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Four things to believe in: a theological template

June 21, 2011

“Love is a centrifugal force: it makes for ecstasy. Love is a centripetal force: it makes for oneness.” –John Courtney Murray

We prize religious diversity, and rightly so. Diversity among the religions of the world, diversity within any given religious tradition, and diversity of voices simply as human beings who are alive and aware, responsive and concerned. At every level, however, there must also be commonalities, something that enables us to speak to one another, to share deep appreciations and strongly felt concerns. For manifestly we do so—although not nearly so often as we would like, or with as strong a sense of mutual and appreciation and understanding as we would like.

Frankly, we do not express ourselves effectively, in a language of faith that is authentic and resonant and clear. The chief cause of our lack of diversity is a weak center, for then “the center will not hold, things fly apart.”

So I am looking for commonalities. Not exactly religious beliefs to hold in common but a pattern of thought that is virtually unavoidable if one is to think religion through. I imagine it a pattern that anyone can put to use—both to clarify ones own thought and to help us to communicate our thoughts and feelings to one another. Call it a theological template, not four beliefs but four things to believe in—to hold dear and to express in our personal ways.

First, to be religious is to be aware of living in the presence of transcendence. The world we experience is not simply “matter of fact.” It is not only surface, it is depth. It is laden with meaning, a quality that imbues our experience with feelings—awe, appreciation, wonder, pity, “fear and trembling,” peace. We may name it “God,” or “nameless mystery,” or. . . . We may invoke its presence: “Spirit of life, come unto me. . . .” Whatever it is or whatever its cause, the transcendence is pervasive, is everywhere and always. Even if it is not actually or actively conscious, potentially it is so, everywhere and always. The first and primary function of religious observance, individual or communal, is to recall us—to awaken us—to this first consciousness, that we live in the presence of transcendence.

But let me put it as a question: Is this so in your community and sacred tradition? And in your personal experience?

Second, when we live in the presence of transcendence, we become more fully aware of ourselves. We experience heightened consciousness of self. We begin to wonder and to ask, who am I? We reflect on the inexplicable fact of our own, here-and-now conscious existence. It begins in youth: the awareness of death and anxiety for our own non-being. In just these wondering and troubled reflections human personality is formed

When Moses stood before the burning (yet unconsumed) bush, and heard the voice from it calling out his name, he responded, “Here am I!” The story is one we all participate in, a story of human personality called into consciousness. To be religious is to live with a heightened sense of our capacities to act and be acted upon, to create and to destroy, to give and to receive—all those things that characterize human freedom and its limits. To mature is to grow into consciousness of our creative freedom, on the one side, and our destructive un-freedom, on the other. The deepest moral question is the question we ask ourselves: Am I trustworthy? Only a consciousness that is no longer “innocent,” but “fallen,” is trustworthy.

Again, these understandings bring questions that only we can answer: How do we speak of the capacities and character of the human being? How do we ourselves, speaking quite personally, experience the freedom and the finitude of human existence?

When we live with a heightened awareness of our freedom and its limits, of our capacities for creation and destruction, a third matter comes into view: What do we live for? Life is more than “just living.” It is seeking, striving, aspiring, venturing—all those things that carry us beyond what is given, to what can be and is fervently wished. Every religious tradition holds up individuals who supremely exemplify a life directed to a spiritual ideal, an end that is not only for oneself but for others, even for all people everywhere. Often they are given titles, such as savior, prophet, mahatma, bodhisattva. To be religious is not only to live in the presence of transcendence, but also to live for ends that transcend our lives and imbue them with lasting, even everlasting, value.

Worthy ends are not cut from whole cloth but are found within communities of memory and hope. Communities are bearers of traditions, told and retold in music and story. Communities are also shapers of vocations, “worthy callings.” We choose our vocations, or perhaps our vocations choose us and we only consent. So the question of what to live for is not usually a single, stark choice but is something woven into the fabric of our lives. It is good to reflect, and sometimes to re-direct, all along the way.

Again, is this a description of life as we have experienced it, in our individuality and in our communities? What communal traditions and ideals have we been conscious of as we have chosen, and sometimes re-chosen, our vocations?

Fourth, finally, in this “template” of things to believe in is the question of companionship, the support and corrections, the stimulation and the sheer enjoyment that come to us at the hands of others. They form many kinds of groups—familial, vocational, avocational, political, religious. We may also think of circles of friends, and recall the ways that friendship is woven into, and strengthens, all these groups. Shared trials create strong bonds where no common interest was known before.

To be religious is to live among others who are different from and yet the same as ourselves, whose differences may trouble us but finally enrich us, whose similarities often surprise us when we look upon them with compassion, or simple fellow-feeling. Even the loneliest prophets had followers who steadied them in times of trial and recalled their words and deeds thereafter: Jeremiah had his Baruch and Elijah his Elisha. Religious communities are essentially bearers of sacred tradition. To criticize and alter, to renew and contribute to a tradition is utterly necessary, if they are to live. But to abandon them without letup is to let them bleed to death. Hillel said, Do not cut yourself off from the community.

We commonly hear people say, “I’m a spiritual person, but not religious,” or “I don’t believe in organized religion.” At what point does our individualism cut us off from the stimulus, the corrections, the support, and the simple enjoyment of our communities?

I have reduced this round of reflections to a personal credo, four things I believe in. In a way, they are not concrete “things” at all, but blanks waiting to be filled in, in response to my ongoing experience of life. Perhaps this template (I owe its outlines to the thought of Bernard Lonergan) will serve others, as well. Here it is:

I believe in the presence of transcendence. I believe in the creative freedom of the human spirit. I believe in the transforming power of love. I believe in the dedicated community of all souls. –G. K. B.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 21, 2011 1:07 pm

    Dear Kim
    Your thoughts on Transcendence echoed what I wrote today.

    For weeks I have been feeling sorry for myself.
    Here, this moment, REALITY walked by me.
    A young man, perhaps twenty two or three
    Walked swiftly by with two crutches and one leg.
    The other leg GONE almost up to his hip.
    His whole life before him, and yet,
    He did not bite his lip.
    He seemed determined to be human,
    compassionate and kind … A REALITY LESSON.

    At times when feeling
    crushed by shuns and slights,
    A reminder of an ancient story,
    “I wept because I had no shoes.
    But then I met a man who had no feet.”

    Compassion (Transcendence?) is becoming one
    With the flowing water of life.
    Compassion is being born again and again,
    Not just to who you were,
    But to who you can be TODAY.

    Remember the waterfall “showers of blessing.”
    The optimism of the old hymn,

    May your grapes get some rain,
    May you have showers of “transcendence.”

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