Climbing the Eight Mountains of Religious Life

Article excerpt

This reflection on contemporary religious life is made from two perspectives: the first social, the second spiritual. One without the other, I believe, is always bogus.

The social perspective is a demographic one: Social statisticians tell us that if the earth's population were a village of 100 people, there would be 57 Asians, 21 Europeans and eight Africans. Only 14 people in the village would be from both North and South America combined. Seventy of the people in this village would be nonwhite. Seventy would be non-Christian. Seventy would be illiterate. Fifty of them would be malnourished. Fifty percent of all the money in the village would be held by six people -- and all of them would be white, male Americans. And only one of them would own a computer -- the gateway to the future. No wonder those six buy so many guns.

Point: If religious life is going to be religious, it cannot be a business-as-usual life in what is not a business-as-usual would.

The second perspective out of which I fashion these reflections is a spiritual one. There are three insights from ancient religious literature that may best describe the situation facing contemporary religious life today.

The first is a Jewish proverb that teaches that the farther away a person is from Sinai, the more they are diminished. The second is a tale from the Hasidim that tells of the disciple who was puzzled by the phrase in scripture that says that the children of Israel, at the foot of Mount Sinai, stood afar off from it. "Why would they do that?" the disciple asked the master. And the rabbi said, the children of Israel stood at a distance from Sinai because they knew that miracles are for those who have little faith. And so, in good heart, they avoided them.

Finally, another rabbi taught that we must each think of ourselves as standing at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. For us there are past and future events, but not for God. Day in, day out, God gives the Torah.

The meaning of that kind of spiritual insight for religious life today is profound if not startling. First, the rabbinical notion that those farthest from are most diminished teaches us that it is what we are inside that determines the value of what we do. The farther removed we are from the real meaning of our lives, the more religious life is diminished.

The second tale tells us that we must not relay on miracles to save us. We must spend our lives in the dry, dark and demanding ecstasy of faith.

Finally, the rabbis teach us, the past is past. What we were intended to do in the past is now done.

We are not in transition to a new form of religious life because we failed in the past. It is not that we must try harder now to accomplish what we have previously failed to achieve. No. We are in transition to a new form of religious life precisely because we succeeded in the past.

We succeeded in our schools and now education is mainstream. We succeeded in our hospitals and now health care is mainstream. We succeeded in building systems that made immigrants members of the establishment and made Catholics part of the mainstream in a Protestant culture.

Now, we must find new meaning, new purpose, a new place in a world totally mainstream and totally other at the same time, if the law of God -- given newly every day -- really means anything to us today, now and here.

The spiritual life, not simply good works; the challenges of faith, not simply the comforts of ritual; the needs of the present, not simply the achievements of the past; these are the things that will make religious life religious again.

Anything else will only distance us from the real center of our lives and diminish us. Anything else is simply a plea for plastic miracles designed to save us from what we fail to do for ourselves, rather than a commitment to the sometimes baffling and even inscrutable demands of faith. …