Kathleen Norris, commenting on her own faith-journey, makes an interesting comment regarding the ambivalent way in which faith and church have come down to us. Her words:
“As its Latin root, the word `religion’ is linked to the words ligature and ligament, words having both negative and positive connotations, offering both bondage and freedom of movement. For me, religion is the ligament that connects me to my grandmothers, who, representing so clearly the negative and positive aspects of the Christian tradition, made it impossible for me to either to reject or accept the religion wholesale. They made it unlikely that I would settle for either the easy answers of fundamentalism or the over-intellectualized banalities of a conventional liberal faith. Instead, the more deeply I’ve re-claimed what was good in their faith, the more they set me free to find my own way.” (Norris, Dakota, A Spiritual Geography, N.Y., Houghton-Mifflin, 1993, p. 133.)
That’s an excellent insight, given the struggle many have today in regards to their own religious background. More and more, we see people who are bitter about how they were raised religiously and see the tradition that was handed them as warped, unhealthy, and positively harmful in terms of how they feel about God and themselves. Yet, curiously, those same people generally find themselves incapable of simply shedding that tradition and walking away. What happened to them in terms of religion and church has a positive grip on them, even as they deeply resent a lot of it.
This isn’t, of course, everybody’s experience. Some of us have less to resent. For myself, religiously I drew a luckier straw. Religion and church were mediated to me with less shadow. I had good parents, a good parish, a good school, good nuns who taught me, and good priests who ministered the sacraments to me. In my crucial years, growing up, I was never once thoroughly betrayed by a significant other in terms of the faith. My parents, my teachers, and the priests who ministered in our parish had their faults, but at the end of the day they essentially lived out what they professed. Consequently, the faith they handed me was credible, real, free of undue legalism and guilt, and, very importantly, a faith that has the capacity to see real fault and sin within the community and yet know that the grace of the community far overrides that.
Not everyone has been so lucky. More than a few of my friends, as well as many others that I have encountered in my ministry, have had a very different experience. They were handed the same faith that I was, but often with as much shadow as light. Sometimes what was handed them was warped by harshness, guilt, authoritarianism, or an unhealthy patriarchy. They were given the truth, but not with any balance or purity. Worse still, sometimes they were horribly betrayed by those who were supposed to embody trust and were left with the message: “Do as I say but not as I do!” They were being handed the truth and were being simultaneously betrayed. In the end this has left them with a painful ambivalence. The truth has a divine grip on them, even as the trauma of being betrayed or the pathology of trying to live out a warped truth can make that grip seem like something sick.
Hence the dilemma of many (often bitter) Christians today: “I’ve been given faith and church so strongly that it’s in my very DNA. I can never leave the church, yet I can’t simply accept wholesale the tradition that’s been handed me either. I can’t buy the whole package, no matter how I try. So I am left in this painful ambivalence – I can’t take the full plunge and I can’t walk away either!”
That’s not a bad place to be. If you feel like that then your elders have done their job, however imperfectly. They’ve given you the faith and left you free at the same time, though that might not feel like freedom. Tradition is meant to do exactly this – hook you enough so that you can’t just walk away from conscience and truth and yet leave you free enough to have some critical distance. God and truth, faith and church, never overpower nor underpower. Classical theologians and spiritual writers have always assured us of this.
Thus religion is indeed a ligament, offering bondage and freedom, both at the same time. Many of us have been given the Christian tradition (faith and church) in such a way that, as Norris so aptly puts it, we now find ourselves unable either to simply reject it wholesale or to buy unqualifiedly the flawed version of it that was handed to us. Where does that leave us? Where any free, adult church or family member should want to be, stamped indelibly with the DNA of the family, yet free enough to offer criticism in the face of the family’s faults and history.