible (written word) to the universe as another, maybe primordial locus of the divine. In Thomas Berry’s expression, "the earth is primary, the bible is secondary." If we can accept that God surely has been active before biblical times, we can proceed with this argument. O’Murchu maintains that this "church-centred" focus in "place and word" can no longer captivate today’s Christians. "The people want to relate to the whole of the land; the entire earth is home and nothing short of this planetary homecoming will satisfy the yearnings of the human heart."
Modern people (all of us) sense that we are losing "our Mother," the earth through the depredations of corporate, transnational greed. The assault on "the Body of God" has been horrific, from ozone depletion to the loss of top soil, to the millions who have been prematurely killed because of nuclear testing. According to O’Murchu, "the umbilical link with universal wisdom is being severed." While this is happening the Church lamely serves up "place and word," denuded of any power to challenge this evil arrangement. People are being disconnected to the Great Story. O’Murchu, quite correctly in my judgment, states that "the Church will have to connect with the spiritual hunger of our age, one that is profoundly searching for new earthly and global connections."
Ask yourself the question: When was the last time you heard anybody in the Church connect you to the huge cosmic drama taking place today? Does my faith have anything to say about this, or is it simply a privatized narcissistic relationship with Jesus? When brave young people challenged the earth destruction (sponsored by the World Trade Organization) in Seattle and Quebec where were the churches? Undoubtedly many individual Christians have made the connections, but the institution stands mute and confused on the sidelines of history, convicted of embracing a shocking dualism between the sacred and the secular. For many of the young, the New (the Spirit in the world?) lies elsewhere. To use a powerful biblical symbol to describe this alienation, try Exile. We are a species which has forgotten our Story.
In a conversation I had with an intelligent bishop, I expressed my fears to him about World Youth Day (which I support). The last thing we need I told him is 500,000 Catholics marching up Yonge Street behind a cross. This will be Catholic triumphalism, a nostalgic romp down memory lane with little or no connection to the many secular groups already doing the hard slogging to fashion a world fit for all of God’s family. And it will partially be funded by a city which can’t keep open its swimming pools. What we do need is a deeper awareness of what that cross is pointing to today: the crucifixion of Mother earth and the growing gap between the rich and poor.
Those beautiful young people will not be successfully evangelized if the connections between the Gospel and earth justice and social justice are made. Jesus does not want them walking only with Catholics on a balmy night in July. He told us where he wants them—accompanying the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised, He wants them out of their Catholic ghetto and into a messy world with nomads "of no fixed faith" who are already busily sanctifying this broken world.
Jim Wallis, the great evangelical pastor asks, "How big is your We?" It’s more than opportune for those young Catholic Christians to start asking themselves as they prepare for WYD, "Is this just a Catholic meeting or are we part of a movement?"—with all other nomads, spiritual vagabonds who are challenging corporate power and earth
degradation today. Our narrow sectarian agendas must become a shared agenda for the common good.
To be grounded in a biblical spirituality, the prophets of Israel remind us that engagement in economic life and stewardship of the earth are indeed religious beliefs. For spiritual fulfillment today, Jesus the Lord of History reminds us that we need not turn off the road to Jericho for higher ground and closer communion with God. If we do, we may miss the broken person on life’s highway, the central sacrament of God in the world.
Ted Schmidt is the editor of Catholic New Times. His memoir Shabbes Goy: A Catholic Boyhood was published last year.