God is not sophisticated enough

There is a quote from Archbishop Oscar Romero that both traditional and progressive Catholics love to latch onto, because each feels Romero was speaking for them:

A church that doesn’t provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a Word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, what kind of gospel is that? Preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed do not light up the world!

In truth, Romero was speaking for Christ. His words are a challenge to all of us, from the happy-clappy-God-is-Love-so-let’s-not-judge mushes to the stern God-is-Justice-and-you’re-going-to-hell prunes. It is a challenge to look past our own comfortable and self-righteous sense that God thinks just as we do, and to let the Word dwell within us, shake us, unsettle us until it has reformed us–re-formed–in the image of God; holy as he is holy, perfect as he is perfect.

This is of-a-piece with the Anne LaMott quote I shared here:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

You can also safely assume that you’ve created a “spirituality” based on your own conscience (or your subconscious self) when it turns out that all God really wants of you is for you to do what makes you happy. Oh, and “love and forgive and stuff.”

I wonder what Romero would say about the current (and, frankly, cowardly) trend among the sophisticates to exempt themselves from messy, judgmental and possibly-offensive religious identifications in favor of being “spiritual,” which happily offends no one and challenges nothing.

I think he’d like what David Mills writes in this awfully good essay:

So we find Lady Gaga, the pornographic songstress, telling a reporter for The Times that she has a new spirituality just before taking her out for a night at a Berlin sex club. Asked by the reporter, “You were raised a Catholic — so when you say ‘God,’ do you mean the Catholic God, or a different, perhaps more spiritual sense of God?”, she responded, “More spiritual. . . . There’s really no religion that doesn’t hate or condemn a certain kind of people, and I totally believe in all love and forgiveness, and excluding no one.” [. . .]

Even academics don’t see the problem. A few years ago a much-reported study of college students’ religious practice found that they become more “spiritual” as their observance of their childhood faith declined. The researchers defined “spiritual” as “growth in self-understanding, caring about others, becoming more of a global citizen and accepting others of different faiths.” They simply dressed up their favored attitudes by calling them “spiritual.” That kind of spirituality, detached from anything specifically religious, is just materialism in a tuxedo.

Read it all; I believe you will cheer at the end.

Brutally Honest has a response

Ross Douthat: Choose your own Jesus

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • self-righteous annie

    Funny how I just got off the phone after a very heated “discussion” with my mother who is supporting and NOT judging my brother in his third failed marriage and fourth relationship with another woman. She allows them to sleep in her home together and visits them in their home together. Although my feelings have nothing to do with this situation, the truth is hard for her to accept that her accepting this relationship while my brother is still married to his third wife through the Catholic Church (and still married through the justice of peace). She says that I am sinning for judging them and what I should be doing is accepting theme where they are at so that I can help them to see the light…. hmmm, I don’t see any light in this situation. I see total darkness and I won’t be a party to it. Although I’ve told my brother that he is more than welcome in our home with his children, he says I reject him because I don’t allow his lover to come… Help?

  • http://alittleguide.blogspot.com/ Jeff Hendrix

    Elizabeth – Coming from a New Age Zen Protestant background prior to my conversion to Mother Church, I spent a goodly amount of time in and around Jungian analysts and thinkers. I have come across this notion even in a Catholic priest or two; namely, what I call “behind-ism”. Behind the particulars of the Catholic faith there is a broader, more general spiritual “reality”.

    It is like Jos. Campbell’s popularization of Jung’s psychoanalytic psychology with his “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” This rarified thinking sees the many masking the few or the one spiritual “reality”, whether it’s Jungians “collective unconscious” or Atman (etc.). Strangely, when one cuts oneself loose from the scandal of particularity, one – or one’s children’s children – end up falling fairly predictably into a recrudescence of the neo-pagan characteristics rather than the idyllic, schmoozed-out pipe dream of “everything is one and everybody is really climbing the same mountain using different paths.”

    This “behind-ism” is a slippery slope, IMO, toward a Gnostic religious configuration with Egypto-labyrinthian texturing. That is to say, “Dude, this is WAY cooler than going to Mass!” (Think Jim Morrison meets Fr Matthew Fox meets those dotty religious who have retreat centers with labyrinth/Native American/Yoga lunar eclipse weekends.)

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    She says that I am sinning for judging them and what I should be doing is accepting them where they are at so that I can help them to see the light

    Sorry, but this is nonsensical, 180-degrees twisted logic.
    If your mother says that you can “help them to see the light,” is she not judging them herself, is she not judging that they do not now have “the light”? If they already had the light, you and she would not need to help them see it.

    But really, it has little to do with “judging” your brother. Whether it is your brother or a total stranger is irrelevant. It is objectively wrong, that is, it is objectively contrary to authentic love and the truth of the human person, ergo, a sin, for a married person to be taking up with someone else. It is wrong, and the fact that it is your brother or my brother does not therefore make it right or acceptable.

    Your brother already knows this, no one needs tell him, but to tell him the opposite, to implicitly say that it is OK, is to do enormous injury to him, the family, and the truth.

    Discerning a given situation to be objectively wrong is not to judge the person involved, it is to judge the situation. And even if it is to “judge” the person, such judgment need not take the form of anger or resentment or ostracizing or disgust.

    But it does need to take the form of remaining faithful to truth, of saying “This is wrong. I still love you, I will always love you, but this is wrong. And because I love you, I would be doing you a disservice to acquiesce and act as if it was right. It is not right. AND, not only do you know that it is not right, but it is also NOT the way to happiness. To be sure, continuing to pursue the wrong in this way is to guarantee unhappiness. If you want to be happy (and I assume that mom “just wants him to be happy”), then the way to be truly happy is to DO THE RIGHT THING. You will never be happy doing the wrong thing, and you know it.” Truth requires this be said. Love requires that after it be said, you embrace (hug) the sinner. Being faithful to truth does not require turning our backs on people, but it does require telling them the truth.

  • Everwyck

    And so, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” continues to spread. I suppose it’s better than the “New Atheism.”

  • pam

    The devil is a spiritual being.

  • http://cartagodelenda.blogspot.com Matteo

    I like to tell people that I’m religious but not spiritual. The contrast sounds pretty absurd when you phrase it that way.

  • saveliberty

    Thank you, Elizabeth! I loved this piece.

    Annie, I had a long response to you (LOL, much longer than this), but I think that a better answer is for you to speak to your priest or minister.

    Your mother is afraid of losing a relationship with her son and grandchildren. That’s why she won’t “judge” him. Your brother is in a cycle of destructive relationships, in full view of his children.

    This is something with which the experts will need to help you: how to watch someone you love hurt himself or herself and still be a positive influence. You hope and pray for the event that someone makes a decision, ‘hey, this is destructive! I want to try something else’.

    Psst. Where argument fails, loving and gentle humor can make the point more effectively.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    Speaking of quotes, this is one heck of a great quote:
    “It is a challenge to look past our own comfortable and self-righteous sense that God thinks just as we do, and to let the Word dwell within us, shake us, unsettle us until it has reformed us–re-formed–in the image of God; holy as he is holy, perfect as he is perfect.”

    One of your best Anchoress, both in meaning and in sentence structure. You should make sure you save that somewhere. Kudos.

  • BB.

    Annie, I understand your dilemma perfectly, as I find myself in a similar situation regarding my young adult children and some of their behaviors. First, you can pray. Pray that your brother’s heart may be softened so that he can hear the truth. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you specifically what to pray for. Our prayers are the seeds that we oftentimes water with our tears.
    Second, you can speak the truth in love, as some have already suggested. Whatever you do, don’t give up! Our Lord desires that all should come to Him.

  • gregorylent

    i read it to the end … and did not cheer at all … felt the writer to be addicted to words and concepts to the point of being incapable of comprehending anything to do with what he was ostensibly writing about ..

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    I realized I never gave an opinion here. I’m a little bit of two minds on this. As a traditional (for the most part) Catholic I understand and side with the “hard nosed this is the way Christianity is and you better accept it” impulse. But if someone finds a way – albeit their own personal way – to God, it’s better than nothing. The choice for most of these people is not traditional Christianity or spiritualism, it’s agnosticism or worst atheism and spiritualism. A sense of God is better than no sense of God. And like with Jeff Hendrix above in comment #2 (I know he’s on the opposite side of this from me) it may start with a spiritual feeling and then lead to real Chrisitanity.

    So yes, it’s up to us traditional Catholics (and other traditional Christians as well) to maintain our Christian orthodoxy, but if others find God in other ways I’m not going to belittle them.

  • http://www.firstthings.com David Mills

    Thank you, Elizabeth, for posting the link and for pairing me with Archbishop Romero. Would that I were the man he was.

    Manny: You are right that we shouldn’t belittle people who “find God in other ways,” but I think there are two qualifications to be made:

    1) We shouldn’t assume that anyone who talks about God and spirituality and the like actually means it — the discernment of this in people you’re called to engage is truly a matter of being wise as serpents and innocent of doves; and

    2) We should still challenge them and push them even if they’re sincere. Any “spirituality” not founded in a Christian tradition and particularly (I say this as a Catholic) in the Catholic Church is intrinsically unstable and unsatisfactory. They will find God more truly and securely if they move on beyond their “spirituality.”

  • Last Sphere

    “Now a Catholic starts with all this realistic experience of humanity and history. A Spiritualist generally starts with the recent nineteenth-century optimism, in which his creed was born, which vaguely assumes that if there is anything spiritual, it is happier, higher, lovelier and loftier than anything we yet know; and so opens all the doors and windows for the spiritual world to flow in.”

    “Now, being purely spiritual is opposed to the very essence of religion. All religions, high and low, true and false, have always had one enemy, which is the purely spiritual.”


  • Last Sphere

    (annie wrote – “She says that I am sinning for judging them and what I should be doing is accepting theme where they are at so that I can help them to see the light…”)

    That is utter poppy-cock on their part annie.

    Christ did not forbid judgement of another’s sins, in fact, he commands us to do just THAT when we remove the splinter from our brother’s eye . However he warns us not to do so from a hypocritical heart.

    From Matthew 7:1-5

    Stop judging, that you may not be judged.
    For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.
    Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?
    How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye?
    You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”

    Judgement on our part is absolutely required. If we cannot judge what is sinful- then we can never possibly know what is good.

  • Elaine

    I want my church to challenge me to be “my best authentic self” and it does. There is great spirituality in the gospels and the sacraments are God’s gifts to us. So much, so much!

    I would miss all the “in-depth stuff” if I didn’t have my religion to show me the way!

  • Gail F

    “The researchers defined “spiritual” as “growth in self-understanding, caring about others, becoming more of a global citizen and accepting others of different faiths.” They simply dressed up their favored attitudes by calling them “spiritual.” ”

    Sounds like this year’s CARA study that showed kids who went to Catholic colleges come out more Catholic than they go in — until you read that the researchers’ ideas of what constitute “Catholic” opinions are the typical liberal opinions taught in most colleges, which people of any and no religion can hold.

    I like the article but think he missed an important point. I know many “spiritual but not religious” people who come from many different backgrounds. Some do seem to want a “no requirements” sort of religion. Others were badly burned by a particular religious or family experience and seem to be afraid to make a mistake so they steer clear of any commmitment. And others don’t think anything is really “true,” so they just pick things from different religions that they think are cool.

    I don’t think a particular upbringing or background causes it, I think it’s something that people in our culture and time, whatever their backgrounds, are vulnerable to. Something is missing, something that was once essential to almost everyone in every culture. Even though I am a faithful Catholic, I think it’s missing in me. I believe in spite of myself sometimes, and I wish that I had the easy assurance that “of course there’s a God” that most people in the non-Western world still seem to have.

  • Last Sphere

    “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”


    Read more Chesterton.

  • Last Sphere

    Anyone who reads Chesterton will soon understand that Christianity is anything but unsophisticated. On the contrary- the level of spiritual awareness and mystical depth found in Catholicism is unrivaled in all the worlds myths, religions, superstitions, and philosophies since the dawn of time.

  • paigeu

    I probably can’t deny it anymore…. especially after reading Jeff Hendrix. I am a closeted “new ager”.

    I do believe that Jungs theory of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” has a lot of merit to it considering that “the truth is written on our hearts” etc…I also believe that only a tiny percentage of humanity goes to hell and I can “lawyer-speak” a rather good argument for my position.

    But what all the other religions are lacking, despite the fact that they have some “cool” things to say and probably some piece of the truth pie…they don’t provide a Person to love. They don’t give me something with a Face and a Personality to love me back. All that abstract stuff is lovely to theorize about… but it doesn’t make me a new person.

    The only thing that has ever really motivated me to root out my selfishness is being fully 100% totally committed and invested in a LOVE relationship with a HUMAN BEING. That is why I am Catholic…because in the Church walls I have access to the person I love.

    When I think long and hard about the doctrine of the faith I stumble across what seems like legalism and a few inconsistencies. I can certainly accept that this may be a fault of my intellect or my character…but I can’t say that I could ever be a great apologist for Canon Law. I accept what I “just don’t get” and what strikes me as “kinda mean” and whatnot because this Church is the one my Savior sent me to to find Him.

    I thought the essay was good though the tone was “preaching to the choir”.

    The reason there aren’t more Catholic/Christians is because almost everyone knows a REALLY REALLY WEIRD religious person who says outlandish things in a tone of harsh superiority to anyone who will listen. You all know who I am talking about…they comment on religious blogs all the time. Well…we all have someone like this in our family or network of friends…and

  • paigeu


    when we can’t help but think “whatever it is I do with my life I better make sure it is the exact opposite of whatever it is they are doing”.

    That, folks, is a large part as to why we have a culture that thinks we a bunch of nut-balls.

  • paigeu

    *sigh* I wrote that whole second paragraph wrong..I look dumb.

    Anyway… My point was that I think that some of the new-ageist thought is probably semi-accurate in ways… and that wanting a “feel good faith” isn’t a sign of some kind of spiritual cowardice.

    *makes mental note to proof read more often*

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

    I’ve been a fan of David Mills for several years; nice to see him getting more of the attention he deserves.

  • Ben-David

    Gail F:
    Some do seem to want a “no requirements” sort of religion. Others were badly burned by a particular religious or family experience and seem to be afraid to make a mistake so they steer clear of any commitment.
    - – - – - – - – - -
    Many have grown up in “religious” communities and environments where religious strictures were used by people – often petty people – for their own ends.

    The sages of the Talmud warned “Don’t make the Torah a shovel to dig your own trench with.”

    Also – the path of service/commandment is one that fails our generation’s expectation for instant gratification. You have to invest, have faith, hang in there.

    The state of Israel was founded – and is still populated – by people who protest that they are “not religious”. But they will, with a little prompting, tell you about their deep connection to what I call the “Body of Israel” – and to their very close experiences of G-d on the battlefield and in their lives.

    As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Cook (first chief Rabbi of Israel) says:

    There is a denial which is in fact faith, and profession of faith which is really denial.

  • Mary

    when we can’t help but think “whatever it is I do with my life I better make sure it is the exact opposite of whatever it is they are doing”.

    That, folks, is a large part as to why we have a culture that thinks we a bunch of nut-balls.

    Yup. Good thing, too.

    No disciple is above his teacher, no slave above his master.
    It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, for the slave that he become like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more those of his household!

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    David Mills – I agree with both your points.

    Paigeu – I really enjoyed reading your comment, and while I don’t consider myself a “new ager” closeted or otherwise I can relate to your experience.

  • http://theblackcordelias.wordpress.com/ Nan

    And a lot of people just want to make God in their own image or to have control of everything.

  • EJHill

    My two oldest sons are polar opposites of each other. The one who looks just like me is everything I am not, especially where it relates to musical talent. But no one who has spent time with my oldest, who more physically resembles my father-in-law, hasn’t told me that he isn’t a “chip-off-the-old-block.”

    See, “image” is not just physical. When we read in Genesis that “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image,’” it means more than just God giving us a physical body that resembles His, it also means that He endowed us with certain traits that we share with Him. What we refuse to acknowledge these days is that some of these traits are not always considered Godly. In Exodus He tells us that He is capable of great jealousy and throughout the Scriptures we learn time and time again that He is vengeful, wrathful and judgmental. In the end we try to discourage those traits in ourselves. Lately we have taken to denying that they exist in our God.

    By denying the true nature of God we create the need to replace Him with a creation that we feel more comfortable with. In doing so we have treated God like a product that needs rebranded and marketed and this reinvented God is all love and non-judgmental. In deriding this brand of Christianity, the playwright Robert Shaw once wrote that the Christian was merely “a Jew who thinks he’s bought himself an iron-clad insurance policy” as if nothing is required of us but belief and a piece of bread.

    As a result of this rebranding, our pulpits are now devoid of talk of that which God asks us. It’s not that sin is never spoken of. No, the real tragedy is that it, too, has become rebranded into a banality. There are no sins, just a diversity of lifestyles. No sin means no guilt and no guilt means no need for repentance. We celebrate God’s forgiveness and conveniently forget that His forgiveness comes with the admonishment not only to repent but to go and sin no more.

    More often than not we are told this effort is to “make the Church more relevant to the problems of modern day man.” Suddenly, the five-thousand-year-old mission of the Judeo-Christian ministry, which had been to bring man closer to his God, has been replaced by the arrogance of man demanding that God needs to come to us.

    Instinctively, we know that our pride will lead us into a fall. But we ask for it anyway.

  • Greta

    When the term spiritual comes up, it is so often associated with some new age thought. What I find is that when you understand the full truth of the Catholic teaching, tied together with a search for a relationship with Christ, you will be drawn to a spirituality that is more one of surrender than finding your personal sweet spot that makes you a better person.

    Jesus said we must love him with our entire heart, soul, and mind in that order. Too many who seem judgemental start with their mind reading and absorbing everything in the rules, before they fall in love. Some try to fall in love without the knowlege of who it is they are falling in love with and what He desires. We in fact use everything we have as human beings trying to have a relationship with God as an ant would be required if they hoped to bond with a human being. If we study Christ, His Catcholic Church, and do so that we may love him with our entire heart and soul, we are doing what makes sense by nature. Of course God can grant us the grace of understanding without the use of our mind and so lead us to love. But to me, it is the seeking of God where I best find the truth and beauty of the Catholic Church and all her tradition. It can be as simple as focusing on the gospel of John to help love Christ before we delve deep into Acts or the work of Paul. When we love Christ more than anything else including our self, we are then able to learn more on the way to total sacrifice of self that elevates our soul and our mind. Only in this state is it possible to love our enemies as He desires us to love them. The new age spirituality seems focused on somehow transforming ourselves into something new as if possible without total sacrifice and devotion to Christ.

  • paigeu

    I wanted to expand more on what I meant when I called myself a closeted new-ager…because I fear that since the term has so many different meanings for different people that I need to guard against causing scandal by implying that “all ways lead up the same mountain”…

    What I mean to say is that elements of Divine Truth are found everywhere in creation. *Everywhere* People who are aware of the Divine on an instinctual level will grasp at that which is the least threatening.

    It is easy to look at some secularist person saying “hey, I recognize the Divine but I won’t practice a religion” and cast our eye of judgment at what seems like intellectual inferiority and a lack of willingness to sacrifice.

    What I have found though is that a lot of peoples supposed “sacrificial love” is often masochism. They are showing the world “Hah, I am so much better than you because I am not a slave to my passions”. When people look upon those people they see the agony in their faces and they know…subconsciously at least…that this person is sacrificing so much not because they love God but because they want to punish the rest of us. WE DONT LIKE TO WATCH SUFFERING…so when we see someone choose agony for themselves we feel as offended as if they slapped us in the face.

    People who suffer for the Love of God seem to have *more* peace and joy in their lives than the rest of us…not less. When we watch someone suffer with sincere joy we are made to feel *confused* or *inspired*… not *angry*.

    People like this…who have both shed their need for societal approval and have committed themselves to the Divine Will are extremely rare even in religious circles.

    Most “spiritual” people are playing the same game as us but with different language. “I will sacrifice this, but not that..” I know some new-age pagans who live far more sacrificial lives than me in their devotion to their own values- like raw-foodism, or environmentalism, or animal activism. It is the same basic impulse that inspired our sacrifices, but in what they recognize as being from the Divine..nature, health, etc… So lets not confuse new-age with total self-indulgence.

    Where I may differ from others is that I believe God gives us one more chance before we die to say “yes” to the Divine Will, and that chance is the least threatening means ..*given our psychological condition*… that will merit an entrance into purgatory. I think *most* people say yes…and therefore *most* people spend a long long long long long long time in purgatory rather than go to hell. I also think we can’t *presume* on this mercy because it may surprise us to know that it is often the falsely-pious and not the hardened criminals who find that final “fiat” impossible.

    Mental astuteness often gifts people with a phenomenal ability to justify themselves…while many criminals don’t even bother to justify themselves….they are simply so steeped in rage that they can’t find a way out. They are more or less victims to a furious inertia of fear and hate that nothing but the most profound Divine Grace could shake them out of. I have heard of many criminals who commit crimes specifically so they can go to jail and feel free from their temptations.

    God is a Loving Father and He will do whatever He can to save our souls without imposing on our Free Will. I believe He makes Heaven *Extremely difficult* but purgatory is not so difficult.

    The new-ageists are very right in their rejection of religious masochism…but they are very very wrong in their belief that Jesus Christ has nothing to offer them personally and that moralist reasoning and emotional healing is enough. When you “lean unto your own understanding” you will always fall victim to *false* values. Always always.
    If we follow all the rules we may find ourselves self-satisfied, but self-satisfaction is not the same as perfect love.

    And that is why the Catholic Church is better than “spiritualism”. It is only within the Church that you can find both the guidance we need to self-correct, and the grace, Love, and Personhood of Christ to make us new.

    Unfortunately we have to put up with a bunch of religious masochists too…..and I can’t help but find them a lot more annoying than the best intentioned new-age spiritualist. They tarnish something I hold dear with their selfish need to punish anyone who dares enjoy Gods gifts.

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  • Lee Cerling

    While I greatly respect your thoughts and your general line of thought here, isn’t it the case that the prophets and Jesus himself inaugurated something like this distinction between the “religious” (outwardly) and the “spiritual” (inward obedience to God)? Isn’t one reason that Jesus was so hated precisely that he wasn’t “religious” enough–that he didn’t conform to many of the religious rules of his day? So while I take your point that people use “spirituality” as a cover for self-indulgence, there is definitely something in the Bible itself that is critical of “religion”, yes?

    [Jesus was also an observant Jew. I don't think he had a problem with "religion" per se, since he built a church (upon this rock, I will build my church..."). He clearly had a serious problem with empty observance and hypocrisy. With claiming to a spirituality one did not keep. -admin]