Saturday, May 12, 2012

Today's culture a challenge to faith

A student's probing question
I gave the group of students in my religion class the following instructions, “Read the next two pages, and underline the ideas that you think are important.”  The exercise was a subtle way for me to evaluate the students’ mastery of concepts covered earlier in the year. Had they grasped the key elements of the catechism?

As we went around the table, each student read out one statement that they had underlined, and we briefly discussed them. I was satisfied with the students’ knowledge and understanding. They were on track with the religious education portion of their preparation for Confirmation.

One student, though, underlined a statement that had nothing to do with doctrines. It was a simple statement that readers could easily overlook as unimportant. “Ah,” I thought, “we are onto something here.”

The student had highlighted a section that talked about difficult choices and decision-making.  He read aloud, “The steady stream of difficult choices can be very confusing. This confusion can lead you to question how God is involved in your life or whether he’s involved at all.”

"Faith in the Church" by a454
The student’s selection demonstrated something deeper than the mastery of the catechism. He was probing the depths of his relationship with God. Poised between childhood and adulthood, he is considering the religious beliefs he has grown up with, and the role those beliefs have or will have in his life. The child, who readily accepts the faith of his parents, is giving way to the young man, who is preparing to make his own personal act of faith.

The culture no longer supports religious practice
In the past, many of us were simply carried along on the stream of the prevailing attitudes and practices of the community around us. When I was the same age as the students in my class, everyone went to church. It was what people did on Sundays. People sometimes regarded those who did not attend church with a degree of suspicion. Religious practice was part of the culture of the time, and it was not limited to the church building. 

Public schools opened the day with a Bible reading (which most of us rarely understood) and with the Lord’s Prayer (which we rattled off inattentively). Banquets opened with grace. Civic meetings began with prayers. There was no such thing as Sunday shopping. The culture was friendlier towards religious belief, and religious practice, even if it was merely a habit, was the norm.

Today’s culture is obviously much different in its attitude towards religion. Sunday no longer holds a special place in the week.  For many, attending church ranks low on the to-do list, if it ranks at all.  Our secular culture neither fosters the practice of religion, nor helps the individual sustain the spark of belief. The individual has to make a decision about faith and practice, without support from the culture.  This decision confronts everyone, not only the students in a religious education class.

Even if we decide that God will be part of our life, the culture frequently tests our commitment to that relationship. The values of our secular culture are often in direct contradiction to the values of the religious tradition that nurtured us as children.

Where the Gospel demands that we serve others, the culture advocates looking out for number one. Where the Gospel emphasizes respect for others, the culture bombards us with sexualized images that denigrate the human person. Where the Gospel challenges us to turn the other cheek, the culture advises us to fight back, to get even. Where the Gospel encourages generosity towards others, especially the poor and marginalized, the culture entices us towards rampant consumerism. Where the Gospel values humility, the culture fans the arrogance of the ego.

An objective for my lesson that day was to evaluate the students’ mastery of concepts; did they know the catechism?  I was pleased that they did, but even more delighted with the probing heart of that one student. 

Community supports faith decision
While knowing the teachings of your religious tradition is important, and helpful when faced with confusing moral dilemmas, entering into a personal relationship with God, and participating in a community of believers is critical for sustaining a life of faith.  This is particularly important in today’s world, where religious belief is often regarded with suspicion and hostility, and cultural practices are no longer conducive to the practice of religion, which helps to keep faith alive.

The student’s question is one worth asking of our self from time to time.  What place, if any, does God have in my life?

Photo Credit: "Faith in the Church" by a454, courtesy of

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