Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I don't need the Church!

On Sunday evening, I flew to Chicago (great flight from CLE to Midway on Southwest) to play at the Gaelic Park Feis (A Feis, for the uninitiated, is an Irish dancing competition). The committee that hired me to play also made arrangements with a local car service, so I was picked up by a snazzy Lincoln Town Car driven by a nice young woman named Chris.

Chris and I exchanged pleasantries and I eventually learned of her family, of how she came to drive for this particular company, and various other aspects of my life. Over the course of our conversation, she inquired into my life and profession and I told her that I was a seminarian studying to be a Roman Catholic priest (telling someone you're a Jesuit right off the bat is sure to confuse them only further!). 

In a response that I've come to expect, she told me that she was raised Catholic but didn't need the Church to be close to God. She could pray wherever and whenever she wanted and she did not feel, consequently, that she had to go to church in order to find God. 

Now in what was certainly a tactical error on her part, she asked me my opinion. Normally, at least in conversation, I'm pretty loathe to offer my thoughts on such topics. But, since she asked, I thought I tried to offer a few thoughts that seemed to be helpful to her.

First off, and in an ironic sense, she is deadly right: we do not need the Church to be closer to God. If we take seriously the Christian doctrine of creation - that God is continually creating and holding in being all of creation - we would realize that God is intimately bound up with the very existence of the world. As created beings in the world, we are always already related to the Holy Craftsman who is creating and sustaining everything that was, is, and will be. Just think of Psalm 139: there is no place in creation where we can hide from God, for God is always with us.  A thought at once both comforting and disconcerting!

So, in a sense, Chris was right: God is so intimately bound up with our very being that the Church can't bring God any closer to us. 

Now before late-Sunday sleepers and rebellious adolescents rejoice, be warned: we've still to mention something crucial. Although there is nothing that keeps God from us, there are hosts of things that keep us from God. And, over the years, we've come up with a codeword or cipher to capture these. And the word we've used to describe the many ingenious ways we have developed to sever our relationship with our creator is, simply, this: sin.

At its core, sin is our intentional rejection of our relationship with the Holy One who has called us into being. When I sin, I put myself and my desires at the center of the universe and of creation; I make myself God. When I inflict injury on another, when I label someone 'good' or 'bad', when I am uncharitable because charity would be an inconvenience, I have put myself in the place of God. In a sense, when I sin I make myself the arbiter of what is good and what is bad. But if I'm at the center, where is God? Cast aside and ignored like an old rag doll. 

Sometimes people think that sin turns God into a terrible ogre, a mutated beast that seeks punitive reparations against sinful humanity. I think this is arrogant: is there any sin that we could commit that would change God? Is there any sin that so offends the Almighty that he is transformed into an agent of hatred rather than the source of life and love? If there is a mutation brought about by sin, it is in us: when we sin, we become less human. Sin strangles us from the source of life and dims our eyes to God's light. In sin, we retreat deeper into the caves of our darkened hearts and become like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. 

What has this to do with the Church? EVERYTHING! Too often, people have the sense that those "in" the Church have got it right and that everyone outside of it is simply wrong. The brilliance of the Christian tradition, however, is that every one of us has the potential to be a Gollum: the dark mark of original sin designates each of us as a sinner, as those who have this irritating propensity to turn away from the Holy One in order to pursue our own narrow interests. We are simply wrong when we act like those in the Church have got their act totally together. We are, all of us, ticking time bombs of sin!

When we gather together for the Eucharist, we gather as a community of sinners. Some of us are really good at sin, others less so; sin, for me, is the one thing I wish I were less good at. But when I gather with people who are struggling, I know that I am not alone. I know that there are others who walk with me and who are willing and able to support me in my discipleship. The Church doesn't make God come closer to us. Rather, in drawing us closer together - sinners all - we realize how close God really is. So close, in fact, that the very Body and Blood of Christ Jesus is offered to us, the earthly appetizer to the feast that awaits us at the Lamb's Supper in the Kingdom of God.  

So why do we need the Church? First, because it is a reminder that we are not alone. It seems to me that part of the malaise afflicting many people today is that they feel alone. Bombarded as we are by communication - Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Blogs, Cellphones, Email - we are increasingly isolated. When we gather together, we realize that we are not as alone as we thought we were, that we have the support of others who struggle just as we struggle. 

Second, we need the Church to remember. To remember that we are not the center of the universe. To remember that there are others who have needs and who struggle. To remember God's graciousness toward us in the past in order to recognize it in the present and to help train our eyes toward the future. To remember that we are people who have a VERY LONG history of struggling with God as we work out what it means to be a disciple in every age. And when we go up to eat from the plate and drink from the cup, we approach standing shoulder to shoulder with saints and sinners alike: Saint Ignatius and Mother Theresa were nourished and gave themselves over to the same Communion that you and I do. 

It does seem, then, that Chris was both profoundly right and dreadfully wrong. She's right to say that God is not limited by the walls of any institution. Any such belief that God can be found ONLY in one place at one time is idolatry. (Read Ezekiel to see someone struggling with what it means when the Temple is destroyed - where is God if there is no Temple?)  And yet, she's also incorrect in thinking that because God is not blocked from us that we are not very often blocked from God. This is where we need the Church: to support us and challenge us to walk nearer to the Lord. When we fall, there are those who are able to help us. When others struggle, we can support them. In the Church, we realize that we are not alone: we have each other as we celebrate Emmanuel, God with Us. 


Joe said...

Well writ.

I am reminded of my fave part of Ye Olde Baltimore Catechysme:

Original sin "darkened our understanding, weakened our will, and left us a strong
inclination to evil."


Erik said...

This is nothing short of marvelous!

Mark said...

Surely Christ established a Church for reasons beyond making us feel good because we are not alone in sin...does not Chris need the Church mostly because without the sacraments she is separated from God and almost certain to spend eternity in Hell?

How can we pray for Chris' conversion if she does not see the Church as anything more than a fraternal organization of sinners?

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Hi Mark,

Thank you for your comment. I must ask, however, where you find warrant for the belief that separation from the sacraments entails, ipso facto, that one is condemned to Hell? Near as I can tell, not even the Catholic Catechism says who is or is not in Hell. Indeed, if I recall correctly, no less than Hans Urs Von Balthasar said something to the effect that, "We believe that there is a Hell but that the vacancy light is still illuminated" by which he meant that we know that one can be alienated from God for all eternity but we cannot be sure who has chosen to be such. (One might want to check both Dominus Iesu and the documents of Vatican II to see if I am being faithful to the tradition here.)

Is it a bad thing that the Church can be described as a fraternity of sinners? If we rested comfortably in this, then yes. But as a family called together by Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, we are more than a complacent group! We recognize our sinfulness because we have experienced the call of Christ, who is drawing us toward the Kingdom.

I would hasten to add, too, that the Church seldom makes us feel good. Called together by Christ, it is often the place where our human weaknesses and shortcomings are most exposed: we see ourselves as we truly are when we have standards to compare ourselves with.

I'm not trying to water down the necessity of the Church. Indeed, I'm arguing wholly for it! I'm simply trying to engage people of this sentiment where they are at in order to bring them toward a deeper understanding of the role, function, and nature of the Church.

Anonymous said...

This makes me think of an old joke where an elderly couple are driving down the road in their old truck. The wife remarks to her husband (who is driving) that they used to sit much closer. The husband looks at her and says, " Honey, I haven't moved..."

Great post! How did the Feis go?

Mike SJ said...

Ryan -

Thanks for a great posting. A fellow colleague and I pulled together a group of students earlier this week to have a conversation about why they self identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR). Many of them came from a variety of religious traditions prior to making this change. One of the many reasons they gave for moving away from "church" is that there are too many hypocrites in church. And, I thought to myself, there certainly is and all the more reason for going to church. A weekly gathering of sinners who come together to hear the stories of our faith and then to be fed at the table where we offer our very selves only to be transformed and sent back out on mission for another week.

I will be passing your most recent post to some folks I work with.

Thanks again for your ministry of the word via your blog.


PS Congrats on finishing the marathon a couple weeks back.

Anonymous said...

It's the difference between watching a playoff game at home, or at a bar. Nice one, Rye Guy!

Anne-Marie said...

May I suggest reading the latest Timothy Radcliffe O.P. book called "Why go to Church?" published by Continuum? He addresses most of the points you make.