Faith, Church, and Commitment in an imperfect world

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Michael Buckley, the American Jesuit, once said that the main cause of atheism is bad theism. That truth has a hundred faces. Ideals are always compromised by those who try to give them concrete flesh and, just as bad theism helps cause atheism, arrogant artists turn you off art, over-simplistic social justice advocates turn you away from good causes, bad theologians give theology a sour taste, unbalanced liberalism quickly turns you into a fundamentalist, and unhealthy conservatism seduces you towards irresponsible freedom. The bad practice of a truth often takes that truth away from you. We see that clearly in terms of people being turned away from the church.

Lisa St. Aubin de Teran gives us such in illustration in her book, The Marble Mountain and Other Stories. Her main character accuses her mother of destroying the church for her: "Sometimes I think the whispering in the ward at night sounds very Catholic. Perhaps that's why I think so much about you [Mother]. You were my religion for so many years. I asked Fr. O'Hare once how I could find favour in the eyes of God, and he told me, `First you must find favour in your mother's eyes.' It would have pleased you, Mother, Mary, to know how much you denied me. Not many women can take away a Church."

Does that sound familiar? More and more people, in one way or other, make this complaint: "Someone - the clergy, the hierarchy, my mother, my father, a nun who taught me in school, someone who abused me, corruption within the church itself - has made it impossible for me to go to church. The church has been stolen from me!"

Can somebody do that to you? Take your church away? I've mixed emotions about that.

On the one hand, I've been lucky personally: My own experience was (and remains) essentially good. God, Christ, religion, and the church were given to me by a mother, a father, a clergy, some nuns, and certain parishes and schools that made them believable. The church that I met when I was little did not abuse me, misunderstand me, belittle me, riddle me with false guilt, or make it difficult for me to believe in Christ. To the contrary, whatever their flaws, for me, they made Christ credible. But that was my experience.

I know sincere people who have had a different experience. For them, someone or something did, at least in some major way, take their church away. Instances of massive betrayal, hypocrisy, narrow bigotry, or the refusal to bless life among the significant others who should have mediated the church to them have left them with a distrust so deep that it's almost impossible for them to give themselves over in trusting self- surrender. Someone did take their church away.

Despite my own experience to the contrary, I have some sense of how that happens, both in terms of church and in other areas of life. Simply put: Many is the man who fights the truth of social justice because of the social justice groups he's met; many is the woman who fights the truth of feminism because of the feminists she knows; many is the well-meaning man who fights against the value of theology because of the particular theologians he's read; many is the woman who falsely asserts her moral freedom because of the moralists (professional or arm- chair) she's had to endure; and many are the victims who fight the (ideally positive) value of authority and power because the very power that should have protected them abused them.

No doubt, we all struggle with this in one area or another. It's often impossible, existentially, to make allowances for the fact that, despite the goodness and sincerity in most everyone inside these groups, believers aren't the faith, churches aren't Christ, moralists aren't morality, social justice groups aren't social justice, feminists aren't feminism, conservatives aren't conservatism, liberals aren't liberalism, artists aren't art, theologians aren't theology, pro-life groups have no monopoly on life, just as pro-choice groups aren't always about choice. This side of eternity, all truth incarnates itself with inadequate expression, self-interest, personal wound, historical conditioning, ideology, and invincible ignorance. It's not easy not to be put off truth by the very persons seeking to bring it about - and the churches have no monopoly on compromise and double standards here.

What's the answer? If every concrete, enfleshment of church, morality, truth, justice, politics, family, and aesthetics is flawed by inadequacy, dysfunction, infidelity, self-interest, ignorance, and abuse, does this give us the right to absent ourselves from commitment?

We have a choice. However that choice is not between what's perfect (a pure church, social justice that's completely non-compromised, art without ego or arrogance, family life without dysfunction, politics without bias, morality without narrowness, feminism without imbalance, religion without flaw or bad history) and what's bad. The choice is rather between involvement with the limping, stained, and compromised or no involvement at all.