Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why Do People Still Go to Church?

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A May 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center shows that 23 percent of Americans identified as "religiously unaffiliated," up from 16.1 percent seven years earlier. And a third of people under 30 answer “none” when asked about religious affiliation. They’ve become known as “the nones,” in fact.

So, is church-going, and belonging to a religion, a thing of the past? I don’t think so.  

According to a Gallup Poll published 18 months ago – the most recent such poll I could find - nearly four in 10 Americans report that they attended religious services in the previous seven days, close to where it was in 1940 and 1950. What’s more, an average of 56 percent of Americans said religion is "very important" in their lives, while another 22 percent said it is "fairly important" and 22 percent said it is "not very important."

The “nones,” the polls show, are mostly millennials, and characteristically, it may be taking them a bit longer to commit.

But why do people still go to church and affiliate with a religion? The reasons, for Catholics, at least, have never been expressed more clearly than in a recent column  in the National Catholic Reporter by Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University.

(Apologies to my non-Catholic readers for presenting material that is most directly concerned with Catholicism, and to all my readers for such long quotations from another writer.)

Zagano is painfully aware of the clericalism of some clergy, the church’s failure to provide leadership opportunities for women, and the abuse of children by some clergy and cover-ups by some bishops. She is often asked, she writes, “…how can you stay in the dysfunctional, embarrassing, confusing Catholic church, with all its baggage?” She answers in an article entitled, “Why Stay?”
 
“… I do not belong to a church of good-old-boy camaraderie or to one that looks the other way,” she writes. “I know the criticisms of clergy, and I know not all can or should be criticized. The complaints are not all that different from those about any bureaucracy. The church has grown into a multinational corporation that can rival any other, and it has its own bureaucracy to manage its affairs.

“… But I do not belong to the church of the bureaucrats. I belong to the church that is the People of God who have seen and heard and believe the Gospel. I think the bishops and their priests believe the Gospel. But they are increasingly tangled in the bureaucratic web that complicates their every move and reminds them there's a lawyer around every bend.


Phyllis Zagano
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“… I know the church's hierarchy seems to have transcribed every single saying of Jesus into one law or another. But the church that I belong to is not one of law. No, the church I belong to is the church of the prophets. It is the church of Oscar Romero and of Dorothy Day. It is the church of soup kitchens and children's shelters. It is the church that finds that both women and men are made in the image and likeness of God, and that they can and really do image Christ.”

Granted, there are people who go to church and remain Catholic out of habit or a sense of obligation. But there are lots of people like Zagano, who have been Catholics for a long time and want to remain so. But what about people who, though searching for God, doubt that they need religion, especially one as structured as Catholicism?

Because despite wishing it otherwise, structure is indispensable for humans. Although Zagano doesn’t belong to “the church of the bureaucrats,” she acknowledges that the church is an organization, human and divine, and all organizations have structure, and a bureaucracy.  

The question is, “how much structure do you need?” The answer may depend on the individual, but I believe most of us think we need much less of it than we actually do.

Can you really be spiritual on your own, apart from the community of believers? Can you be spiritual while ignoring the historical religious figures who "invented" spirituality and the traditions they founded? Even if you’re able to stick to them, can you be sure that your spiritual practices are anything more than exercises in self-absorption?

The idea of spiritually "going it alone" may be culturally comfortable with American individualism but it does little to help avoid self-delusion and self-centeredness. Religion is a communal anchor. It tests our spirituality against time-honored criteria and invites us to be part of a community of like-minded seekers of the spirit. 

And though many of its practitioners ignore it, religion challenges us to “walk the walk,” and shows us how to do it. It’s one thing to be spiritual, another to live our spiritual lives in service to others. To me, these two are inseparable.

Like Zagano, I believe these are good reasons to stay, or to join.

 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Your Attention, Please

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If it’s hard to get people’s attention about God and religion, it may be even harder to get them to read about protecting the environment.

And protection is needed more than ever, according to news reports. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which for 25 years has been gathering data on climate trends from more than 400 scientists around the world, says on average, 2014 was the hottest year ever — in the ocean, as well as on land.

National Public Radio quotes Deke Arndt, a climate scientist with the agency and an author of the 2014 report, as saying it's the lower atmosphere that's warming, not the upper atmosphere….

No Coincidence

“That's not a coincidence,” he says. “The changes that we see in the lower part of the atmosphere are driven by a change in the composition of the atmosphere," Arndt says. "If an external forcing — such as the sun or some orbital phenomenon — would be driving the warming, we would see a warming across the board in most of the atmosphere. And we don't."

The conclusion: The cause is human activity.

Still, Americans place less importance on environmental issues than they did in 1971, a year after Earth Day was established, according to a poll by the Huffington Post. A recent Gallup Poll found similar results. The poll “… puts climate change, along with the quality of the environment, near the bottom of a list of 15 issues Americans rated in Gallup's March 6-9 survey.”

So, apart from an initial blast of publicity, I’m not optimistic that Pope Francis’ recent message “On Care for Our Common Home” is going to get much attention from most people. Maybe it’s at least partially because many people believe that, like nuclear disarmament and big money in politics, it’s just too big and intransigent a problem.

The pope recognizes that it’s an uphill battle, but he’s seeking a dialogue nonetheless, urging his readers to abandon the notion that the issues are unclear or that we’re powerless to change.

Manic Individualism

“At the heart of the document is an idea very dear to him,” writes Austen Ivereigh, a Pope Francis biographer, in the National Catholic Reporter. “It’s his own analysis of what has gone wrong with modernity….” That includes overreliance on technology, which suggests “we can manipulate reality; we can exploit the world. It’s a manic individualism which comes from having lost our connection with God, with each other and with the Earth.”

This may give the impression that the document is a “downer,” that it’s pessimistic and critical. That’s not the pope’s style. The document’s official title is Laudato Si, the first line in Italian of a canticle by St. Francis that joyfully praises God and all his creation.


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And the encyclical isn’t just addressed to Catholics, or even believers. In June, anticipating the encyclical’s release, the pope said it is addressed to all because all have “the responsibility toward the common home that God has entrusted to all.”

As should be expected, however, the Pope expressed it in religious terms.

“The ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion,” he writes. Some “…committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent.”

If we actually had this sort of conversion, what would be the practical results for Americans? Here are five possible results.

1.    We would hold politicians’ feet to the fire on the subject of the environment, insisting that they take the subject seriously. We would vote for and promote for office people who want to protect “our common home,” and make it known to family and friends that we favor protecting it.

2.    We would preserve and protect water, using tap water instead of bottled water whenever possible. We would not waste water on lawns, especially in times of water shortages. We wouldn’t pollute streams and watersheds with debris, pesticides or herbicides.

3.    We wouldn’t waste, especially food. We wouldn’t buy more than we need and we would learn to eat leftovers. And we would give our used “stuff” away, not throw it away.

4.    We would widen our temperature comfort zone to save on energy consumption. We would not turn on, or turn up, air conditioners and furnaces out of habit, but only out of need.

5.    We would cut down on the use of plastic, including cups and bags. We would make sure they didn’t fill our parks, streams and oceans, or our landfills. 

“We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible,” writes Pope Francis. “It is the conviction that ‘less is more.’ A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment.”

 

 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Messing with Political Agendas

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Pope Francis’ recent document on the environment, “On the Care of Our Common Home,” elicited interesting reactions from many American politicians, including some announced and presumed presidential candidates of his own faith.

Many of them don’t directly attack the logic or significance of the document, the substance of which I’ll write about in a future blog. Instead, they say the Pope, as a religious leader, has no business meddling in “scientific” or “political” issues like climate change.

“I don’t go to Mass for economic policy or for things in politics,” said one front-running candidate, a Catholic.

Another Catholic politician, not a candidate, said: “I think he got it all wrong. On matters of faith, I will certainly hear him. But these are not matters of faith.” 

Stick to "Religion"

The general message: The pope should stick to “religion” and leave science to the scientists and politics to the politicians.

This is an example of people compartmentalizing their lives, assigning their faith to their “religion” drawer. In my opinion, this common practice is one of the principle reasons many people are turned off by religion. Many people who go to church don’t apply their faith’s principles to their everyday lives so their faith makes no difference.

Faith is an all-or-nothing proposition. That doesn’t mean we should all be on the same page or progressing in our search for God at the same pace. It means that whatever faith we have, it applies to our whole life, not merely some aspect of it. Failing that, we preserve faith for church or “prayer time” or whatever and go about business as usual, allowing our behavior and attitudes to be formed by something other than God.

Aligning Political Agendas

Interesting that these politicians don’t have a problem with faith leaders applying their faith principles to abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide or any issues with which their political agendas coincide. These issues, they say, are faith-based and subjects of robust political debate in our country. But not taking care of God's creation.

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It’s obvious that the Pope’s message interferes with their political agendas. They’re willing to accept the pope if he stays within the bounds they have set for “religious leaders,” but they are embarrassed by religious leaders who suggest that the politicians’ agendas are not supported by religious faith.

Ironically, by criticizing the pope’s message about the environment, politicians are making it a political message. And politicizing his message occurs on both sides of the political divide. A current TV ad asks viewers if they are with the “Pope or Kochs,” referring to the reported opposition of the Koch Brothers – reputed billionaires and energy moguls – to the pope’s environmental message. The pope would not be pleased to be used in such a manner.   

Of course, politicization – at least in the Christian context – is nothing new. It has been a thorn in the side of Christianity from the beginning. Jesus’ disciples, according to the Acts of the Apostles, asked - even after his death and resurrection - if he was then going to “restore the kingdom to Israel.” In other words, was he going to kick out the Roman occupiers and restore its governance to Israel? This turned out to be a gross misinterpretation of his message, which the disciples would only slowly come to understand.

Some modern authors who write about the “historical Jesus” have adopted that viewpoint, by the way, declaring - despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that Jesus was a political figure, a zealot whose main interest was political revolution.

Constantine

Many believe that the politicization that occurred after the conversion of the Roman emperor, Constantine, in the early fourth century, forever made Christianity as much political as religious. Indeed, from that time up to the current time, Christianity has been irrevocably involved in European and world politics.

And modern politicians – as evidenced by the pre-caucus campaigns in Iowa – exploit faith to the max, hoping to collect votes by appearing to be aligned with the religious views of their audiences. Oddly, some politicians also complain that the pope’s message on the environment is an intrusion into science, a way of knowing not favored by politicians who oppose the idea that human activity causes environmental damage.

The bottom line is that the pope isn’t a politician and his message isn’t political. He could care less if he’s loved or hated by Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. It’s obvious that his document is motivated by the Hebrew and Christian traditions that recognize an obligation by all people searching for God to care for “our common home.”

That comes from a deep conviction that God is the author of life and creator of the universe and that humans must care for his/her precious gifts. Call that religious or political; it’s what flows from faith, and any genuine search for God.  

 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Do We Really Need a God like Us?

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When I worked as a priest in Bolivia, I was told that the Aymara-speaking people in my parish would do anything short of murder and mayhem to get their babies baptized, and that turned out to be partially true. They used all manner of tricks to get you to baptize their children without them having to go through any kind of education on the meaning of baptism.

Reportedly, the community-imposed penalty for ignoring their deeply felt obligation to baptize children - perhaps imposed by early Spanish missionaries – was exclusion from the community. That may not seem like a big deal, but to the people of the Altiplano - the high, arid plains of Bolivia - the community was everything. It was crucial to their income, their mental and physical health, and their continued relationships with family. It entirely comprised their socialization.

So when a disaster – such as a hailstorm that wiped out the crops – struck, the elders would search the community looking for babies that had not been baptized. Because Altiplano hailstorms were so selective, devastating the crops of some residents while ignoring the crops of neighbors, it was obvious to them that disasters were punishment from God for, among other reasons, ignoring the requirement of baptism.

Childish Ideas of God Pervasive?

We in the U.S. may feel ourselves much too sophisticated for such views. But are we really? The view that so many of us have of God shows that superstitious and childish ideas about God are pervasive. And many people who reject God and religion are rejecting those false notions of both.

The idea of a vengeful God, as if he/she were like us, is probably the most common, even though the Hebrew Bible says that humans were made in God’s image, not vice versa. It’s true that the Hebrew Bible sometimes portrayed God as vengeful, but that occurred in the early stages of the evolution of the relation between God and humans.

Anyway, according to Tomas Halik, the philosopher and theologian I often quote in this blog, even atheists secretly hold such views of God – perhaps explaining in part why they reject the God they secretly fear.

“There is a Czech play in which the protagonist declares that he is such a convinced atheist that he is often afraid that God will punish him for it,” writes Halik.

Like Customers with a Car Salesman

We often hear or read things like, “I had that accident because I haven't done what I could for my elderly mother.” Or, “that guy contracted AIDS because God doesn’t approve of homosexuality.” Many of us also bargain with God, like customers with a car salesman. “Get me that new job and I'll go to church,” as if going to church benefits God.


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“…There are many people who have long maintained a childish notion of a magic god,” writes Halik, “a god of banal consolations and superficial optimism, a ‘guardian angel’ at our service, an inveterate comforter who tells us everything will turn out alright, a household god intended to fulfill just one single role: ‘working’ as an infallible granter of our most fatuous wishes.

“Cozy little gods like that logically collapse when faced with the first serious crisis of our lives,” he continues. “After taking leave of a god of that variety, quite a lot of people – often with a certain pride in discovering the truth about the ‘real world’ at last – declare themselves to be ‘atheists.’”

So, how are we supposed to “know” God as he/she really is? We can’t, of course. We have the Christian and Hebrew bibles, but we still see “only through a glass darkly,” knowing God only by analogy. That’s what it means to “walk by faith, not by light.”

The exception to this inability to know God, of course, is the belief of Christians that Jesus is God in human form. As wild an idea as that seems, an estimated 2.2 billion people ascribe to it. Personally, once I get past the idea of God’s existence – the idea of a superior being who is the author of creation and who knows us and loves us – it doesn’t seem so unlikely.

That’s what the word “incarnation” means, of course, that God took on the flesh of humans. The other important part of this for Christians is that it didn’t just happen some 2,000 years ago. Jesus and St. Paul - who may be more responsible than any other follower of Jesus in forming Christianity - taught that Jesus continues to be present in us and in others.

Not Just "Charity"

That’s why, for Christians, loving our neighbor isn’t just a matter of charity. It’s what it means to be a Christian. Some people want to disown others who fail to attend church, who ignore God and religion or act in a way they disapprove, but all of these failures pale in comparison to the failure to love.

Love – as distorted and trite as the word has become - was the hallmark of Jesus’ teaching, and loving others is the way we continue to love Jesus. It is also the best way to help others find God, and make a genuine contribution to the world.

“Wherever we follow in His footsteps by bringing others closer to us,” writes Halik, “including those ‘at a distance,’ the rule of God on earth is widened.”

 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Getting Home

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I recently attended a Mass at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago’s West Loop where the new archbishop, Blase Cupich, happened to be visiting and conducting the liturgy.

As usual in that parish, the liturgy was beautiful and moving. You could feel the energy and joy of the people of that church, which was packed to the seams with people of all ages and colors.

Cupich told the story about a talk he had with a business exec in his 40s who told him that he hadn’t visited his parents in five years. He couldn’t bring himself to visit them because of their continual criticism and censure. He had left home as soon as he could and didn’t know if he would ever return.

In a continuing conversation with the man, Cupich used baseball as a parable for life. After a batter gets a hit, he runs from home as fast as he can and arrives at first base, proud of himself for a degree of success. Due mostly to the efforts of another hitter, he then gets to second base, where he realizes that there’s only one more base between him and home. Will he be able to get there and then home? Or will he be called out somewhere between here and there?

Longing for Home

No metaphor is perfect or complete, but this one can easily be applied to the longing for home that’s implicit in the search for God.

Tomas Halik, the Czech philosopher and psychologist I quote often in these blogs, has some interesting observations about what is perhaps the most famous of gospel parables about coming home: the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

According to the gospel of Luke, as related in the Message Catholic/Ecumenical version, a young man asks for his inheritance from his father, who had one older son as well.

“So the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt.”

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He got a job with a pig farmer (the worst job possible, given the ancient Hebrews’ aversion to pigs?), the story goes, and was so hungry he longed to eat the corncobs in the pig slop. That brought him to his senses, and he decided to return home where his father’s farmhands had plenty to eat. He decided to ask his father to take him on as an employee.

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him and kissed him.” He called the servants and arranged for a homecoming party. As you may recall, the older brother, who had stayed at home and worked for his father, was outraged and resentful.

The father consoled him, too, however, telling him that “everything he has is his” but that the family had to celebrate because “this brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!”

“Prodigal,” according to the dictionary, is “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditures” and Halik writes that this could be called the “Parable of the Prodigal Father.” Unlike many parents, this father was absolutely lavish in welcoming a son who had betrayed him and blown half of his wealth.

The younger son has no noble reasons for returning home, Halik writes. He was hungry and nostalgic for his former good life. And the father wasn’t interested in judging his son or determining who was right in the family breakup. All he wanted to do was hug his son and show his love.

Attracted by the Big, Wide World

Some of us are the younger brother. We long for freedom from tradition, restraints, even from our families, and are attracted by the big, wide world and all it has to offer. We want it all, but we usually find that “success” isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, and no matter how much we have, we can feel empty and wonder what we’ve missed. 

Some of us are the older brother. We prefer order to freedom. We follow the rules, conform and do what we’re supposed to do, and we resent people who don’t follow the same path. We look for ways of pointing out their flaws. We become especially angry if we see those freedom seekers finding happiness.

Most of us are a mixture of the older and younger brothers. Returning to the baseball analogy, we may be at first, second or third base or still trying to get a hit, and we may be ambivalent about getting home. But from all we know from the Hebrew and Christian bibles, God is the model of the prodigal parent. He/she is waiting to be extravagant with us, to lavish us with his/her love.

Bogged down in our own pursuits, we may be unable to see or feel this, however. Like baseball players, we need openness, persistence and a willingness to accept uncertainty – remembering that we often have to rely on others to get the hit that will send us to the next base, and home.    

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Finding Your Calm

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For many of us in the western world, a glut of obstacles impedes the search for God. In my view, they include indulgent prosperity, religious illiteracy, damaging sex, secularism and “busyness.”

(As I’ve mentioned before in these blogs, secularism is not necessarily a bad thing. It does, however, fail to provide the social support for belief that was present in earlier ages.)

Of all these obstacles – and there are undoubtedly many more I haven’t included – busyness is perhaps the most pernicious in its subtlety. In our culture, busyness may seem inevitable, even normal. However, it impedes the search for God on at least two levels: it leaves us with little time to pursue belief, and it robs us of the calm and thoughtfulness necessary to do so. 

Why Are You Afraid?

James Martin, S.J., in his book, “Jesus, A Pilgrimage,” uses the gospel story of the calming of the storm to illustrate the problem. As you may recall the story, Jesus and his disciples embark on a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a violent storm erupts and the disciples fear for their lives.

According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus “was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’

Jesus calms the sea and asks his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”


Then, besides counseling against fear, Martin writes, Jesus offers what is desperately needed today: calm.


“The more I listen to people,” writes Martin, a long-time spiritual counselor, “the more I hear them speak about their lives using the same words: overworked, overbooked, overwhelmed, stressed-out, crazy-busy, nuts, insane.

‘I have no time for my family. I have no time to pray. I barely have time to think.’” One of the problems, he writes, is that “… our culture has impressed upon us the equation that the busier you are, the more important you are.”

James Martin, SJ
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Handling Busyness

There are practical ways of handling busyness, of course, and the most obvious is doing an activity inventory followed by a culling of schedules. What is really necessary or helpful for my life? What is most important? (It’s obvious that when we say we “have no time” for God and religion, it actually means that it’s not important for us. If that’s the case, we should admit that to ourselves.) If an activity isn’t necessary or important, shouldn’t we consider not doing it?

We may do a lot of things out of a sense of obligation, responding to requests by bosses, colleagues, family members and friends. But do you have to make these people happy at the expense of your calm? I don’t think so.

Apart from the practical, there are “spiritual” implications to busyness.

A popular American magazine had a recent article on finding your calm, and quoted a successful businesswoman.

“When I wake up,” she said, “I don’t look first at my smart phone. Instead, I take a minute to breathe deeply, be grateful and set my intention for the day.”

More Is Needed

Good idea to give yourself enough time in a busy day to be thoughtful, but for people searching for God, something more is needed, in my opinion, and that’s prayer.

We’ve covered this subject several times in these blogs, and I understand that people who are searching for God may have grave doubts about God’s existence, let alone whether God is interested in us or our prayers. So what’s new? Don’t you ever speak to your spouse, boss, employee, friend or kids when you doubt that they’re interested or listening?

Last year, I was doing what many husbands do a lot: waiting for my wife while she shops. I was sitting in what I call a “husband chair” in the dress section of an upscale department store in another city watching a young clerk greeting and helping customers. It was shortly after the store’s opening in the morning and I was thinking about how hard it must be to be for a clerk to smile, greet people and accommodate them when you may not have had enough sleep, have a bit of a hangover or are just not in the mood.

I noticed that this particular clerk was helpful and pleasant without being pushy. When she was free, I asked her how she does it.

The answer, in short, was that she does it just by doing it. Although she may feel “bummed” at the start of her shift, after a short time actually dealing with people, it usually came naturally. She liked people, she said, and after exchanges with them, she was usually eager to help.

Just Do It

That “Just Do It” idea, made famous by Nike, works in the pursuit of faith as well. Have doubts? Express them to God. Feel ridiculous? Some of the most important things we do in life, like falling in love with the most unlikely person, are ridiculous. Feel that you’re being anti-intellectual or anti-science? How much of your daily life – including your interactions with loved ones – are based on intellectualism or science?

Faith is a relationship, with God and others, and you have to pursue and nourish relationships.

Busyness, and lack of calm, is an obstacle in the search for God, but the pursuit itself brings calm, and all its other rewards make the pursuit worth it.

 

    

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Good Old-fashioned Hate

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Years ago, a colleague at The Des Moines Register related what happened when he was covering members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS, who were protesting something or other at the state capitol in Des Moines.

I don’t recall the issue involved, but the signs and speeches of Westboro members against people whom they were protesting were vicious.

Among the Westboro protesters, as I recall, was a boy of about 10 years old, son of one of the church’s leaders. When my colleague asked him if he thought protesting in such a way didn’t show disrespect toward others, the boy simply said, “F*** you!” 

Westboro, which appears to seek out publicity like a heat-seeking missile seeks a target, recently picketed the funeral of Beau Biden, son of vice president Joe Biden, in Delaware. According to the confusing information on Westboro’s web site – whose address is godhatesfags.com – the protest was against the vice president for “training Beau Biden to worship and serve Joe’s favorite idols: American military, perverse Catholic monstrosity, and political office/trappings.”

Like I said, it’s confusing, but Westboro is surely the church most people love to hate, and most Baptists are probably embarrassed by them. But it’s merely the most noxious of many fundamentalist groups.

In my view, there’s a big problem with fundamentalism itself, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish. And for me, it’s the flight from reality. Ok, so plenty of critics would say that all religion is that, but I don’t agree. The ability to make distinctions, after all, is fundamental to human intelligence.

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And that’s precisely my problem with fundamentalism. It flees from distinctions, hoping that it can maintain a simplified, uncomplicated world that exists only in its communal mind.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines fundamentalism.

“The term … is most often characterized by a markedly strict literalism as applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining in-group and out-group distinctions, leading to an emphasis on purity and the desire to return to a previous ideal from which it is believed that members have begun to stray."

Tomas Halik, the Czech psychologist and theologian whom I quote often in these blogs, views fundamentalism as “a disorder of a faith that tries to entrench itself within the shadows of the past against the disturbing complexity of life.

“Those who wish to seek the living God…,” he writes, “must have the courage to learn to swim in deep water, not in the shallows. God is in the depths; He is not to be found in the shallows.”

To me, fundamentalism also signals an unwillingness to accept the uncertainty that must accompany faith. Believers must “walk by faith, not by sight,” and faith means the willingness to tolerate uncertainty. The absence of this tolerance, seems to me, allows you to be smug, judgmental and rigid in what you believe and what you expect from others. And it demands conformity.

“When faith leads to conformism,” wrote Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin in a 2013 speech entitled, A Post-Catholic Ireland? “it has betrayed the very nature of faith. Conformism falsely feels that it has attained certainty. Faith is always a leap into the unknown and a challenge to go beyond our own limits and beyond our own certainties and the distorted understanding that comes from them.”

If God is the ultimate author of life – even though we may not understand the details of his/her authorship - you have to believe that human intelligence has some purpose, that humans are required to think through the meaning of life as a way of seeking God. Fundamentalism snubs thoughtfulness in deference to dogmatism and intolerance.

To criticize dogmatism is not to say that there’s no need for dogma. Dogma is simply a matter of formulating what you believe and how to express it. In the case of Christianity, it’s a matter mostly of determining what Jesus intended and organizing that in some intelligible manner.

“Dogmatism” is something else. It’s a denial of the need for growth in understanding those beliefs and the need to interpret them anew for each generation.

Although I’m not keen on fundamentalism, there are some things I admire about fundamentalists, including their single-mindedness and the courage of their convictions. In the face of widespread indifference toward God and religion, people seeking God and many believers could use a little more of those qualities.

“Faith,” to return to Halik, “is the possibility of re-interpreting what seemed so cut and dried from ‘the world’s’ point of view. …It means the courage to … persevere on the path of unselfishness, nonviolence, and generous love, even if it means defying this world’s logic, power, and usual style.”