It was Sunday morning. I received a distress call about a woman who had stillbirth. She wanted a priest to pray for her and help her spiritually deal with her trauma and pains. No sooner had I finished praying with the woman, offering her God’s consoling words and warmth of human compassion she needed at her moment of trial, than I met with another girl around the vicinity of the hospital. She could be in her late twenties or early thirties.
“Are you a minister, pastor or what?”
I looked in her curious eyes and saw some interest, maybe to talk with this stranger, whose attire was different from many men she may have met.
“I am a priest,” I replied.
It seemed my answer was not satisfactory, the girl wanted more details.
I knew at that moment she was coming from a Christian background – Christians meeting each other for the first time often ask same or similar questions.
“Catholic,” I replied. I had to develop an interest in her, or at least seem to do so by inquiring about her too. You don’t want to be ungentlemanly. Reciprocal dialogic conversation in this sense is politeness.
“What about you?” I asked.
“Me”, she said, “I don’t believe in religion, I belong to the kingdom.”
Her answer came as a surprise to me. I wondered why she would answer my question by a refutation of something else. Was she trying to say I do not belong to the kingdom or what? Prejudging? Well, I would engage her I decided.
“I belong to the kingdom too and I do not believe in religion also.”
This came as a shock to her. I could see it in her eyes at the mention of “I do not believe in religion also.” But I would not allow her to steer the ship.
“Do you mean you belong to the kingdom of God,” I continued.
“Yes, of course.”
I thought so; at least we were on the same page since she was referring to the kingdom of God. She must believe in life after death too.
“You would likely believe in Jesus and may be a Christian,” I suggested.
Her emphatic yes was reassuring and made me feel good that our phatic communication has become something more. I wasn’t talking to a non-believer or somebody from another faith. I was talking to a fellow Christian. Now we can talk.
“I am a Christian too. And as a Christian I do not believe in religion, I believe in Jesus, in the Trinity.” I would have ended the discussion at that moment but wanted her to educate me on what she meant by saying “I don’t believe in religion,” I felt we might not mean the same thing. I was very curious and open to tap from her insight.
“For me” she began, “religion has to do with tradition – for me, it is a cult and I don’t believe in a cult. This is my opinion; it is religion for me.”
I observed how in two sentences she had used ‘for me’ ‘this is my opinion’ four times. I engaged her on that, wanting to know why she was emphasizing ‘for me.’
“If ‘for me’ means your personal opinion, you are entitled to it. Who am I to suggest otherwise. But if you want it to be what has been the consensus denotation, I will suggest it isn’t.”
“How,” she asked.
When she asked the question, I saw she was willing to listen to see the bigger picture than the ‘for me’ alibi. A good way to go.
I started. “Religion is simply a concept developed by a given society to express a reality. Just like the concept ‘America’ represents a people and a particular geographical location. But the concept is conventional, developed by the people and there is some consensus on what the concept means; otherwise it would not represent ‘America.’”
I asked her, “Do you suppose you are right when you say ‘For me, I don’t accept America to mean what it is but I will call it something else I like?’”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I suspected you wouldn’t,” I continued.
“Though the concept of America was developed in time to represent a particular reality, the concept would not mean anything to anybody without reference to the reality it represents. When people decide to develop their concept which is not related to what a particular concept is understood to mean by convention, they may as well have some explaining to do or do some massive publicity so as to convince anyone else to change the old concept with their new favored one. But if the rejection of the concept has to do with a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of what the original concept means, it is known in education as ignorance. Do you follow this much?” I asked.
Ok. We can go further, I thought. “Back to the concept of religion, religion is from Latin religare – which literarily means ‘a connecting tread’. It was a common concept used by folks of the time to explain the reality of anyone who has connection with the sacred or God or gods. Later the meaning was expanded to mean, those who have recognizable ‘cult’ (a worship system) to distinguish it from people who do not believe in the spiritual, or in God or in the gods and who do not have an organized system of worship. Hence, anyone who believes in God, the Sacred, in the spiritual, or in gods is said to be religious; but anyone who does not isn’t. It is a concept that identifies a group of people of ‘faith’, distinguishing them from another group, those who do not believe in the Sacred or spiritual. Atheists and agnostics are not religious. Do you understand that much?”
“I do,” she concurred.
Then I continued, “And when the American constitution talks about freedom of religion, it means to express those freedoms enjoyed by those who believe in the Sacred and who have an organized way of expressing their beliefs as must be protected by the state irrespective of their different ‘cults’ (the different ways they express their religious aspirations provided they operate within the confines of the constitution). Hence, religion is an umbrella concept for ‘believers’ in God, the Sacred, gods or the spiritual as contradistinguished from the purely material, physically experimental world, no matter what their understanding of the sacred is. And if I may ask you, by saying you don’t believe in religion and you are not religious but spiritual, do you mean to say you do not believe in God?”
“Not what I mean. I mean I do not belong to any religion.”
“There you go! But you are Christian?”
“Does the fact that you don’t want to accept the consensus understanding of the concept of religion change the meaning of the concept?”
“I don’t think so,” she answered.
“Good you know. Similarly, if you are not religious but spiritual, what is the difference between you and an Asian religious, who is a member of one of the numerous Asian religions? Did you know their religions are truly spiritual, because they do not believe in a particular Person(s) as the Sacred but in the spirit world and they try to connect with that spirit world. If you say you are spiritual, you may want to affiliate with them who are in that sense the truly spiritual.”
“What religions are you talking about?” her sense of curiosity was raised.
“Have you not heard about the Asian religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and many other mystic spiritualities practiced by many from the Asian culture?”
“Not heard of them.”
“I am not surprised. Even they know they are religious people as well. But they do not believe in the Person(s) of divinity as we Christians believe. If we claim we are spiritual but not religious simply because we want to emphasize we do not belong to any organized Christian Church, are we really representing what the Lord and the Founder of our Faith wanted? I am a Christian, a Catholic and I do not believe in the spirit or even in religion as my God. I do believe instead in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior. In fact, I believe in the three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Isn’t this belief our central belief as Christians?”
“Yes, it is,” she replied.
“I also believe in the Body of Christ, the Church, because my faith is a faith personal and in the community of faith, in the body of Christ as our Lord taught us and Paul emphasized. Thus, all those who have this faith, within the law of the state are called religious as well. But it doesn’t mean they are not different from other religious groups. Christianity is completely different because of the belief in the Trinity and in a relationship with God who has revealed Himself in Christ Our Lord and Savior, and who through the Holy Spirit gives us the power to daily relate with God as a Person.”
“You have the choice: Is your Christianity spiritual and therefore like the Asian spiritualties or is your Christianity religious because you believe in the reality of God who is beyond physical empirical test? Do you ever think you can be a Christian without connection with the body of Christ, the Church? Doesn’t the Church have an organized system of worship – say, reading and sharing the bible together, worshiping on Sundays, praying together and communion? Aren’t these aspects of organized Christian worship? Or do you think it is a disorganized set of believers?”
She didn’t answer my questions but simply said, “I never looked at it this way. I never even knew Catholics believed in the Holy Spirit or in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I never knew they were Christians. I was taught they were religious and not Christians.”
As she said this, I could see her become a little emotional.
“Can I have a hug?” she requested.
“Sure, you can.”
“God love you,” I said to her as she walked toward her car and I to mine.