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Religious: What does that mean?

January 30, 2012
In recent months I’ve had many conversations about what it means to be a “religious” person. Not in the sense of a religious vocation or the priestly life, but as one of the majority of those who profess the Creed from the pews on Sunday – the laity. These conversations have come from across the spectrum, with close friends and first encounters, with young people like me and older generations, with those who enthusiastically practice their faith and those who claim they have no faith to practice. Interestingly, the majority of these conversations occur with people from the last group. I grant that today this group is a majority in our society, especially among young people, but this is not the real point of interest. What is so fascinating about this particular conversation with this particular group of people is the genuine curiosity emanating from them about religion. They have questions.
Of their own point of view many say that it is important to be in touch with our spiritual nature in some form, however each individual chooses to do so. But there is a great skepticism of institutionalized religion, and in particular of the three monotheisms which significantly influence our world: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This skepticism is especially strong of Catholicism, in part because of the way it’s portrayed in the secular media which seeks to subvert the Church’s influence and tends to thrive on controversy. For this reason, the skeptical point of view is often superficial and seldom based on a critical analysis of the Creed or the history of our tradition. We cannot underestimate the influence of forces at work in our societies which misconstrue the real nature of the Church.
The truth is that many of these people that I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the question of religiosity with have a very limited understanding of Catholicism and the other great traditions which have shaped human history. And in the absence of such knowledge, many have adopted a position of spiritual relativism or scientific materialism. But their genuine curiosity of religious questions seems to suggest a sense of dissatisfaction, perhaps with their own philosophy, and certainly with their current level of understanding. So when the opportunity comes to share my thoughts about what it means to be a “religious” person, I tend to challenge the many misconceptions. And I find that the most meaningful conversations come, not when we discuss fine points of theology, but rather the characteristics of a religious person today. The perception is that such a person is detached from society: primitive in their understanding of modern culture, traditional in their social values, unprogressive, morally stringent, and condemning of other creeds. Evidently it is baffling that someone who goes to church on Sunday might also have been to a hockey game on Saturday or a bar on Friday.
This is the kind of superficial perception that must change if the deeper theological questions are to be discussed meaningfully.  In this sense, the average person who professes no particular faith must be able to relate to the average person who does.  Then, once this connection is made, the conversation can open to any topic including the question of religion and religiosity – the thing everyone seems to want to talk about.
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Credit: CNS Photo
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