Notes on liberal religiosity

6 12 2018

I was listening to a lecture of a “liberalizing” tendency of an unspecified religious tradition, and saw parallels to reform-minded tendencies in other religious traditions that I am more familiar with. For the sake of not entering the fray of an argument where I don’t have all sides of the story, I will keep this rather vague. I am referring here specifically to externals. In Catholicism in particular, the last half century has seen a rather thorough attack on all things deemed medieval and triumphalist. Though a vocal minority seems to defend the old ways, for the most part, they have been discarded as remnants of a world that no longer exists and no longer makes sense to the common person of today. This is most evident in the design of churches, the dress of clergy and religious, the language of prayer, and so on and so forth. The now very familiar reasoning states that these externals were preventing people from coming to the essential message of Christ and his Church; that focusing on rules and insignificant details prevented people from seeing the forest from the trees.

This reasoning has experienced a resurgence with the current occupant of the Papacy. More on that in another post. However, we all see now that none of this reform-minded purging of externals did anything to prevent a general decrease in religious practice in Western countries. Some say that it actually exacerbated the mass migration from the Church: the reformers changed too much and people who were attached to the “externals” left. I am somewhat skeptical about this. I think people who want to be practicing Catholics and go to church would have done so even if the Mass was still a hurried and hushed 30 minute affair in Latin on a Sunday morning. Those who think the whole thing ridiculous, or think they have something better to do on Sunday morning, are not coming regardless of how much you change things. I believe that the reasons people come to church are more complicated than what language the service is in or what the priest happens to be wearing when he says Mass.

Ultimately, the issue is one of trying to “justify crazy”. For modern people, believing in a God in the way a traditional faith like Catholicism demands is already a bridge too far. Believing that a man wearing white half a world away can dictate how many children you have or what you can eat on a Friday is already pretty preposterous. Those who accept these elemental silly premises seem to think that they are perfectly normal and that any reasonable person would also think so. They already have blinders on. They already have enough invested in their beliefs to show up Sunday morning after Sunday morning, while the rest of the world would rather sleep in. And since crazy ideas love company, some want to add on fidelity to a dead language or medieval dress up, or guitars and tambourines and all sorts of other things that make the mandatory rituals more friendly to the “average person”. But the average person isn’t showing up no matter what you do. In our day and age, that’s out of our hands.

That’s not to say that you should just become as esoteric and strange as one can because it doesn’t ultimately matter either way. The devil is in the details, and it is up to each believer to find where the border between faithfulness and fanaticism in each individual circumstance. But you should realize that, once you have accepted one “preposterous” belief, everything that follows will be a hard sell, regardless of your own opinion on the matter.


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