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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Return to the Church

My good friend and former Jesuit classmate whom I admire greatly especially for his work in Earth Healing asked me to sign and distribute a petition supporting Pope Francis in his ecological justice ministry and opposing conservative Catholics organizations fighting him. I did of course.

In his note to me he asked me to return to the Church and that got me thinking. It is true that I have little to do with the official Roman Catholic Church. But I assure all my friends and family that I never left the Church, nor as some say has the Church left me.

I consider the Church a calling out (ecclesia) to transcendence. The Church is a community (qahal, ummah, sangha) in via, in transit. The Church is the people of faith. [Or, if you want, “people of God” except I have left off using god-language as I have explained elsewhere considering myself neither theist, atheist, monotheist, polytheist, nor non-theist.]

There are many forms, names, and ways for the people of faith on the way. If I must name myself, and I do if I want to distinguish my form of faith, I will call myself a “skeptical, secular, progressive universalist.” (That might change tomorrow after further reflection.)

I was born and raised a Christian in the Roman Catholic Church but was never that close to the official Church. Even as a Jesuit I had little to do with the official Church of Rome and its bishop-led clericalism even to the point of rejecting priesthood while still remaining a Jesuit. In the Jesuits and in the Catholic Community of St Malachi’s in Cleveland and in our intentional community in San Jose with Father Bill Leininger, I was able to develop my skeptical, secular, progressive universalism even while using Christian Catholic symbols and rituals.

I embrace Christianity’s rich tradition of holy persons, reformers, mystics, thinkers, and heretics starting with Jesus of Nazareth. I also put myself squarely in tune with the social justice tradition of progressive Christian denominations, especially Catholic Social Teaching. I reject many other Christian doctrines especially when treated as eternal truth. I reject the authoritarian, clerical, misogynist, dogmatic, intolerant, and sometimes anti-scientific expression and structure of many Christian denominations, including the Roman Church. But I reject it only for myself. It is just that Christianity is no longer my language, culture, or form of faith. As the saying goes I have lots of good friends who are Christian. And I share their faith, if not all their beliefs.

I was raised in a Jewish community in Detroit during the time of WWII, the Holocaust, the recognition of Israel. I attended Bar Mitzvahs. I studied Hebrew Scriptures. I participate in the Seder meal each year and find it one of the best expressions of liberation theology and the source of social justice teaching. If I had married a Jewish girl, I am sure I could have been comfortable in a Reformed and secular Jewish congregation. But, alas, I married a Polish girl who was just as skeptical, anti-clerical, and heretical as me. We share not only the faith and the community of faith, but also the skeptical, secular, progressive universalist form of that faith. Ironically the Polish Pope confirmed us in our rejection of the Roman Catholic form of that faith.

I encountered Buddhism most when living in Hawaii I worked with the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu. My priest friend Clarence and I would meet regularly with Roshi Tenoye at the Zen Buddhist temple in Kalihi Valley where we learned to sit, breathe, meditate, and dialogue about Meister Eckhart’s mystic writings from a Buddhist perspective. There I realized the unity of faith in transcendence whatever form it took as long as we did not get stuck in our forms while we used them.

Indigenous religions and Hinduism I learned to appreciate by hearing and studying Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade. Islam as well. I have met Muslin colleagues in Mosques, read histories of Islam. I appreciate Islam’s rich tradition of toleration, mysticism, and intellectualism, and wish some of my so-called Christian friends would as well. While I appreciate these forms of transcendence and these members of the universal community of faith, I also recognize that my language, culture, forms are so different. But we can learn from one another.

What I do not appreciate or accept is when any of these traditions, including my own, foster cults. By cult I mean I mean a group with exclusive, inflexible boundaries with a sort of litmus test for participation, quick to denounce others who do not belong to their group as infidels to be shunned or worse, who ostracize those who raise questions regarding their beliefs as heretics to be punished, who turn doctrine into dogma that is infallible, and who use fear, guilt, and terror to control their members and violence to force their views. I see cultish behavior among fundamentalist Protestants, authoritarian Catholics, radical Islamists, fixed-caste Hindus, orthodox Jews, arrogant and patronizing secularists, and new age psychic movements.

Finally I am still a Companion of Jesus as Jesuits identify themselves. But this is Jesus before Christianity. This is the Jesus who hung around with the outcasts and assured them they were lovable, who contradicted the patronage system, who had few possessions in a pack on his back and kept moving on, and who criticized the political and religious orthodoxy of his day, and got killed for it. At least that is how I imagine the man who would symbolize transcendence for many of us as St Ignatius urged me to do in his Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatius also urged us to “think with the Church.” That I interpret means we should all think, critically, strategically, creatively and share our thoughts with each other so that we may take or reject or modify or adapt these thoughts to our own cultures and so that as companions we may share and act the faith in transition.

In that way we all need to return to the community of faith. And we do need to be exercising that faith by supporting Pope Francis in his defense of the earth. I imagine seeing Pope Francis, Dalai Lama, Karen Armstrong, Fethullah Gulen, E.O Wilson, David Deutsch joining with leaders of spiritual traditions to build movements of compassion that rejects violence to others and to the earth and promotes social, economic, and earth justice. That is the Church I will never leave.

rollie smith 6-3-15

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