Monday, October 29, 2018

The "Nones"

Question. Among all the religious denominations--Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and others--what is the fastest growing segment among young people? 

Answer: The “nones.” Not “N-U-N-S” but “N-O-N-E-S.” The fastest growing segment is those who profess no religious affiliation at all. 

That’s alarming. So as you'd suspect, there’s been a lot of discussion why this is so. For sure, the recent scandals haven’t helped. But this began long before the scandals broke in the early 2000’s. It’s been a 40-50 year trend. 

I’ve heard of two working theories. 

One is that Christianity is too hard, and increasingly, we’re part of a soft and lazy culture. 

Now there’s no doubt that we’re in a soft and increasingly lazy culture! We now have remote controls for stereo systems in cars—apparently it's too hard for us to lean forward and change the controls on our dashboard!  The restaurant business is booming because it takes too long to cook our own food and do the dishes.  Now we have fast food because we’re too impatient to wait for it.  And now we have drive-through lanes because it’s way too much work to actually get out of the car!  I bet you could think of many more examples of how lazy we're becoming. 

No doubt our faith has been affected by growing up in a lazy, pampered culture. But not because, as I see it, that our faith is too hard in comparison. It’s because our faith has become just as soft as our culture—that we’ve watered down the more radical claims of the gospel and made being a Christian the equivalent of attending a garden club. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian living in Germany during the rise of Naziism, wrote a book called “The Cost of Discipleship,” which was critical of the religion of many mainline Christian churches because, as he called it, theirs was the religion of “cheap grace,” grace which didn’t cost the Christian anything. We come to Church on Sunday, “fill up our tanks” with cheap grace, then go about our business for the rest of the week, indistinguishable from anyone else. “Costly grace,” by comparison, is the grace that challenges us, that changes us, that exposes us to risk in following the gospel. Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached—he was open critical of the Nazi regime, arrested, put in a concentration camp and was later executed. 

My experience of youth—my experience of you—is that you want your faith to mean something, to put demands on you. You’re not interested in a spineless Church—what’s the point? You want to be challenged, just as you positively respond to other challenges in your life. It’s why you join athletic teams, even though that means you will be running suicides in basketball or running 8-10 miles in the middle of the summer on the cross country team. It's why you take A.P. and honors classes. You want your faith to challenge you similarly, to call you to something outside of yourselves. You want your faith to be, in the words of Pope Francis, “counter-cultural.” 

So maybe the reason there’s a rise in the “nones” isn’t that our faith is too hard, but that it’s not hard enough. 

The second theory is that our faith is boring. Not, so much, that our Masses or Church services are boring—yes, that may be true from time to time, but we understand that's part of any organization. Worse, we fear that WE’D be boring if we practiced our faith. That being Christian is a boring life that makes us boring people. 

That strikes me as a much more accurate fear to describe why youth are turning away from the faith. 

Is the life of a Christian a boring life? 

There are reasons to think so. The Holy Spirit—that animating force of God’s love in our life—his presence to us, is symbolized by a “dove.” Doves are quiet, gentle creatures; we even use the expression “gentle as a dove.” I believe our image of God and the Holy Spirit working in our lives is shaped by that image—a gentle force that quietly coos at us.

But in Celtic Christianity—in Ireland and Scotland—the symbol of the Holy Spirit is not a dove but a wild goose—unpredictable, untamed, free. A wild goose doesn’t coo, it honks. It seems to have its own mind, which may or may not agree with our own. When I took my grand-daughters to the park to feed bread to the geese, one goose the size of my granddaughter came up to her, stared at her a minute,  then snatched the bread out of our hand. 

The Christian journey is not walk down a tired, well-worn path; rather, we’re on a wild goose chase! In the vernacular, that expression means we’re chasing after something which is elusive. But in terms of faith, it means we don’t know the twists and turns of our life and cannot predict where the Holy Spirit will take us, but if we give our lives over to him, our lives will indeed become an adventure: full of love, disappointment, hope, sorrow and mystery.

We often hear that our lives are a journey, a story. That may be true,  but as main characters,  we don’t usually understand what's happening to us. It's especially true in the chapters of our life which are entitled "The early years."  Typical of novels, each of the early chapters seem unrelated to each other, and it’s only in the later chapters that all these separate strands of our life begin to connect. 

There’s part of us, the part that likes to plan things, that wants to know what the future holds for us 20 years out. We’re guilty of making you think that way in schools, too! Seniors, how many times have you been asked "What are you going to major in?” Translation: “What are you going to do for the rest of your life?” No pressure, seniors, just let us know how you intend to live the entirety of your adult life. 

The truth is, we may THINK we want to know the future, but in the words of John Dunne, CSC, that would be the “deadly clear path” which would rob our lives of adventure, wonder, awe. Instead, we are like cars driving down a windy road at night, with the headlights only illuminating a patch of darkness before us. The only way to see beyond that patch is to keep driving forward. That’s the excitement of life, the thrill, the journey--no telling where the wild goose may lead us.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

Play and Work

Catholic theology is often focused on the “both-and” and usually avoids the “either-or.” All the Christological heresies of the early Church veered toward saying that Jesus was either God OR human, but the Church said consistently that Jesus is both “fully God AND fully human.” In Catholic moral theology, the human person is neither “good” nor “bad,” but “good", in that God’’s grace lives within us, but also “bad”, in that we are flawed by original sin. In terms of the end days, the “kingdom of God” is already among us, but it has not yet fully arrived. 

When we look at the “fun-factor” of a school, I think it’s wise to think in “both-and” terms as well. School is both fun AND hard. We celebrate together, we enjoy weeks like Homecoming week, we enjoy House games and competitions, but we also understand that it’s a bit of a grind, too—that there’s homework to do, that there are tests to study for, that some of our grades won’t turn out the way our children (or we!) hope. 

As far as the fun goes, I’ve asked two very creative, talented teachers here—Miss Smith (theology) and Mrs. Smith (Spanish) to make suggestions as to little things we can do over the course of the year to elevate our students' spirits here, to keep things fun and interesting. If you have ideas, please share them with those two teachers. I am not opposed to a little fun—it helps us with the day to day doldrums. 

At the same time, as principal of St. Michael, I have to remind students that school is sometimes hard work—and that being a teenager is hard. When a student has had a long day, and realizes he or she  has 2 hours of homework to do, it’s hard for him to sit down and do it. It takes maturity to grind his way through. I’ve told students many times over the years that if adults tell them “these are the best years of your life,” that they've forgotten what it's like to be a teenager and are idealizing the past. High school years are tough. There are better years ahead! 

A couple of years ago, I told students about a slogan that the Marine Corps uses with their trainees when they’re going through basic training. Basic training is the hardest thing these 18, 19 year olds have ever done. They wake up before dawn, run, do drills, are pressed to the point of exhaustion.  They’re yelled at, insulted, their grit and toughness are challenged. The Marines are doing their best to harden them, to make them tough soldiers, to instill the discipline they need in battle. That slogan is “Embrace the suck.”  

Embrace the suck!

One of the things I am proud about this year is watching our football team go through its first varsity season. People knowledgeable about sports agree that the hardest program to start in a high school is football, because it requires so many excellent athletes to be competitive. So yes, our guys have been taking it on the chin some. But all through out the season, I’ve never seen our players lay down and quit. They fight to the end, regardless of score, and show up at practice the next week and work to get better.  They’re handling themselves like men.  They are “embracing the suck.”  

Athletes understand this is the cost if they want to be successful. Our cross country team has been running hard all summer, in blistering heat and humidity. Many members of our volleyball team play club ball--in effect, practicing their skills all year. Our cheerleading team is excellent, but they've practiced their routines over and over and over. Now our basketball teams are starting their seasons, marked by a lot of conditioning. 

There's a lesson in all this for all of us. We need to remind our children that sometimes,  life is hard, not fun.   Let’s not let them back away from that challenge. They'll be better men and women for it.