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Good News for Postmoderns...If the Church can tell them! 

            In 1991 I had an interesting conversation with a well educated Chamorro business woman and educator who was frustrated in her spiritual life. While well versed in the island way of being Catholic, she found it difficult to relate to God in any meaningful way through the medium of the traditional religiosity.  The conversation was one of those happenings in life that sneak up on you and change your life forever. I took her frustrations very seriously, as I shared them in my own haole way. My reflections on her questions resulted in several articles in theological journals and served as the basis of my doctoral dissertation.


            Cultural practices play an important role in our experience of spirituality. They are a language of symbols and actions that can speak powerfully to the depths of our hearts. However, for cultural practices to be meaningful they must use symbols and practices that speak to people. Culture is a living organism in the sense that it changes with the passing of time. As things like way people make a living or how they entertain themselves change, so do the importance and meaning of the symbols we use. For example, years ago it was common to use a mantilla at weddings, covering the bride’s head and the groom’s shoulders. This custom came from the influence of the Spanish culture of the island administrators for many years. It symbolized the groom’s responsibility to care for the bride and her relative submission to his authority as the man of the family. However, in recent decades this practice is seen less and less. It is not a custom that is part of the American culture, which is a strong influence in the islands at present. The relative status of the bride and groom symbolized through this custom is not consistent with the general understanding of the relationship between women and men today.


            This results in a cultural practice that doesn’t speak in a meaningful way to newlyweds today and one that is used less and less.     So, my friend had a valid point in complaining that some religious practices which were rooted in cultural symbols that were from a cultural context far removed from contemporary life simply did  not speak meaningfully to her.


            People are not angels. While we are spiritual beings but we are also biological and social creatures who learn and are shaped by our life experience. That life experience includes our culture, the social currents of the historical epoch in which we live, as well as the unique events and personalities of which we have been involved. The practices and values of our religious tradition are part of the mix that shapes us and attempt to speak to us. As indicated earlier, for the practices and values to be communicated successfully the symbolic language used must be able to speak clearly to its intended audience. It is here that the Church often seems to run into communication problems.


            James Cameron, director of the Titanic, has recently produced a documentary about the discovery of a tomb in Jerusalem that is supposed to contain the remains of Jesus’ family. The discovery is not new. It actually occurred about 30 years ago and has been reported in a number of books. Biblical archaeologists argue both for and against the conclusion that we are dealing with the graves of anyone to do with the historical Jesus. However, in light of the popularity of the DaVinci Code, the anticipated documentary taps into a curiosity and interest that has deep roots in contemporary society. One of the graves in the tomb appears to be that of Mary Magdalene. This raises the same question touched on in the DaVinci Code. Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene?


            Now, I’m not going to debate the question of whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ever married. I make reference to it because the idea seems to intrigue many people. Over the centuries a cult of virginity seems to have evolved in Christianity which implies that holiness and spirituality are primarily the reserve of those who renounce sex, marriage and life in the normal, everyday world. Thus, while Scripture doesn’t speak clearly to Jesus marital status one way or the other everyone assumes that he was single.


             This has nothing to do with Christ’s teachings. Back around the time that the Church arose many mystery religions and philosophical theories rejected physical reality in favor of the transcendent. They saw the physical world as inherently flawed and evil. Thus, only the mental and spiritual had value. These movements included Neo-Platonism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism and other religious and cultural ideas common at the time. These ideas are not Jewish or Christian ideas, where creation is seen as graced and the work of God, who pronounced it to be good. However, over the centuries the influence of these other ideas has been significant.


            One practical result has been a tendency to see holiness in terms of these non-Christian ideas rather than in terms of the Jewish tradition out of which Christianity arose. Instead of seeing marriage as a necessary pre-condition for its religious leaders, as Paul describes in the Epistles, the practical result has been to popularize a view of holiness that seems to require celibacy as a pre-condition for holiness. This is apparent in the very few married saints one encounters when compared to the large body of celibate saints. The result is many examples of heroic virtue, to which very few Christians can relate, since the vast majority of Christians have been married. If one is concerned about the ability of religious symbols to communicate with people in the modern world, the Church must speak in a symbolic language that is meaningful to modern people. That language needs to acknowledge that the vast majority of Christians are married.


            Except perhaps for Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the Church doesn’t need the canonization of another priest or sister; there are already thousands of them. What the Church desperately needs are married saints who can provide examples of holiness and heroic virtue to the over one billion married Catholics in the world!


            The attractiveness of the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene may have been married is that it tells married people that it was their way of life that Christ chose and marital love was very much part of Christ’s life. This would be a powerful confirmation of marriage as a path to sanctity and reaffirm the inherent value of marriage in a world that seems very confused about the value of marriage. Whether the theory is true of not, the Church needs to provide a confirmation of married life and celebrate its dignity and inherent value, not just in pious words but through its actions. Honoring married saints is a helpful first step.


            My friend in Saipan is not the only one who has voiced frustrations about religion and the struggle to find meaning in existing religious traditions. A few years ago I began correspondence with a couple who are involved in the publication of religious books. They are in their 30’s and are trying to publish books that speak to contemporary “postmodern” women and men.


            As a group, the postmodern generation is skeptical about large organizations, anyone who says they have the absolute truth—whether religious or scientific, and tends to focus on individual experience as the criteria for giving credence to anything. Community is not rejected but community is seen as communion among a group of people and not necessarily as an organized social unit. They are open to spirituality and religious experience but not to the religious organizations that have been the medium for such experience in the past.


            So, my friends have a deep faith and commitment to Christ. They are loving people and remain affiliated to their small parish church even through their ideas on religion are different in many respects from the older generation believers who make up much of the congregation.


            Their ideas are not all that radical. They are scandalized by believers who reject ideas like evolution, convinced that truth must be one and that religious claims can not be contrary to well founded scientific knowledge. This is something that they share in common with the late Pope John Paul II, who admitted that evolution is more than just a hypothesis and was a part of human knowledge that must be understood and integrated.


            They are frustrated when religious leaders seem to play games with the believers, seeming to spend more energy on who washes dishes after mass or what material the dishes must be made from, rather than focus intense attention on genocide in Darfur, AIDS in Africa, poverty in South America, exploitation of children and women in Asia and the scandal of self-satisfied complacency and imperialism in the United States and Europe. While none of these issues are things over which the Church has significant direct control, attempting to get people to focus attention on their neighbors and the demands of social justice as an essential element of the commandment to love your neighbor can stimulate a great deal of positive action in the world. This is a generation that has little tolerance for fine words that stop before any effective action results.


            A recent study, undertaken by scholars at the Catholic University of America, reports that while young adults (postmoderns) have a good Catholic identity, they do not have much commitment to the institutional church or its moral teachings. They think of themselves as Catholic. They get involved in a few parish activities and usually like the pomp of Christmas and Easter. They often have a good personal prayer life. Yet, regular Sunday worship is a relatively low priority. They often feel that religious leaders are out of touch with reality and unable to speak to their daily life issues. Many traditional ideas and spiritual practices are often seen as so much superstition. Yet, this generation is willing to put in a serious level of effort and time on meditative and contemplative prayer forms once thought only the realm of monks and nuns.


            The recent sexual abuse scandals have not scandalized them as much as the older generation, as they are naturally suspicious of the institutional Church, as well as most other social institutions. When your expectations are low, you are not surprised when people behave as you expected them to behave. However, the scandals have created another barrier in the minds and hearts of young adults that further distance them from the Church.


            This generation is a serious challenge for clergy. Postmoderns are often well educated and religiously well read. They are knowledgeable not only of the Christian religious tradition but of Buddhism and often Islam or Judaism as well. They want their questions answered. They want to be able to integrate their secular knowledge and understanding of the world in some meaningful way with their religious and spiritual insight. The cleric can no longer simply state the teaching and expect anyone to take him seriously. The logic behind the teaching must be explained and be able to stand up to the logical and philosophical demands of the university educated. They want liturgical celebrations that are able to speak to their hearts and engage the assembly. They want preaching that feeds them spiritually. They want religious leaders who make a positive difference in the community, living the beatitudes. Further, they have little tolerance for the religious leader who is unable to do this. They might not directly confront the ineffective religious leader but simply move on in search of someone more capable. A previous generation may have remained out of respect for the parish; not this generation.


            The Church is crying for vocations to the priesthood and religious life yet few people answer the call. Young people want to do something worthwhile with their lives to make the world a better place. They are not convinced that the priesthood or religious life, as currently structured will provide that opportunity.


            It is easy to put the blame on Church leaders, for they legitimately do carry some of the responsibility.  However, if we allow ourselves to get caught up in a blame game we are just as guilty and do nothing in the long run to improve the situation.


            The Church is not a building or just the clergy and religious. The Church is the People of God, which means that you and I are just as much the Church as is Pope Benedict XVI. We may not hold the office for which he is responsible but we have the grace and the responsibility to make the Church into a meaningful reality for the people of the present “postmodern” generation. If we wait for the Church bureaucracies to reach out to young adults, to speak to the new generation of eternal truths in language that is meaningful today, or to provide a lived example of the beatitudes we will be waiting for a very long time.


            We must reach out to young adults.  We can share with them our own struggles to understand the Good News in words and symbols that are meaningful today. We can pour out our lives in service to the weakest and most vulnerable among us. We can be committed to our marriages and to the pursuit of holiness as spouses and parents. Church leaders might continue to miss the boat when it comes to providing the example of married saints but the quality of our lives will shine brighter than any titles. It is the quality of our personal example that will provide the needed inspiration for young people, as demonstrated in research on the various influences that shape our spirituality.


            The people of the Northern Marianas have been blessed with a bishop who has taken his responsibilities seriously and has the courage to take strong moral stands, as well as to value the role of culture and its symbols as means to speak to the heart. He has been open to planning activities that provide for two way communications in the local Church and has taken the needs of his people seriously. If many US bishops were only half as dedicated and effective as him, the quality of the American episcopate would increase significantly.


            Yet, even with excellent Church leadership, the responsibility on our shoulders for the quality of Church life and the positive impact of the Church on the lives of others is no less. We fail as Catholics and as the Body of Christ when we expect others to be holy for us and to make moral decisions for us. If we take our responsibilities seriously the Church will be a powerful positive moral influence in the world, even if some Church leaders fail to lead.


Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.