I found myself at a Catholic mass this past Saturday. The gospel was Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the rich man. In life Lazarus suffers, begging at the rich man’s gate while the rich man ignores him and lives in luxury. But in death Lazarus goes to heaven while the rich man suffers in hell. Father James’ homily touched on themes present in the parable, including the invisibility of the poor and suffering. Highlighting that not only evil actions, but also lack of action can be a great sin. Then Father turned to a line of thought that spoke to me, that I think is especially relevant to today.
In the Bible opposites are often used in parables to symbolize or illustrate a point. But in our world we hear about instances of opposition constantly thanks to the ever-present media. We hear about nothing but division. Rich vs. poor, blacks vs. whites, Muslim vs. Christian. Very rarely do we hear about unity, about people banding together. In this world, we are so focused on divisions that it is easy to forget that we are all people of God. And as people of God we all deserve a basic level of respect and love. Father James went as far as to say that this principle includes people like Hitler and Saddam Hussein. He said it was up to us to rise above the divisions of the world and the media, to be spiritually motivated and act with love and kindness toward all.
I was inspired and encouraged by his words. But after the service, one member announced a youth program open to any high-schooler of any faith aimed a spiritual growth… and working to bring any non-Catholics into the fold. I got chatting with Father after the service, and after learning I belonged to the Episcopal church down the road, he encouraged me to return to mass and come back to my Catholic roots. Considering the trend of exodus from the pews, who can blame him? To keep the Catholic tradition alive, faith flourishing, and the Church viable, it is in his best interest to gain parishioners and converts. I found it a bit ironic however considering the sermon that day. Apparently we are all children of God, but ideally we would all be Catholic children of God. Furthermore, if Father James is looking to increase the Catholic ranks, I think it makes the most sense to focus on those that don’t prescribe to any religion rather than stealing people away from other faiths or other Christian denominations. According to him divisions should be disregarded to some degree. But in reality they still very much matter, especially concerning those who are Catholic and those who are not.
“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” – Luke 16:13.
This bible quote seems to layout and confirm the boundary between the religious and the secular. Here the secular world revolves around money. That is one way to boil down our society, one driven by money. Our culture, the goods and entertainment available, people’s motives and the tried and true common practices that result are almost exclusively dictated by money. When money is the root of society, that society cannot be trusted. For then people’s motivation is easily turned from goodness to greed.
The separation of the monetary from the spiritual is one main breech of New Age compared to most organized religions. New Age practice often involves attendance at conferences and classes to both learn and find a place amongst those also spiritual journeys, and the use of ritual items to pursue spirituality independently. While I’ll agree that some participants in New Age give it a capitalist taste, that is not the goal or emphasis of this tradition. There is good reason New Age carries some of these flavors (which is the topic of another article completely: ‘A Secular New Age or a New Age Secularism?). The emphasis is instead on an extreme integration of mundane and divine, with the individual being key in the spiritual journey. Rather than giving money to a faith organization to be pooled with others’ resources and allocated by leaders or the group at large, New Agers often act individually allocating money in ways to help others and encourage divine presence here on earth.
These methods of utilizing money are very different, but both are spiritually inclined, looking to bring the divine to earth through our mundane actions such as spending or giving. Both have potential issues in individual / group / leader dynamics when allocating funds. Individuals and leaders can be skewed or greedy, putting funds toward unjust causes or things completely self-serving. At the same time groups can be fragmented, making monetary decisions problematic. Though it is less likely, without a sound and dedicated leader groups can also be lead astray like individuals.
Due to humans’ recurring greediness, money is often thought of as evil. Lines in the Bible like this one from Luke seem to create money as the antithesis of God. Yet this passage in Luke is not urging us to live outside the realm of money. But rather to use the resources (which Christians believe come from God and are God’s already) to create God’s kingdom on earth. Like New Age philosophy, this interpretation blurs the lines between mundane and divine. Maybe one cannot serve both God and Money, but the ways we choose to earn and spend our money can serve God. Just as we are God’s hands, feet and voice on earth, our resources should be utilized with divine in mind.
Currently, three small Episcopal churches in my area are combining, my home parish being one of them. This means two churches will be sold. Much of the contents in the three churches will be superfluous, and many items will make their way to new owners. Understandably, this is upsetting to some of the parishioners in my church who have put an incredible amount of time, energy, and money maintaining and improving the building and grounds. Moreover, some of these families have been contributing members of this parish for four generations. There is a long history of service to the church, and a long history of church being in that place. Now as we look to move place, we begin to scrutinize what church is, and how we take it with us.
When we think about ‘church’ we often think about a building with a proper roof, walls, windows and doors. We think of an altar, and perhaps pews or a long aisle. We think of items like candle, robes, chalices, and symbols like the cross. They are all things of the physical world, and therefore logically placed in the mundane category. But given their role in aiding the faithful in transcending to the divine realm, such physical items start to dance on the boundary. I have argued for the significant overlap of mundane and divine. I believe the interplay between these two categories to be integral to both personal spirituality and community practice. This principle considered, I think these physical / functional aspects are largely needed for church. While a church may need these things, they do not define what church is. Church is community. It is a community of the faithful looking for spiritual growth and the opportunity to serve those in need in the effort to bring the spirit of the divine to our supposedly mundane life on earth. Beyond this criteria, everything ‘needed’ for church is secondary. I firmly believe that place, along with the art and symbolism of ritual items can do wonders in facilitating spiritual growth, but no physical infrastructure or items are strictly required to achieve this.
As this merge moves forward I hope we can take with us the most precious items to be shared and enjoyed by the new, joint congregation. I hope that we can let our building go with a sense of grace, while not forgetting the faithful work that went into its creation. But most of all I hope we can look forward with gladness rather than sadness, remembering not what we’ve lost, but at what we’ve saved: the people, the body of Christ. Not to mention all we stand to gain: new friends, new stability, and a new chance to not just survive but thrive as a community based in faith. It won’t be easy. I’m sure a rather bumpy road lies before us as we come to terms with the divine, the mundane, and everything in between.
Among the Westernized nations, America seems to suffer most from violence and crime, in a multitude of ways. Yet compared to other nations such as Canada, England, or Australia; America is often considered the ‘religious’ one. Given my time in Australia, I would agree that religion has a stronger old in America that in the land down under. But murder and drug use continues to claim proportionately more people in America. Such correlations beg the question, if so many Americans are religious then why does the country seem to be going through a moral crisis? Despite a higher percentage in the pews each week, the U.S. is in a state of chaos compared to those ‘godless’, humanist nations.
Dawn quotes a variety of sources that blame Americans’ lack of understanding concerning their spiritual belief system. This includes lacking understanding of doctrine and ritual, as well as scripture. Further her sources argue that there is an overarching attitude that disregards religious duty and feelings of responsibility toward others (114). I can see how in secular society, where religion is implicitly regarded as less important by its absence from public life, that people would get slack and act on moral beliefs imparted on them by religion less and less. Such a process would be subtle and dangerous in its supposed non-existence.
This attitude is not just a tone people walk around with. It is an active component in daily decision making. In secularism, the faithful are taught to keep their beliefs and connected actions under wraps. Over time and much conditioning, all morality gained from religious belief and participation are sequestered to the private realm. As the faithful get less and less practice acting on this morality, it may start to disappear altogether. The goal of secularism is to create a climate where people of all belief systems can live in harmony and thrive. In the U.S. this has come to mean keeping all religion locked away. This means keeping the good morality in religion locked up too. Then elements of mainstream culture run unchecked; fueled by greed, selfishness, and indifference. Other Westernized nations have a strong sense of secular humanism to keep these elements in check, but Americas’ dormant religious morality is largely ineffective.
Dawn, Marva J. Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture. Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1995.