Why is organized religion seeing declining participation?
I went to mass this morning. The priest spoke very well but he really had nothing deep and significant to say to me and I wonder if anyone else got more than me. The Catholic Church continues to draw people only because of the Eucharist, certainly not for its teaching nor for its lively fellowship.
It feels to me as if the churches have no idea where people live and for that matter people themselves have no idea where they live.
When I was a pastor I found it frustrating because the work day occupies so much of everyone’s life. People are at work and the pastor has no one to visit. Then they get home from work and watch a bit of TV after dinner and then day is done.
The structures that exist are supported by people who do not seem to show any kind of joy when at mass and for that matter the same holds true for many evangelicals and other denominations. The pastor tells them to go out and to spread the ‘good news’. In actuality people simply return to their homes and workplaces and that is that, except maybe for a meeting concerning church finances in the middle of the week.
All of society is driven by the need to make money to afford the homes that we live in. The media pummels us with the philosophy that to be happy we need more things. Newscasts are always referring us to what the market response is in relation to any give story. The operative word we hear is big business. We are so economy conscious. We have created a lifestyle that demands money and hence the average person is consumed at least eight hours a day at a job that for many people is as boring as can be.
The people are caught. “Well, what can anyone do about it?” is the constant refrain.
Meanwhile, life goes on day after day and the souls of thousands grow colder as they labor at a trade that has no real significance to them. Ah but it pays the bills and so the music goes on.
To me there are three levels of faith. The first two are in the same field and the third stands alone. The first level is that of the so called ego. This is the level at which many people live their entire lives. This is the level of the child who is born into a family and learns to speak the language of his parents. It is a verbatim claiming of parental beliefs. This is rooted in the child’s limited understanding and experience with life. I remember my faith as a child. We were at school and the teacher in religion class impressed quite a number of us about the fact that the saints of old laid down their lives for the faith. A number of us continued talking about the subject while we were at recess. We challenged one particular unfortunate soul as he said he would suffer for the sake of his love of God. So we gathered together and pushed him into a fire pit used by the school janitor to burn old papers and stuff. The embers were hot and he burned his leg a little and burst into tears.
When I look at where we were in those days I recognize that we had no idea who God was. We were operating in the realm of the mind and of the will. We based our conclusions upon bits of information fed to us by people who hardly knew what they were saying also. There was no conscious connection with God but a mental apprehension of ideas, mere notions. The heart had not yet awakened. Faith was matter of mental assent or as Cardinal John Henry Newman called it, notional assent. Of course when you are living in your head that is all you know and understand and hence you try to live you faith at that level. I believe that a great many people who form the great religions of the world operate at that level. The mind does the best it can until the day it recognizes that it can not attain to what it intellectually aspires too.
Much of the church operates at that level and as a consequence there is a great deal of confusion. Some people have great intellectual prowess and are able to string together wonderful theories marvelously elaborated with an abundance of words. But there is another level in spirituality that is not attained by intellect. This is the kind illustrated by St Paul when he upon pursuing Christians to destroy them was knocked off of his horse by a blinding light. He heard the words: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He then asked: “who are you Lord?” The voice responded: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”. Now St. Paul was a religious man and a man of faith. He was intellectually precocious. He studied under the greatest teachers of the time. But after that experience he said: “I count all of my intellectual acumen as rubbish in comparison to knowing Christ.” That experience of Jesus changed his vantage point. He could no longer speak from the intellect and through the brilliance of his mind alone because he had discovered that the eyes of the heart exist. He prayed later for christians that “the eyes of your hearts may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which you have been called, the glorious riches of the inheritance of the saints and the immeasurably great power of the Spirit, that great power that raised Christ-Jesus from the dead.”
This level of faith is a departure from intellectual apprehension and the faith of a child who just takes unthinkingly the beliefs in the culture in which he or she is born and grows up.
According to St. Paul, when the “eyes of the heart” open, as a gift of the Spirit, the heart does not merely believe in a notional way but it is brought to a profound sense of a faith that knows…as Newman wrote…’a real assent’.
Secondly we are brought to know the ‘hope’ that God really is, that Jesus-Christ really is and the hope of the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’ and the kind of world that can emerge from it is possible.
Thirdly he spoke of the ‘glorious riches of the inheritance of the saints’. Who are these saints? Certainly according to catholic tradition these are those who had a special connection with their faith and God. But in the time of St. Paul he ascribed the title saint to all of those who responded to the gospel and had the eyes of the heart opened so that we “could understand what God has freely given us in Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:12)