Brendan Hoban: Every Faith Journey has its Twists and Turns

Every faith journey has its twists and turns             Western People July 26, 2022

A reader suggests that I might answer a question that has obsessed him/her for some time: how come that so many Catholics end up with such a variety of religious experiences: God is distant/close, a stern judge/a close friend, etc. The only rule he/she lays down for my thoughts on this matter is that what I write should be simple, clear and to the point. No complicated words never seen before. No theological jargon. No needless complication or ambivalence.

Let’s see how I get on.

The first thing I’d say is that faith in God comes to us through our development as human beings. So let’s go back to basics. For most of us we develop (as human beings) through three stages: infancy, adolescence and adulthood – and usually in that order. For a religious sense to develop, it has to take account of the specific needs of infancy, adolescence and adulthood. Theologians use complicated words to describe how religion must include three essential elements corresponding to the three stages of life: in infancy, certainty; in adolescence, questioning; and in adulthood, resolution. (To some degree, all three elements are present at all three stages, as all three are necessary for the development of a religious sense.)

In infancy, we tend to instruct because infants usually accept what their parents (or teachers) tell them. We don’t expect questioning, though it happens! And we don’t ask a child to make up his or her own mind. It’s beyond them at that stage. What infants want is security and protection and once those are available they tend to comfortably accept the wisdom handed to them. They prefer what’s black and white and are unhappy to have to live in the grey. A crisis can develop if Daddy and Mammy are not on the same hymn-sheet.

The danger with the infancy stage – in terms of religion – is that some settle into it so well that they don’t want to move out of it later on. They prefer in later life to remain in an infantile state, so religious growth is effectively impeded.

Some adult Catholics live in or pine for this stage of arrested religious development. So they want to be told what’s right or wrong; they like simple catechism responses to complex questions; and, sometimes, those in authority may encourage them in their infantile state by praising them for their loyalty and obedience. The spiritual writer, Gerard Hughes, SJ, has written that there is ‘no more effective way of destroying true faith in God than by misusing words like loyalty, obedience and faithfulness’.

Catholics, caught in a state of arrested infantile development, are often the angriest in opposing any change in the Church and in resisting the present reforms of Pope Francis.

With adolescence, we move into a time when the mind begins to question and when a search for meaning begins to take centre stage. Attempting to ward off a questioning spirit by not allowing adolescent Catholics to think for themselves is self-defeating because, if the critical element is not encouraged or worse still impeded, Catholics remain infantile in their religious beliefs, which will be out of sync with how they live.

In adolescence, the critical consciousness needs to be unambiguously fostered, resourced and cherished because without it Catholics can remain infantile in their beliefs and practices which will not reflect their lives and attitudes – with religion becoming a private matter, confining God within set boundaries.

On the one hand, this can be difficult (and feel disloyal) when it runs against the accepted wisdom and practice of parents who have provided security and protection of the infant years. But, on the other hand, without a healthy critical environment, Catholics can become obsessed with what they perceive as heresy in others.

Adults live in a world that’s complex and even mysterious and become increasingly aware of the importance of ‘an inner world’ through which we experience hope and despair, joy and sadness, fear and expectation, certainty and doubt.

The more adult we become, the more aware we are that this inner world holds the key to personal happiness, especially when we find that as Christians an important constituent of making our own individual journey is the presence with us of a God who loves us uniquely and individually and beyond all our imaging.

God is not a judge hovering around us waiting for us to make mistakes but a God who is loving, forgiving, merciful and  compassionate. A God who loves us as we are – despite our failures. A God who is with us, in good times and in bad, and on every step of the pilgrimage of life. The great treasure that we seek as adult Catholics is a personal, loving relationship with the God of Jesus Christ.

And what a church does for an adult Catholic is to provide encouragement and guidance as we enter that most important stage of our religious journey, a growing conviction that God is always and everywhere present to us.

Three elements correspond to three stages of human growth – in infancy, certainty; in adolescence, questioning; and in adulthood, resolution. All three elements are essential to religious growth and traces of all three remain with us all our days.

Every faith journey will have its own twists and turns, moments of light and times of darkness. Occasions when, to quote the first letter to Corinthians, we see ‘in a mirror, dimly’. But other times too, when we see ‘face to face’.

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