October 30, 2009

Popular Religion: Risk and Opportunity

"Popular religion" is very much a part of our culture, and that includes our churches. I can guarantee that if you were to scratch the surface of many members of your congregations, and not a few clergy and bishops, you might find some rather astonishing theological opinions, especially concerning such things as the "life of the world to come."

I know this tension between popular religion and dogmatic orthodoxy also exists in the Roman Catholic Church -- alongside the dogma a very rich personal and popular devotional life thrives, and it is not always "orthodox" in its underpinnings. (I can remember the nun who told our Catechism Class about the salvific value of a mother's tears, carried by an angel to the Virgin Mary who put it in the scale to weigh it against the wicked heart of the distraught mother's son! Talk about unconscious syncretism — that even resonates with the Egyptian Book of the Dead!)

Perhaps this is in part a result of being heirs of an established church (whether legally or culturally — so that includes "big" churches like the Roman Catholic, and Lord knows that there is plenty of "popular religion" in countries where the Roman Catholic Church is dominant). I suspect as well this may happen in liturgical (rather than confessional) churches a bit more frequently. People become used to being part of the church's worship, its general atmosphere as opposed to official doctrines, and it may or may not touch their lives otherwise beyond The Three Sacred Elements of the Transitional Rites (you know, Water, Rice, and Earth in the Hatch, Match and Dispatch role the church has so long taken.)

In the long run I approach this in much the way C.S. Lewis did: which is to ask, How much worse off might such people be — even with their less than perfect grasp of the doctrinal rudiments of the faith — if they were not exposed to the church at all? And so we clergy keep on hatching, matching and dispatching — but I hope in as honest and rich and faith-filled a way as possible, not giving into the temptation to substitute popular pious platitudes for the sometimes hard doctrine. We are not, after all, a society of perfect people, but pilgrims. As long as the guides keep their heads on straight, not giving in to the sentiment that passes for faith, we will be moving in the right direction, under the shadow of our banner, the Cross of Christ.

But that takes perseverance — the "popular" course is popular for a reason —it's easier. A few weeks ago, Archbishop Barry Morgan delivered the Hobart Lecture here in the Diocese of New York. One of his themes was clerical honesty: especially in times of loss and tragedy resisting those pious platitudes that are so easy and attractive and tempting; and which reaffirm those troubling aspects of sentimental and popular religion. What does "He's gone to a better place..." have to do with the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead? As Morgan challenged, is it really at all true that "God never gives us trouble without giving us the strength to bear it..." when we are surrounded by evidence to the contrary?

I commend the lecture to you -- it is good, bracing, reading and touches on this whole question of sentimental religion vs. a faith that can face the facts.

Peace and joy, and a Glorious All Saints Day upcoming! (I've got three rounds of Water to deal with three of the newly Hatched!)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Paul said...

In the tender years of my most pious evangelical youth I could not bring myself to believe 1 Corinthians 10:13, a verse that only works for those whose lives are unusually sheltered from the woes of the world.

June Butler said...

Tobias, when I saw that the lecture by Abp. Barry Morgan ran to 28 pages, I thought I'd look at it but probably not read it all. But I was drawn in and ended up reading the entire lecture. It is excellent and reads quickly. The print is large.

Since we know so little about the "why" of personal tragedies and about the afterlife, we tend to fill in the gaps with sentimental platitudes. I do it, but less now than I once did.

The Psalms taught me the many ways that the people of God speak to God and showed me that I was allowed to rant and shake my fist at God.

One of the most consoling prayers for me is from the short form of Morning Prayer in the BCP:

Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity....

Adversity will surely come, but we trust that we shall overcome with the help of God's grace.

God bless you in your priestly role as mother hen tomorrow.

WSJM said...

My browser refused to find the tinyurl version of the link to Archbishop Morgan's talk, but I successfully found it by Googling "Barry Morgan Hobart Lecture." (The literal URL is quite long, so I won't try to reproduce it here.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Paul, I think part of the problem with Paul in !Cor 10:13 may be what I was getting at. It may also be that evangelical tendency to take a timely comment of a pastor to a particular congregation (Paul to Corinth) as "gospel" and context insensitive -- an eternal verity. I think that happens to Paul quite a lot, actually...

Mimi, glad you found the lecture. It really does make one stop and think, doesn't it?

Bill, glad you found it too. My link is right to the pdf and that might cause problems in some browsers. All hail Google!

WSJM said...

And having successfully found Abp. Morgan's lecture, I vigorously second Grandmere Mimi's advice: Read it! It is really excellent.

Erika Baker said...

It's not just popular religion, though. I'd love to know how many people truly know what makes and Anglican Anglican rathern than Methodist or Lutheran.

And I'd like to know how many go to their local church because they agree with its doctrines and not because they like the fellowship, the music and the sermons.

And I'd like to know how many make their journey accepting this, not understanding that, rejecting the other, changing their minds ... and all of us, up to a point, ending up with our own faith.

Sentimental religion vs faith that can face reality (not sure about "the facts" - they're a matter of faith) is a good state to live in - however we get there.

To me, the real question is: Are we God focused or church focused, God focused or religion focused, God focused or merely about right belief as a security blanket.

If it's truly God focused, I think we can trust him to guide us, whatever anyone else may think.

The Very Rev. Daniel B. Brown said...

I'm thinking that another appeal of "popular religion" along with it being easier is that it often gives the appearance of being harder. Even in Georgia we are surrounded by evangelistic religionists who cry about the hostility of society toward religion. Which means we have a good number of self appointed martyrs down here.

Erika Baker said...

I wonder whether "popular" is always easier, and whether the distinction you're making is not more between true religion and false religion, sentimentality and religiosity.

The people who are comforted at a funeral by the thought that the dead person is now in a better place may well have true religion, while many who stand by and believe they can determine what is genuine and what isn't, probably don't (Tobias, I don't mean you!!!).

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Let me also take the opportunity to clarify something. What I'm on about here -- following ABp Morgan -- is not about sorting wheat from tares, or really to do with orthodoxy or perfection. Nor is it about eternal salvation -- as no one is saved on the basis of right belief.

What I'm on about what is good spiritual nourishment in the here and now. I'm suggesting there is "spiritual fast food" or "spiritual pica" (the condition the causes malnourished children to consume lead paint, which offers a poisonous chemical analogue for some real needed element). What I'm saying is that the veneer of civil religion and popular piety will not normally bear the weight of tragedy. It isn't about judging people as inadequate, but recognizing their need and providing them with a truly adequate "faith that can face the facts" as Bishop Morgan put it.

In this All Saints/Souls season, I'm reminded there are Christians whose faith is deep or shallow, but also that we're all in this together. I have known many people whose faith is simple but deep, and some whose faith is complicated but shallow. (I also want to recall Barth's distinction between "faith" and "religion" -- the latter about form, the former, content.) My concern as a pastor is with helping people deepen their faith, not judging them on it, though discernment is a pastoral tool; I know people whose simple but robust faith will bear them through a tragic loss -- they do much of my pastoral work for me, thanks be to God.

But for those who have merely adopted a few platitudes or outward devotional forms, a deeper faith equip them to weather the storms of life -- as Jesus suggests in a number of parables about seed and its roots, and houses and their foundations -- and it is in part my task as a spiritual leader to guide them to such depth, rather than simply applying additional coats of whitewash.

Peace in Christ, in whom all our inadequacies find redemption,

Erika Baker said...

I suppose very often we have to go through a crisis before we learn how strong our faith is, or before we can acquire a stronger faith. You never really know whether a bridge will hold until you try to cross it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Yes, Erika, the old saying about proof and pudding rings true! Perhaps one reason the Lord's Prayer ends, save us from the time of testing...l

Brad Evans said...

Are you referring to popular as in peasant/lower class views in catholic and orthodox countries and evangelical/pentecostal churches? Or the New Age-y mix found in the members of Mainline Protestant churches? Or both?
The catholic who buries a statue of st. Joseph upside-down or the "Gaia Mass" of the congregation of upscale Anglo-Catholics made up of upper middle class converts/refugees from poorer churches?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...


I wasn't thinking quite so specifically -- but yes, the buried St. Joseph may bring some hope for a home sale, but I imagine it is similar in effect to the thrill one gets a buyer a lottery ticket -- it may bring a pleasant moment to imagine winning, but very few actually do win. You remind me of the film "Household Saints" in which the Italian mother "punishes" the statue of the Virgin Mary from her bedroom dresser by holding it over the flame of the burner on the kitchen stove when her daughter has a miscarriage.

And yes, the froufrou of dilettante-ish dabbling that afflicts the upscale is in its way no better. Perhaps worse. I'm not the judge or jury.

At the same time, there may be more honest faith in a peasant's trust in God than in a theologian's treatise on the Atonement. And, for the record, I attended the world premiere performance of Paul Winters' "Missa Gaia" at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine lo these decades ago, and I found it profoundly moving. Later replicas at smaller scale and with less skill may not measure up.

In the long run, I don't want to sink anybody's boat if it's floating --- my concern is with people who are floundering in doubt or dismay because the boat they thought would bear them up is sinking or sunk already. A shallow faith is of no use when one is in deep waters -- which is part of what Abp Morgan and I are getting at.

Erika Baker said...

just an aside: if testing times show us the strength of our faith, or if they help to create and develop that faith in the first place, can the Lords Prayer's "do not lead us into temptation" really be about Jesus asking us to pray for an easy life?

This is a fascinating thread, thank you!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Erika. An equally fascinating question! Of course whole treatises have been composed on every clause of the Lord's Prayer, and this one is no exception. I think I would note a few things about this verse:

--there is nothing strange in praying that God will not put us to the test. I don't think that's the same thing as a "prayer for an easy life."

--it reflects an awareness of our own human weakeness, and awareness that if tested we might well fail, and, as I noted in the original post, be weighed down with more than we can really bear.

--the doublet clause at the end refers to "rescue" -- "deliver" is a little to postal for my taste! The sense of the doublet seems to be: "don't test us further than we can bear, and when we fail, rescue us!" That seems a reasonable form of prayer; and in itself it is an expression of deep faith, not shallow, if it is really "meant" -- it reveals that one is aware of ones own frailty, and must depend on God entirely for rescue. Real humility is one of the more difficult virtues or habits to cultivate. I think it is a sign of deep faith in God. The person in a terminal collapse who can cry out to God, "Help! Save me!" is demonstrating faith, not a request for an easy life.

Thanks again for your spot-on comments and questions!

Paul said...

A fascinating thread; thank you all.

I second Erika's comment:
"If it's truly God focused, I think we can trust him to guide us, whatever anyone else may think."

Brother David said...

Another idea of what it says;

...and bring us not to the breaking point,
but wrest us from the evil one.

June Butler said...

I sort of hate to say it, and perhaps it's a platitude, but I've matured in my faith more in difficult times than in easy times. Sometimes platitudes are true.

Lord, give me maturity, but not yet.

scott gray said...


i'm trying to figure out what priciple is important to you here, and why.

what do you feel is 'true' about your theological priciple regarding the afterlife?

is it 'true' as in 'verified by evidence,' or 'true' as in 'faithful to a dogma?'

it it is 'true-evidence,' what does it matter if a person believes something 'not-true' (not supported by evidence)?

if it is 'true-dogma,' what does it matter if a person believes something 'not-true' (not faithful to a dogma)?

to what extent are the theological principles regarding afterlife you hold true of any influence (either good or bad) on any particular social principle (governance, economic interactions, capitalism, democracy, american dream, moral codes, eudaimonia, or social justice codes, for example)?

again, i'm trying to determine why what is true to you about the afterlife is important?



Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Hi Scott.

I'm not sure I understand you questions, since I'm not talking about "afterlife" here, but life in the here and now. I tend not to speculate too much about "afterlife" -- though much popular religion does revolve around such speculation and beliefs. Perhaps that's a difference in my attitude: I think the life of here and now is what we are to deal with, rather than speculating about the life of the world to come. So the "important principle" I'm trying to address here is not about the afterlife, but this life.

FWIW, I don't think one's beliefs about the afterlife (about which 'true' or 'false' are both unknown) have anything to do with whatever the actual afterlife may be -- if there is any. I believe there is, but I can't prove it and would not say my belief is 'true' -- nor do I insist on others holding such a belief.

I can see how certain beliefs about the afterlife can affect how people relate to the issues you raise in the next to the last paragraph. For myself, given a kind of reverse of Pascal's wager, I prefer to work hard in this life for social principles of justice, fairness, and equity because I think them to be important whether there is an afterlife or not!

Erika Baker said...

I think I understand what you wanted to say. Based on the sentences “…not giving into the temptation to substitute popular pious platitudes for the sometimes hard doctrine”…and “What does "He's gone to a better place..." have to do with the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead?” I had read Tobias' post like that too at first. That's why I tried to say in my first comment that it is pretty irrelevant what theoretical ideas people believe, but whether they are truly God focused or not, and whether they are open to God’s guidance or not.

Tobias, if I understand you correctly now, you were wanting to point out the difference between a genuine, strong faith that can withstand the ups and downs of life, with a religious "Jesus my hero in the sky who will wave a magic wand and make it all better" kind of un-reflected faith that will probably crumble at the first hurdle.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Erika, for helping me understand Scott's question. You are correct in both how I misread it, and in my intent.

My point is not really about one's belief in the afterlife, but about whatever faith one has being deep rather than shallow. In my pastoral ministry I've seen too many people who are fine with other people's losses -- 'comforting' them with platitudes, discovering when tragedy hits home that they are not personally comforted by these -- and may not have held them at depth.

What I'm getting at is that this is true in other things than just one's opinions about the afterlife -- though as I note that plays a large part in some religious belief systems, where "getting to heaven" is what it's all about. For me, not so much. Rather, I think of the old GM Hopkins poem, "O God I love thee...Not for heaven's sake; not to be Out of hell by loving thee; Not for any gains I see; But just the way that thou didst love me I I do love and I will love thee..." "

June Butler said...

Tobias, thanks for the reminder of the lovely words by Hopkins.

scott gray said...


my wife often says the same thing about my questions to her. i think my way through, and think i’m clear, and still have to clean things up because of the leaps i’ve made. let me unpack a bit.

i wrote the last comment on my way to sing at a funeral, so i guess i had ‘afterlife’ on my mind. plus you talked about 'he's gone to a better place,' so i heard funeral and afterlife. it’s just an example of what i thought you were talking about.

let me try again. you personally wake up in the morning with a set of theological principles that make sense to you, that resonate with you. somehow, ‘popular religion’ rubs up against these principles in a fashion you’re not happy with. is this correct? if so, in what way is there a conflict between popular religion and your theological principles?

is it an issue of liturgical syncretism you find inappropriate? is it an issue of dogmatic syncretism you find inappropriate? i’m going to assume it’s one or the other, or both. as a priest, what happens ‘on the ground’ that makes you feel this way?

...ok. that’s what i was thinking about before i read few follow on comments. and now that i have…

you want a deep of faith, rather than shallow faith. and ‘popular religion’ either actively or passively adversely impacts the wrestle that you feel is required to reach a depth of faith; that a deep faith is not as easy as subscribing to ‘popular religion’ imput. is this correct? i still think there's a syncretism issue for you.

if you’re willing:

is having a deep faith an important theological principle to you? is this a personal opinion, or is it rooted in anglican or christian dogma?

in what way does the syncretism of ‘popular religion’ into ones set of beliefs (one’s own theological principles) change adversely? can it not also change one’s theological principles in positive ways as well? (unless you are defining ‘popular religion’ specifically by its adverse effect on deepening faith).

if such syncretism of ‘popular religion’ into a theological principle results in a positive impact on a social principle, doesn’t it make sense to keep the syncretistic idea? (i think of the ‘unity candle’ symbol in weddings that has become so… er… ‘popular.' if it acts as a rubric that strengthens the social principle of bonded couples, of covenant, shouldn’t it be embraced, even though it is not a sanctioned rubric in the marriage liturgy?)

is it important to have a strong faith for solely for personal reasons, or for social principle reasons as well? how does your strong faith positively impact the social principles you are a part of?



Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Scott for the clarifications and further questions.

Let me say first it isn't an issue of syncretism at all. When I speak in terms of deep vs shallow faith I'm not really talking about the credenda of one's theology, and whether they come "by the book" from a single theological world view, or as a personal mix of ideas from different traditions. It isn't so much the form of the religion as the depth of the faith. (This gets to the Barth distinction again.) Thus I would say, for instance that a devout Jew and a devout Hindu and a serious agnostic who has assembled her own consistent world-view and lives by it are all better able to weather the storms of life than a "secular" Jew or "Christmas and Easter" Christian, or a shallow New Ager who has just adopted the latest thing as a fad.

As opposed to syncretism, I think the main problem with popular religion of all forms is that it "pares down" rather than building up -- there's a tendency to over-simplify and reduce things to platitudes. So syncretism is only an issue when it results in a shallow faith -- which is not necessarily the case.

Now to your other questions:

All of this is a pastoral issue for me rather than a theological one. I think it applies to most if not all traditions.

Yr next 2 queries gets back to syncretism question, and I think I've addressed that. Marriage, though, is a good analogy: marriage of people whose love is deep and based on many points of contact will be stronger than a shallow marriage based on romance or some other thing alone. Whether sanctioned by a church or state authority is less important (and external to the couple). If the 'unity candle' is really deeply meaningful to people -- fine -- though I doubt that's true, and most people want it because it's "nice" or they saw someone else use one. I discourage it because candles get blown out, so I don't think it a very good symbol!

I think a strong belief system is important both for the individual and society. The content of belief is important though, as there are strongly held beliefs that I think work to an individual's advantage but against society. Racism, especially when institutionalized by the advantaged group, is one example.

Peace to you as well...
in haste,

scott gray said...


thanks for staying with me, and letting me think out loud here as well. oddly enough, this dialog deepens my faith.
let me explain.

i’m currently involved with catechesis of teenage confirmandi in a catholic paradigm. we begin each encounter in readings from the lectionary, and look for theological principles to pick from the tree and make delicious food from. when i begin the process each fall, i start with low hanging fruit, as it were, so i use eucharist readings so that the kids find eucharist principles close at hand.

one of the theological principles that’s easily picked in this paradigm is this: ‘jesus is truly present in the consecrated host.’ in a class of 24 kids, at least 22 feel (or profess at least) that this is ‘true.’

i don’t wrestle with them about ‘truth.’ i just accept it as true, and then ask that tough theological question: ‘so what?’

of course, this is heresy at first, but i explain that the answer, or response has to be in the form of ‘therefore…’ so the response is ‘i believe jesus is truly present in the consecrated host, therefore…’ and while most agree on the principle in the first clause, there are at least 40 ‘therefore’ responses in a class of 24.

inevitably, someone comes up with a therefore that closely resembles the meat of aquinas’ concept of the second epiclesis. and sacramentally, that’s where the rubber meets the road. 'i believe jesus is truly present in the consecrated host, therefore when i eat it, jesus is truly in me. i’m consecrated as well. i’m the body of christ.’

my next question, after there’s a chalkboard covered in ‘therefores,’ is ‘so where’s the good in all this?’ again, many responses. and finally, ‘so now what? what do we do with this?’

so what i've done is, i’ve moved a lectionary reading, to the precipitation of a theological principle, to a wrestle with this principle, to a homiletic response in their daily lives, especially in their living of social principles.

i realize that what i’m doing is deepening their faith. discovering the second epiclesis on your own instead of having someone tell you about it, and then figuring out how to respond to the world in this tweaked way of thinking, is like dying and being reborn.

and this does two things for me. it deepens my faith. and it lets me think carefully, with others, about two things: what theological principles are worth deepening? (i want these kids to walk away with a deep faith about what?) you can see from my comments that those that positively influence social principles are high on my list.

and if this process deepens faith, what other processes deepen faith that i don’t know about? because my methods work for some, but certainly not everyone.



Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Scott, for a deeply powerful testimony and a wonderful pedagogy! That's it exactly -- finding a way to have a faith that can respond to the "so what's" of this world.

My CPE supervisor was a RC Franciscan, and a very wise man and teacher. He used a similar challenging technique. Instead of "So what?" it was "And...?" A wonderful way to draw us into a deeper self-examination, away from the glib or easy answers.

Thank you again, and God bless you and those with whom you engage to find that depth of purpose and blessing that God makes available through the Spirit! You've lifted my heart at the end of a long day....

June Butler said...

Scott, I had to return to tell you how much I admire your teaching style and your willingness to engage in the lessons WITH your young students as you and they seek responses in matters of faith and practice.

Erika Baker said...

Another aside…. I haven’t come across a unity candle, but I like the idea!
Baptism candles get snuffed out too…. But in some respects that makes their symbolism even greater. At first you have this bright flame that is really only focused on the candle it comes from. But when it is snuffed out the smoke rises and disperses and ends up invisibly filling the whole church, touching everyone in it.
A faith filled person can do that, and a good marriage can do that too.