RonRolheiser,OMI

When Does Faith Disappear? 

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When Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “God is dead” he added a question: What kind of a sponge does it take to wipe away a whole horizon?

I often ask that question because just in my own lifetime there has been an unprecedented decline in the number of people who go to church regularly and, more recently, an equally unprecedented spike in the number of people who claim to have lost their faith completely and are now classified under a religious category called, “None”.

This latter group (persons who when asked about their religious affiliation on a census form answer with the word, None) has essentially doubled in the last twenty years and today in Canada and the USA make up over 30% of the population. The numbers are much the same for Western Europe and other secularized parts of the world.

But have these individuals really lost their faith? When they use the word “None” to refer to their religious beliefs they generally explain that with phrases to this effect: I just no longer believe! It doesn’t make sense to me anymore! I’ve lost faith in religion and the church!  I can’t pretend any longer!  I’ve lost my faith in those beliefs! I’m not sure whether or not I believe in God!

What’s common among all these phrases is the concept of “believing” or “belief”: “I just don’t believe it anymore!” But is ceasing to believe in something the same thing as losing one’s faith?  Not necessarily. It can be one thing to no longer believe in something, but it can be something quite different to lose one’s faith. To cease believing in a set of faith propositions doesn’t necessarily equate with losing one’s faith. Indeed, the loss of one’s belief system is often the condition for a purified faith.

How is belief different from faith? In normal, everyday parlance to say that we believe something to be true means that we are able to square that truth with our imagination, that is, we are able to somehow circumscribe it imaginatively so that it makes sense to us. Conversely, if we cannot picture how something might make sense then it is a short step to say that it isn’t true. Our beliefs are predicated on what we can square with our imagination and our thinking.

But many of the objects of our faith are, in essence and by definition, unimaginable, ineffable, and beyond conceptualization.  Hence in the area of faith, to say that I can’t believe this or that is generally more an indication of the limitation of our imagination and our rational powers than it is indicative of the loss of faith. I believe that we are much more agnostic about our beliefs than we are agnostic about God, and this isn’t a loss of faith.

Faith is deeper than belief, and it is not always something we can picture imaginatively inside our minds. Take, for instance, a number of articles in the Apostles’ Creed: It is impossible to imagine them as true in terms of picturing them as real. They are real, but our images of them are only icons. That is true too of many articles within our Christian creed and many of our written doctrines of faith. As expressed, they are merely images and words that point us towards something which we cannot imagine because it is beyond imagination.

For example: The first thing, always, that needs to be said about God is that God is ineffable, that is, God is beyond all conceptualization, beyond all imaginings, beyond being pictured, and beyond being captured in any adequate way by language.  This is also true for our understanding of Christ as the Second Person in the Trinity.  Jesus was God’s son, but how can that to be imagined or pictured? It can’t be. How can God, who is one, be three? This isn’t mathematics; it’s mystery, something that cannot be imaginatively circumscribed. Yet, we believe it and millions and millions of people for two thousand years have risked their lives and their souls on its truth without being able to picture it imaginatively. Faith is a knowing of something which, because of its magnitude and infinity, cannot be adequately pictured in terms of an imaginative construct. Our words about it express our beliefs and those words point to the reality, but they are not the reality.

To reject a specific piece of art does not mean we reject beauty. So when someone says, I can no longer believe this, he is in effect rejecting a set of propositions, a set of particular icons and a theory of art (a theology), rather than actually rejecting belief in God, and he is rejecting it precisely because he cannot imaginatively picture something which in fact cannot be pictured.

It has been said that atheist is just another name for someone who cannot get metaphor. Perhaps that’s too simple, but it does suggest that rejecting a set of theological propositions is not the same thing as losing one’s faith.

Coming Full Circle – From Storybooks to Spirituality

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My first love was literature, novels and poetry. As a child, I loved storybooks, mysteries and adventures.  In grade school, I was made to memorize poetry and loved the exercise. High School introduced me to more serious literature, Shakespeare, Kipling, Keats, Wordsworth, Browning. On the side, I still read storybooks, cowboy tales from the old West, taken from my dad’s bookshelf.

During my undergraduate university years, literature was a major part of the curriculum and I learned then that literature wasn’t just about stories, but also about social and religious commentary; as well as about form and beauty as ends in themselves.  In classes then we read classic novels: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, The Heart of the Matter, East of Eden. The curriculum at that that time in Canada heavily favored British writers. Only later, on my own, would I discover the richness in Canadian, USA, African, Indian, Russian, and Swedish writers. I had been solidly catechized in my youth and, while the catechism held my faith, literature held my theology.

But after literature came philosophy.  As part of preparation for ordination we were required to do a degree in Philosophy. I was blessed with some fine teachers and fell into first fervor in terms of my love of philosophy. The courses then heavily favored Scholasticism (Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas) but we were also given a sound history of philosophy and a basic grounding in Existentialism and some of the contemporary philosophical movements. I was smitten; philosophy became my theology.

But after philosophy came theology. After our philosophical studies, we were required to take a four-year degree in theology prior to ordination. Again, I was blessed with good teachers and blessed to be studying theology just as Vatican II and a rich new theological scholarship were beginning to penetrate theological schools and seminaries. There was theological excitement aplenty, and I shared in it. In Roman Catholic circles, we were reading Congar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Schnackenburg, and Raymond Brown. Protestant circles were giving us Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr, and a bevy of wonderful scripture scholars. The faith of my youth was finally finding the intellectual grounding it had forever longed for. Theology became my new passion.

But after theology came spirituality.  After ordination, I was given the opportunity to do a farther graduate degree in theology. That degree deepened immeasurably my love for and commitment to theology. It also landed me a teaching job and for the next six years I taught theology at a graduate level.  These were wonderful years; I was where I most wanted to be, in a theology classroom.  However, during those six years, I began to explore the writings of the mystics and tentatively launch some courses in spirituality, beginning with a course on the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross.

My doctoral studies followed those years and while I focused on Systematic theology, writing my thesis in the area of natural theology, something had begun to shift in me. I found myself more and more, both in teaching and writing, shifting more into the area of spirituality, so much so that after a few years I could no longer justify calling some of my former courses in Systematic theology by their old catalogue titles. Honesty compelled me now to name them courses in spirituality.

And what is spirituality? How is it different from theology? At one level, there’s no difference.  Spirituality is, in effect, applied theology. They are of one and the same piece, either ends of the same sock. But here’s a difference: Theology defines the playing field, defines the doctrines, distinguishes truth from falsehood, and seeks to enflame the intellectual imagination. It is what it classically claims itself to be: Faith seeking understanding.

But, rich and important as that is, it’s not the game. Theology makes up the rules for the game, but it doesn’t do the playing nor decide the outcome. That’s role of spirituality, even as it needs to be obedient to theology. Without sound theology, spirituality always falls into unbridled piety, unhealthy individualism, and self-serving fundamentalism. Only good, rigorous, academic theology saves us from these.

But without spirituality, theology too-easily becomes only an intellectual aesthetics, however beautiful. It’s one thing to have coherent truth and sound doctrine; it’s another thing to give that actual human flesh, on the streets, in our homes, and inside our own restless questioning and doubt. Theology needs to give us truth; spirituality needs to break open that truth.

And so I’ve come full circle:  From the story books of my childhood, through the Shakespeare of my high school, through the novelists and poets of my undergraduate years, through the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas, through the theology of Rahner and Tillich, through the scripture scholarship of Raymond Brown and Ernst Kasemann, through the hermeneutics of the Post-Modernists of my post-graduate years, through forty years of teaching theology, I’ve landed where I started – still searching for good stories that feed the soul.

Despair as Weakness Rather than Sin

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Classically, both in the world and in our churches, we have seen despair as the ultimate, unforgivable sin. The simple notion was that neither God, nor anyone else, can save you if you simply give up, despair, make yourself impossible to reach.  Most often in the popular mind this was applied to suicide. To die by your own hand was seen as despair, as putting yourself outside of God’s mercy.

But understanding despair in this way is wrong and misguided, however sincere our intent.  What’s despair? How might it be understood?

The common dictionary definition invariably runs something like this: Despair means to no longer have any hope or belief that a situation will improve or change. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which sees despair as a sin against the First Commandment, defines it this way: “By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises – and to his mercy.”

But there’s something absolutely critical to be distinguished here: There are two reasons why someone might cease to hope for personal salvation from God and give up hope in having his or sins forgiven. It can be that the person doubts the goodness and mercy of God or, and I believe that this is normally the case, the person is too crushed, too weak, too broken inside, to believe that he or she is lovable and redeemable. But being so beaten and crushed in spirit so as to believe that nothing further can exist for you except pain and darkness is normally not an indication of sin but more a symptom of having been fatally victimized by circumstance, of having to undergo, in the poignant words of Fantine in Les Miserables, storms that you cannot weather.

And before positing such a person outside of God’s mercy, we need to ask ourselves: What kind of God would condemn a person who is so crushed by the circumstances of her life so as to be unable to believe that she is loveable?  What kind of God would condemn someone for her brokenness? Such a God would certainly be utterly foreign to Jesus who incarnated and revealed God’s love as being preferential for the weak, the crushed, the broken-hearted, for those despairing of mercy. To believe and teach that God withholds mercy from those who are most broken in spirit betrays a profound misunderstanding of the nature and mercy of God who sends Jesus into the world, not for the healthy but for those who need a physician.

Likewise this too betrays a profound misunderstanding of human nature and the human heart. Why would a person deem herself so unlovable that she voluntarily and hopelessly excludes herself from the circle of life? It can only be because of a deep, profound wound to the soul (which no doubt is not self-inflicted). Obviously, unless it is a case of some clinical illness, this person has been deeply wounded and has never had an experience of unconditional love or indeed of faithful human love.  We are facile and naïve when, because we ourselves have been undeservedly loved, we cannot understand how someone else can be so crushed and broken so as to believe himself or herself to be, in essence, unlovable.  To paraphrase a painful question in the song, The Rose: Are love, and heaven, really only for the lucky and strong? Our common understanding of despair, secular and religious, would seem to think so.

But, nobody goes to hell out of weakness, out of a broken heart, out of a crushed spirit, out of the misfortune and unfairness of never having had the sense of being truly loved. Hell is for the strong, for those with a spirit so arrogant that it cannot be crushed or broken, and so is unable to surrender. Hell is never a bitter surprise waiting for a happy person, and neither is it the sad fulfillment of the expectation of someone who is too broken to believe that he or she is worthy to be part of the circle of life.

We owe it to God to be more empathic. We also owe this to those who are broken of heart and of spirit. Moreover, we have a Christian doctrine, expressed inside of our very creed that challenges us to know better: He descended into hell. What Jesus revealed in his life and in his death is that there’s no place inside of tragedy, brokenness, sadness, or resignation, into which God cannot and will not descend and breathe out peace.

God is all-understanding. That’s why we’re assured that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” You can bet your life on that. You can bet your faith on that. And you can also live in deeper empathy and deeper consolation because of that.