Thursday, May 21, 2015

Trends Tell Only Part of the Story

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Prominent in recent news reports is the not-surprising disclosure that the U.S. is less Christian, and that fewer Americans choose to be a part of any religion.

It’s not surprising because the country has been trending that way for years. Anyway, a new study by the Pew Research Center, which surveyed more than 35,000 people, found that 70 percent of Americans say they are Christian. That compares with 78 percent in 2007. And, the number of people calling themselves atheist and agnostic has nearly doubled in the last seven years.

“The decrease of religious feeling seems especially pronounced among young adults, but also includes people of all ages, ethnicities, incomes and educational backgrounds,” according to a recent National Public Radio report.

The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., says the survey shows a majority of the nation still identifies as religious. But he tells NPR's Scott Simon that organized religion is losing credibility with many.

“I see two trends,” he said. “Both of them, I think, have been going on for a long time. One of them is the increasing trend towards secularism in Western culture that really began after World War II in Europe, and it's taken America a long time to catch up with this.

This trend is about how we in the western world have changed rather than whether religion is, or is not, doing its job. Most of us are prosperous, better educated, and more susceptible to the media and their nearly irresistible influence. It makes it hard to feel any dependence on God, and increases our indifference toward religion.

The second trend, however, “has to do with the church itself,” says Hall, “and the church's declining credibility as a place for people to pursue their spiritual questions.”

Many people, Hall believes, are still hung up on the perceived conflict between science and religion, though both “are at some point both about big questions of origin and wonder.

“And I think, for me, I've always felt that it's important for religious people to have the same kind of philosophical stance they use in their religious life as they do in the rest of their life. And a lot of times I think religion — religions — ask people to sort of turn off the scientific part of their lives and just go and kind of think about God kind of pre-scientifically.”

One of the constants in these blogs is the notion that there is no basic conflict between faith and science. They are two ways of knowing. That’s something on which religious and non-religious people should agree.

Gary Hall
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Secondly, as Hall suggests, churches have to talk about God and faith “in a grown-up way.” As I’ve written in these blogs before, that doesn’t mean we ignore Jesus’ urging to “be like little children” in pursuing faith. He means to be humble, open and trusting. But churches shouldn’t talk down to people, insist on using obsolete language and ignore the real ethical and moral dilemmas – like  doubt, sexuality, the environment, violence – that people face in their daily lives.

People want to know how religion can help them deal with these questions, and churches should respond with the best their traditions have to offer without watering them down or dressing them up. And at a time when their ranks are dwindling, the clergy needs to do much more than they do now.

Being a religious leader can’t be a comfortable life. Leaders can’t feel themselves apart from and above the masses. They have to find new ways, including use of social media, to reach out to everyone, confident that religion has something important to say.

And what does religion have to say that’s important? For starters, that God exists, despite our natural inclination to doubt; that God is with us and cares for us; that being religious is part of our nature; that the centuries of believers before us are examples of how faith makes a difference in people’s lives; that the message of religion transcends trends.

In his new book, The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks tells the stories of nine people, most of them well-known, who were unselfish in pursuing goals that benefit others. Brooks holds them up as models for citizens of our age.

Guess what? Five of them practiced a religion and three others were heavily influenced by religion early in their lives. The religious background of the ninth isn’t clear.

I have no reason to doubt the Pew numbers on religious observance. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s no surprise to readers of this blog that I’m a great admirer of Pope Francis, who I believe to be among the best possible models for a religious person and church leader.

He’s among examples of religion increasing in quality if not in quantity.

Plenty of critics are eager to paint religious people as hypocritical, violent, prudish and judgmental. But it’s clear to me that religious people have had a tremendously positive influence on humankind and will continue to do so in the future. Contrary to what John Lennon sang in “Imagine,” the world would be a sorry place without religion.

Next week’s blog: Why it’s hard to buck trends.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Wonder, Awe, and Doubt

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Every year at this time I’m astonished again at the beauty of creation. You would think that at my age, all the wonder and awe would have disappeared. But to me, every spring is a miracle.

I walk around my neighborhood viewing carpets of green that were a cheerless brown a few weeks ago. Trees and shrubs are exuberant in showing off their blooms and new leaves. Tulips and morning glories rise in splendor. The sun warms everything, including human hearts.

“How could there not be a God?” I ask myself.

I know, however, that people who don’t believe in God may have similar experiences in “intuiting” God’s non-existence. Where is he/she? Isn’t it strange that in all these centuries God has not revealed him/herself (assuming that you dismiss the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the witness of thousands of generations of people of faith)? Isn’t it just wishful thinking combined with humans’ inexhaustible capacity for self-deceit that leads us to believe in God?

The sensation I get from observing the beauty and usefulness of the world, and that God must have in some way authored it for humans’ sake, is certainly not scientific. But neither is the intuition of the non-believer. I can’t use science to support my belief in God nor can others use science to support the contrary position.

So where does that leave us?

First, we must acknowledge that the scientific method isn’t the only way of knowing. Art, music and reflection on the natural world are also ways of knowing. In my view, so is the human instinct that makes us want to believe in God – the proclivity toward faith, which is also a way of knowing.

A few years ago some social scientists were saying the human brain is “hardwired” for faith in God. Now some scientists say no such thing exists; others that it does exist, providing an evolutionary advantage for survival.

These are mere speculations, of course, perhaps with a smattering of scientific research behind them. Traditional Christian theology says that faith is a gift from God, which seems hard to align with the doctrine that God wants everyone “to be saved.” Doesn’t he/she withhold this gift from some?

Traditional Christian theology holds that God offers the gift to everyone, but not necessarily in the same way. As I mentioned in a recent blog, the Christian gospel makes it clear that there are degrees as well as varieties of faith, even when faith isn’t called by that name.

You Know Who
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“For those who do not believe in God,” says Daniel Gallagher, paraphrasing Pope Francis, “their task is to obey their consciences. Even those who do not believe … “sin” whenever they go against their consciences. Everyone, without exclusion, is held to the obligation of listening to and obeying their consciences….”

Traditional theology also teaches that we must form our consciences well. That requires an openness to God and to traditional as well as modern views on ethics and doctrine. We in contemporary society may think we’ve recently discovered ethics, but the vast majority of moral dilemmas are centuries old and require application of the same moral principles, though the circumstances surrounding the issues may be new.

So faith comes in a variety of forms, and people have different ideas about what faith means. The various views have much in common, however, especially for believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For most Jews and Christians, faith is both new and old.

In a commentary on a speech the pope made in Brazil last year, Gallagher writes, “Faith is a journey; it is a history. God did not reveal himself by dictating abstract truths but by acting in human history. The response of faith, in turn, is historical, meaning that it must be renewed and refreshed again and again.”

Pope Francis also suggests, says Gallagher, that faith is not genuine unless it is tinged with a trace of doubt.

“The great leaders of God’s people, like Moses, always left room for doubt,” he quotes the pope as saying. “We must always leave room for the Lord and not for our own certainties. We must be humble. Every true discernment includes an element of uncertainty….”

The pope believes “we must be willing to ‘enter into a process’ if we wish to undertake the journey of faith,” Gallagher writes. “God reveals himself within and through time and is present in the unfolding of events. Faith requires patience and a willingness to wait.”

Finally, Gallagher notes the “…importance of the community for receiving, keeping, and handing on the faith,” which is the obvious way God reaches out to us. For people searching for God, the history of that community – its customs, literature, music and liturgy – can be crucial in finding him/her.



Thursday, May 7, 2015

Gratitude to Whom or What?

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We have a bird feeder outside our bedroom window. It gets empty often. I try to fill it promptly and when I do, the sparrows, blackbirds and woodpeckers return almost immediately.

There’s no evidence that they wonder how the feed got there. They just eat it.

Despite all the scientific progress of the last century or so, there are still a lot of things in our lives like that. We don’t have adequate explanations about how people and things got where they are or why, nor do we reflect much on the explanations we have. Sometimes when I drink a glass of water, or use “nature’s solvent” to clean something, I think of the wonders of H2O, but usually I just drink it or use it.

Occasionally, however, I ask myself, “Why does water, which happens to be so essential to life – including my own life – exist?”

According to the Hub Pages web site, “…There is no other substance or molecule in the universe capable of interacting with as many of the elements in the periodic table as water to produce hundreds or even thousands of chemicals for life to exist. This is why water is essential.”

A radical oversimplification on a Wikipedia entry on water’s origin: It exists “due to planetary cooling.”

Scientists can tell you a lot about the formation of water, in fact, and speculate about its origins in the universe. They may be able to tell you the “how” of water, however, but not the “why" (although they may believe they are the same). That’s true of the universe and all of reality. Why something? Why not nothing?

Many scientists undoubtedly reject such questions, attempting to limit speculation about reality to things and theories that can be measured and tested. And I’m all for science’s attempts to use these tools to learn more about reality. But skeptics who are sincere in a search for God still have to think, to speculate, to ask the “why” questions.

James Schall, S.J. in an essay called, “Why Do Things Exist,” reflecting on Josef Pieper’s “For Love of Wisdom,” ( wrote:

“We have lively minds. They are, as Aristotle said, capable of knowing all that exists. Indeed, they seek to know all that exists and are uneasy if they do not. More especially, we want to know why all that exists does exist. …On the plain of existence, we arrive already having been given what we are. We wonder, ‘Why?’

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Some people, of course, are perfectly happy never wondering about such things. Schall wrote that his reflections on existence “were caused by an e-mail, which I received the other day. A young man, evidently a teacher … observed that ‘for the majority of my students the existence of things is almost irrelevant; for them everything is how you choose to think about it.’

“For me,” writes Schall, “the existence of things is the most relevant fact about the things we daily encounter. Then I began to notice that about half the people that I meet walking across campus have an i-Pod or some similar contraption in their ears. When you pass them, they do not hear you unless you are loud. You have to wave in front of their eyes.”

Indeed, reflecting on reality understandably isn’t at the top of the list of people wrapped up in their everyday lives of work and play and taking care of families. But Schall believes such reflection is the trademark of human beings and I believe it’s crucial in the search for God.

“… The existence of things bears all the marks of choice, abundance, and truth,” writes Schall. “And if this is so, what is the primary human reaction to the existence of things, one that must be there before all others? It can only be, I think, that of gratitude….”

I guess that’s what I conclude by observing the birds at the feeder. I reflect that everything that exists out there exists without me or my kind having anything to do with it. It makes it really hard for me to accept the view that there is no meaning to the universe, that what is has blindly followed a random scheme and that all the beauty in the world has no particular purpose apart from providing some evolutionary advantage.

Schall may be right that the only rational, honest reaction to this unexplained and gratuitous gift of existence is one of gratitude, but we may ask to whom or what to direct it. Should we thank the stars, the universe, life itself? If so, I believe we would be confusing the creator with the created.

We may find it hard to accept uncertainty and doubt as part of faith, but we should not shun the obvious. The gift of existence should animate us to continue in a sincere, dogged search for God, following our hearts as well as our minds and maintaining a certain independence from contemporary “wisdom.”  

That's a big advantage humans have over the birds at the feeder.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Big Me

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I recently observed my 74th birthday.

On one level, I feel it. My wife and I joke about our “pain of the week.” Being retired, I have limited contact with people in the “real world.” My memory is not as sharp as it was (although people who know me may say it was never that sharp), and I know that like everybody, I’m a product of my age and see things as someone of my age would see them.

Still, I’m grateful to have good health, a great family and a greater level of peace and joy than I had at an earlier age. I try not to let my age define me, and I am not one to think that mine is the greatest generation. I admire young people of today and don’t yearn for “the good old days.”

As New York Times columnist David Brooks in his new book, The Road to Character, writes about the mid-twentieth century in which I grew up: “It was a more racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic culture. Most of us would not have had the opportunities we enjoy if we had lived back then. It was also a more boring culture, with bland food and homogeneous living arrangements.

“It was an emotionally cold culture,” he continues. “Fathers, in particular, frequently were unable to express their love for their own children. Husbands were unable to see the depth in their own wives. In so many ways, life is better now than it was then.”

That’s how I remember it, too, but today’s culture offers other challenges to people who are searching for God. Not the least among them is what Brooks calls the culture of “the Big Me.” It is, he writes, “a culture that encourages people to see themselves as the center of the universe.”

Indeed, there’s been a big shift in this regard in the last 50 years or so, but some of it is good. Social workers, educators and psychologists – especially those working with youth – can testify about the harm caused in the past by people’s low self- esteem, the lack of their sense of self-worth. It was said to have led to depression and anti-social behavior, and I believe that was often the case.

But the antidote may be a bit of an overdose. Brooks writes that in the last 50 years or so, we have gone “from a culture of humility to the culture of the ‘Big Me.’ He cites what psychologists have called the “narcissism test.”

Narcissism, according to Wikipedia,is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one's own attributes. The term originated from the Greek mythology, where the young Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water.”

Anyway, the testers ask people to say whether certain statements apply to them. The statements include ones like, “I like to be the center of attention…I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary…Somebody should write a biography about me.”

David Brooks
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I believe we’ve come full circle in encouraging people’s self-esteem. In his research, Brooks said he kept finding the same messages everywhere. “… Trust yourself. Movies from Pixar and Disney are constantly telling children how wonderful they are. Commencement speeches are larded with the same clich├ęs: Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course.”

He cites celebrity chef Mario Batali, who advised graduates to follow “your own truth, expressed consistently by you.”

Brooks calls all this the “gospel of self-trust.”

My favorite comedian, Jim Gaffigan, has a great routine about people who frequent gyms and like to look at themselves in mirrors while working out. In one of his funny voices, he mimics: “I want to look at something…like myself. I want to look at myself while I work on myself. I should do a recording so I can listen to myself when I look at myself as I work on myself as I leaf through my Self magazine to see what’s written about myself.”

I mentioned in a previous blog a story I heard about an elementary-school teacher who had a “You’re special” stamp that she used on every single piece of paper handed in by students.

So what’s the point here?

This blog is meant to help people in their search for God, and egoism and self-centeredness is the antipathy to openness to God. As I’ve written in a previous blog, humility is not a favored virtue in our society, mostly because it’s misunderstood.

It doesn’t mean being a wimp or having a tendency to put yourself down. In fact, I would call it another form of honesty. It means trying to see yourself as you really are, no more, no less.

Searchers for God, of course, need to focus on more than that, recognizing not only our rightful place among the earth’s other billions, but trying to see ourselves as God may see us. That’s hard when doubt is stronger than faith, but something to work toward in any genuine search for God.        





Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Search for God and the Sense of Loss

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As a young man I worked part of a summer in a cemetery, mostly cutting grass and pulling weeds. I had to help dig graves a couple of times and I had to bury Mrs. Fogarty whom I had known since childhood. Yet another time while waiting to help with a burial, I had my first and only experience of keening.

For those unfamiliar with the term, keening is the wailing – sometimes done by professional keeners – that grieving people in some cultures do at burials. In this case, the Italian widow of the deceased released ear-splitting cries, screamed to heaven and attempted to fling herself into the grave. Such behavior may appear to people outside the culture as senseless and insincere, but it’s one way of dealing with extreme loss. 

To me, it’s also an extreme example of the significance of “loss aversion.” The idea, according to Wikipedia, “refers to people's tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Most studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.” I can easily see this in my life and those of friends and family members.

First, there are the “great” losses: deaths, divorce, break-ups, grave illnesses, disastrous financial losses, career or personal failures. They can be devastating, making you wonder if you’ll ever recover.

But aside from these, you may, like me, have periods when you feel down for no apparent reason. When I’ve analyzed them, I usually can see that I’m “mourning” some minor loss or irrationally anticipating one.

I don’t know whether it provides some “evolutionary” advantage, but it’s obvious that human beings have a great need to possess and preserve. And when they can’t possess and preserve – whether people or things – they get bummed out.

David Brooks
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New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column a year ago noting that contemporary Americans are nearly obsessed with “happiness” but that it’s their experience of overcoming loss that brings peace that tends to last.

“…The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say … having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

“Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. …Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquility begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.”

(Brooks has become one of my favorite “theologians,” by the way, writing about subjects that often touch on God and the transcendent, but usually not using those words. He had a recent interview about why careers, including his, don’t make you happy. It was posted on National Public Radio’s web site at

This blog is about the search for God, and I obviously have no expertise in psychology. Loss may be ultimately good for the soul, but in the short term, it can be a hindrance in the search for God. Here’s wikiHow’s top three suggestions for dealing with it:
1.    Face the Loss. Confront it; don’t try to mask it by sedation – drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, oversleeping – and set a limit on extended grieving.

2.    Let the pain out. There’s no right or wrong way to express pain. Do you need to cry, scream to the top of your lungs, even engage in keening? Do it, but don’t, of course, do harm to yourself or others.

3.    Share your feelings. It could be with a friend or a professional therapist. (Religious persons shouldn’t forget that clergy are often helpful.)

Of course, I believe that faith plays an important role in coping with loss. And for the seeker of God, there are additional means to deal with it.

1.    Prayer. I’m not referring just to formal prayers, like the Our Father, but to quietly talking it out with God. As I’ve written before, prayer may seem like “talking to yourself,” but just try it.

2.    Gratitude. My daughter has a framed message on her wall that says, “It’s not happy people who are thankful. It’s thankful people who are happy.” That may seem a bit Pollyannish, but I believe gratitude reduces the sense of loss and brings us closer to God.

3.    Trust, in God and God-in-others. A skeptic may have a problem with this and it may come in advanced stages of a search for God. But seeking to be more trustful can surely help overcome loss.



Thursday, April 16, 2015

Fleetwood Mac a “religious experience?”

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Believe it or not, I recently attended my first “rock” concert. Even though the Fleetwood Mac performers are nearly as old as me, culturally the experience was like a visit to a foreign country. Twenty thousand people, from Millennials to Gen X to Baby Boomers, mouthed the words to Mac’s famous songs, many with their eyes closed as if praying.

Colored strobe lights were continually swinging around the inside of the giant Pepsi Center arena in Denver. For many, there was no need to pay for a seat since they were on their feet for the whole concert. Many were dancing and swaying. What was obvious was that the performers had the audience’s undivided attention for the couple of hours they were onstage.

The whole thing appeared to me to be a sort of religious experience, and I couldn’t help comparing it to “church.” Some of the contemporary mega churches may attempt to mimic concert-like experiences, but most church-goers would see little comparison to what they experience at church and the kind of emotional absorption and sheer joy I witnessed at the concert.   

The reality is, of course, that the experiences are, and should be, very different. What people seek in such a concert isn’t what they seek from going to church. In a blog last year, I quoted Rachel Held Evans, a young evangelical Christian who writes a popular blog on faith and gives presentations around the country. In a blog for CNN entitled, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church,” she wrote:

“Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, ‘So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands ….’

“Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.”

That isn’t what Millennials have in mind, she wrote.

“…We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers. You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

Rachel Held Evans
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This desire isn’t limited to Millennials. “Religion” means to connect, and all searchers for God are looking for a connection to God and, acknowledged or not, to each other.

I’ve written several blogs about the popular notion of “spirituality without religion,” an idea that, given the image of religion today, may be understandable.

To many, religion is the aggregate for a group of institutions, all of which appear to offer “salvation.” In many people’s eyes, however, these institutions are more interested in self-preservation and self-aggrandizement than in actual people with actual lives. Part of the rub is that, like any business or secular organization, they have rules, organizational charts and chains of command, and for some reason, religions aren’t supposed to be so organized.

Some refer to religion as “Pablum.” For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a kind of baby cereal - something like oatmeal – which Wikipedia says implies something that is “bland, mushy, unappetizing, or infantile.” What’s more, the theology and practices of some religions fly in the face of contemporary notions of fairness and equality. Some appear to offer nothing “original,” or appear to have nothing to offer at all.

Although I understand these observations, I really think part of the problem is – for lack of a better term – cultural. Most of the world’s great religions are ancient, and we’re caught up in the present and “the next big thing.” We can’t get beyond the confines of time and space and we have to contend with so many distractions plus our own lethargy. And the great controversies of our time seem much more important than the historic questions about the existence and nature of the transcendent.

Spirituality may be a good idea, but for many, it remains a vague yearning. We may pursue it in spurts, but a sustained pursuit of a spiritual life on one’s own eludes most people. Without religion, it often becomes more about “me.”

That brings us back to relationships, something humans know a lot about. If you don’t believe in its importance, talk to prisoners who have suffered long periods of solitary confinement. All theist religions boil down to relationships. The charge in the Hebrew Bible, repeated by Jesus in the Christian Bible, to “love God and neighbor,” is not only a universal commandment but a universal human longing.

William O’Malley, a Jesuit priest who teaches religion at Fordham Preparatory School in New York City, wrote in an article in America magazine in which he tried to shed light on what he believes is true spirituality, which depends on religion just as religion depends on it.

“Spirituality is, as Viktor Frankl put it, ‘man’s search for meaning.’ We are the only species whose choices are not branded into the fibers of our natures. We must choose to be who we are. But first we must discern what human beings are for. And we have only two backgrounds against which to measure our worth. Our lives are either speckles of light against infinite darkness or smudges of gray within infinite Light. We are here to discover our shining (see Gospel of Mathew 5:14).

“Liturgies” he goes on, “that make the community as important as its Host miss a crucial truth … we are connected into an Inexhaustible Energy whose infusion ought to make us recognizably more alive the rest of the week than those who ignore Him/Her/Them.”

The Fleetwood Mac audience were wildly enthusiastic, but afterward many piled into their cars, Ubers and taxis to return to lives of self-imposed isolation from God and each other. Spirituality, within the context of religion, makes and preserves the connections that are vital to human beings.     

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Belief: The Least Interesting Part of Faith?

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Although I’m not fond of describing faith as a “mystery,” I must acknowledge that it is, like “love,” a nebulous word whose meaning is difficult to nail down. It means different things to different people and is profoundly personal.

Still, there is an objective aspect to faith, something about it that we can share. 
Thomas Aquinas, the famous 13th century philosopher and theologian, is said to have written: "To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible." 
That’s not quite true, of course, because others' insights into faith may be necessary for our own faith to grow. It is true, however, that people who don't have faith in their lives are left scratching their heads.
This blog has covered mostly faith as a way of knowing, focusing on questions of belief vs. non-belief. Although that sense of the word may be fundamental, it may not be the most important or interesting aspect of faith, at least for a Christian.

Talking about her book, “Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion,” Sara Miles, founder and director of The Food Pantry and director of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, said in an interview in Christian Century: "Belief is the least interesting part of faith. I can believe all kinds of stuff, whatever I choose - but what I believe isn't the point. The point is to live in a relationship with God that's not controlled by my own ideas.

Sara Miles
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“Faith is about putting my heart and my trust – my whole life – in God. Christianity is at heart about relationship – and the nature of my faith rests in relationship rather than belief."

This brings us to the great debate of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. It involved a focus on “works” by Catholics and on “faith” by Protestants. Few people, including theologians on both sides, pay much attention to the debate anymore because it turned out to be a false dichotomy.

The debate arose because of Martin Luther’s intense study of the letters of St. Paul in which Paul wrote that humans are “justified” or “attain salvation” by faith alone. The background to Luther’s insights is a time when the Catholic Church, in which Luther was an Augustinian monk, was trying to raise money for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The church was granting “indulgences” – the guarantee of a reduced sentence in post-death punishment for sin – in exchange for contributions.

Luther rightly condemned the practice, not so much because of the money involved but because he believed it absurd that people could think they could “earn” their way into heaven. He focused, instead, on the saving grace of Jesus. To counter Luther’s arguments, Catholics focused on the Letter of James in the Christian Bible, subsequently not recognized as a true book of the Bible by Protestants. In it, the author of “James” writes:

“What good is it, my brothers if you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother is naked and lacks daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill', and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Years of meetings between Catholic and Lutheran leaders have worked out a common understanding of the apparent dilemma, resulting in an agreement that basically says both are important: faith as the foundation and works as a manifestation of the foundation.

Although many modern people may see this debate as a complete waste of time, there are lessons to be learned. One is that those who have found some success in the search for God shouldn’t pat themselves on the back. Believers must recognize that faith is a gift.

The second is that faith can’t be separated from everyday life, placing it in your “church” drawer, or your “spirituality” drawer. Your faith must guide all aspects of your life: politics, the environment, sports, sex, business, everything.

The daily prayer book, Give Us This Day (which I recommend for people searching for God), recently had a page on Karl Rahner, the German Jesuit theologian who died in 1984. It says Rahner’s “chief aim was to make Christian faith intelligible to people living in a world marked by doubt, pluralism, science, and historical consciousness.”

I shy away from using the word “mystery” when talking about God because I see it as a way to throw up your hands and stop thinking, but Rahner, and many contemporary theologians, used the term when contemplating an utterly unknowable God.

So, ignoring my self-imposed prohibition against the use of “churchy” words in this blog, I provide the following quote because it has something significant to say about the search for God.

“Rahner believed that all human existence is rooted in the holy and infinite mystery of God,” the author writes. “Therefore religious experience was not so much a separate category of existence as it was the potential for a certain quality or depth available in everyday life. By nature, human beings are created with an openness to God. To the extent that we accept this gift – that is the way of salvation.”