I have been party to some conversations recently in which I gained the distinct impression that religion and being religious was meant to be understood as something very negative. The interesting thing is that my conversations were not with atheists or secularists who sometimes regard being religious as having a mental illness. No these conversations were with Christians.
In the text and subtext of these conversations was the inference that anyone who participated in religious practices that involved ritual and symbolic gesture did so out of some kind of mindless aquiescence to what they have always done, or what their parents did, etc. These comments were made as sweeping statements that were meant to be applied to all such practices.
Sometimes such commentary is offered from pulpits in churches, even, and the implication is that the only legitimate expression of religious faith is spontaneous and a reflection of a personal relationship with the Divine. Any form of ritual practice or the repetition of forms of words that are in written form are a false expression of religious faith.
In musing over this I conjectured that perhaps the preachers wanted to tickle people's ears with the idea that "what we do here is good and what people do in other places, especially if it involves ritual and liturgy, is utterly suspect."
Along a similar vein, I have heard people speak very disparagingly of tradition in a religious context. One preacher recently describe TRADITION as "The Religious practices of the dead," and TRADITIONALISM as "The dead religious practices of the living." It seemed to me that the implication here is that there is nothing to be learned from those who have gone before us in the faith. I guess if such a proposition was put to the preacher he would say that was not really what he meant, given that he regards the sacred Scriptures, which are undoubtedly ancient, as a great source of inspiration and guidence for our religious practice, but you can't deny the negative implications.
The sad thing about such world views is that they are closed - closed to the possibility that anyone might experience their faith and religious life in a manner that is different from their own. The focus is in contemporary, personal, spontaneous, grounded in the here and now.
I have lived long enough and in enough different settings to come to respect that diversity of religious practice that makes faith meaningful for people.
I have been with people as they prayed the Rosary as a congregation, led by a priest, over and over through the Marian Hour.
I have sat with an ecumenical congregation of several hundreds in silent contemplative prayer for half an hour.
I have joined hundreds in a processional proclamation of the Gospel through the Stations of the Cross as we walked around a suburb.
I have been with people in the midst of ecstatic utterances and Holy Spirit experiences that I know many of them have done repeatedly, week after week.
I have anointed and prayed for healing in a simple ritual in my own church, month after month, and seen the power of ritual and symbolic gesture in the lives of simple folk as they reach out to touch the Divine.
Indeed someone recently pointed me to a blog with pictures from all round the world of Muslims celebrating Ramadan which is to finish today, I think, images of people praying fervently to their God in a religious practice that is indeed transformative of their lives.
As I consider all these religious practices there is no way that I can think of them negatively; afterall often they are engaged in practices that I simply do not understand and so have not capacity to critique. When I have occasion to worship in such a context I try to see with eyes that understand what this is all about and a heart that is open to experience God even though I do not understand it.
I have learned to allow for the possibility that God and the Religious dimension of life is far greater than my own limited experience and knowledge. It enables me to be inclusive, respectful and far from judgemental. We are all on a journey into the presence of God and in this life we can only see these things partially.
ROBERT INCHAUSTI: SUBVERSIVE ORTHODOXY
3 years ago