Last week, I wrote that I would be sharing a series of three articles titled “Staying with Faith: the Risks and Rewards of Sticking it Out.” This was in response to an event at the Spirit and Place Festival in Indianapolis, led by a former pastor, titled “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.” After twenty-five years in ministry, this former pastor, who is also the author of some best-selling books on religious themes – books which happen to sit on my shelves – resigned from his position and left the church. He didn’t leave just the ministry, he left the church as well. He apparently felt the religious life “no longer worked for him.” Since, I have been in pastoral ministry for about that same amount of time, and since I have decided to stick it out, I thought I’d share why. The “why” I’ll be seeking to answer isn’t about why I have decided to stay in ministry as a career, but why my religious faith is something that remains a central part of who I am, independent of my life as a pastor.
This week I am going to write about what I call, the reality of the Sacred. Next week, I’ll share about the vital role a community of comfort and challenge plays in the religious life. The final article will deal with the power of religious faith in helping to create a more just and compassionate world.
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul writes that once everything else has passed away, some things will remain, “faith, hope and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” In this passage, Paul speaks of there being some realities that are eternal in nature. The way I often speak of such realities is that they are “woven into the very fabric of the universe.” These realities are found across space and time and they are the very things that make human life worth living. They are not things that can be measured or weighed. There is no empirical test that can verify their validity. Yet they are the very realities that give life its fullest sense of meaning.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who endured the horrors of life in the Nazi death camps from 1942-45, including time in Auschwitz. In those camps, Frankl’s parents, brother and pregnant wife all perished. It was out of that experience of intense suffering and loss that Frankl wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning.” His foundational idea is that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life. Much can be endured in life, even much suffering, if somehow we can find meaning in the midst of it. And for Frankl the highest sense of meaning is found in love.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. . . . For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
Frankl learned that the reality that could help him survive the brutality and cruelty he faced, the reality that could help him have a sense of meaning in an environment where meaninglessness abounded was love. The love that he shared with his family, even though they had perished, continued to be a real part of who he was. In the reality of that love he was able to maintain his humanity in the most inhumane of places.
When I speak of the reality of the Sacred, it is to such things as love, hope, grace, joy, beauty, promise, and potential that I am referring. These are realities that drive the human heart to profound acts of compassion and propel the human spirit to heroic acts of character. These are not things that belong to the realm of science, they exist outside the realm of empirical verification. But that they exist, that they are undeniable realities in our world, seems self-evident. And for me, these Sacred realities point toward the deepest reality of all, the reality of God.
I know some folks look at the suffering and sorrow in the world and conclude that there can be no God. I am understanding of their conclusion, but I do not share it. I see the reality of love and hope, even in the midst of suffering and sorrow, as a reason that I believe in God and even more a God, who as the scriptures say, is love.
My favorite quote is from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit Priest, who was also trained in geology and paleontology. His two worlds of science and faith come together in this quote:
The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.
I believe in realities beyond those of the material world. I believe such realities have great power. I believe that behind these realities is the deepest reality of all – God. This belief gives a great sense of meaning and purpose and direction to my life. This is one reason, I have stayed with my faith . . . and it has been deeply rewarding.