Chapter 1: Why Does Religion, Any Religion, Matter?
As at the entrance of the church on Sunday and on the feast days,
When we go to Mass,
Or at the funerals,
We give each other, we pass each other the holy water from hand to hand,
From neighbor to neighbor, one after the other,
Directly from hand to hand or from a blessed branch dipped into the holy water.
In order to make the sign of the cross either over ourselves, who are alive, or over the casket of the person who has died,
In such a way that the same sign of the cross is as if carried from neighbor to neighbor by the same water,
By the ministry, by the administering of the same water,
One after the other, over the same breasts and over the same hearts,
And the same foreheads too,
And even over the caskets of the same deceased bodies,
So from hand to hand, from finger to finger,
From fingertip to fingertip, the eternal generations,
Who are eternally going to Mass.
In the same breasts, in the same hearts up to the death of the world,
Like a relay,
In the same hope, the word of God is passed on.
-- Charles Péguy
JANA: For myself, and my generation as a whole (I believe), deciding to have faith, to believe in God, is not as hard to accept as it was for your generation. For this reason, Dad, I think we need to start at the concept of religion and then work backwards to God. I find making the leap from believer in God to practitioner of religion much harder. With my own experience, I realized this very quickly. After having spent many years not believing in anything or anyone, let alone some higher being that is all powerful and supremely good, the comfort that having faith in God provides was a welcome relief; at least someone out there is watching over you and caring what happens to you. Yet it is still possible to feel like something is missing, something concrete. Believing God is such a matter of faith that it would be nice to have something to touch, hear and smell. Logically, I would guess that something is religion. As in, "I've got religion." Well, I don't -- at least not right now. (Although I have very much enjoyed the times Mark, my boyfriend, has taken me to his Presbyterian Church with its very traditional minister and his wonderful, thick-as-molasses Scottish brogue.) Part of the reason I don't "have religion" is that I am not totally convinced that my lack of religion is the problem. Question one: Why is religion -- any religion -- important?
Organized religion superficially appears so contrived and so controlling. Its structure -- so bureaucratic with its layers of priests, ministers etc., and its large, imposing temples, cathedrals -- seems to physically reinforce the charge that religion works to put a greater distance between the individual and God, rather than to bring them closer. For example, organized religion often comes across like a gate keeper or bodyguard: unless one does this or bribes it with that on earth, it won't let you in, or recommend you, to see the celebrity that it's so possessively guarding -- that is, God. Psychologically, I have often felt this way -- that I could not hear God for the noise of his "bureaucrats."
I even wrote a poem years ago at a crisis point in my life when I wanted to turn to the church and to God, and yet felt alone and abandoned, like a little girl lost in the wide, cavernous darkness of an empty, cold cathedral.
Of course, I have always had hope -- hope that the alienation I felt from the church would be rectified when it awoke to its distance and tried to recapture its spirit.
I am still not completely clear about the purpose of religion per se. Question two: Why is it necessary to believe in a religion? Is religion just a means to an end? In other words, does religion merely act as a paved path to God (as opposed to forging through the jungle, perhaps even without a machete)? If so -- question three -- does the existence of many, many different religions only illustrate the variety of paths to God without specifying or implying that one is necessarily better than another -- that it is merely a matter of finding a good fit between you and the religion?
Finally, based on the fact that we are, after all, human and always want to know what's in it for us, my fourth question: What is religion supposed to offer or accomplish? Personal peace and fulfillment? I can understand that one certainly should not be asking for anything personal and superficial from God -- that would be audaciously presumptuous (although I do still turn to him and pray for assistance and favors anyway). But if one can believe in God without truly needing to believe in religion, then why bother believing in religion unless it offers you something?
DAD: Why, you ask, is religion, any religion, important? My simple answer is: Because it is true. If it isn't true, you shouldn't accept it. You wouldn't want to turn to religion merely for comfort, security, or peace of mind (although that's what atheists say religion is for). Because if religion isn't true, you wouldn't find peace of mind or comfort or security anyway.
Besides, if the religion you now accept isn't fully true, the longing for truth -- the longing to get reality right -- will drive you to pursue the evidence wherever it leads, however arduous that exploration (that "pilgrim's progress") may be.
If God is God, it cannot be impossible for him to have given us sufficient evidence to come to where he wants us to be. We have to took for it. That is the greatest detective story of all times. (All detective stories are parables for finding God.)
There is no other reason for counting yourself religious, except that it says something true about your place in the world.
There is no other purpose in joining a religious communion except that it is a communion bearing the truth about God, human destiny, and yourself. Keep your eye on the question of truth.
In some ways, a church or synagogue makes your way to God more difficult, not less. Every social institution is a clumsy thing. Some days, the preaching is not simply poor, but offensive. The music may be poor. (It may even be too beautiful: Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, says that paganism often begins just when the music soars -- just when your soul turns toward the bodily thrill of gorgeous sound. Music is lovely and good in itself, a gift of God, and yet it can quickly become a distraction from the presence of God. Kierkegaard believed in keeping first things first, with a fierce purity of purpose.)
A church group may be too cold and impersonal -- or too cozy, coy, and chummy. So I don't think a church "paves" your way to God; it may throw boulders in your path. I remember the English novelist Evelyn Waugh writing about the agonies he often endured attending public worship. Even some religious persons, left to themselves, prefer solitude and minimal involvement with others, especially institutions; they would prefer being hermits to enduring community.
In America especially, where "choice" reigns, many persons choose a congregation because they prefer its minister's preaching, the superior friendliness of its people, or the beauty of its worship services; or because they feel more "at home" in it than in some other. These are not unworthy motives. But neither are they religious motives.
To the extent that they are not rooted in conscience and a serious pursuit of the truth, such motives might be described as "social" motives, akin to those that might govern one's choice of a private club. Such motives eventually diminish the intellectual content of a religious body.
In fact, many American church groups might just as well join together as one religion of "the American way of life," a religion of gregarious sociality and individual choice. The basic commandments of this religion would be: Be open and friendly; give no offense; do the decent thing; be kind. As world history goes, these are not trifling virtues.
By contrast, just before his conversion from one Christian church to another, I have seen a grown man cry because he knew that he would miss his old friends at worship, and would feet ethnically and intellectually lonely in his new congregation. Yet conscience demanded that he go where truth is, not where for human reasons he preferred to go. Similarly, C. S. Lewis recounts how for years he felt uncomfortable in church. He went out of duty, because Christianity is a communal, public religion, not a solely private one. It is "the Body of Christ," a public organism as well as a fellowship of spirit. But for a long time, Lewis found churchgoing painful.
I hope you will forgive me, Jana, in stressing so much the pursuit of truth. Read, study, pray -- involve your whole soul (mind and will) in your decision. Do not make a religious choice for lighter reasons, even though, perhaps, most people do.
At least for Christians and Jews, religious faith is very heavily invested in the integrity (however wounded, however weak) of reason. For Christians and Jews it is an almost necessary presumption that there are truths to be discovered and known, that evidence matters, that reasoning is not in vain but attuned to the way things are, even though creation's secrets are far vaster than reason's repertoire.
Jews and Christians trust the instinct that humans were made to inquire, to understand, and to exercise judgment, since they were conceived and created by One who understands, chooses, and loves everything that he has created, enjoys the lot, cares for each detail of it. Pluck a tulip, a blade of grass, a bit of purple clover, and study the detail. It will repay study, everything will, everything is made with intelligence and care and love. Commit your life to intelligence; love your studies; devote yourself to science -- such love will never disappoint you. Realm beyond realm of sense will open itself before you. However far you go the Light has been there.
If I were an evangelical Christian, I might tell you here to think of your sins -- the deeds you are ashamed of, convicted by your own conscience -- and to recognize that Jesus by his death and resurrection offers you forgiveness. He is the only source of forgiveness, forgiveness to the depths of your soul, in the world. For myself, loving the Catholic tradition as I do, let me call your attention to the opening of the Gospel of St. John:
In the beginning was the Word: and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him. All that came to be had life in him and that light was the light of men...
-- John 1:1-4, The Jerusalem Bible
I take this to mean that we learn about Jesus, the Word, in two places, first and most vividly in the gospels, but also in all the things that are made. All are made to reflect him. We can approach the whole of creation as another "book" about our Creator and Redeemer. This is the greatest detective story.
Jews and Christians trust the intuition that there is a Creator, not way back when, but now, holding in existence -- making the world stand out from nothingness (ex -- out from + sistere -- to stand), to be, to occur at all. It takes energy to raise concrete things out of nothingness and to hold them in existence for the appointed time; then they slide back into the nothingness. The First Cause, so to speak, is working all the time. We can feel each staccato second racing by, our life dissolving like the hill of sand in an hourglass, quickly, quickly. Yet here it is, Being (in the sense of existence) can almost be tasted. The wonder of it all is that there could have been nothingness. Instead the world came to be -- this is the first of wonders! Those who say that there are no miracles overlook existence. They who deny that there are miracles, they are the miracle, every bit as much as those who breathe thanks.
The first moment of religion begins in awe of truth, in fear of getting things wrong, missing the whole point, and wasting the precious and shining and rapidly filtering sands of existence.
All my life I have felt these sands slipping away. I remember distinctly -- I was fourteen, in the crowded stands of Notre Dame Stadium during a full in a game -- sensing the onrushing wind of death and realizing that I had to hurry, and pay attention. It was hard for me to believe that everybody else in the stands didn't hear the same wind, seemed actually to be aware only of the game below and of one another. I know today that the two mounds of sand of my own life are pretty uneven, and that we're getting awfully close to the last rush. (As my brother Jim said before he died last year, Novaks are not afraid of death; but we do have a sharp sense of how brief and precious life is.) The point is, I know from some of your own poetry and drawings that you have sensed the same thing, and what I want to underline is that fear; in this sense, fear of the Lord, and awe, and wonder, and eagerness to hear the call correctly, whatever it is. This is the beginning of true religion.
The reason why religion is important -- to repeat -- is that it's first of all about truth. Nothing that is lying or false, even if it is otherwise "nice," is worthy of creatures such as we have been made to be. Religious people don't promote study and build universities for nothing. Judaism and Christianity are (among others) "religions of the Book" -- a book to inquire into, to meditate on, to study, to put to the test of real-life practice. That should tell you something about the weight these religions put on seeking truth, in the light of evidence, especially the evidence of daily living.
You feel the pull of the evangelical Protestant denial that "religion" is a genus of which the gospel of Jesus is just one species. They insist (and so do Catholics) that Jesus is the Logos, the Word, in whom all things were made, and that he is the sole road to salvation. In this view, the other religions, however noble, miss the one crucial point: Jesus is the personal Savior of everyone. Evangelicals prefer, therefore, to talk of "faith" (faith in Jesus) rather than religion. You need to know that they are allergic to "religion in general."
This is true as far as it goes. Still, encouraged by the Catholic tradition, I like to think that "the Word in Whom and by Whom and through Whom were made all the things that are made" is partially revealed in all that is good and true in all human traditions. So when I write "religion," please see that I only want to include religious persons, like some of your friends who are not Christians or Jews, so that they and their parents can draw the appropriate comparisons to their own predicament in a secular age. All things human teach us to reflect on aspects of Him we might otherwise miss. This is one reason for terming the church "Catholic." Nil humanum mihi alienum: "Nothing human is alien to me," is an ancient Catholic conviction. The problem is to discern what, in all things, belongs to the Word.
Traditionally, therefore, we read the Jewish Testament as "prefiguring" the Christian, and study Judaism today to learn much about ourselves. (Correlatively, Jews have been much influenced in their self-understanding by interaction with the Christian world.) In a more remote way, the study of Islam and Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and the rest has been a rich source of insight for understanding (not only by way of contrast) the impact and range of our creation and redemption.
JANA: But don't forget my first question. I have more or less come to accept God, but organized religion still bothers me. It's common to read that religion has been used, can be used, and maybe even is used as a means to control and subdue the populace. Not to mention the abuses committed over the centuries by organized religion. Think of the Spanish Inquisition: fear and intimidation used for control. I don't have any personal experiences of this kind, but I still don't see why it isn't possible to have a personal relationship with God, without intermediaries.
DAD: Look. Staffing an institution, training ministers, putting up bricks and mortar and keeping existing buildings clean and in good repair -- all this is a lot of work. In a way, many people who are good at all the practical things, the nuts and bolts, the upkeep, the personnel problems, pensions and health insurance, and the rest, may not be conspicuously good in prayer or even in reflection. My friend John Cogley, an editor and reporter, used to say that some people have an ear for religion -- God, prayer, contemplation -- and some don't, and most of the people who staff religious organizations don't. It's easier to raise money and put up buildings than to spend an hour on one's knees every day, imploring God in the darkness and emptiness in which he dwells. For practical people, that can be tedious.
God is usually found in silence. In suffering. Wordlessly. For many, it's a lot easier to keep busy.
In my generation, and even more so when I began teaching in the sixties, there were many young people who couldn't stand silence. They'd come into their room, turn on the TV, put on the music, look for someone to call, or something to do -- keep moving. Pick up the car keys, go out to look for something happening. Many were afraid of fingertips beating on the windowpane, the silent rustling in their own souls. I think that's why people liked music loud and full of motion. They needed to act out a kind of vacantness when they were "down," or a kinetic mime of passion when they were "up." Sometimes I wished I could be part of their diversions; maybe I have been, sometimes. But I always felt that that wasn't my world. To surrender to it meant letting go of my inner life, yielding to the collective. No thanks.
There were other aspects to youthful distancing, of course. It meant a kind of liberation, a clearing of the decks, a world of one's own apart from adults. No generation in history had ever been so massively programmed for years upon years of being lectured to in classrooms, sometimes beginning in preschool and stretching out through three or five or nine years after college, in law school, medical school, or various graduate programs.
After the creation of "teenagers" early in the century, we created "twentyhood" -- the longest period of prolonged preadulthood in recorded history. A culture very largely without adults, without tradition, without clear guidance to command reflexes and aspirations -- tidewaters swirling back and forth, loose, unformed, directionless. The culture surrounding you suddenly turned ambivalent about drugs and sex and limits. You were told you were young and vital and should be having fun: That was your moral duty -- Have fun!
In retrospect, I see very clearly why going to church was a bore to you, a foreign experience, and even came to seem fraudulent. I do not doubt that everything could have been done better -- the liturgy, the music, the sermons, the ideas, the sense of prayer and holiness and seriousness. But no one can fairly ask to be surrounded all the time by saints and prophets, shocked, inspired, fired up, through no effort of their own. I think you wanted the Church to prove itself to you, when the real task was quite the other way around. The Church can only be what it is, a thoroughly, hopelessly human organization, with all the grinding faults and uninspiring, middling virtues one must expect from such a thing -- through which, nonetheless, God has chosen to convey the springs of eternal life in communion with him, beginning right in this mediocrity. It would have been nice if he came with trumpets and angels, instead of with such people as we.
JANA: I think it is unfair -- and somewhat alienating -- to lay the blame for my negative experience with the Church at my feet. I don't believe that I wanted the Church to prove itself to me (although why not?) but to simply respond to me; to provide me with not only practical assistance -- such as someone to listen to and advise me during the good and bad times -- but also with the explanations and guidance necessary to facilitate this constant inquiry you referred to earlier. I didn't want angels, in fact I wouldn't be
able to relate to angels, but rather humans -- flesh and blood that would make this God stuff and religion stuff concrete and understandable.
DAD: Okay, I'll admit the obvious: the Church also failed you. So did I -- that bothers me more. Still, I don't think you can evade all responsibility. You could have figured out more on your own, and read more on your own. I think you were blocked by a sense of rebellion on your part, a kind of refusal. Well, it's easily forgivable, and water over the dam.
Your cousin Father Andrew is a priest, and so was your uncle Richard, who died in Bangladesh in the missions when he was only three years older than you are now. You know the faults and weaknesses of the rest of us in our family, and every priest, every minister, comes from somebody's family in this way. I think you may agree that God showers special graces on them, and their sacrifices for us are special, like Christ's, but neither they nor we have illusions about them. What saves us and them is God's presence in them, not their particular talents or works.
That's why, Jana, we don't despair too much when one of them "goes bad," makes bad mistakes, even does real evil. Isn't it bound to happen sometimes? Maybe even for a whole era in a whole culture or part of a culture. Our faith isn't rooted in them. Despite them, around them, using them as broken instruments (the novelist Graham Greene loved this theme), God's grace strangely abounds.
I don't think your problem is with the Church. I think your problem, Jana, is wanting to limit the ways God can act to the ways you approve of. I don't think you recognize how humbly God accommodates himself to the kind of creatures we are, in our everydayness rather than in our rare saintly best. If God was going to pass on his word and communicate his life in a human way, if news of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus is to reach you, it had to be through a people and an institution -- hence, the synagogue and the church down the everyday ages.
As Irving Kristol once said, count up the prophets and count up the rabbis -- there were only twelve prophets, about one each century, and scores of thousands of rabbis, generation after generation. That's why Judaism is so practical, he says, why it lasts and lasts. It's not always pretty, but it endures. It keeps regaining vitality, like an old olive tree well pruned. The same with the Christian church. It's a pretty poor thing. Jacques Maritain resisted being converted to it, dreaded it, called it -- afterwards -- "that dunghill." But it's in a church community that Christ buried the pearl of great price, planted the tree of life. You don't get to tell God how to do it.
Besides, if God had made the synagogue and the church something splendid and miraculous, many people would find it superhuman and fear they couldn't measure up.
The trouble is, a synagogue and church cut to human measure depress something romantic and utopian in us. We'd really like a religion that invited us to be pure spirits, wiped away our faults once for all, allowed us to pretend we aren't our imperfect selves. That's why purely spiritual movements that deny the role of the human body and are full of disdain for existing "organized religions" are always attractive to many persons.
In all centuries, even Christians have had to fight the idea that Christianity is solely about the spirit and at war with the body. They did this by stressing humble bodily tasks -- like doing laundry, keeping the kitchen clean, taking care of the toilets. This was also the point of displaying the physical crib at Christmas time -- the animals, the hay: to stress the humanness of the body.
JANA: But get back to the church.
DAD: Organized religion is homage to the body. Organized religion is as necessary for our souls as politics is for democracy. Democracy is always in bad shape (the worst system except for all the others), but it would be in even worse shape if bitter rivals couldn't be held to elections, and forced to appeal to the interests and concerns of competing factions. Factional fights are like oxygen for the fire of representative government; no air, no fire.
A lot of people are disgusted with politics but claim to love democracy; what they really wish is that they could get their way without the work of persuading those who disagree with them. They tend to like little dictators who promise to fix things lickety-split. And there are a lot of people who claim to be disgusted with organized religion -- for good reasons -- whose secret belief is that their own inner lives are too good for the ordinary run of people who are in church. They secretly hold that if God were really smart he would have chartered a secret, noble, perfect, and purely privatized religion, such as theirs. That might have been a good idea, but he didn't.
What God chose instead is something very human and very flawed. A cross for sensitive and idealistic persons to carry, and hard at some points for everyone. But its very humanness somehow seems more consoling the older you get. If you were not made of flesh and blood, Jana, you would not need the "comfort" of a physical, human church -- or, rather, the discomfort. In politics, you get disgusted with particular elections, candidates, or political claims, and you rebel in the name of starting in new directions. The synagogue and the church also need their rebels and their self-starters. Organized religion is not them, it's us. Only traditions alive with fresh growths endure.
You know the Commandment of Love, "Love your neighbor as yourself"? In my experience, the hardest part in that -- the sleeper -- is loving myself.
So I wish my children (and grandchildren) would feel at home in the human race. I really admired my brother Jim for prescribing that the reception after his funeral should be in an ordinary, tacky American Legion Hall in a small rural town outside State College, Pennsylvania. He wanted us to remember how much strength he had always drawn from plain, working people, with all their roughness, generosity, and quirkiness.
That's one reason Jimmy loved his years in the Army -- Third Armored Division, where the rough edges are and the big, dirty machines. Grunt work. He loved being the commander of ordinary guys, browbeating them, humoring them, and leading them to win the all-European gunnery championships, which the Germans or Brits had usually won. He loved doing it with a newly formed unit, that didn't even have yet the proper command structure. It vindicated his preference for the six-pack crowd, every time.
Take that as a clue to organized religion. It isn't just for the poets and philosophers, the literary critics and the commentators, the professors and gallery directors. It's for infantry and armored, too. It's for all classes and all temperaments. I really love that aspect of our poor, often wounded Catholic Church. It is not a sect, for a small cut of the human race. That makes it pretty messy. But, by God, it's us!
I wish I could communicate that to you. But I think you've got it. There were always signs that you had gotten it.
JANA: I like your comments so far, but at times you've been pretty abstract and, for me, haven't given a practical conclusion.
DAD: Holy smokes! I thought I was being very down-to-earth. I thought I was basically finished, and you want more!
Okay, if you want a church that offers something you can "touch, hear, and smell," a friendly environment, and you also want immediacy with God, you have a problem. If there are human intermediaries -- preachers of the Word -- their glaring faults are bound to get in the way. You can, of course, see "through" them directly to God; God does work immediately within you. But the church, any church, is always something of a stumbling block.
JANA: I can see all that. But you still haven't told me what the church offers me. If it has nothing to offer, why bother?
DAD: Every church, in every religion, offers a poetic ancient form by which you will be able to welcome your children into life and bury your parents. Through its local ministers, churches, and rituals, the church offers you continuity across generations. This is no small thing. Humans are historical animals, and a church places us within an historical tradition. Invariably, this tradition is replete with stories of heroes, crises, struggles, lessons learned at great cost. Invariably, too, this tradition offers nourishment to those whose spirits need study as deer need water.
Your generation is not the first to wrestle with fundamental questions. One benefit a religious affiliation offers is a wealthy intellectual and spiritual tradition, and an abundance of narratives about the heroes and the struggles of the past.
The important point for now, however, is this: Religion is important to the extent that it is true, and throws light on two questions: "Who am I, under these stars?" and "Who are we?" The test for religion is its truth.
The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) added two further questions: "What may we hope for?" and "What ought we to do?" These questions, experience shows, cannot be answered without setting to rest how our existence is linked to God's and who God is.
To summarize: Your first question was, Why is religion important? My answer was: Because it's true, and teaches us something crucial about ourselves: the ground for our hope in eternal life.
Why is it necessary to belong to a religious institution? Because we are creatures made for community, and the flaws of real communities force us to confront the difficulties and joys of being humans-in-community. The community strengthens our conscience and helps us guard against becoming prisoners to the illusions of our age.
Is religion just a means to an end? Yes and no. The end is steady, constant union with God. Properly understood, a religious institution is both the means to and a participation in the end. All of us are made for community with God and with one another. The Church is all of us as one -- past, present, future -- in whom God dwells, hidden by our faults.
Does the existence of so many different religions mean that one religion is as good as another? We come to this question in our next go-around; but you can guess.
What does religion offer? If it is worth anything, it offers a true vision of who we are; an historical tradition; communal support in a centuries-long conversation; a framework for past and future through rituals of memory and expectation; and a mission in history. Most of all: it communicates to us the presence of God. And God's best name, from this point of view, is Truth: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." (John 14:6).
Finally, when by "religion" one means "faith" -- that is, the Christian faith -- such a religion offers us eternal life with God, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Love. This calling helps to explain why each human being is of imperishable and irreplaceable value; it is our ground for saying that our rights are endowed in us by God.
Others may come to different grounds for their being. Respectful conversation with them about these matters is the seed of civilization, its best promise of a great flowering.
Copyright © 1998 by Michael Novak and Jana Novak