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Terrance KleinSeptember 05, 2018
Photo by Josep Pines on Unsplash

A picture can hold you captive, said a famous philosopher. Ludwig Wittgenstein meant that when you think of something abstract, you nonetheless create some picture, some explanatory image in your mind. Consequently, your comprehension will be as broad or as limited as your picture.

So, for example, we should not presume that my picture of liberty or wealth or happiness looks just like yours. And those who disagree with each other would make much greater headway in trying to understand the other if they each spent more time describing to the other what they picture when they say these words.

We should not presume that my picture of liberty or wealth or happiness looks just like yours.

In terms of personal pictures, here is a passage from Anne Tyler’s newest novel Clock Dance (2018),a winsome story of self-discovery and second chances. At the funeral of her husband, who was killed in an automobile accident, Willa listens to some muddy whining from the organ. Sharing her disappointment with her father, who is seated next to her, she makes a startling discovery.

“Makes me wish for Bert Kane Presbyterian,” she said. (Bert Kane Presbyterian had just an upright piano.)
“Well, we could have held it there,” her father said dubiously.
“Be a little hard to explain why all these Californians should have to fly to Pennsylvania, though.”
“Yes, well, and then there’s the matter of my not belonging to Bert Kane anymore.”
“You don’t belong?” she asked, turning to look at him.
“I haven’t for quite some time,” he said. “I wrote Reverend Sands and told him I was resigning on grounds of disbelief.”
“Disbelief! What made you stop believing?” Willa asked.
“Well, I’ve never believed, actually.”
“You haven’t?”
“Reverend Sands came to call at the house and asked if I would reconsider. Not reconsider my disbelief, he said, but reconsider my resignation. He said, “Many of your fellow members probably don’t believe, either, but at least in church you put yourself in position for belief. Otherwise you reduce the possibility.”
“Good point,” Willa said thoughtfully.
“Yes, it was a good point. But I’d given it sixty-some years by then and I figured any further developments were unlikely.”

How does Melvin Drake, Willa’s father, picture belief? It is something irreversible that changes a man for the rest of his life. Something like facial hair. A boy does not have it, and once it starts to grow, a man always will. Obviously, belief is not a physical characteristic, but Willa’s father clearly sees it as inner transformation that takes place once and for all, as we say.

It is not unlike the image that the Scriptures paint. The eyes of the blind need to be opened and the ears of the deaf must be cleared, “then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing” (Is 35:6). And St. Mark insists that the only one who can effect this transformation is the Lord himself, which is why his scene closes with:

They were exceedingly astonished and they said,
“He has done all things well.
He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak”(Mk 7:37).

Knowing all of this, the Reverend Sands rather helpfully adds more color to Melvin’s picture when he points out that belief is a transformation that we must await because it is a gift of God—as all branches of Christianity have always taught. That being so, don’t we have an obligation to put ourselves in a position to receive the gift? And isn’t it more likely to be received in the presence of other believers, celebrating what God has done in history?

We would do better to picture unbelief as an infection that only makes us grow stronger when it is defeated.

But our picture of belief is still too one dimensional. It certainly does not do justice to the plea of the father, in this same Gospel of Mark, who begs Jesus to free his son from a mute spirit. This encounter occurs just after the truly “eye-opening” transfiguration of Jesus on the Mount. Jesus tells the distraught man that “Everything is possible to one who has faith.” And the fearful father responds with one of the bravest and briefest prayers in all of Scripture. “I do believe. Help my unbelief” (Mk 9:23-24).

So perhaps the picture of belief as a boundary line passed once and for all is inadequate. Maybe we should say that belief and unbelief grow within all of us like flowers and weeds in a garden? Or that belief and unbelief struggle endlessly for mastery, only to yield ever again to the other like night and day? George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” did the Gospel a great service when he suggested that even as the force grows stronger within a person, it can, at whatever level of strength it has reached, turn instantly from light to darkness—or from the dark side to the light.

Maybe we would do better to picture unbelief as an infection that only makes us grow stronger when it is defeated. Then the saints are not those who have never struggled with unbelief. They have simply grown stronger after each exposure.

We’re not hypocrites if we come here each Sunday, admitting, as we do, that we are sinners.

If belief were something as final as a young man’s voice dropping in adolescence, it would not be a struggle, would it? It would not be a capacity that grows with each new crisis faced. It would not be the confidence that follows our doubts about God and God’s love for us.

Some of those who do not come to church love to label those of us who do as “hypocrites,” especially those who hold an office in the church. Could you find a collection of more sinful, more unbelieving, more unreliably good human beings than the motley crew that fills the pews each weekend? And you can start with the fool up front!

 

The presumption is that we would not be hypocrites if we did not sin, if we believed fully and if we were all and always wonderful human beings. Yet we must admit, even to our critics, this is not going to happen on this side of the grave.

It is not that we are complacent in the presence of evil. We do not say that this is what we expect of our leaders and ourselves. But we also do not believe that evil will be eliminated from the world through the adoption of some progressive agenda.

How can we be so sure of that? Because we’ve always known that programs don’t save souls. The human heart can’t be redeemed by anything less than the love of God revealed in Christ. We’re not hypocrites if we come here each Sunday, admitting, as we do, that we are sinners, knowing, as we do, that we are assailed with doubt. Sadly, we are all too aware of how far we are from being wonderful human beings. Beginning each Eucharist with a confession of sin and a cry for God’s mercy isn’t just a pious practice. It’s the “God’s honest” truth about us and about God.

St. James tells us who we are. And we do run the danger of becoming hypocrites when we forget it.

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? (2:5)

Readings: Isaiah 35:4-7a James 2:1-5 Mark 7:31-37

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Tim Donovan
5 years 10 months ago

Even as a child, I knew I was different from other boys. As an adolescent, my peers who correctly assumed that I was gay frequently taunted me by a painful, offensive term. Despite loving parents, and a firm belief in God nurtured by them, going to Mass, and twelve years of an excellent Catholic education, as a young man I became depressed about my orientation, abandoned my belief in God, and attempted suicide. Fortunately, I was unsuccessful. But I agree that belief and unbelief isn't stable throughout one's life. For years, I returned to believing in God and practicing the faith, but my struggle with depression about being gay continued. After a friend committed suicide, I decided it was the choice that would relieve my suffering. I believed that I would simply have to accept the consequences (either heaven or hell) and that a good God would in time relieve the pain of my loved ones. Again, I fortunately survived despite deliberately overdosing on medication. I had told my co-workers and my sister that I was gay, but didn't tell my mother, brother and his wife until shortly after my suicide attempt. Although everyone accepted me with love, I still struggled with being gay, and for a number of years was on medication for depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and saw a psychiatrist for therapy. I remained a practicing Catholic, active in the pro-life movement. However, my faith life and beliefs were complex. I often questioned why the good God that I believed in permitted innocent people, especially children, to suffer. After being celibate throughout my life, in my early forties (I'm now 56) for several years I had sex with men. Despite my belief in Church teaching that gay sex was immoral, I continued to practice our faith. However, at times God seemed distant. But I then found that having gay sex wasn't fulfilling or relieved my loneliness. I decided that it was the best choice, and in accord both with Church teaching and a traditional understanding of Scripture, to cease having sex with men. I then went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a compassionate priest and told him that I regretted my acts. I do believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. However, I have remained friends with a former gay co-worker with whom I had sex years ago. I certainly still at times have questions about some Church teachings, although without being immodest I consider myself to be a devout practicing Catholic. I believe that ultimately it's one of life's mysteries as to why our good God allows innocent people to suffer.

lynne miller
5 years 10 months ago

You've had a hard time! I understand. What you have learned is what everyone needs to learn, probably over and over - that we are weak, we will sin, but our belief will enable us to come before God for forgiveness. We are by turns stronger or weaker, and I don't think it ever ends for anyone. The secret is to maintain that close contact with the Church and the God who can save us, even at our weakest. Thank you for writing so frankly!

John Mack
5 years 10 months ago

Belief is not the only way that people's lives get transformed for the better. Bdelievers do not have a monopoly on positive personal and spiritual transformation. By spiritual I mean the ability to se the essential dignity of all other human beings and the ability to to oput yourself in their situations and feel an affinity and amity foand good will for them. From there good action follows.

John Mack
5 years 10 months ago

The arrogance: unbelief is an infection. Stop it. Stop using disease metaphors, as Hitler did, for those who are different from you. Immorality is the problem, committing sins against fellow humans, not belief or unbelief. The use of disease metaphors is intellectually corrupt.

rose-ellen caminer
5 years 10 months ago

This is a Catholic magazine. For people of faith, Christians and people of any faith, faith gives meaning to our lives. To experience doubt and to lose faith,in the reality and goodness of God, of existence grounded to the promise of eternal salvation, is experienced therefore by many as a suffering; as disease is experienced as a suffering. This analogy therefore is spot on, as is the analogy of the garden needing tending so that the weeds of unbelief don't overtake the glorious blooms.This is not addressed to people for whom lack of faith is not an issue for them ,not a suffering .This is a Catholic magazine, not a speech before congress. These faith centered analogies are meant for those who have ears to hear, The tropes resonate for professed Christians .These are comforting tropes for those for whom only God gives meaning to existence; to the reality of a suffering humanity, of suffering believers and unbelievers alike.

Rachel Roberson
5 years 10 months ago

Nice post,i like your article,great way of explanation.Looking for more articles like this, Also check my website happy wheels

John Chuchman
5 years 10 months ago

Not a question of beliefs; Jesus never asked anyone what they believed, only how they lived.

Anne Chapman
5 years 10 months ago

Thank you, Mr. Chuchman. Too many Catholics, too many Christians, think that being a follower of Christ means believing certain things. No, it's not really about believing doctrines developed by human beings in the centuries following Jesus' death. It' trying to live what Jesus taught. Over the centuries, orthodoxy predominated and orthopraxy was largely lost, to the detriment of the church - a church which includes ALL who seek to follow Christ, not simply Roman Catholics.

Fr. Klein says: "That being so, don’t we have an obligation to put ourselves in a position to receive the gift? And isn’t it more likely to be received in the presence of other believers, celebrating what God has done in history?"

I would say No to this proposition. For many, putting themselves in a position to "receive the gift" means leaving organized religion, not remaining as part of it.

For millions, it has been the years sitting in churches that drives them out of the churches. Some don't know where to go, but they find other seekers. Prayer groups. Meditation groups. Groups who meet together to talk about Jesus and other great religious teachers, such as the Buddha. Groups that work together to be God's hands on earth - with the poor, the homeless, the prisoners, the hungry and thirsty. Intentional communities of all kinds, including Intentional Eucharistic Communities that gather small groups of people together, often in a home, to share the bread and wine and remember what Jesus taught. The early christians met in house churches. There were no ordained priests. No hierarchy. No catechism. They were true communities - not hundreds of people in a building reciting words together, people who do not even know very many of the others who are in the church building with them.

Perhaps it's time to throw out the two thousand years of man-made doctrines and man-made institutions, and man-made structures and encourage people to form small communities again, communities that meet in homes, share a meal, and remember Jesus' words.

Very often it requires detaching oneself from official religion to be able to become open to God's work in their souls. To see God working in the world.

The professional church people who regularly lament the loss of members, who despair at the rise of the "nones", especially the young adults, keep missing the point. For many, the institutional, formal church does not nurture faith, especially when it insists that it is all a matter of "believing" the "right things", with most of those "must believes" having no roots at all in Jesus' teachings.

Many find God more easily outside the man-made structures than inside the walls of churches. For many, it means going out from the churches, escaping the structures, into a different environment, one that nurtures the spirit, that encourages a way of living, that does not present them with a 1000 page book of "must believes".

From Fr. Richard Rohr. OFM -

Christian faith was a lifestyle before it was a belief system.

Where do you go—literally and/or metaphorically—to seek freedom? Early Christians went off to the deserts to find spiritual freedom, live out Jesus’ teachings, and continue growing in the Spirit. It was in these deserts that a different mind called contemplation was taught. As an alternative to empire and its economy, these men and women emphasized lifestyle practice, psychologically astute methods of prayer, and a very simple spirituality of transformation into Christ. The desert dwellers told stories, much like Jesus did, to teach about essential issues of ego, love, virtue, surrender, peace, divine union, and inner freedom." —Richard Rohr

rose-ellen caminer
5 years 10 months ago

Some of us like official religion. Some of us have no desire to reinvent the wheel and become part of small communities; for some of us, purgatory starts in small communities [lol].

For some of us, the ritual of the liturgy, the mass and repetitive prays are experienced as moments of transcendence of " nurturence of ones spirit". To each ones own. Some of us can go to the desert of ones being, in contemplation,during a mass even, and need not go to an actual desert. Yes many find God outside the church structure, but many find God inside the church structures too. Some of us find being in a mass with people one does not know and never will, a mystical experience; what is there to know really about another; you look at someone and you know them; we're all here now together; a people, a people who all suffer and all die, a people before God.This we're all here now, experience of empathy and oneness is recognized outside the church too for all people in all circumstances.

One does not need to be a christian to be a good person, to be concerned with the well being and justice for my fellow humans.Ethics is not the sole purview of Christians and I am not a Christian because I need to know right from wrong or to be ethically engaged in the world.A christian engagement with the world, is no different then any ethical persons engagement with the world. Jesus Christ is more then a template for how to live ,though the Gospels are that too.

If christian faith was a lifestyle before it was a belief, it is not really relevant to a 21st century person who has been baptized in a religion that is over 2000 years old now.I'm not an early christian; there IS a basic Christian dogma; the incarnation. I can't un know this or put it aside when it is what gives meaning to my existence.

Anne Chapman
5 years 10 months ago

Rose-Ellen, I am glad that you have found your "way" of living "the way". It does not bother me at all that you and millions of others find participating in organized religion to be a positive. But it seems to bother you that not all find your "way" to be the best way for them. Perhaps I misunderstand you, as you misunderstood my initial comment.

My objection was to Fr. Klein's sweeping statement: "..., don’t we have an obligation to put ourselves in a position to receive the gift? And isn’t it more likely to be received in the presence of other believers, celebrating what God has done in history?"

He implies that ALL people should go to church so that they will be in a position to receive the gift of faith. He implies that ALL people must part of a large congregation in order to be with believers and to "celebrate what God has done in history"

This is simply not true. We are not all the same. Nobody is "obligated" to attend church (or synagogue or mosque or temple) every week in order to be in a position to hear God's voice, to receive the gift of faith.

Millions have found great sustenance by being part of a formal congregation in a formal setting.

Millions of others eventually find large congregational worship and a demand to passively accept all the man-made doctrines of any particular denomination (not just Roman Catholic) to be a stumbling block in their faith journey.

Why insist that those who understand this about themselves, and who leave formal religion in order to seek the way, the path, that is right for them in their journey towards God, continue to participate in organized religion?

My former Catholic parish has seven masses every weekend - a parish with more than 4000 families, more than 10,000 members. I prefer a small community of people who actually know one another. The most meaningful eucharists I have participated in during my life took place with about a dozen people, people I knew, in a private home.

Millions of evangelical christians worship as part of huge mega-churches, with multiple locations, watching a screen which live-streams the pastor leading worship, usually accompanied by a "praise band" on a stage with special effects.

I would not find this a "meaningful" experience of christian prayer, but millions do. So, as someone familiar to you might say, "Who am I to judge?"

If that form of worship brings them closer to God, then it is good. The Roman Catholic liturgy brings millions closer to God. That is good. But it is also good when people understand themselves well enough to realize that the most common path to God, the one that most follow, is not the best path for them - and do something about it, so that they put themselves in a position to better "receive the gift"..

Pace e bene

rose-ellen caminer
5 years 10 months ago

To each their own;don't know where I said all should .Any way all I can add to what you say which I don't disagree with is ; do not under estimate people. Just because we see people immersed in what appears to be bland , mindless mere religiosity; mega churches, rote rituals , blind obedience to outworn dogmas , complacency and the like, which indeed connotes in authenticity, it does not mean that their spirituality is in fact mere regurgitated religiosity.People may have more spiritual authenticity then what appears outwardly. Though for some mere religiosity may be all that they are capable of and it suffices for them as meaningful. God know our hearts. The grass is often greener ,elsewhere, or it may appear to be. But of course go wherever you find authentic spirituality.

Daniel Shazzar
5 years 10 months ago

As a blessing or a curse. Those who have received the gift of faith in Jesus are truly blessed and those that don't will perish eternally. (John 3:16, 3:36).

Once the gift is received however, Paul reminds us that we enter a spiritual battle while here on earth & continue to struggle with indwelling sin & periods of doubt in our believing. (Romans 7, Ephesians 6)
Thank God for Jesus because I’m just a wretched man!

Dan Jackson
5 years 10 months ago

Church teachings, although without being immodest I consider myself to be a devout practicing Catholic. I believe that ultimately it's one of life's mysteries as to why our good God allows innocent people to suffer.
Adam Brandon

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