Karl Rahner once said that the time is fast approaching when one will either be a mystic or an unbeliever.
He’s right. None of us can rely much longer on the fact that we were once given the faith and that we still walk within a community that, seemingly, has some faith. These things are no longer, of themselves, enough to sustain faith in an age which is as agnostic, pluralistic, seductive, and distracting as is our own. In the past, a certain cultural (sometimes, ethnic-based) faith was still very powerful and could carry individuals in a way that is no longer possible today.
Twenty-five years ago, Henri Nouwen had already said something similar. While teaching at Yale, he commented that even among the seminarians he was teaching the dominant consciousness was agnostic. God had essentially no place in their normal consciousness, even within the very discussion of religion. That is basically true of all of us today, not just of seminarians, though it should be affirmed with more sympathy than sarcasm.
Faith is not easy today for any of us. To have real faith, an actual belief in God, requires something more than simply continuing to roll with the flow of our own particular faith communities. I say this because it is becoming clearer that today it is much is easier to have faith in Christianity, in a code of ethics, in Jesus’ moral teaching, in God’s call for justice, in an ideology of Christianity, and even in the value of gathering for worship, than it is to have a personal and real relationship to God.
Being born into a Christian family and worshipping within a Christian church can give us a relationship to a religion, to an ideology, to a truth, and to a community of worship; but these things, of themselves, are not the same thing as an actual faith in God. Just as we have people who believe but do not practice, many of us practice but do not believe. Subscribing to an ideology, however noble and inspirational it might be, is not the same thing as believing in and actually worshipping God.
To actually believe in God today, one must at some point in his or her life make a deep, private act of faith. That act, which Rahner equates with becoming a mystic, is itself difficult because the very forces that help erode our cultural, communal faith also work against us making this private act of faith.
These forces are not abstract. Nor are they the product of some conscious conspiracy by godless forces. What are the forces that conspire against faith? They are all those things, good and bad, within us and around us that tempt us away from being alone, from praying privately, and from taking the time and courage to enter deeply inside of our own souls.
To make an act of faith requires an inner journey, a journey into the deepest recesses of the soul where I must face:
•My weakness, my sin, my infidelities, my lies, my rationalizations, my constant avoiding of the searing truth.
•My fear that ultimately I am alone, that I will end up alone, unloved, and not worth loving.
•My mortality, the fact that one-day I will die and that already my body is aging, my options are narrowing down, that my best dreams will never be realized.
•My jealousies and angers, my bitterness that life has not been fair to me, that others have things I don’t have, and that I never forgiven them nor made peace with my loss.
•My ambitions, my need to succeed, my need to create some immortality of whatever kind for myself before I die.
•My sicknesses and addictions, the fact that I am not whole, that inside me there dark corners and dark demons that do not show up on my photographs, on my resume, and in the things my friends know about me.
•My sensuality, my lust, the power of sex within me, my laziness, my pathological need for distraction, my incapacity to sit still.
•My godlessness, that black hole of fear, insecurity, chaos, and emptiness within me.
British writer, Anita Brookner states in one of her novels that the great tragedy in most marriages is that the man and woman cannot, in the end, console each other and that what each really needs from the other, but generally never gets, is a good confessor, someone to whom each can reveal all the secrets of his or her life so as to let go of the tension and finally just be himself or herself without pretense and effort.
Ultimately, that is what each of us needs from God—someone who can console us and someone to be for us that trusted confessor, that person before whom no secret need to be hidden.
To relate to God in this way is to have faith. And this means consistently sharing all of our secrets and fears in those lonely, private hours when there are just the two of us and nobody else is around.