Monday, 24 March 2008

when religion fails

'Faith is not an answer, nor a solution. It is a voyage of exploration.' - Jeremy Rosen

A time to dream – why we left the Church

“Afterward I will pour out my spirit on everyone: your sons and daughters will proclaim my message; your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions”

Joel 2:28

After many years of dedicated and rewarding service in our Roman Catholic community my wife and I decided to leave our Church six months ago. This difficult but final decision was hastened following a recommendation, from a newly appointed parish minister, that I take an immediate sabbatical. My ongoing passion as catechist/co-ordinator in the RCIA process had sadly and suddenly come to an abrupt end after more than twenty years. The process would now revert back into the hands of the clergy and follow the rules “according to the book!”. In the last few months we have come to realize how God’s urgings of forgiveness, in such trying circumstances, are not only essential but can form in many guises. Our decision was not only necessary but essential if our faith is to grow. However, I needed a push and that came in the form of the newly appointed minister. Who ever said “God works in mysterious ways” understood that faith demands new questions and not ready made answers.!

As a convert since 1986 I have everything to thank the Church for what it left us particularly over the last twenty plus years. I am indebted to many for the richness and blessings it brought into our lives. Not the least of which is the power of God’s overwhelming gift of unconditional love. During these years I was given the incredible opportunity to sit at his feet in the form of five years of wonderful teachings from the Carmelite fathers. This was followed by four wonderful years of intensive study with St. Francis Xavier University resulting in a Diploma in Ministry. These blessed events brought many intermittent opportunities to teach and share God’s message with many wonderful people in various parishes in our Catholic Diocese.

God’s abundant gifts continue to bring much healing, spiritual, emotional and physical. Through his blessings I have come to the understanding and share, with those he places in our path, that his great unconditional love is beyond all understanding. It simply cannot be confined or limited to any dogma or doctrine. The latter can guide us but not bring us to his ultimate Truth.

One of these truths is perhaps best expressed through the words of Sr. Rita Larivee: We must allow ourselves the freedom to imagine beyond what we have known. Those who would build boundaries and barriers for conversion are short-circuiting the future. Debates on such matters as the war in Iraq, the issue of abortion, and the legitimacy of gay marriages seem more like stalemates in a big chess game than shared wisdom [with other competing religions] for a better world and a healthier church. Our world and our church have forgotten how to dream.

I want to dream again. I want to dream the way it was envisioned by Pope John XXIII and all the wise fathers of Vatican II. We need a Church that encourages the kind of questioning or imagining that filled the minds of these dreamers. Without these dreams we will become reluctant to go beyond our usual comfort zone and to venture onto a dance floor whose music we have yet to understand.

A bus tour and the spiritual journey

It is Easter and I find myself reflecting on the death of Christ and the death of the false or ego self. Somehow I have to learn to embrace my darkness if I am to discover the healing Light within. Had I not learned that Jesus himself had to face his own darkness when he entered the desert? And, is Jesus’ death and resurrection not the perfect representation of what it means to die to self?

All this has helped me to understand that our journey is never finished here on earth and that we will face many obstacles on the road to salvation and our true self. One of the growing obstacles for me has been our own Roman Catholic Church. Particularly its inability to embrace the spirit of Vatican II. Leaving it, six months ago has been very difficult. For me it was a necessary separation from an increasingly exclusive institutional religion to more freely embrace that spiritual kingdom instituted by Christ for all humankind. Perhaps the following true story will help explain the detour my journey has now taken.

Back in the late seventies my brother acted as a temporary bus tour guide escorting predominantly German sightseers passing through the Canadian Rockies. A prerequisite for the job was a working knowledge of the German language and a rudimentary understanding of the local geology. Almost immediately my brother fell far short of the German expectation for precision and exactness. “Excuse me sir, but exactly how high is that mountain and what is it called?” was the common question. By the time my brother had searched the “official guide” the bus had passed another snow capped mountain range. It did not take long for my brother to realize that to state mountain heights in approximates was not enough. By the time of his next tour he would quickly announce that “Ja, das berg on ze immediate right is precisely 3,209.4 metres high”!. Much to the comfort and satisfaction of his captive audience. Little did they know that their guide had merely fudged his estimates to suit their Teutonic minds. The majestic beauty of the scenery in question only seemed secondary.

This short story is not intended as a slight or insult toward the great German mind. Being of Western European birth myself I recognize that same obsession for exactness and precision in my own perfectionist behaviour and thinking. This cultural ‘gift’, if recognized for what it is, can become a wonderful tool for self discovery and healing. If left unchecked and denied (as was in my own case), perfectionism can lead to much anxiety and even depression. One of the earmarks of perfectionism seems to be the need to always “be right” combined with the fear of being wrong. This inevitably leads to guilt. A very natural preoccupation with a lot of Catholics.


Today, the Vatican also seems to be living in an atmosphere of fear and denial. Nearly every edict coming out of this patriarchal institution these days comes in the form of dire warnings for all its followers. Apparently we are all tainted with the guilt of “relativism”, secularism, pluralism, modernism and a host of other negative “ism’s”. There can be “no salvation outside the Catholic Church or for those who leave it”. which incidentally claims it also has the exclusive fullness of the Truth. While the Church constantly reasserts that it seeks unity among believers it clearly sees itself as quite distinct and ‘unblemished’ from the laity who represent more than 99.5% of the make-up of the Church. Never mind, its increasingly distant relationship with other world faiths and religions.

Vatican officials only recently reminded Catholics that “we are losing the notion of sin” and went on to say that “abortion and pedophilia are two of the greatest sins of our times”. At the same time these Vatican officials brushed off cases of accusations of sexual violence against minors committed by priests as “exaggerations by the mass media aimed at discrediting the Church”. The fact that the Church to date has paid out more than $ 2 Billion in damages for these cases seems to have escaped these same officials.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) followed by the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2005) closely resemble the Code of Canon Law (1983) by expressing our religious requirements in both legal and ‘absolute terms’. All three documents carry the signature of present Bavarian born Pope Benedict XVI or Joseph Ratzinger. Based on his uncompromising and ridged leadership style, is it possible that he was a passenger on one of the buses touring the Canadian Rockies back in the late seventies?

To look for fault for most of us is an all too easy thing to do. After all there is no perfect religion to be found anywhere. But I know that looking for fault is not what Christ would ask us to do. The Church has a wonderful history of both incredible saints and sinners. Accordingly, I need to practice forgiveness and understanding. However, an outdated and patriarchal attitude that insists on condemnation instead of healing cannot be the way to understand God. I need to find him beyond outdated doctrine and dogma and human error. As an adult I longer need to concentrate on a endless list of do’s and don’ts - rather I need to listen to God’s affirmations and learn to live life to the full. For me the scenery is much better from here and the journey continues.


My decision to break with organized religion may have been foreshadowed some fifteen years earlier. I ask readers to judge for themselves.

In the spring of 1992 a business trip took me to Rome and the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. One bright sunny Sunday morning, I took the opportunity to attend church services in the ancient capital city of Cagliari. The previous day I had noticed a Catholic church within walking distance of my hotel and taken note of convenient Mass times.

By walking along the narrow streets of the city I easily reached my destination and the front steps of a centuries-old Catholic Church. Entering the open doors of this ancient building I was immediately met with a strong odour of decay and mildew. Elsewhere I could see crumbling plaster . Much of the paint on the inside walls was peeling. No doubt this building had suffered a long period of neglect, and was in urgent need of a radical makeover. Despite the recent introduction of electrical wiring, lighting was extremely poor.

Perhaps these were the reasons most people, such as I, chose to sit on the hard wooden benches near the light of the open front doors. Attendance was limited to no more than twenty people in a church that could easily hold five to 600 parishioners. On the right-hand side of the well-worn church aisles was an enormous glass display case. It contained the life-size wax figure, the corpse of a bloodied and bruised Jesus as he must have appeared immediately after being taken down from the cross. My eyes could hardly keep way from this disturbing image.

Mass was celebrated entirely in the vernacular, which I could not understand, but I was able to follow to some degree with the aid of an English missal. The elderly priest spoke to us from a dimly lit distance without the aid of a microphone. To receive Communion, one walked along the central aisle for what seemed an interminable distance to an aging celebrant. The stale consecrated host echoed the immediate surroundings rather than a living Christ.

At the end of Mass I found several people gathered around the priest on the outside steps of the old church. Instead of finding a priest shaking the hands of fellow parishioners, I witnessed a heated argument. Several people were shaking their fists and pointing fingers at the aging, now indignant, priest ,for reasons I will never know or understand.

More than a decade has passed since this event and yet it continues to haunt my memory. I ask myself, exactly what was its meaning. Was this experience a vision of a disturbing reality of what seems to happening in our church today? Or, does it reflect what is happening in my own spiritual life? Am I perhaps pre-occupied with too much self preservation?

The church today shows signs of wear and tear. The Vatican seems to be an institution preoccupied with preserving an ancient past rather than enthusiastically embracing the reality of the present. The walls of the institution are straining under the weight of a less-than-glorious past, rather than being anchored in a living and risen reality. Like the aging priest in Cagliari, the Magisterium seems to speak to us in a stale and foreign language from a dim and distant past--a tired voice caught up in dogma, doctrine, rules and regulations.
As a convert, imagine my disappointment on discovering that the Catechism of the Catholic Church still holds that "Outside the church there is no salvation" (#845,6). This claim is made despite an earlier declaration from Vatican II which states that we all come from the same creative hand of the one God and that salvation is possible even apart from explicit faith in Christ. In recent years, some Vatican encyclicals such as "Iesus Dominus" and hard-line conservatives have sought to return the church to the dark ages, a period when questioning the faith was tantamount to heresy and could result in being burned at the stake or cursed an anathema. Why would anyone want to go there?

My love for the church may falter from time to time, but I cannot leave it where Mel Gibson left Jesus hanging, impotent and un-resurrected on a made-in Hollywood cross. That sad Hollywood epic reminds me of that helpless figure in the glass case I thought I had left behind more than 10 years ago.
Recent Vatican rulings together with other extreme right-wing theories have come into sharp conflict with my adopted faith and religious beliefs. In a real sense I feel betrayed. When I chose to become Catholic in the mid-1980s, the church seemed alive with hope and enthusiasm, embracing the spirit of change and the mystery of our faith. Today the Magisterium is preoccupied by blocking every attempt to bring forward the gift and spirit of Vatican II. Christian unity, once upheld as necessary and sacred by the Vatican has now been reduced to mere rhetoric and little or no positive action.
The truth is now subordinate to the Magisterium. Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I am forced to accept that Christian unity and salvation can only be achieved when our Protestant brothers and sisters are ready to submit to the hierarchical authority of Rome's Magisterium. Is this the faith I once embraced and adopted for the sake of my family?
I now find myself shaking my fist and pointing a finger in the direction of those leaders in our church who want to return to a previous era, a time when Vatican II had not yet been heard of. It saddens me even more when I read in the leading British Catholic paper The Tablet that the Vatican deliberately downplayed diocesan-wide ecumenical services during a week when the church was supposed to be celebrating Christian Unity.

Where does that leave me today? Stranded between two worlds--the old and the new. I can take solace from scripture. When I suppose that Abraham, the father of the world's three major faiths, had listened to the 'religious' leaders of his age instead of the God in his heart it is doubtful if he would have ever embarked onto this wonderful and often confusing journey of faith. Similarly, did Jesus not frequently challenge the religious leaders of his time? Maybe it's time to set out again.


Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside awakens. - Carl Jung

It has been suggested that members of an organized religion may not see any significant difference between religion and spirituality. Or they may see a distinction between the mundane, earthly aspects of their religion and its spiritual dimension.

It is important to draw a strong distinction between religion and spirituality. Spirituality may be seen as a belief in ideas of religious significance (such as God, the Soul, or Heaven), but is not bound to the bureaucratic structure and creeds of a particular organized religion. While spirituality is primarily concerned with an interior attitude, religion often appears to be more focused on peoples exterior behaviour or shortcomings.

Despite overwhelming scholarly and scriptural evidence to the contrary; the Catholic Church still formally teaches that Jesus founded its institution. As Christianity was formally legitimized by Emperor Constantine in AD 313 it adopted his military and political ambitions which produced most of the religious trappings which remain until this day.

When we apply the difference between spirituality and religion to the real intent of Jesus we more clearly see what he meant when he spoke to Peter about building a ‘church’. Nearly seventy percent of everything that is quoted by Jesus in the New Testament refers to interior attitudes that people must have in order to enter his father’s kingdom which begins here on earth - not any obvious religious displays or exterior behaviours. The building of religious institutions and structures merely emphasizes an outward expression of our beliefs – and not necessarily an inward attitude. When Jesus instructed Peter to build a ‘church’ he was simply stating that all people are God’s temple and that his Spirit dwells in them! For this we need not a building but rather an inner desire to discover God within.

Thomas Keating writes “the Divine Indwelling is a truth of faith that is easily forgotten or avoided. Yet it is the one on which personal conversion radically depends.” Thus what prevents us looking inside at finding the God within and entering his promised kingdom? Children are already there we have been told. But as adults we have somehow been diverted or hi-jacked from our intended destination. Firstly, our religious institutions often teach that they are necessary intermediaries, between people and God. This creates an unhealthy atmosphere of co-dependency. The role of religious institutions, similar to all inspired writings, is to point the way but not to become the substitute for God and our final destination. That is not to say that religion cannot help us in our search for God. But a religion that does not encourage questioning is dead.

Secondly, and more importantly are the works or Satan – which is better known as our ego! We need to recognize that Satan or evil is a force that is not outside or independent of our being. The argument that “the devil made me do it” is absolute no longer valid. But our ego can also easily hi-jack us from following a path that leads to the truth.

Thirdly, faith can only grow through individual experience. Blind obedience to church rules and regulations does not nourish the soul. It merely keeps us unbalanced and wondering if we are doing the right thing. Spirituality seeks to experience God in all everyday things and relationships with people. The spiritual person accepts that faith often means carrying on without having all the answers. That’s what having a trust in God really means. Institutional religion on the other hand is too focused on rigid rules and regulations rather than healing. It can also divert us from the path to salvation. Many people have been hurt by insensitive clergy and over zealous church members. No one has ever been hurt through a spiritual experience.

These major obstacles have led us into a dangerous and arid desert by following a strict cultural belief rather than by choosing to trust in God. Faith in God does not require group membership. God’s unconditional gift of love does not make any demands. We are once again free. Free to choose and free to find our own path to salvation.

Each religious institution has its own set of beliefs and practices. Members of that institution are subsequently expected to remain faithful to its established dogma or creed. In years past to question these beliefs could have resulted in being branded a heretic even to the point of risking torture and death.

Today, these same religious institutions are facing more and more challenges for change from its questioning followers. The issues, be it same-sex marriage or homosexuality, are deep and often divisive. The resistance to change continues to drag these issues to a point where more and more people are leaving the institutions at ever increasing and alarming rates.

Change is the very dynamic of faith. Our adult understanding of God demands nothing less. Doctrine and dogma tend to stifle spiritual progress. “Father, Reverend, or Rabbi, etc. what does our religion have to say about . . . . “ is a sure sign that the person has not discovered the power within and has abrogated their faith to an institution rather than to look within.

Many religious institutions continue to teach varying forms of fundamentalism. Even though noted author Karen Armstrong states that narrow and literal biblical interpretation is a recent phenomena. This form of fundamentalism is now also widespread in North America. Fundamentalism we have come to realize of late, also teaches and breeds a particular form of violent extremism. This too is a dysfunctional form of religion, one that has not taught the individual to look for God within and recognition of the same God in others.

Failure to look within and trusting an institution will eventually fail everyone. In the meantime however, religious institutions hold all the power. When Jesus entered the desert he was tempted with this same false power. Jesus, however, refused to obey his ego! How dangerous can this false power be?

The abuses of such false power has been orchestrated by various religious organizations, such as Christian Crusades and Islamic Jihad, the marginalization and persecution of various minorities and the Spanish Inquisition. The list is endless and goes on to this very day!! While the various religious institutions remain in competition with one another more reasons will be found to disagree with one another. This too will cause more pain and suffering.

While faced with some fundamentalist views expressed by a friend several years ago I found myself responding accordingly:

Dear Friend:

If we as Christians are genuinely interested in resolving our differences with other religions we need only do one simple thing. In fact it is so simple it will completely astound you. You will not have to introduce any new doctrine, dogma, rules or laws you will not even have to join a new religion. You will not have to move or dismiss the world and live on a remote mountain top. At the same time you need not wonder if we’re going to suggest some make belief world only inhabited by Pollyanna’s or do-gooders. Nor is anyone asking you to enter into some sort of dream or drug induced world where reality never takes place. Lastly it will not demand that anyone become holier than they all ready are. No saints need to apply! All it will take, are you ready for this, is for people to change their belief about religion and God!

All the world religions simply need to change their belief about the need to defend God! It is as simple as that – no more. You see, dear friend, it is only our perception of the need to defend our religion that keeps us at odds with one another and subsequently causes so much pain and suffering here on earth. Every time we profess that we think we know God better than the next person, we cause the other person much sadness and pain. That pain if it is let to fester will eventually translate into fear and hatred. Do any of us, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, or Jew, really believe God is asking of us to defend him from one another? If God is truly allowed to be the all powerful all loving God we would know that: Love does not need to be defended, because Love does not know attack!

The minute we think that our religion is the only one – we are in trouble. The minute we talk in terms of ‘we’ the good guys and ‘they’ the bad guys, we are in trouble. The minute we draw lines and separate ourselves from our neighbours because ‘we’re better’ or because we believe we ‘have the corner on the faith market’ we are in trouble. The minute we teach ‘who is going to heaven and who is going to hell’ we are in trouble. The minute we focus on the future or the past, instead of the present, we are in trouble. Mother Teresa said it best: we need to teach the Muslim to be a better Muslim, we need to teach the Jew to be a better Jew, and so on. This means we need to drop what or who we think God is for our religion and think more about what or who God is for all humankind!

So how can we begin to change our beliefs? Perhaps we should begin by accepting that God is much greater than any idea that we (past or present) might have of him. Perhaps we could begin by changing our beliefs about who God is for all humankind. Perhaps we should admit that there is not one religion that possesses all there is to know about God or the Truth. Perhaps we could begin by accepting that we need one another. Perhaps we could begin by trying to understand each other’s uniqueness rather than by any enforced (and unrealistic) similarities. Perhaps we could refuse to listen to voices which lead to greater disharmony and disunity. Perhaps we should begin by accepting that God is much greater than any idea that we might presently possess.

Lastly, if you want peace and harmony you have to work for it. It does not simply drop out of heaven. If you want Love then you have to draw on it’s Source – there we will find an unlimited supply of answers for all of the world’s problems.

A beautiful letter to the editor of the National Catholic Reporter, reminding us about the purpose of our journey, from a Sr. Julian Carbone, OSC, dated September 28, 2007

. . . . . for Jesus, our faith was never a matter of "right beliefs," except pos­sibly for the belief that we are all one in God. If we follow Jesus and his blessed mother in the Gospel accounts, we would see them liv­ing the simplicity, inclusiveness and hum­ble trust in God depicted in the beatitudes, the essence of Jesus' teachings. Evangelical orthodoxy and its association with institu­tional supremacy and exclusivity simply do not fit well in this equation. The beatitudes invite us to enter a rather different kind of life and relationship with God and others.

Jesus demonstrates over and over that institutional supremacy and doctrinal cor­rectness were never meant to eclipse the promptings of God's love, which always lead to the acceptance and inclusiveness of each encountered human being, especially the outcast. Ironically, the orthodox/evangeli­cal mindset of right beliefs and practices is precisely what led to Jesus' arrest and bru­tal crucifixion. Truly, then, Christ's love and submission to our common creator, and Christ's love and acceptance for each of us, would be the prominent transforming mes­sage of our Catholic faith.


Chesterfield, N.J.


The marvel of the faith journey is that it is never finished. The soul [intent] purpose of a spiritual journey is to absorb the diverse scenery and people along way. The people and places we encounter along the way are all part of the spiritual landscape. Everything is presented as a potential gift to help us understand the mystery of our faith Part of that mystery are the encounters along the way that were not of our choosing or liking. God comes in many disguises.

Evagrius of Pontus (345-399) is quoted as: "God cannot be grasped by the mind, if he could be grasped, he would not be God". Accordingly we can hardly confine our understanding of God to all the books or opinions ever expressed about him. Some religions seem intent on closing the book while still others stop short along the way claiming they have reached the destination. But for me the story and journey is far from over. Some years ago, during a catechetical session with initiates who were dealing with the various books of the Bible I informed these inquirers that "the last chapter to the Bible is yet to be written - and that's the one about you!" So the journey continues and the final story yet to be told.

A wonderful story about a journey is told by Anthony de Mello an East Indian Jesuit and master story teller.
A poor man who had lived his entire life in a small village in India was finally persuaded by his friends to take a journey to Bombay. Following many days of travel by foot, he reached the outskirts of the city were stood a city marker announcing ‘Bombay’! Upon noticing the sign the old man turned around and returned to his village convinced he had arrived at his destination.

If you too are on a journey but have given up on organized religion you are not alone. According to a 2005 survey compiled by Ipsos Reid, 70% of those who call themselves Christians agree that “my private beliefs about Christianity are more important then what is taught by any church”. While it is widely accepted that church attendance has dropped at an increasing rate over the last five decades the same survey shows only a modest decline in peoples’ belief in God. These results would indicate that religious institutions are seriously failing their followers.

As an enthusiastic convert in the mid eighty’s, I had never expected that twenty years later I would walk away from the very institution that meant so much to me earlier. It is only now that I am discovering that many others have become disillusioned with organized religion and taken the painful step of leaving the faith of their fathers.

It is paramount to our understanding of church, temple, synagogue, etc., that we begin by examining the difference between religion, spirituality and faith. Members of the faith community often use these three terms interchangeably. This may be a major factor that has led so many followers to abandon institutional religion.

The following letter to the editor appeared online in The Social in response to an article written by well known Canadian author and lecturer Ted Schmidt. Readers may also refer directly to his informative essay mentioned below


The "so called arrogant nonsense" referred to in "The Rise of the Lay Voice: Sensus Fidelium (Part One)" by Ted Schmidt regarding the question of salvation outside the Catholic Church was unfortunately not put to bed with the Second Vatican Council.

Beginning with the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994 --paragraph 846) followed by the Compendium of the Catechism (2005 --article 171), the Church has shown it wants to completely reverse the pastoral views introduced by Vatican II. Furthermore the new Roman Missal awaiting approval from the Canadian Bishops pushes the question of salvation back even further. If accepted, Canadian Catholics will be instructed to respond that Jesus came to save "many" instead of the current "all." The theological implications of these changes speaks volumes. To quote Sr. Joan Chittister: "Who is it that Jesus did not come to save?"

This was just one of the many reasons why my wife and I finally made the painful decision to leave the Church.

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