Here’s an interesting article published the other day in the Utah Statesman by a fellow named Michael Sowder: Finding Home in India. The author tells the story of his spiritual journey, and it’s a story I’ve heard again and again. Basically, it runs like this: born into a Christian family, Sowder (and countless others like him) finds himself befuddled by the sterile Christian education he received as a child. Eventually he goes on to find meaning and insight in contemplative spirituality outside of the church. And then, only then, does he finally realize that Christianity has a splendid heritage of mystical spirituality all its own. Sowder writes about discovering a copy of Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation on his parents’ bookshelf, and being shocked to discover that a Christian writer understood about meditation and contemplation!
Just a thought for any Christian educators who might be reading this: a few generations ago, Christianity could afford to ignore its own mystical heritage, because in most places it was the only game in town (even as recently as 1950 or 1960, many American communities only had two significant faith presences: Christianity and Judaism, and since Judaism is as much about ethnicity as about faith, for most people it is not generally a faith to convert into). But this simple past is gone. Between the ongoing flow of immigration on the one hand and the growing number of Christians who abandon their faith for Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or some other faith on the other, not to mention the emergence of “new age” and “spiritual but not religious” sensibilities which create the existential possibility of cultivating spirituality outside of traditional religious structures, Christianity is now a religion that has to compete (sorry to use such a crass term, but there it is) with other faiths for the hearts and minds of its children.
When Karl Rahner said “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist” perhaps he was speaking prophetically about Christianity’s need to articulate its own message as an alternative to other mystical traditions like Vedanta or Tibetan Buddhism. If Christianity can be honest, and serious, about its own contemplative heart, then I believe many young people who abandon Christianity for other faiths (or to be s.b.n.r.) might stick around. Of course, they’ll probably be like me, dedicated to interfaith dialogue and eager to appreciate the many points of similarity among the world’s spiritual lineages. But that is a good thing. If Christianity chases away its young people who embrace inter-religious dialogue, it will gradually shrink into a shrill, almost-exclusively-fundamentalist religion, bitter and spiteful toward the rest of the world (and, therefore, utterly unfaithful to its own message of compassion, forgiveness and love).
It’s interesting that Sowder describes his childhood experience of Catholicism as “bored by what seemed its excessive ritualism and over-preoccupation with moralizing.” If the church loses her mystical heart, that’s all that’s left: empty ceremonies and shrill invectives against what it deems immoral. What amazes me is not how many people leave such a desiccated religion — I’m amazed that many people choose to stay. Talk to the young people in your church (and not just the ones who always volunteer as acolytes or lay readers). Chances are, the honest ones will tell you that going to mass (or to services) is supremely boring, even if the church has “contemporary” music. Furthermore, if they’re really honest they’ll point out that Christianity, in their eyes, seems to be little more than a highly-funded, complexly-organized campaign against abortion, homosexuality, and extra-marital sex. My dear readers, please do not get hung up on how conservative (or how liberal) our moral theology should be: my point is that if we are only talking about moral theology, we may as well start selling the real estate now, because the church will sooner or later drive itself out of business.
I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I think Karl Rahner (and Michael Sowder) can help us explore at least one important strategy for communicating Christianity to our children: we need to share with them the splendors of contemplation. I’m not saying we should expect a classroom full of 10-year-olds to be meditating like Zen monks. But I do believe we can introduce inner exploration to children. Combining that with education about the beauty and splendor of the contemplative tradition (where, to quote Trappist author Michael Casey who writes in Fully Human, Fully Divine, “According to the teaching of many Church Fathers, particularly those of the East, Christian life consists not so much in being good as in becoming God”) and maybe there will be hope that Christianity will survive into the future — only not a ritualistic/moralistic Christianity, but a truly mystical, contemplative, joyful and serene Christianity, dedicated to loving and serving its neighbors as itself.