Visions of Daniel
The Transcended Christian
WHAT DO YOU DO when you outgrow your religion? When your life experience exceeds that of your clergy? When the learning that life forced on you challenges your religious beliefs? When you can no longer deny that something new is afoot and your church may be out of touch?
THE CURRENT SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
Many people today are in this exact situation and for many different reasons. I know a wonderful woman who stands for the best of what Christianity means, who no longer goes to church, and who now has grave doubts about all religion. Her father was a minister. She grew up in a devout and genuinely good home. Her dear, aged mother, loving but confused, continued to the end to pray for her, anxious and fearful of her daughter's eternal damnation. This woman herself is the finest of people: concerned, helpful, efficient, honest. She is a highly successful professional, and the whole of her work at nonprofit organizations is dedicated to helping other people. Supervising her staff, she works to bring out their best, well aware and even proud that they may then move on to other positions. Facing work insecurity and conflicting office politics, she is concerned only that she did a good job. Who could be more Jesus-like?
But her marriage became unworkable. All efforts to salvage it failed. Even her deep concern for her son could not justify staying in that relationship. So she divorced and was summarily ostracized from the church that had professed for years to be her “Christian family.”
She was no longer welcome. She had suddenly become a “wayward daughter” and a “lost sister.” Now she found neither understanding nor support in her church. Already deeply hurt by the divorce and agonizing in conscience over the religious implications of her decision, she was left without the encouragement and spiritual counsel that now, of all times, she really needed and that the church always claimed to provide.
Her experience forced her to look at things differently. She believes in God and loves Jesus and respects all the positive values for which religion stands, but the course of her life made her unable to deny that religion is simplistic. Oftentimes life just does not follow the rules that religion lays down. Unexpected twists of fate bring on complications that religion is not willing to address. So anybody living a real life is liable not to fit into the standard religious picture.
Being an intelligent woman, she read, talked with people, attended conferences, and joined a spiritually based, nondenominational support group. Gradually, she pieced together a new outlook on life and a new understanding of spirituality. She salvaged the goodness of her upbringing and whatever wisdom she gained through religion. She combined these with her new learning and forged her own spiritual position.
THE TRANSCENDED CHRISTIAN
That is what my friend did when she outgrew her religion—outgrew, not abandoned. Through her actual living and continued seeking, she took her religion to the next level. She went beyond the Christianity of her upbringing and morphed it into something new. She became a transcended Christian. She remained a genuine believer—she grew up a Christian and remains a Christian. But her life experience forced her to sift through her Christianity. She retains the valid spiritual core of her religious upbringing, but she has moved beyond the limits of institutional requirements. She transcended her Christianity. She grew beyond it. Without betraying it, but by applying it, she expanded it to include the complexities of life in the twenty-first century and to be open to truth and goodness in any of its guises.
I believe that she represents the new wave of religious believers. She is part of the next generation of Christians. She is the kind of Christian who can live comfortably in and contribute generously to a pluralistic and even secular global society of the twenty-first century. But, of course, most churches today will have none of it.
No doubt, it was her religious upbringing itself that allowed her to take this step forward. Her religion instilled in her the moral commitment and supplied the spiritual insight that carried her through the crisis of her divorce. Indeed, I would say that in her case religion did exactly what it is supposed to do: it pointed out the stepping stones that lead to spiritual maturity.
Religion is not made to serve itself. Its goal is not to gather a larger congregation and rake in higher collections week after week. Like families, religion is supposed to help us grow up and move on. Religion is supposed to foster spiritual adulthood and free us from the necessary but limiting confines of obedience-based spiritual childhood. In fact, then, my friend is a stunning religious success. The tools she got from her religion allowed her to honestly and lovingly deal with her life. Now she is a blessing to all she meets. Broken out of a religious cocoon, she is a butterfly of spiritual beauty.
But, of course, she is no longer at home with the church, nor can she be comfortable with her family when questions of religion come up. She cannot discuss her spiritual life with any of them. Daughter of a respected minister's family, she lives on the fringes of organized religion. In general, churchgoers in the Bible Belt put her down. Naïvely they invite her to church, offering their sugar-coated-candy religion as an enticement. Sincerely, presumptuously, and blindly, not recognizing Jesus when they see him, they tell her that her life would be so much better if she'd only come to church with them and turn to Jesus. She tells them, “God makes house calls,” and they are baffled. She and they are living in different worlds.
My friend grew beyond her religion because of a personal crisis. The religious rules she was taught did not square with the real life she had to live. Many people begin to question their religion because of personal crises. But today, spiritual questions and religious doubts affect all of us, personal crisis or not.
We live in challenging times. I doubt that any period in human history has known as much turmoil as our own. Because of TV, movies, the Internet, social media, and easy travel, our world is becoming one global village. We know about different countries, different cultures, different religions. We cannot avoid them. It would be rare today in the USA to find someone who does not know well at least one person of a different religion. And when we get to know those others, we are challenged. Not only do they believe differently from us; they also usually turn out to be good people. Sometimes they downright inspire us—like the remarkable Japanese woman I met in Mexico who reverently gave a heavy coin to every beggar who asked. We can't just write those others off as “heathens” the way a cocky preacher might. If we have any decency in us at all, we recognize their goodness and take them seriously. But taking them seriously, we cannot help but begin to wonder about our own religious beliefs.
Religions differ. We know that. We know it all too well. But the religions also all claim to be true, especially the Western religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism. Still, they cannot all be true when their teachings differ. Even the many Christian churches have different beliefs. So we are left wondering whether any of them is true. Is there even such a thing as truth? How does one know what to believe? Unless we are sure that our beliefs are true, they don't serve us very well. What good is a belief if you really can't rely on it? Nonetheless, heartlessly, our world of diversity is forcing us to question our beliefs. Like it or not, if we are at all in tune with our world, we are thrust into a crisis of faith. Spiritual crisis is symptomatic of our age.
Some people resolve their crisis by taking a fundamentalist stance. Believing they already have the full truth, they shut their eyes to other religions and stop questioning. They hold to their own religion unbendingly, and they march in the security of the company of their fellow believers. One Bible-believing woman I knew dealt with her divorce in just this way. For the well-being of her children, she had to get away from her husband. Bravely she did, but thinking that God operates on unbending rules, she lives with constant guilt over her divorce, prays that God will forgive her, and, compelled by her religion to also point out other people's “sins,” she consoles herself and softens her offensive rebukes with “We are all sinners.”
More thoughtful, more insightful people—and, yes, braver people, those graced from a secure upbringing with trust in their own hearts—they cannot go that route. Religion itself has taught them to be honest about the facts. Even in the name of God, they cannot just shut down their minds and package up their lives. They want to continue living, exploring, growing. They learned that God is good. Precisely because they are religious, they want a life about which they can rejoice, be thankful, and give praise to God. So they suffer a spiritual crisis because most churches have not yet stepped into the twentieth-first century.
This book is written for that dear divorced friend and for so many other good-willed people whom religion no longer serves well. With heartfelt compassion and genuine good will, I also offer this book to those enslaved “true believers” who in their heart of hearts feel a nagging desire before God to be free of unbending religion that seems increasingly unrealistic. In these chapters I have applied my own experience and my broad education to the meaning of Christian belief in the contemporary world. This book addresses the questions that arise in the minds of deeply spiritual people who can no longer find needed nourishment in that “old-time religion.”
MY OWN EXPERIENCE
My friend is not the only one whose life led her beyond the church. There is the African-American college co-ed who came to my office in tears after a class on abortion: She had had one, and she had no one with whom she could talk. There is the intelligent college junior, raised Baptist in a small Southern town, who came to me with questions about Jesus. His high-school-educated minister knew nothing of the early church councils, which debated the very questions that were troubling that boy's faith. There are the women, bright, gifted, generous women, who aced my theology courses. They wanted to be priests, but as Catholics, they hadn't a prayer. And, of course, my own life has taken a similar trajectory through and beyond organized religion.
Born and raised in South Side, Pittsburgh, in a small Polish community whose center was the local Catholic church, I grew up intensely pious and considerably naïve—or, let's say, lovingly sheltered. No one in that community, including my parents and relatives, had ever finished high school, let alone gone to college. Only the parish priests and the sisters who taught in the schools were well educated. Still, the people there were honest, hard-working, deeply religious, and, as I later realized, quite intelligent and shrewd. I could not have had a better childhood home and neighborhood.
My all-consuming interest was science, but for a number of reasons—community expectations, ignorance of other options, my religious sensitivity, and personal factors of which I was not aware (I was running away from something)—after graduating from high school, I entered the seminary. Through college in the States and four years of graduate studies in Rome, I soared right along to ordination. Through all those years and for a good number afterward, I lived a supremely sheltered life. In fact, I believe, I was more open to other religions and to secular pursuits than my seminary classmates and fellow priests were. Nonetheless, my environment, my associations, and my thinking were Catholic through and through.
I spent my first four ordained years as an associate pastor in a large suburban parish in Pittsburgh. Within two years, I was uncomfortable there. My mind wanted depth, but ministry pulled me in a hundred different directions. I was intensely lonely in the parish. I had always been. I missed the camaraderie and intellectual community that made seminary so appealing.
What's more, away from the protective routines of the seminary, my supposed virtue quickly proved shallow. No wonder celibacy was an easy commitment to make: I had no attraction to women and no desire to be married. After I had my first guilt-ridden sexual relationship, however, it finally dawned on me: I was using the hallowed requirement of priestly celibacy to avoid having to deal with sexuality. No wonder I was the perfect seminarian and young priest! I was using celibacy exactly as the Catholic Church had designed it.
At that same time, I also suffered my first major disillusionment with the institutional Catholic Church. I had a close friend who was involved in the “birth-control controversy” in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and over some months I watched the Church methodically crush a large group of priests, including my friend, for their public opposition to Pope Paul VI's condemnation of “the pill” in 1968. I was dumbfounded. I was dismayed to realize that the official Catholic Church had so little concern for people that it would ruthlessly destroy anyone who publicly opposed its corporate policy. I was later to relearn that lesson in my own case. And the Church's deliberately evasive response to the ongoing sex-abuse scandal continues to drive that lesson home ruthlessly. Amazingly, the Catholic Church preserves a façade of holiness and, Teflon-clean, manages to slip away from even the most outrageous abuses. Yes, indeed, my first years as a priest were a real eye-opener.
Trying to find a more congenial ministry, I left the Diocese of Pittsburgh and joined an association of priests in Baltimore, the Society of Saint Sulpice, the “Sulpicians,” named after the church on the Left Bank in Paris, who specialize in seminary education. The idea was that this new work would serve my need for community, my intellectual bent, and my interest in psychology and spirituality, all at once.
Within a year on the fast track, I was pursuing a doctorate in systematic theology in Boston. There, I had the extreme good fortune to study with Professor Bernard Lonergan, SJ, one of the geniuses of the twentieth century, whose thought influences everything I do. With an academic—not a pastoral—degree in theology, I learned to think critically about religion, and I acquired the intellectual tools to apply my scientist's mind to it. Finally I began to construct my own understanding of Christianity.
I also began to deal with my sexuality. I realized and admitted that I was gay, and I began to explore intimate relationships. I also began serving as chaplain to Dignity/Boston, one of a national chain of support groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Catholics, their families, and friends.
By that time, at least in my own mind, I was already living on the fringes of the Catholic Church, almost standing on the outside looking in. Nonetheless, for years I attempted to reconcile my gay life, my reservations about the institutional Church, and my status as a Catholic priest. I taught graduate theology and spirituality at Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio. In those days, when there was still hope that Catholicism would respond positively to the reality of lesbian and gay people, I even served as the official chaplain of the Archdiocese of San Antonio to the gay community. But with the suffocating regime of John Paul II, more and more I realized that there would eventually be no way I could be true to myself and remain a Catholic priest in good standing. So, with the intention of eventually resigning from ministry, I moved to Austin and earned a second PhD, this time in psychology.
Through all those years from Boston to Austin, I continued to do priestly ministry: teaching and lecturing, weekend assistance in local parishes, and, of course, chaplaincy to Dignity/Boston, Dignity/San Antonio, and Dignity/Austin. I decided that, as long as I was able, I would use my priestly office to do what good I could.
Then, with the completion of that psychology degree and with my hiring by the Department of Psychology at the University of West Georgia in 1995, I submitted to my bishop and the Vatican a formal resignation from active priestly ministry. Part of my thinking was that, as an official priest, I was restricted from doing the honest and compassionate ministry that I thought I was ordained to do. I could not publicly say what needed to be said nor freely do what needed to be done. I had to leave the priesthood to be able to genuinely do the work of Jesus as I understood it. I have heard other ex-priests phrase the matter in exactly the same way.
The Vatican never accepted my resignation. This outcome is standard; it is part of the perversity of the official Catholic Church, dangling souls over the pit of hell. So I have chosen to take this response to mean that the Vatican is giving me permission to continue to officially represent the Catholic Church. Hence, I write as a priest, and I do so in good conscience. Besides, according to Catholic teaching, once a priest, always a priest. One may be dispensed from priestly duties, but one can never undo ordination. “In my soul” I remain a priest. That is to say, my priestly training, experience, and education make me in part what I am. This part of me cannot be lost or taken away. My history has formed and shaped my very being. My priesthood remains with me forever. In these pages I exercise a ministry of spiritual leadership.