As a college professor and theologian, I encounter “Nones” often – people who talk about being spiritual but not religious, who have concerns about the Church as an institution, who often believe in God but have left the Church. In other words, “Nones” are not necessarily atheists or agnostics; they are people who hold beliefs in God but struggle with the communal manifestations of faith in those communities of faith that gather on Sunday mornings. My students will often name those of us in the pews as hypocrites, or as people who seem to live as though Jesus does not matter.
The Nones’ questions are moral questions – and are, frankly, questions many Catholics are asking these days, even if they are staying in the Church. Today’s scriptures give an opportunity to reflect further on three main ways faith is tested these days: 1) putting too much faith in human beings rather than God; 2) 2) putting too much faith in things and a personal sense of rightness rather than God; 3) not putting enough faith into a core Christian belief – that Jesus rose from the dead.
First, the reading from the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that our faith is not in human beings, for if we take too much stock in human endeavors, well, that way leads to utter dryness and uninhabitability. Our own faith becomes uninhabitable to us if we put too much stock in human beings, however much we love our neighbors, seek the good in others, and so forth. That is, if we are trusting too much in any one person or set of people – be they Catholic bloggers, apparent paragons of the faith in the parish, people we’ve known and respected for years – well, our current circumstances tell us that reliance on human beings who are frail might deaden the faith. How many times over the years have crises of faith been driven by love of people who seem genuinely amazing in their generosity, love, and indeed, faith? (The former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick comes instantly to mind, but there are multiple multiple others.)
Second, Jesus’ sermon on the Beatitudes in today’s Gospel emphasizes that a life of wealth and being thought well of by others will bring woe. By contrast, to live the Beatitudes requires many courageous steps of faith for they require that we see our suffering – our poverty, hunger, and others’ hatred of us – as ways of testing our faith. Catholic tradition has long championed care and concern for the poor, of monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, of seeking to love our enemies even when they curse us, and other feats of faith that can seem impossible in contemporary culture. Yet in our divided land of Catholic culture wars, loving our enemies and continuing a steady insistence giving away to those in need – that’s the countercultural way to live Catholic faith. It is even countercultural for many Catholics who rail against Catholics. I’m thinking here of the Catholic Twittersphere and blogosphere which often gives far less grace and love than God asks us to give.
Finally, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wonders himself in today’s epistle reading, why would one bother to profess a faith if we think Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead? Why worship at all? All of us Christians must be lying if the resurrection didn’t happen! Of course, Paul firmly believes in the resurrection, because he knows people who saw it, and because he had an encounter with the risen Jesus himself.
Nones might ask: How can Paul exhort others to believe in this Jesus and his resurrection, especially if, unlike Paul, they didn’t have a personal encounter with the risen Jesus? Here is the difficult part, especially given what I have said above: Paul advocates for personal encounter with those who have experienced Christ. That personal encounter is necessary, and it is a key reason people come to Church.
How then, are we to avoid the problem of having faith in a mere human being, while also finding faith in the community God gives? This is, I think, where our personal call to live our faith must step in. We know we are human beings who commit sins and cause errors – but we also believe that nonetheless God seeks our good and the good of others. Can we champion the goodness we see in others, while acknowledging that sin is all around us and can infect anyone at anytime? If we do this, we also then have a chance to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness.
In turn, it is the Mass – done by the Church! – where we pray collectively and fervently for God’s mercy, from beginning to end, in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and second coming. The people of God, gathered together perhaps in spite of themselves, name the place where we encounter God’s great mercy, even as we must recognize often that we and our neighbors will fail.
When I go to Mass on Sunday, I must say sometimes I am astounded by the fact that there are other people there, who are praying with me – and I suspect that sometimes we’ve come in spite of ourselves, and definitely in spite of those Catholics who do things that are decisively contrary to the Gospel. Yet I also think: where else could I go, where we acknowledge quite consistently that we are all prone to fail each other and God, even as we simultaneously seek each others’ good and God, together?