I seldom need to be reminded that I am a step or two behind the times. But my atavistic tendencies were almost comically dramatized a week ago, when I returned home from three days spent re-enacting a nearly 500-year-old religious ritual — only to glance at the front page of my very own newspaper and learn that “the fastest-growing religion in the United States [is] ... none at all.”
The Star Tribune’s well-read occasional series on “The unchurching of America” had already poignantly described the struggles of many churches, especially in rural areas, as their congregations grow smaller and older. In last Sunday’s third installment, reporter Jean Hopfensperger explored what she called “the biggest force behind … empty pews across Minnesota and the United States — [the fact that] nearly one in four Americans now declare themselves unaffiliated with any organized religion.”
In a way, I suppose I am part of this thoroughly modern trend. Having grown up as something of a lukewarm mainline Protestant (if that’s not a redundancy), I have long since become something of a religious dilettante, sampling and admiring various faiths from a safe distance.
But the hard stuff — contemplative Catholicism — has exerted the strongest pull.
For more than 30 years, I’ve spent a three-day weekend each autumn in quiet reflection at Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo. It’s an unusual Twin Cities institution where, since 1948, up to 70 men have gathered nearly 50 weekends each year to collectively, but silently, undertake the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (founder of the Jesuits), a series of Christian reflections on the purpose of life.
Ignatius developed this workout regime in Spain — in the 1520s.
As you might imagine, most of the pilgrims at Demontreville are devoted cradle Catholics, with a few of us dedicated dabblers mixed in. And though we all seem in most respects to be spectacularly ordinary fellows, it is oddly pleasing to learn that such old-fashioned tastes in spirituality make us a sort of subversive sect in today’s fashionably (and increasingly) secular society — almost as rebellious as the early Christians were.
And in another sense, we “retreatants,” as the Jesuits call us, are citizens of the world compared with the proliferating “nones” in America and Western Europe, who are becoming steadily more unlike the rest of humanity in this respect. As I’ve noted several times before, swelling global populations of Muslims and conservative, Southern Hemisphere Christians are making non-Western humanity ever more devout even as the rich world loses faith.
I’ve reported as well that surveys confirm what Hopfensperger described in her profiles of the unaffiliated — that a large proportion of America’s nones are not atheistic, but say they believe in a less rigidly defined spiritual reality or essence behind the physical world.
As a spiritual drifter myself, I get that.
So, too, in his fashion, does Father Paul, our retreat director at Demontreville last week. While lamenting the decline of faith in modern America, he acknowledged the appalling abuse scandal that has rocked his church. He also rose to the loving defense of “doubting Thomas” and all his successors down through the generations, and praised insights in many modern interpretations that consider Gospel miracle stories as merely symbolic allegories.
But he reminded us that the Gospel authors simply did not describe their stories this way. And he invited us to consider that those inspired writers were pretty smart — after all, they penned “best sellers” — maybe even as smart as we are.
What’s called “Ignatian contemplation” — in which each contemplative tries to imagine biblical events as real human experiences — is a central part of the Spiritual Exercises. Father Paul is a skilled practitioner of this challenging art. And his renderings of familiar stories reminded me of the way so many Bible passages include weird details that are improbable in an unexpected way.
For instance, there’s one story of Jesus giving sight to a blind man where the cure doesn’t seem to take at first (Mark 8:22-26), and the Messiah has to try a second time — like an optometrist, Father Paul suggested, switching between different lenses on his machine to pin down one’s prescription.
Why would a mythmaker, inventing a tall tale to awe gullible believers, throw in a twist like that?
And then there’s the story of Jesus feeding a crowd of 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread — after which, the Gospel adds, “the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over” (Matthew 14:20).
As if the claim of feeding the multitude doesn’t dazzle credulity enough? The fable fabricator had to pile on the marvel of leftovers?
Point being: These details (like many others in scripture) seem a bit like the kind of unlikely, oddball facts that are only produced by real life and that one has to include if one is trying simply to describe what one saw. But they seem out of place if these are inventions of heroic mythology (or, for that matter, symbolic allegory).
Anyway, an openness to pondering such scandalous riddles may not be the fastest-growing form of religious practice in modern America. But after all these centuries, it may have some staying power still.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.