Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Then I read a line (from which source I cannot recall) that said something about when the conflict between belief and behavior becomes unbearable... then something has to give... Now that set me thinking. First of all it is a great line -- I wish I had written it. But it is the crux of the religious dilemma prone to mankind. The conflict between belief (values, morals, ethics, virtue) and the reality of behavior (real life lived out in the sticky mud of wrongs too easily embraced and rights you cannot get yourself to pursue) -- that is where we are stuck.
The author had it correct. Something has to give. You cannot maintain a belief system that is at odds with your behavior for very long and something will give way -- either the belief system will adjust to the behavior or the behavior will be forced to change. The only other option is unbearable despair that the good that I would, I cannot and the evil that I would not, I do (seems like I have heard this one before).
It seems to me that the bulk of the movement in this tension (at least among younger folks) has been to change the beliefs. Those under 25 or 30 are much less likely to have a problem with pre-marital sex, homosexuality, recreational drug use, divorce, the morning after pill, the abortion pill, a little theft on the job, internet porn, and, situation ethics, in general. Now, don't get me wrong -- I am not saying that they have a corner on sin. But youth have learned well the lessons of their forbearers and have done a pretty good job at relativizing their beliefs to fit what works in their lives. A little sex, a little drugs, a little rock and roll... (to paraphrase a sing and a movie) how bad is it, really? Since for many young folks, going to Church equates with a guilt trip, ditch the guilt trip and stick with what feels good.
I suppose I could talk about changing the behavior to match the beliefs, but that seems rather obvious. So these two choices or despair is the only option, right? What about grace? St. Paul seems to know well the conflict between belief and behavior and even the choice toward belief did not seem to hit the ball out of the park. He was the righteous of the righteous and for all his giving up of the good times, his righteousness was only skin deep. The encounter with Christ was not only the illumination of grace but the startling awareness that he had only skimmed the surface of the sin that hid under that veneer of righteousness -- knowledge that threw him even more powerfully into the arms of the Holy One who is also the Grace Giver.
It seems that when I read about young folks who have walked away from the Church and the faith, what I hear most of all is just how poorly we have taught and instructed them in the power of grace to resolve the terrible tension between the holiness expected and the holiness delivered by our pious beliefs and earnest lives. I am not talking about the cheap grace that lets you off the hook, tells you God knows how hard it is to be good and wipes the slate clean so that we can be bad again, but with the caution to more careful in being bad and not to forget where you can get your grace fix the next time it all becomes unbearable. I am talking about the grace the supplies our missing righteousness, transforms the heart and our desires, and leads us to see the Law not only as curb and mirror but also guide. It seems to me that our poor catechesis has left these young folks with two equally bad choices -- the erosion of their beliefs to match up to the behavior they can muster or the despair of hearts whose piety cannot erase desire and force goodness in daily life. If these are the only two choices, I can understand why they would walk away -- we all should!
What I fail to hear in their words (and what is the terrible indictment against our educational endeavors) is that they know anything of the Christ of the cross, of the grace that does what the Law cannot, and of the radical new life flowing from their baptism. It seems that we have done them a grave disservice in teaching them Bible stories, telling them to be good, reminding them that the Church is there when you need it, and then leaving them without even a basic understanding of the grace of God in daily life.
Now I am not painting all young people with a broad brush, but it would seem that a goodly number of those who find the conflict between belief and behavior unbearable were raised in solid Christian homes, regularly in Church on Sunday morning, and clearly what we would call "churched." If we have left them with the impression that it is only a choice between belief and behavior, then we have left them to despair or to a moral relativism that will constantly make adjustments until there is nothing left to adjust. We owed them something more. We owed them the Gospel of the cross and empty tomb, the transformational power of grace, and the new life that God gave them in their baptism.