This is a question that always ‘bugs’ me and makes me think. I often come across “apologists” who try to back you into a corner with the usual dilemma – my way or the highway. All or nothing. You can only be either a fully committed card-carrying church Christian, or you have to be an atheist, an evil person, whatever – at least a pile of trash!
C.S. Lewis in his time was much more intelligent and sensitive with the apologetics than many are nowadays. You have to have the direction from the Church’s authority, otherwise, left to your own devices, you will become bad. He uses the analogy of going to sea with a chart – you have to read and understand the chart, and above all, follow it. I have myself been writing about the art and science of nautical navigation, and it’s quite complex. As applied mathematics, you get it right or you get it wrong. If you foul up on your calculations, you get lost.
Are “unchurched” people necessarily navigating the Pacific Ocean without a sextant and chart? I would say, not necessarily. People do what they do for different reasons. I find it quite hard to take criticism levelled at hermits or people spending their lives at sea, either because they are “socially handicapped” or they simply do something in life that causes them to be alone. Perhaps one does get the cocky type of person who despises any kind of authority or guidance, and this would be reprehensible and sinful, a kind of sociopathy in a mild form. Most are either “burned children dreading the fire” or have simply grown up somewhere else.
I often wonder what I would do if I were not a priest. I would then have to find a community in which to worship, and to which I could relate socially. Of course there is the local parish, and I would feel as alien to it as to the Buddhists or the Muslims. A Benedictine abbey? You can attend services, and even go to confession to a monk and have spiritual direction. But the lay worshippers come and go. They come only for the liturgy. So the solution is to move into town, the capital city, where churches are cosmopolitan enough to welcome strangers and make them part of the community. The point I am making is that we do not live in the same circumstances or have the same possibilities available. Then some people have to live in countries where Christianity isn’t allowed because of their job, or they spend months at sea without a chaplain or even other seamen wanting to get together for a prayer group.
Is being Christian being socially connected, involved in all manner of humanitarian activities and local community? Are we all of the same temperament? It is generally assumed that people who don’t go to church are hostile, indifferent or lazy. Or course the Church cannot be wrong, so it isn’t wrong. It’s the little people who are to blame and their addiction to TV, entertainment, consumer goods, pleasure, sports, celebrities and so forth. Give them a good war or take everything away, and that will do the trick! I don’t think World War II made any more converts than it did atheists.
Many people have been alienated from church all their lives, and use religious language differently, and we know how steamed up Christians get over the meanings of words and expressions! The secular world uses the word dogma to mean a moralising and domineering attitude. It simply means a teaching or doctrine to use the Latin word. Dogmatic theology is a different discipline from moral theology. But we have to see through words and language, understand what people mean in their concepts behind the improperly used words.
There is a legitimate subjective experience of God and the community known as the Church. Most of us were brought up in a tradition according to where we were born and our local culture. I was born into an Anglican family, baptised as a baby in the family’s parish church and spent a not very religious childhood. Church buildings and music attracted me, but cliquishness and stuffiness put me right off. That is my own experience, and it influences the way I think and write, and why I sympathise with those who have been burned by church.
Unlike the apologists, I understand why some make a distinction between religion and spirituality, as I make a distinction between exoteric Christianity and esoteric Christianity, between the democracy and aristocracy of the spirit. When we are told the exoteric is the only way, then we grow out of it. When the outer liturgy and church culture nurture and form our internal life, then outer and inner grow together into a whole. I hardly see that possibility in almost all parish churches and even most monasteries.
Some have found their peace and joy in their spiritual life, whatever form that life might take – if only for the person in question. They are serene and have no fear of death. They are connected to nature and the people around them, whether they are religious or secular. God is a part of life and life is a part of God, at least by way of analogy.
Others have been burned and are angry or bitter. Apologists tell them they are sinners and trash – and bound for hell. They are confirmed in their anguish. It will cost the armchair inquisitor dearly – he will go to hell himself for the damage he caused others! Some find they can “save” God only if they leave religious practice and the church. People have been punished, persecuted, hurt, confused, disillusioned, and emotionally or psychologically damaged in God’s name. God has been blamed, unfairly, for the sins of the church. And, I am not just talking about sex abuse of vulnerable persons. I am talking about the way many priests and religious have been treated and ended up on “ecclesial death row”. The Church is no more free from bullies and psychopaths than banks, big business and politics.
What is spirituality? It is not simply a branch of theology called “ascetic theology”, a kind of appendix to moral theology. It is the very life of a human person, the freedom of the spirit to transcend the base material world and evil forces. We are all hungry for the life of the spirit, and experience alienation and insecurity if we are denied expression and the right to be what we are. Spirituality is not an add-on, to be controlled by the institutional Church, but our very being.
If we can relate to the Church via a “man-machine interface” as it would be called in industry and technology, all the better. But, man will not be extinguished and become an unperson (as George Orwell put it) just because he was unable to conform to teachings or imperatives from the Church that violate and rape his spirit.
This is why people need to be free in their fundamental choices regarding the Church, or one church or another. I respect people who do not go to church, and I find religious marketing something obscene and distasteful. The more anyone comes at me, the more I go the other direction. I may not be a good priest, and I am only in a canonical relationship with a church whose very existence seems precarious. One demon writing comments on a blog affirms that the CDF was right to refuse me a nulla osta. I never asked for one, and I have never received a letter saying that the CDF granted me one or refused it.
I fully understand the “unchurched”. It is better that they go it alone and find peace and union with God than go to a church and find nothing but bitterness and dead men’s bones. When the bullies lay off, maybe someone may be able to live the Gospel and communicate it without saying a single word. An act of kindness? Some sign of love and beauty and goodness? Generosity?
Well, I’ll read the comments and take it from there.