Religious Significance of Feelings

I am reading Darkness Is My Only Companion, written by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, an Espicopal priest who has suffered from serious depression and is bipolar. The book is her effort to “offer a biblically grounded account, from [her] own experience, of how the Christian may interpret, accept, and handle suffering, especially that with such a stigma as mental illness.”

I just finished reading a chapter titled, Feeling, Memory, and Personality, which I’m puzzling about. In the Ignatian tradition, we learn to pay attention to our feelings, to what stirs in our hearts, not just what we think in our head. This is not unique to Ignatian spirituality; the author observes that “people in the Protestant West have tended to define religion in terms of feeling or experience.”

The author suggests that this notion that feelings have religious signficance is a problem: “If we really believed that feeling is the essence of the Christian faith, the depressed Christian would be given all the more ammunition for self-destruction. Since she cannot by definition feel anything but violence toward and hatred of the self, if that ‘feeling’ were to be validated as religiously significant, then the tendency toward self-annihiliation would only be fueled.” She ends the chapter by saying that she questions the religious significance of feelings.

I don’t disagree with the final line of the chapter that God does not regard the mentally ill soul any differently from when we are mentally healthy. But it seems to me to go way too far to suggest that feelings have no religious significance or that “feeling is not really that important for the life of faith.”

Her comments do, however, suggest that we need to be careful in talking about the sense in which feelings have religious signficance. It would be wrong to suggest either that God looks upon us according to our feelings or that we can always be confident in acting on our feelings. (Neither of those is reflected in Ignatian thought.) We also need to be sensitive the different things (including but not only, mental illness) that affect our ability to feel the presence of God, let alone to feel God’s love and mercy.


The Judgmental Mind

I’ve been sitting with a passage from Richard Rohr’s Jesus and Buddha:Paths To Awakening. Rohr writes

All spiritual teachers tell us “Do Not Judge.” For those of us raised in a religious setting, this is very difficult. In a strange way, religion gave us all a Ph.D. in judgmentalism. It trained us very early in life to categorize, label, and critique. It told us all about worthiness and unworthiness. This judgmental mind told us what is right and wrong, who is gay or straight, and who is good or bad. This sort of mind never creates great people, because everybody has to fit into our way of thinking. At an early age our grid was complete. We had decided who fit in and who did not fit in. We fashioned our own little world.

Christianity that divides the world in this manner and eliminates all troublesome people and all ideas different from our way of thinking cannot be mature religion. It cannot see the multiple gifts of each moment, nor the dark side that coexists with it. This mind does not lead us to awareness, and above all, this mind will find it impossible to contemplate. To practice awareness means you live in a spirit of communion; your world becomes alive and very spacious, and not divided by mere mental labels.

Reading the passage prompted a couple of thoughts. First, part of the danger of creating “grids” the way Rohr describes is that we are not always all that good at categorizing. That is, our judgements and categories are often less about some absolute standards of “good” and “bad” than about our own proclivities. “Worthy” too easily becomes “in accord with my views” and “unworthy” becomes those who don not meet my subjective standrad.

Second, our tendency to “grid” often blocks us from seeing that, we all are something of a mixed bag. We all have our strenghts and weaknesses, our tendencies toward good and our tendencies toward the less-than-good. If we walk around with a judgmental mind, we can easily be blinded by our own “dark side.”

There is wisdom in the suggestion that we be hesitant to judge others.

Choice, Control and Our Narratives About the World

I just finished reading The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar, sent to me by the Hachette Group, which addresses how our minds deal with choice. It is a fascinating book and what it says about control (both perception of control and actual control) and about how we respond to choice has implications for thinking about a whole host of issues. The studies Igengar describes are fascinating and many of them reached conclusions that surprised her.

One of the things she talks about is the fact that the need for control is a powerful motivator for human beings. Being unable to exercise control is something that is “naturally unpleasant and stressful” for us. And we have a desire to choose that is innate; it is a natural drive that often operates independently of any concrete benefits. So strongly does it operate, that we tend to forget that choice “is not an unconditioned good.”

Given that one of studies that reached what seemed to Iyengar to be a counter-intuitive result was one involving religions. To her surprise, the author found that “members of more fundamental faiths,” which she defined on those that imposed many day-to-day regulations on their followers – i.e., limiting their freedom to choose, experienced greater hope, were more optimistic when faced with adversity, and were less likely to be depressed than their counterparts.” As she explained, “[r]estrictions do not necessarily diminish a sense of control, and freedom to think and do as you please does not necessarily increase it. The resolution of this seeming paradox lies in the different narrative about the nature of the world – and our role in it – that are passed down from generation to generation.” While we all want and need a degree of control over our lives, as the author explains, how we understand control depends on a number of things, including “the beliefs we come to hold.”

I think we often treat “control” and “personal choice” and “choice” and “freedom” as thought they are synonymous. (I think it may be that this is something that makes the concept of free will difficult for many people.) But as Iyengar’s findings suggest, although one possibility is to “believe that control comes solely through the exercise of personal choice,” for very many, it is making the choice to live in accordance with one’s belief in God that is the path toward ultimate happiness. Living in a society that seems to suggest that autonomous choice is a paramount good, this is a good reminder.

There is much else that is worthwhile in this book and I’ve dog-earred a number of pages for further thought. Some of that may be reflected in later posts.

Encountering Others

One of the books I’m currently reading is James Carroll’s Practicing Catholic, which was recommended to me by my friend Joe. At one point in the book, Carroll discusses the difference between Catholicism in the Old World and Catholicism in America. He writes: “In the Old World, boundaries defined experience. Across generations, Jews lived in ghettos, Christians lived in confessional states. Encounters of like with unlike were the exception. In the New World, boundaries – the very frontier – existed to be crossed.” Thus, “In America, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics, sooner and later, encountered each other as neighbors (as, eventually, would Confucinists, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims – and atheists.”

There are clearly some, perhaps many, who think the Old World way is better, who think separation from those who are different (religiously and otherwise) is the best way to remain pure in our own beliefs. But reading Carroll’s description reminded me of a passage from a Barbara Brown Taylor book that my friend Richard sent to me ther other day. In An Altar in the World, Taylor asks the question, “who could be better equipped to pop the locks on our prisons than people in whom we see nothing or ourselves?” In elucidation, she quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ suggestion that “the supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” Only if we can do that, says Taylor can we “see past our own reflections in the mirror to a God we did not make up.”

As I reflect on these two passages together, I think the only way we can encounter God in a genuine way – the God in whose image we are created, rather than a god who we create in our own image – is to encounter those, to use Taylor’s words, “in whom we see nothing of ourselves,” to rub elbows with those who are not us.

What Difference Does Religion Make?

I’m in New Orleans attending an annual conference for law professors. One of the panels on which I spoke yesterday was on the subject of Faith and Corporate Law. One of the other participants on that panel raised a question that goes beyond the question of corporate law and that deserves serious consideration by all of us who call ourselves religious or spiritual persons: Do religious people behave differently than other people? Do people of passionate faith make different decisions than do others?

One of the criticisms of religion made by a good friend of mine is precisely the claim that religion does not seem to make a difference in the lives of people. He argues that people who claim to be religious, those who claim allegience to some organized religion, are no different (and, he would claim, are often worse in their behavior) than people who are not religious.

If my friend is right – if the answer to the question posed by my co-panelist is “No” – then I think religion has failed. Our faith cannot be simply about what we say we believe or think, but must make a difference in who we are in the world, in how we behave in the world, in how we live our lives. I think that is particularly true of those of us who call ourselves Christians, who believe in a God who became man in the person of Jesus Christ, who made some very direct statements about how we are to live in this world.

If religion means something, it has to make a difference in what we do and not just in what we say and think. It has to affect how we deal with others and how we make actual decisions in our day-to-day lives. It is not enough to recite the Creed with fervor during Mass and then forget about it for the rest of the week. Not enough to say, “I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior, so I’ll be saved at the end of the day.” It has to make a difference in everything.

Maybe a starting point is for each of us to spend time seriously and concretely reflecting on: what difference does my religion make to who I am in the world?

Catholic Spirituality

I just read the cover article in C21 Resources, a publication (previously unknown to me) of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College. The article, titled Catholic Spirituality in Practice, reacted to the commonly heard statement, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” When I’ve heard that statement, it generally expresses the speaker’s dissatisfaction with organized religion and a sense that somehow spirituality is broadening, while religion in limiting.

The article suggested that the claim that one is spiritual but not religious is one that “deserves probing.” Although not disputing that there may be any number of reasons one may feel dissatisfaction at any given time with human religious institutions, the author argues that spirituality is not an adequate substitute for religion.

A spirituality that is disconnected from religion is bereft of both community and tradition; it has no recourse to the benefits of a larger body of discourse and practice, and it lacks accountability. Such spirituality quickly becomes privatistic and rootless, something directly opposite to the Christian understanding of “life in the Spirit.”

I think I would at one time have disagreed with this statement. And, even now, I think I’m as likely to describe myself on any given occasion as a spiritual person as I am to say I’m a religious one. Nonetheless it strikes me that the article has a lot of truth in it. Spirituality divorced from religion runs the risk of becoming an anything goes, whatever makes me feel good kind of thing. There is something in the tradition that keeps us moored, that provides the roots out of which we grow. So while religion cannot lack spirituality and still remain alive, spirituality can’t lack religion and still remain a true “life in the Spirit.”

Update: Amy Welborn has some interesting comments about the results of the latest American Religious Identification Survey that bear on this issue of spirituality vs. religion. You can read it here.

Religion and Spirituality

As part of our Monday morning prayer yesterday, the person leading the service read an excerpt from a homily by Father John Clay, a priest in St. Paul, some of whose homilies are collected in a book titled Surrounded by Love.  His comments about the relation between religion and spirituality struck a chord and so I share them. 

…I understand spirituality to mean gradual growth into seeing the union of everything and growth into the loving behavior that can follow from this vision.

Spirituality is living in loving union with the infinite.  Love that pervades the universe, living in loving union with all the people of the world, living in loving union with all the created things in this world and indeed with the whole universe of creation.

Religion is the structure that has the potential to draws us unto spirituality.  It consists of three parts…doctrines that are meant to point to the loving union of everything…moral codes, which are an attempt to give guidelines for how we can live this loving union with Love, people, and all creation…[and] the rituals through which we celebrate together the loving union to which we are called….

For me the way to join them is to recognize that religion is subordinate to spirituality.  Religion can be a means to draw us into spiritual growth. Religion is not an end in itself.  We must look at the fruits of our practice of religion.  Is it leading us into that loving union?  Is it irrelevant to that loving union?  Is it actually taking us away from that loving union?…

Perhaps some will not like the suggestion that religion is subordinate to spirituality.  But it seems to me that Fr. Clay provides some good questions for testing whether what we call religion is actually bringing us closer to loving God and loving each other. If it is not, then we have let religion turn into something external and automatic, and when that happens, religion becomes a hindrance rather than an aid to spiritual growth.

At the same time, Clay’s comments suggest to me that spirituality unmoored from religion runs a risk of becoming too individualistic and self-oriented to lead one to a true communion with God and others. Thus, we need religion as well as spirituality.

The Visitation

Today we celebrate the feast of the Visitation and I love Luke’s account, which says something both about the relationship of Mary and Jesus and the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth.

When the angel appears to Mary, one of the things the angel tells her is that her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought to be barren, has conceived a child – the child who we know will be John the Baptist. And so Mary goes off to visit Elizabeth. When Mary enters the house and is greeted by Elizabeth, the baby inside Elizabeth leaps in her womb with joy. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in a loud voice, “Blessed are you, Mary, among all women, and blest is the fruit of your womb.”

And then Elizabeth says something else, making her the first person to designate Mary in this way: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me.”  The Mother of the Lord.  Mother of God.   Sydney Callahan writes, “The truth revealed in this Marian title astounds me. A woman bears God within her womb. God unites the Divine Word with human flesh. When we think of God as Mary’s newborn infant, we see the Lord of all creation in need of human love. Jesus is totally dependent upon his mother’s care. What risks God takes in loving us! And how much God expects of human kind in bringing the new creation to birth! Mary is the first to known the humility of God.”

The other striking thing to me is the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth.  The young woman has just learned that she is to bear the Christ and yet immediately runs off to be of help to her older cousin who is with child.   And the older woman herself welcomes with joy the younger cousin who has been chosen to bear the more important of the two children.  And although we are told only that Mary remained with Elizabeth for some months, we can imagine those months.  Mary helping Elizabeth with chores….Elizabeth counseling the younger woman…the two women working, sitting, talking, planning together.  Neither pride in the one nor jeolousy in the other.   Just two women each lovingly giving the other what she needs.