Yesterday, I was asked to speak to a group of 11th graders, who were students from a small private school here in the Atlanta area. This is my third year in doing this and of course it is new group each year. It is a daunting task, for I remember my teenage years and even though those seven years where outwardly uneventful, the same cannot be said for what my inner world was like. I doubt it was much different than other teenagers, either in its intensity or content. I did not especially like being that young and can truthfully say that I enjoy getting older, even though I do miss at times the young strong body I once had, though I think the trade is worth it.
So the group was made up of 11 students, for like I said it is a small private school. Now the students were not in anyway uniform in what they believed. Among them, there was one atheist, two agnostics and one that I am sure was Wiccan. The others did not say if they belonged to any religious tradition or not. Though they did have some good questions…..such is the gift that teenagers share with us old timers.
While I don’t know the teachers very well, over the past three years I have grown in my respect for them. They seem to genuinely care for their charges and each is given a lot of attention in helping them in their studies. While the students ask good questions, it is often the teachers who, knowing the mood of the group, will often ask the one question that perhaps the students talked about earlier but are too shy to ask.
So one of the teachers asked me if I had any thoughts on religion and if it is necessary and why can’t people just believe in God and not bother with any kind of religious tradition. It is of course a good question. First of all, I did admit to the group that there is a lot wrong with how religions are presented and used and often in how it is taught. Being made up of humans, it will display all the traits of any human institution, the good, and the not so good and, yes, actual evil. I doubt that anything can be done about that at least at this point in time because of our present state of human growth and maturity, which does not seem to be all that well developed.
There is a function that religions serve and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on this. Religions are what keep traditions alive and also gives a sense of history and movement. In order to get at the core of any tradition, a certain amount of reflection and study is needed, for within each religious tradition there are those who delve deeper and can assist any serious adherent on their journey through life. The quest for meaning in life can lead to a canon of literature being developed, often over a great expanse of time, that gives depth and meaning to ones existence and can often help sidestep dangerous paths that many go down…. often because they do not have a community that can help them on their way.
Within any group there will always be the same breakdown of people who belong. Though the size of these groups will vary within any one religious group (or, for that matter, secular traditions as well). For some people are more open to other structures of thought and are often more open and agreeable when they come in contact with people of other beliefs, be it religious or not. Another group will be more conservative and at the same time be agreeable to other belief systems if actually not open to them. They are tolerant, more forbearing than being actually open. Yet another group, usually not that large, but more noticeable because of their vehemence in presenting what they believe to be the only truth and if you don’t follow their way, then there is something wrong with you…. again this group is found in any belief system no matter what it is. Both believer and secular groups have this breakdown….though I am speaking in very simplistic terms. Usually the larger groups would be the conservative group, they being the back bone of any movement; be it religious or secular.
I also brought up the fact that as I age, I am getting narrower in the path that I follow. However that does not mean that I will demand that people be where I am at, or that they allow me to think for them and coerce them into my own course. So religion is the container that allows me to deepen my own inner spiritual life, which of course encompasses the intellectual and emotional life as well.
If ones faith is rigid and fearful of other thoughts or beliefs, then life can become filled with arguments and recriminations, often leading to insulting language towards those outside one’s group. It is a hard life to live that way, but it seems to be a human weakness to demonize anyone outside, while overlooking any kind of real evil within one’s own crowd.
There is another group that I did not mentioned above. It is those who do believe in a certain way, but don’t dwell on it, they just live out their lives without making a fuss either way and many stay that way until death. The phrase used in describing this stance is ‘practical atheism’ and many seem fine with that. There are reasons why anyone of us will fit into any one of these groups, no matter how loose that fit may be. Perhaps using Jungian typology (which of course has its limits) can help a bit. Some types of people, say those who have developed their intuition, may be more interested in certain types of questions and concerns than those of another type. Some people are more practical in their approach, others more philosophical or scientific in how they approach things. Each way has its good points and weak points. Seeking a balance seems to be part of the human quest. Jung often talked about the second half of life wherein this balance can slowly be achieved.
When young, I did a great deal of reading of authors who denied the existence of God. I was not convinced, but again, like some atheists who are really incapable of faith, perhaps there are others who are also incapable of being an atheist; I being one of them. While it is true that my faith in God (which has weathered many storms) can at times seem absurd, the thought of there not being a God is even more so. Perhaps we are made to search and even though I am a man of deep faith, committed to my convictions, I have to be honest and say……”I could be wrong”. In the meantime I will try to deepen my understanding of my own tradition (Roman Catholic) and to grow in my ability to respond to the invitation I often feel being offered me by that reality that we call God.