Thursday, May 17, 2007

Losing Faith

It wasn't any one thing in particular. Just a long, slow, steady accumulation of doubts and discontent. Today I removed the phrase "Buddhist-Catholic" from this blog's profile and substituted "spirit-seeking" as a more accurate self-description for my spiritual path.

It felt honest to no longer pretend to be a Roman Catholic.

Thinking of myself as a "Buddhist" is not so troubling. I do "take refuge" (find some solace) in the Buddha, the Sangha and the Dharma, the three jewels of Buddhist teaching. Last night I sat with the Everyday Dharma sangha here in Santa Cruz for the first time in perhaps a year. After meditation, Carolyn Atkinson's teaching on being present, on accepting one's life as it is, was helpful.

In my life I am a doubter, a skeptic, a puncturer of inflated balloons. Six years ago when I was trying to recover from the breakup of a marriage, I turned to both the Buddhist sangha and the Catholic Church with the anguish of a drowning man seeking air. Both communities brought me new friends who encouraged me to join them on their spiritual path. For a time I was able to set aside doubts and questions about ritual and dogma in order to practice the discipline they offered which I hoped would lead me away from the heartbreak of divorce towards an encounter with Ultimate Reality.

It wasn't hard for me to balance allegiances to both religions. I felt they were complementary. Buddhism, I thought, was more of a psychology, a teaching about how the mind works, then it was the worship of the Buddha. The Christian path, however, made use of the familiar Biblical stories I had grown up with, and gave me a literary and mystical context for the search for God. Unlike many believers, I thought that becoming a Christian was the beginning of the search rather than the end of it.

All of my thinking life I have been looking for answers to ultimate questions. Even more, however, I have been seeking an experience, an encounter, with ultimate meaning. The end of the spiritual path, I believed, would be transcendence and transformation. And I was convinced that all of the world's spiritual paths, codified in the major religions, were headed in the same direction. It didn't make any difference whether you followed Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu or Jesus, we all ended up at the same place. This is illustrated in the example of fingers pointing at the moon; the fingers are the different religions and the moon is the goal of all. The prescription is to not look at the fingers but rather to seek out the moon.

Twenty-some years ago, fueled by the inspiring books of Thomas Merton and the example of Christians working for justice in Latin America, I became a Catholic. To do so, I had to set aside a number of questions about dogma such as the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, the Resurrection, etc., and focus on Catholic Christianity as a path to God (i.e. Ultimate Meaning) with its attendant disciplines: kneeling, crossing one's self, the Eucharist, et al. For me, joining the church and taking part in the liturgy was a practice, like meditation, or the five duties of Islam. It didn't require belief, for I disagreed with most theologians that propositional statements could ever contain spiritual truth. I wanted an encounter with the Divine, not another intellectual head trip.

This search was renewed with urgency six years ago when I found my life changed dramatically by the failure of my marriage. I prayed and took communion with the Catholics and I meditated with the Buddhists. In time, through the inspiration and teachings of Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, a number of Catholic friends connected meditation with contemplative prayer, and we formed a sangha to pray and study the thoughts of Bede Griffiths, an ecumenical pioneer in India, on the interconnections between Christianity and other religions. I stopped participating in the Buddhist sangha because my spiritual life was full to overflowing.

It's hard to know when you've thrown out the baby with the bathwater. For a long time I kept silent, outside of a sympathetic men's group, about my discontent with the Catholic Church and my doubts about accepted dogma. At mass, I recited the Apostles Creed, sung the Psalms and hymns, and, when participating as a lector, I proclaimed the sacred scripture to the assembly. For over a year I presided at communion services and delivered homilies which interpreted the Gospel message of the day. Following the teachings of the Church, I worked for peace and social justice causes, volunteered at the food pantry run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and served on the liturgy committee. But all the time I knew that my doubts about the historicity of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead separated me from the religious faith of my friends and fellow parishioners. Why, my closest friends asked me, are you a Catholic? The old answer I gave, about it being a spiritual discipline to be practiced rather than believed, no longer seemed sufficient.

And then there was the matter of the institutional Church, the Pope, the Vatican, the modern Inquisition. Those of you who have read this blog will realize what difficulties I have had with the aging white male celibates in Rome. Just this week I saw the revealing documentary "Deliver Us From Evil" about the priest who abused both young boys and girls in California and who was sheltered by the administration of now Cardinal Roger Mahoney; today, despite his crimes, he lives freely in Ireland, protected by the Church there. I've written about the persecution of liberation theologians like Jon Sobrino in El Salvador. The Christian Church throughout history has sided with the rich and powerful and denied the clear message of Jesus that favors the poor and the outcasts. Today conservative Christians are mourning the death of Jerry Falwell, a truly evil man I believe who helped to twist the Gospel into support for the perpetual empire of Rome.

For the most part I could ignore the institutional Church so long as I believed with Vatican II that the Church was in fact "the people of God" rather than the administrative artifact. And I have met many good people in the parish of Holy Cross where I have made my spiritual home for a half dozen years. True, there are those with an inhospitable attitude toward immigrants, who support the killing in Iraq and who believe the death penalty is the only solution for some crimes. A number of the faithful, I suspect, discount this world and live only for the next, an attitude that can contribute to disrespect and destruction of our environment.

The priest at our church, who started about the same time as I began attending mass regularly, is a good man who means well. He is not near retirement age like most priests these days, and he supports peace and justice issues, although a bit timidly, as if fearful of disturbing major donors who might be conservative. But he is a micromanager who seeks control above collaboration, and participants in valuable ministries have gotten bruised along the way; the pool of volunteers is drying up. One strength is his devotion to youth ministry. His homilies come alive when he is speaking to kids. Otherwise, they are uninspiring and often flippant in an attempt to be more entertaining than serious. Bring a book to read, joked one frustrated friend. I have resolved to no longer sit through one of them again.

When I was initiated into the Church twenty-some years ago, I told myself I was not joining a club. The ceremony of confirmation I took as a seal for my search for God. Like the prophets of old, the later mystics, and like Thomas Merton, I thought of myself as "God intoxicated." I thirsted for running waters. I sought the fire of the spirit, the holocaust of contemplative prayer. And what I got was membership in yet another organization. The parish is a community, and like all in-groups it wants to protect itself against outsiders who might contaminate it, if only by association. The priest's homilies continually reflected this self-identity: We are Catholics and this is how we must behave to become good Catholics. It is very subtle if you are on the inside. But if you want to identify with the wider community, with the whole world, it feels constructing.

And, finally, there is always the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. For me, it was reading John Shelby Spong's new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, while I was on a five-day retreat last week at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur where I have been an oblate for the last four years. I expected this book by the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, to be a lightweight critique of Christianity in same emperor-has-no-clothes spirit shared by Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar folks. But it was much more for me, probably because my tinder was ready for his fire.

Spong, in a series of books culminating with this one, argues that religious scripture is a metaphorical explanation of real encounters and experiences with the Divine. Christians make the profound mistake of literalizing those explanations, of treating the stories about Jesus as if they were history. Which they are not. The only things that Spong believes are true, for rational, analytical reasons, is that Jesus was a real person in history who came from Nazareth and who died a criminal's death in Jerusalem. All the rest is conjecture.

In Jesus, the first followers encountered a person who was fully human, someone who accepted and loved all, without discrimination or boundaries. To be fully human, Spong believes, is to be also divine. It was this experience, this encounter with Jesus, that transformed his followers who then struggled to explain what happened with stories that were recited in synagogues during the Jewish liturgical year. Fifty years later the writings of Paul were passed around and finally, much later, the stories were canonized in the four Gospels which are undoubtably more poetic and liturgical than historical.

Realizing this, I can no longer sing and chant and recite with the same confidence that these words I parrot will lead me to the Divine. I cannot belong to a religious club that necessarily and by definition excludes others. I cannot walk this path.

The questions still remain. How can we meet God or experience the Buddhist goal of emptiness? What can we know and say about this experience of enlightenment, of the Divine? And how can human beings, not just Jesus, be so good, accepting and loving that they will transmit this experience to others?

I've been to India and Thailand three times now and I've seen and experienced the popular piety of Buddhists and Hindus. It's not all that different from Christians with their in-group attitudes and veneration of saints that seems a bit superstious. Intellectual religiosity breathes a different air, the quiet hallways and studies of scholars and theologians. But I intuit that the Divine is not this, not that. My journey is not over, but I no longer want to cling to partial and even divisive identities. I want the Real Thing.


Anonymous said...

Wow......although the signs have been clear to those of us who read this.

Glad to have you one step closer to us secular humanists, hope the transition won't be too painful.

C + S

Anonymous said...

I want to thank you, its nice to know I am not the only person out there who feels lost and also can't accept some of the religious dogma because it just doesn't make rational sense, but neither does atheism. Reading this is really inspiring to me, seeing as how all my friends at college are Christian and all my friends back home are new agers. Thank you, and good luck on your journey friend.