I don’t know you. But people have been talking about you.
They say all kinds of things about who you are and why you do what you do. But I wonder what you think. I wonder if what you’ve been told about yourself is really true. I wonder all the time (here, here, here) about whether we might be better off listening to each other than talking about one another. Since becoming a Jesuit I often wonder about two particular groups of you ‘yous’: the religious yous and the rest of yous. (I’ve never seen a minute of Jersey Shore, but I’m pretty sure this is proper usage – or should I say ‘yous-age’? …Sorry.)
One more thing: it’s probably true that I think about this kind of thing because I wonder about my own identity… because I – imagine this – worry about what people think of me and what they say about me. Because sometimes I even question the things I say about myself: am I good enough, smart enough? Do people really like me? How the heck did I end up a Catholic, let alone a Jesuit? I don’t know. Identity is a mysterious thing, and like most mysterious things, it’s fascinating. I think we’ve all had those moments where we turn to our friends and ask that dangerous question, “Who do you say that I am?” Even Jesus had to ask this question, and if it’s good enough for Jesus… well… I’m not saying, I’m just saying.
All of which sets up this: I commented recently on a few NPR interviews about generational shifts in religious affiliation. I ended that piece by suggesting that after listening to people directly we might have some interesting questions. I split them into two groups, the yous who consider themselves religious, and the yous who might not. And let me also say, I don’t have answers to these questions. Still, we can’t answer questions that haven’t been asked.
For the religious yous:
Have you seen the many studies about the decline in religious affiliation? Do you find yourself concerned?
Do you take time to listen to the voices behind the studies?
How do you feel as you listen to these young people speak honestly about their experiences of coming to adulthood and questioning, challenging, or even outright refusing the religious understanding they were given as children?
Can you presume the good in who they are and what they have to say?
Do you see the longing and desire behind their critiques?
Can you accept the legitimacy of the concerns they bring to the many thoughtless answers popularly offered as responses to complex questions about God?
Can you be courageous about the ways in which your house needs cleaning? Here’s a good example.
Or, can you imagine how, for a person who has felt bullied by the church, the ‘Catholics Come Home’ appeal might sound more like yet another reprimand than a request?
Can you applaud their sensitivity to narrow fundamentalisms while encouraging their desire to experience the depths that biblical stories and religious ritual strive to communicate?
Have you encouraged them to consider how the poetry and art of scripture and liturgy – with all of it’s irony, humor, symbolism, creativity and even, at times, absurdity – might communicate real truths about our human vulnerabilities or our need for love, reconciliation, lasting joy and meaningful hope?
Have you ever wondered about these things yourself?
And the rest of yous:
Who told you that biblical literalism was the only way to live a biblical faith?
Why is it that secular cynics fall into the exact same traps that seduce fundamentalist quacks?
Why have you accepted those terms as the sole criterion of faith?
My suspicion here (on both sides) is that, culturally, we are suffering from a profound lack of imagination and hospitality – a lack that I’d call religiously lethal for the complex beauty of human life in all of its doubts and dreams, gifts and gaffs.
When I listen to you speak I hear you expressing thoughts and feelings that lie at the core of religious experience.
And I wonder: Why do your sensitive souls – souls I hear seeking comfort in despairing times, community in a culture of isolation, meaning in moments of ultimate concern – feel yourselves unaffiliated with the millions and millions of human beings who have sought the same comforts and expressed the same concerns within the context of a community of faith?
I’d like to affirm in you the honesty of your concern and the integrity with which you seek the good.
I’d also challenge you to engage churches, mosques and synagogues with your presence rather than punishing them by your absence.
I would be honored to hear you say it again and again and again:
I want to believe… so help my unbelief!
I’m in need of comfort and community, help me to find what I need.
This is a confusing time of transition in life…
From the childish to the mature adult…
I seek belonging…
Is there no room for me here?
Mostly, I encourage all of us to keep listening, to accept that something isn’t right here.
I am convinced that the answer lies in the listening, the questioning, the doubting… and that it does not lie in abandonment or isolation. I know well the longing and confusion of these voices; I’ve heard them again and again in the mystery of a life that has surprised me into a Jesuit vocation.
But even in doubt I know this: What we seek is always found in love, in relationship, always in dialogue, always in how our fundamental human kinship suggests an affiliation that we can’t deny – like it or not, we belong to each other.
I put a lot of faith in the simple fact of our mutual belonging. So, let’s stop talking about all the other ‘yous’ out there and start saying to one another what we’re all longing to hear: I’m yours. When someone has lost something precious, or seeks something distant, it’s then that our response need only be a simple and encouraging expression of solidarity: “Tell me all about it. I’m listening. I’m all yours.”