RonRolheiser,OMI

Less People Are Going to Church – Whom to Blame?

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It’s no secret that today there’s been a massive drop-off in church attendance. Moreover that drop-off in church-going is not paralleled by the same widespread growth in atheism and agnosticism. Rather, more and more people are claiming to be spiritual but not religious, faith-filled but not church-goers. Why this exodus from our churches?

The temptation inside religious circles is to blame what’s happening on secularity. Secular culture, many people argue, is perhaps the most powerful narcotic ever perpetrated on this planet, both for good and for bad. It swallows most of us whole with its seductive promises of heaven on this side of eternity. Within our secularized world, the pursuit of the good life simply squeezes out almost all deeper religious desire. Interestingly, this is also the major criticism that Islamic extremists make of Western culture. For them it’s a drug, which once ingested, has no cure. That’s why they want to block their youth from Western influences.

But is this true? Is secular culture the enemy? Are we, church-goers, the last true remnant of God and truth left standing, prophetic and marginalized in a society that’s shallow, irreligious, and godless?  Many, including myself, would argue that this conclusion is far, far too simple. Secular society can be shallow, irreligious, and godless, there’s more than sufficient evidence for that; but, beneath its shallowness and its congenital allergy to our churches, real religious desire still burns and the churches must ask themselves: Why aren’t more people turning to us to deal with their religious desires? Why are so many people who are seeking spirituality not interested in looking at what the church offers? Why, instead, are they turning to everything except the church? Why, indeed, do so many people have the attitude: “The church has nothing to offer me: I find it boring, irrelevant, caught up inside its own petty issues, hopelessly out of step with my life.”

Secularity is, no doubt, partly to blame, but so too are the churches themselves. There’s an axiom that says: All atheism is a parasite off of bad theism. That logic also holds regarding attitudes towards the church: Bad attitudes towards the church feed off bad church practices.

The great Jewish scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, would agree. In his book, God In Search of Man, he writes: “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”

Novelist Marilynne Robinson (who has both a deep sympathy for and a commitment to the church) echoes Heschel. For her, as churches today, we are not radiating the immensity of God and the larger mystery of Christ. Rather, despite our good will, we are too much subordinating the mystery of Christ to tribalism, resentment, fear, and self-protection. This is one of the major reasons for our marginalization. Christianity, Robinson submits, “is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be underwritten by any lesser tale.” It is our narrow attitudes, she believes, that denigrate the Christian message and leave the churches, for good reason, marginalized: “Undignified, obscurantist, and xenophobic Christianity closes the path for many” to enter the church.” Blaming the world for our problems, she argues, does nothing to enhance the respect the world has for religion or for Christianity. The drop-off in church attendance is very much our own fault because far too often we are not radiating a church with a compassionate embrace and we are not in fact addressing the real energies that are burning inside people. For Robinson, the secular world isn’t, per se, irreligious. Rather it sees our churches as self-absorbed, non-understanding, and non-empathetic to its desires, its wounds, and its needs. And so her challenge to us, church-goers, is this: “It behooves anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian, any institution that calls itself a church, to bring credit to the faith, at very least not to embarrass or disgrace it. Making God a tribal deity, our local Baal, is embarrassing and disgraceful.”

Some years ago, I heard an Evangelical minister state the problem this way: As Christian churches we have the living water, the water Christ promised would quench all fires and all thirsts. But, this is the problem: We aren’t getting the living water to where the fires are!  Instead we are spraying water everywhere, except where it’s burning!

He’s right. The answer to the mass exodus from our churches is not to blame the culture; it’s to make better churches!

Spiritual Warfare

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Spiritual literature has always highlighted the primordial struggle between good and evil, and this has generally been conceived of as a war, a spiritual battle. Thus, as Christians, we have been warned that we must be vigilant against the powers of Satan and various other forces of evil. And we’ve fought these powers not just with prayer and private moral vigilance but with everything from Holy Water, to exorcisms, to a dogmatic avoidance of everything to do with the occult, the paranormal, alchemy, astrology, spiritualism, séances, witchcraft, sorcery, and Ouija boards. For Christians these were seen as dangerous venues through which malevolent spirits could enter our lives and do us harm.

And scripture does, seemingly, warn us about these things. It tells us that for our world to come to its completion and its fulfillment Christ must first triumph over all the powers that oppose God. And for that to happen, Christ has to first vanquish and destroy death, darkness, evil, the powers of hell, the powers of Satan, and various “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers.”

What, concretely, are these powers and how is Christ ultimately to triumph over them? How should we conceive the battle that’s taking place?

We are clearer about how death will be defeated: We believe that the resurrection, Jesus’ and our own, is how that battle is to be won. As to Satan and hell, each of us has her own idea of what these are, but what we share in common as Christians is the belief that these will not be vanquished but will continue to exist, alongside and opposed to God and heaven, for eternity. That’s the common Christian belief, though not the universal one. There have always been theologians and mystics who believed that the full triumph of Christ will occur when the Satan himself converts and goes back to heaven along with everyone else in hell. The love of God, they believe, is so powerful that, in the end, nobody, not even Satan himself, will hold out against it. Eventually love will win everyone over and Christ will be fully triumphant when hell is empty.

But that still leaves us with what scripture calls the “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” Are these simply another way of referring to Satan and his powers? Or do these refer to spiritual forces that many believe are hidden inside the occult, alchemy, astrology, spiritualism, séances, witchcraft, sorcery, and Ouija boards?  How might we conceptualize evil spiritual forces?

To the extent that we do not dismiss them out of hand as purely mythical, each of conceptualizes them in some way, usually in the graphic images given us in the Book of Revelation and by centuries of Christian artists. And so we picture some kind of spiritual warfare happening beneath the surface of things, a spiritual battle between good and evil, a warfare wherein, eventually, Christ will triumph by defeating and destroying all these malevolent powers, akin to the primordial battle wherein Michael, the Archangel, initially defeated Satan and threw him out of heaven.

But those are archetypal images, not meant to be pictured literally but intended rather to point us towards something deeper. What really are the “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” that are opposing Christ and how are they to be defeated? How might we conceptualize the spiritual warfare going on beneath the surface of things?

The spiritual warfare that is being described in scripture and inside all authentic spirituality has less to do with the occult and exorcisms than it has to do the malignant grip of narcissism, greed, anger, bitterness, hatred, lust, wound, grudges, and ignorance. These are the real “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” that oppose Christ and the struggle against them is the real battle between good and evil.

Authentic spiritual warfare is to be pictured this way: Inside our world and inside each of us there’s a fierce battle waging, a war between good and evil, and these are the contestants: Hatred is battling love; anger is battling patience; greed is battling generosity; bitterness is battling graciousness, jealousy is battling admiration; choosing to remain inside our wounds is battling healing; holding on to our grudges is battling forgiveness, ego and narcissism are battling compassion and community; and self-hatred is in a bitter battle with the acceptance of love and God’s unconditional embrace. Paranoia is waging a war against metanoia. That’s the real war that’s going on, in our world and inside each of us.

Hatred, anger, paranoia, greed, bitterness, lust, jealousy, non-forgiveness, and self-hatred are the “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” about which scripture warns us. Hence the final triumph of Christ will occur when the last of these forces is eventually subdued, when we are finally at peace with goodness, with love, with trust, with ourselves, with others, with our history, with our mistakes, with those who have hurt us, with those whom we have hurt, with our shortcomings, and with our impatience with God.

In the meantime, there will be spiritual warfare, primordial battles all around.

Carrying our Cross

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Among Jesus’ many teachings we find this, rather harsh-sounding, invitation: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

I suspect that each of us has a gut-sense of what this means and what it will cost us; but, I suspect too that many of us misunderstand that Jesus is asking here and struggle unhealthily with this invitation. What, concretely, does Jesus mean by this?

To answer that, I would like to lean on some insights offered by James Martin in his book, Jesus, A Pilgrimage. He suggests that taking up our cross daily and giving up life in order to find deeper life means six interpenetrating things:

First, it means accepting that suffering is a part of our lives. Accepting our cross and giving up our lives means that, at some point, we have to make peace with the unalterable fact that frustration, disappointment, pain, misfortune, illness, unfairness, sadness, and death are a part of our lives and they must ultimately be accepted without bitterness. As long as we nurse the notion that pain in our lives is something we need not accept, we will habitually find ourselves bitter – bitter for not having accepted the cross.

Second, taking up our cross and giving up our lives, means that we may not, in our suffering, pass on any bitterness to those around us. We have a strong inclination, almost as part of our natural instincts, to make others suffer when we are suffering: If I’m unhappy, I will make sure that others around me are unhappy too! This does not mean, as Martin points out, that we cannot share our pain with others. But there’s a healthy way of doing this, where our sharing leaves others free, as opposed to an unhealthy kind of sharing which subtly tries to make others unhappy because we are unhappy. There’s a difference between healthily groaning under the weight of our pain and unhealthily whining in self-pity and bitterness under that weight. The cross gives us permission to do the former, but not the latter. Jesus groaned under the weight of his cross, but no self-pity, whining, or bitterness issued forth from his lips or his beaten body.

Third, walking in the footsteps of Jesus as he carries his cross means that we must accept some other deaths before our physical death, that we are invited to let some parts of ourselves die. When Jesus invites us to die in order to find life, he is not, first of all, talking about physical death. If we live in adulthood, there are a myriad of other deaths that we must undergo before we die physically. Maturity and Christian discipleship are about perennially naming our deaths, claiming our births, mourning our losses, letting go of what’s died, and receiving new spirit for the new life that we are now living.  These are the stages of the paschal mystery, and the stages of growing up. There are daily deaths.

Fourth, it means that we must wait for the resurrection, that here in this life all symphonies must remain unfinished. The book of Proverbs tells us that sometimes in the midst of pain the best we can do is put our mouths to the dust and wait. Any real understanding of the cross agrees. So much of life and discipleship is about waiting, waiting in frustration, inside injustice, inside pain, in longing, battling bitterness, as we wait for something or someone to come and change our situation. We spend about 98% of our lives waiting for fulfillment, in small and big ways. Jesus’ invitation to us to follow him implies waiting, accepting to live inside an unfinished symphony.

Fifth, carrying our cross daily means accepting that God’s gift to us is often not what we expect. God always answers our prayers but, often times, by giving us what we really need rather than what we think we need. The Resurrection, says James Martin, does not come when we expect it and rarely fits our notion of how a resurrection should happen. To carry your cross is to be open to surprise.

Finally, taking up your cross and being willing to give up your life means living in a faith that believes that nothing is impossible for God. As James Martin puts it, this means accepting that God is greater than the human imagination. Indeed, whenever we succumb to the notion that God cannot offer us a way out of our pain into some kind of newness, it’s precisely because we have reduced God down to the size of our own limited imagination. It’s only possible to accept our cross, to live in trust, and to not grow bitter inside pain if we believe in possibilities beyond what we can imagine, namely, if we believe in the Resurrection.

We can take up our cross when we begin to believe in the Resurrection.