Friday, October 19, 2007

Why go to Mass?

In the past week I have spoken to several groups and individuals about God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky and am gratified to learn that I articulate what people have vaguely intuited. Their search for spiritual meaning propelled them past the barrier built by religious authority.

But I received a very good question. If I confess disbelief in a Christian god, don’t I feel odd or even guilty participating in the Mass? How do I justify it? How do I reconcile my informed consciousness with the traditional liturgy? After all, scholarship tells me the Mass is descended from liturgies in honor of Hellenistic pagan gods.

Bear with me while I seem to digress. When I learned that the Bible is not factual history, I tried being an atheist. To overstate my reaction, I thought religion was duping the naïve and I wanted none of it. Then the pain of life threw me into a loving religious fold, the warmth of which overpowered my desire to be intellectually cool. My need kept me in that fold.

I observed the wisdom and goodness of religious people and the efficacy of religious practice, and I realized, with time, that our differences of belief are not so important. Religious beliefs are ways of explaining spiritual reality. From the time of Jesus’ death on the cross, there have been multiple interpretations of it by his followers, multiple spiritual lessons drawn from it, multiple Christianities. Efforts to govern beliefs inevitably fail.

In the words of Elaine Pagels,
Christianity has survived for thousands of years as each generation relives, reinvents, and transforms what it received.” This is no less true of non-Christian traditions—Hindu, Navaho, Dakota, Muslim, pagan, and others.
But aren’t some beliefs right and others wrong? We’re not talking about facts—this is about spiritual nourishment. In Pagels’ Beyond Belief, she writes,
There is no easy answer to the problem that the ancients called discernment of spirits. Orthodoxy tends to distrust our capacity to make such discriminations and insists on making them for us. Given the notorious human capacity for self-deception, we can, to an extent, thank the church for this.

But she warns against “unquestioning acceptance of religious authority.” We must not evade our individual responsibility of answering the invitation to ask, to seek, to knock. The answers we find differ from those of others at the same rituals, and yet we nourish each other.

My way of reconciling various views is to interpret Christian terms inclusively. “Christ,” “Paschal Mystery,” and “Reign of God,” to name some, reverberate with deeper meaning as a result.

That Hellenistic pagans contributed to our religious practice does not demean either our practice or theirs. It indicates religious kinship. Let us be grateful for it and release the wish to be superior.

2 comments:

irving said...

Beautiful and true post :) Each religion at its heart is true, if it entails love as its central core. All the rest are trappings.

Peace and Many Blessings!

theoguy said...

The simplest justification for going to mass is that you are obligated to do so as a Catholic, at least on holy days of obligation. However, it becomes very difficult to justify it if you reject Christian doctrines, or if you think that the mass comes from Hellenistic paganism. By the way, it did not come from Hellenistic paganism. The mass descended directly from the Last Supper and Jewish synogogue worship. That's pretty clear.

Contrary to what you said, Christian beliefs are quite concerned with facts, so they are either right or wrong. And, it is true, as Pagels says, that we should thank the Spirit-guided church for being there to guide us to correct beliefs. It is quite natural to hope that our beliefs are correct, and that we are not being deceived by incorrect beliefs. That is what Christians hope for and wish for. They don't insist their beliefs are correct because they "wish to be superior". Do you insist that YOUR opinions are correct because YOU have a desire to be superior? I bet you would want to answer, "No."