and I’m not afraid to use it.
— Pope Benedict XVI
She could die now. What happy words.
Laying in a bed in the student ghetto near my college I was reading a book on Zen Buddhism. I had determined that a person should decide for themselves what religion they were, and I was a mutt. The Catholic Church had told my father he could not marry my mother at the main altar of the parish he had grown up in. Then my parents, when I was seven, divorced. So on some weekends I was Methodist, on some weekends Presbyterian or Episcopalian. In truth, I was none of these. I was raised by the culture. I was certainly taught values, often short on explanation, but modernity—such as it was in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan—raised me more than any church.
So there I was reading books on zen. I was studying business and Japanese since Japan at the time was the competition for the auto industry in Detroit. And I was trying to meditate, considering the East, trying to figure out things. I believed—I still do—that religion is one thing people should freely determine for themselves. I was determined to build my own heresy.
Books on spirituality and “self help” line the shelves of bookstores, stories on the same topics call at people from the magazine racks. The millions of readers of these books and articles seem to end up fluttering from one theory, one cure, even one culture, to the next like moths off to the next bright light. Many seem to get some peace of mind from the busyness of the chase but, given all the activity, the background anxiety must never go away. Perhaps because they are looking in all the wrong places.
Much of this, of course, is that recent generations have been trained to have almost no attention span, but another important component is the simple fact that spirituality without religion is an empty vessel. It is a bright, festively wrapped box with a large bow and nothing inside.
So they flutter on.
Deep down, though, the whole culture sometimes seems to be begging for connection to its soul, a way to understand its spiritual side. It wants meaning from its own culture, a connection to its own past. The modern culture teaches, through scientism, to disconnect from prior beliefs, and through modernism, to aspire to a future which promises the most glittering, colorful and exciting line of empty boxes, stretching toward the horizon as far as the eye can see.
Meanwhile, the Church, with over two millenia of experience of providing meaning, is trying in frustration to evangelize that culture. Despite the questions of one side, and the rich history of answers on the other, the chasm between the culture and the Church seems to be ever widening, and altogether perplexing.
At this moment there is hope that a new pope will be able to bring these sides together. He seems to have a connection to the people, a charisma, an ability to inspire. But has the culture given him its attention because he is the next big thing, and already hinted that they will flutter away from when the next bright light appears?
If this Pope does not bring the precise style of change that people’s personal politics desire, then they will certainly press on to the next sensation that appears in the spotlight, as if they are not running all the while from themselves.
But within the great traditions of this very culture are the truths that can nourish and sustain. The frenzied desperation of believing in self alone offers no peace, and each individual, should they consider it, knows this in their heart. While they keep following from one bright light to the next, they all, deep in their souls, want to stop the chase, embrace peace and stay in the light.
Let me see if I can follow.
Everything we can see was created in a Big Bang explosion with no cause of its own. The resulting universe operates under intelligible laws we can determine over time, which came from nowhere. Our species evolved from animals with no first moment of creation. We ourselves are born randomly and without purpose despite every ounce of our being telling us that we are more than that. We live in a lively and beautiful world, filled with wonders, but are meant to consider ourselves separate and, in the end, alone. We feel a thousand things a day—love, community, admiration, sadness, joy–but none are measurable so they are not important. Despite every civilization from the dawn of time trying to pursue truth, there is no such thing because we can’t prove it in a lab or classroom. And, to be modern and enlightened, we must believe in precisely nothing.
Alternatively, we could turn to our great traditions and live in faith. We could step back from the assumptions the world forces upon us and take a look at the bigger picture for ourselves. We could bow to science in respect and thanks without ageeing that it is the only path to truth. It is difficult to say which of the two views is more enlightened, but it is quite clear which makes more sense.
History and tradition are filled with twists and turns, highs and lows, glories and embarrassments. Sometimes, though, sorting through it all is the path to truth.
When the apostles were sent into the world to convert it, many went beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. See generally, The Founding of Christendom, by Carroll. One of these was St. Thomas, who famously had to touch Jesus’ wounds to declare him “My Lord My God” thus fully realizing who He was. See John 20:28.
Thomas went to India. See here. While he was not successful in converting India to Christianity, there is evidence that he went, and evidence of ancient Christian areas in India. He is said to have come to Taxila in Western Punjab (currently in Pakistan) and evangelized. His efforts to convert the region may have been largely wiped out in later years by Kushan attacks, perhaps around 120 A.D.. See Carroll.
Still, stories persist through history of Christianity in India, a Christianity spread by Thomas, in the centuries after Christ. Indeed, there have even been stories of saints.
It turns out there is always hope.
The country seems to be in quite a mess. It appears to be headed for impossible, socialist-style spending with a leader who thinks that’s his birthright and a people who know and just don’t care. The executive branch is attacking the First, Second and Fourteenth Amendments and if people’s paychecks weren’t being cut most folks would be just fine. The culture is not just leaving Christ behind, but seems to have him fading away in the rear-view mirror as it travels quickly who knows where. Ego rules, humility is forgotten, and as a direct result everyone is unhappy and they don’t even know why.
With the New Year upon us, it’s decision time. What should you do with your New Year? What traits should you work on? What do you want to accomplish? What have you missed out on? In this time of reflection, perhaps you should dust off your heresies and see if they need any care or maintenance. It is, after all, a practice much older than you might think.
Growing up in ancient Greece an aspiring student was expected to look at all of the world’s philosophies and carefully choose one of their own. It was a process of examination and a rite of passage. It was a time of reflection and deliberation ending in the choosing of a worldview and then claiming it as yours—in their words, it was a process of hairesis.