Charles Taylor in his book “A Secular Age” may have insights into the “Nones”, the “unaffiliated population” whom surveys say are leaving their religious traditions “because they stopped believing in its teachings.” Their numbers are increasing, surveys say.
Some become unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions. Many leave a religion because “they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money.”
It’s interesting to see that “ far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.”
Taylor says the theory that religion will disappear as science advances doesn’t hold up because there’s a search for “human fullness” for a “higher world” that doesn’t go away. Surveys indicate that’s the case among the unaffiliated today
But Taylor also recognizes that people find religions difficult today. In the western world, our secular age is an age of “expressive individualism;” people want reasons to believe and belong. They need religious places that meet them as they are. They’re looking for religious experience.
“Those who believe in the God of Abraham should normally be reminded of how little they know him, how partial is their grasp of him. They have a long way to go…Many believers (the fanatics, but also more than these) rest in the certainty that they have got God right (as against all those heretics and pagans in the outer darkness). They are clutching onto an idol, to use a term familiar to the traditions of the God of Abraham.” (p.769)
Churches need to engage the world with reasons, not with condemnations. Belief leads us to the mysterious Unknown, not sharp certainties. Jesus kept speaking to Nicodemus many nights, it seems. As the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus says, it takes time to believe. We’re slow learners. We pray that on their journey the “Nones” will find him “in the breaking of the bread.”
We heard from Thomas, doubting Thomas, on Sunday. The next few days he’s joined in this week’s readings by Nicodemus, a teacher in Israel, fluent in religious matters, but he comes to Jesus by night. Was it fear, human respect? Yet Jesus meets him at night. (John 3)
Nicodemus questions but doesn’t seem to understand Jesus’ answers. “How can this happen?” Thomas isn’t the only skeptic, a lone dissenter. Others are slow to believe too. There is a recurrent skepticism in us all.
Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea– a member of the Jewish ruling party and another hesitant believer – finally come forward at Jesus’ death. Joseph asks Pilate for his body. Nicodemus brings an abundance of spices for his burial. Leaving the darkness, they follow Jesus into the light. Here’s how John’s gospel describes them:
“After this, Joseph of Arimathea, secretly a disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. And Pilate permitted it. So he came and took his body. Nicodemus, the one who had first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom. Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried. So they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day; for the tomb was close by. “(John 19, 39-42)
The dark time of death is bathed in glory. Nicodemus’ store of spices makes Jesus’ burial a kingly burial. The new tomb in a garden already suggests something wonderful about to happen.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3,17)
“Everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.” Everyone, even reluctant believers like Joseph and Nicodemus.
Saints show us our capabilities, how far we can rise, from the depths to the heights. That’s why the church recalls the conversion of St.Paul a number of times in the church year. Today we hear it as part of our readings from the Acts of the Apostles. As he readily acknowledges, Paul rose from the dust and became a powerful force in his church and in the world through God’s grace.
St. John Chrysostom says of him: “Paul, more than anyone else, has shown us what we really are, and in what our nobility consists, and of what virtue a human being is capable. Each day he aimed ever higher; each day he rose up with greater ardour and faced with new eagerness the dangers that threatened him. He summed up his attitude in the words: I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead. When he saw death imminent, he bade others share his joy: Rejoice and be glad with me! And when danger, injustice and abuse threatened, he said: I am content with weakness, mistreatment and persecution. These he called the weapons of righteousness, thus telling us that he derived immense profit from them…
The most important thing of all to him, however, was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ.”
Every Friday in our morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours we pray Psalm 51. “Have mercy on me, O God, in your kindness. In your compassion wipe out my offense.” It’s one of the most important prayers we say.
In a sermon on this psalm, St. Augustine says that unfortunately people can be so convinced they’re living good lives that they become blind to their own faults, and in their blindness they become quicker to see the faults of others rather than their own. There’s evil in life, so if it’s not in us it must be out there in others.
Remember the story of King David, who is associated with this psalm. He was quick to see the man Prophet Nathan described to him as worthy of death; but he didn’t see himself as the guilty one.
Psalm 51 reminds us we’re sinners and we should know our sins and not forget them. “My offenses truly I know them, and my sin is always before me.”
We should know our sins and keep them always before us, our psalm says, but it goes on to say that God is the one who brings that knowledge about in us. We can’t know ourselves and our sins completely on our own, however honest and thorough we may be about it. Only God can bring us knowledge of ourselves.
In their commentaries on this psalm, scholars point out that there are only few lines in this psalm that speak about what we do to know our sins.
The psalm is mostly concerned with asking God’s help. “You love truth in the heart, then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.”
We ask in this psalm for the merciful help of God, to create a pure heart and a steadfast spirit in us, to wash us and sprinkle us with hyssop that we may be clean. St. Augustine says that hyssop is a plant that clings to rocks; it is at home in hard places, like the human heart.
We ask for a ‘spirit of joy”, a “spirit of fervor” to do what we’re called to do in this life. It’s not just our recreation we ask for. The walls of Jerusalem, the world around us, are waiting to be rebuilt and we’re called to rebuild them with God’s help.
In yesterday’s reading from John’s Gospel Jesus said we are all taught by God. How does God teach us how to live? God teaches us through his Word, through the example and the teachings of Jesus, through the teachings of his church.
But God also teaches us through the signs of the times. We have to let the times teach us, and that’s not easy.
How can we learn from the pandemic we going through, from the threat of climate change, from the challenge of racism in our society?
We’re not onlookers before these issues, watching them from a distance. They’re like the challenge Nathan raised before David. Each of these issues ask us to answer for ourselves. What about me?
Here’s St. Anselm, whose feast we celebrate today, calling himself a “little man” seeking God:
“Little man, rise up! Flee your preoccupations for a little while. Hide yourself for a time from your turbulent thoughts. Cast aside, now, your heavy responsibilities and put off your burdensome business. Make a little space free for God; and rest for a little time in him.
Enter the inner chamber of your mind; shut out all thoughts. Keep only thought of God, and thoughts that can aid you in seeking him. Close your door and seek him. Speak now, my whole heart! Speak now to God, saying, I seek your face; your face, Lord, will I seek.
And come you now, O Lord my God, teach my heart where and how it may seek you, where and how it may find you.
Lord, if you are not here, where shall I seek you when you are absent? But if you are everywhere, why do I not see you present? Truly you dwell in unapproachable light. But where is unapproachable light, or how shall I come to it? Or who shall lead me to that light and into it, that I may see you in it? Again, by what signs, under what form, shall I seek you? I have never seen you, O Lord, my God; I do not know your face.
What, O most high Lord, shall this man do, an exile far from you? What shall your servant do, anxious in his love of you, and cast out far from your presence? He is breathless with desire to see you, and your face is too far from him. He longs to come to you, and your dwelling-place is inaccessible. He is eager to find you, but does not know where. He desires to seek you, and does not know your face.
Lord, you are my God, and you are my Lord, and never have I seen you. You have made me and renewed me, you have given me all the good things that I have, and I have not yet met you. I was created to see you, and I have not yet done the thing for which I was made.”
We’re reading the story of St. Stephen these days in our liturgy. He’s the early church’s first martyr and, as I indicated in my previous blog, his death sparked a Christian persecution and drove others into exile. Yet, it led to a remarkable growth in the church.
A couple of years ago, I visited the Church of San Stefano Rotondo in Rome, built in honor of St. Stephen in the 5th century. You may be interested in the story of this church.
The church grows gradually after the resurrection as the followers of Jesus meet him, but they’re slow to believe. The Apostle Thomas is an example of their skepticism. The week’s gospel readings from John introduce us to another group slow to believe– people like Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night. A supposedly well-informed religious person, Nicodemus only understands Jesus Christ slowly.
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the witness of the apostles in the temple after the Holy Spirit comes upon them at Pentecost. “Uneducated, ordinary men,” the temple leaders call them, but they continue to proclaim boldly God’s mighty works in Jesus Christ. Told to end their witness, they cannot. “It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.” They’re persecuted, yet the number of believers grows.
Monday’s reading from Acts describes the apostles’ return “to their own people”, believers like them who recognize they’re being persecuted as Jesus was. They pray, and the Holy Spirit tells them to continue “to speak the word of God.” Those who follow Jesus experience what he did.
On Friday we begin reading about the miracle of the loaves from John’s gospel, chapter 6, an important reading for the Easter season. The reading, continues into the following week; the mystery of the Eucharist has a major place in the Easter season. It’s a sign the Risen Jesus remains with us.
On Friday, the Passionists celebrate the Feast of the Glorious Wounds of Jesus Christ. The easter season is a time to see glory in wounds.