Can we talk about religion for a moment? It can be an uncomfortable subject for some people – regardless of whatever place on the spectrum you may fall on – religious, somewhere in between, or not at all. I find religion – its theory, its practice, its “place” in society and how individuals approach it – to be an interesting conversation. And oftentimes a necessary one, despite any discomfort it might bring.
People often talk about “being religious” like it’s a category that one either checks or doesn’t. The standard for whether you practice a faith is how often you attend a place of worship and how involved you are in that place. Maybe too, how it affects your approach to any one thing in society, and indeed to society overall.
But despite all these categories, it seems to me that being religious is both a matter of communal recognition as well as personal perspective of what that might constitute. Either way, religiosity or lack thereof is complex, and not treating it as such, is probably why our public conversations about religion range from the oversimplified to the chaotic.
I read something really cool about faith recently. It was in a piece on marriage in The New York Times called, The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give. Comparing the difficulties of being married to practicing faith, the author wrote something insightful:
You can be bad at a religion and still be 100 percent that religion. Just because you take the Lord’s name in vain doesn’t make you suddenly a non-Christian. You can be a sinner. In fact, I think it’s good theology that no matter how hard you try, you are sure to be a sinner, just as you are sure to be lousy, at least sometimes, at being married.
That is a really profound and often forgotten sentiment by all people, regardless of their (non-) religious viewpoints. Sometimes people categorize you into a separate kind of human when you assert that you’re religious. (Depending on where you are, they do that too when you’re on the far end of not being religious at all i.e. an agnostic or atheist.) The tendency is to place people in boxes that we create about who they are, based on their beliefs – or based on what we think are their beliefs. But human beings, if nothing else, can be complicated creatures. So are their beliefs, and the ways they practice them.
I am a cradle and practicing Catholic: Sunday Mass, the Eucharist, Confession, etc. – the works. (Side note: It always amuses me that many Americans treat Black Catholics like unicorns. If it helps, I’m not American. I’m Nigerian and Catholicism is fairly prominent in many Black-dominated parts of the world.) Church is one of the few places I can rely on for peace of mind. It’s a place I find solace and no need to be something other than whatever I am in the moment. And maybe too, having moved around quite a bit, it’s a place I have almost always relied on to feel like home.
But I’m not always a “good” Christian and Catholic. (Another side note: The United States is seriously the only country I’ve ever known to not see the latter as a subset of the former. What’s up with that?) But even when I am the admitted sinner, I have always held on to my faith as a part of my identity. In my conviction, religion and spirituality go together, not separately.
And even in my imperfections and the difficult questions I ask of my faith and of myself, I find myself always returning to the position that ultimately I think human beings are limited. Our capacity to understand the world no matter how brilliant, is limited. Our versions of love, truth, peace, and justice are limited. There has to be more – religion and spirituality is the journey to be open to more.
This doesn’t always go over well when you meet people in a culture and in parts of the culture – big city life – that for all intents and purposes, tend to embrace the secular more than the religious. But that’s why I’ve always loved the city – you meet people from different walks of life. I am grateful that for me, this was always more of the norm than not.
In childhood, I would think, “This person believes something different from me. Cool.” And my parents always reiterated, “You treat people with love and respect, no matter what.” Works for me. In adulthood, I probably have the same general attitude – except now I want to know why people believe what they believe in (or don’t), because I find their stories interesting. But I have realized that such an attitude is not always reciprocated.
A list of things I have been told after asserting or confirming my faith:
1. You’re way too smart to be religious (/Catholic).
2. Why would you believe in something that you can’t prove?
3. So…you don’t believe in science?
4. [Insert any political assumption about Catholics/religious people here.]
Writing a response to any of these is a whole other article in and of itself. But for the most part, those type of questions come with a spirit of condescension. Pun completely intended. The religious and the not-so-religious or not-religious-at-all, tend to be equally condemning.
Sometimes I think in order to get along with those around them, people will hide or diminish a part of their identity. I find this is true while navigating friendships from the time you’re an impressionable late teen leaving home, to when you start to resemble some sort of well-adjusted adult. I am religious, some of my friends are too – and are of a different faith from the one I practice. And some of my friends aren’t. And sometimes that makes for very awkward religious conversation.
Awkward conversations, even ones that are full of passion, do not disturb me as much as the sense that someone – sometimes a friend – would rather ignore the part of me that is religious. And I would be lying if I said I have not felt this sentiment at times. Being religious when (some of) your friends are not, also can put you in the position of being an apologist for your faith in public conversations – even when you don’t intend to be.
I have found that in terms of Catholicism, there seems to be this notion in popular cultural opinion that Catholics have one opinion about any one thing. Catholicism is universal in practice of faith, but something it is not in theology, is singular.
Take the issue of gay marriage. There are priests (and people) who were pro gay marriage from the start. There are priests (and people) who continue to be against it, in all contexts. There are priests (and people) who believe the state’s involvement in marriage is entirely unwarranted. There are priests (and people) who see civil marriage and religious marriage as different and separate from each other. There are a plethora of perspectives more than the above mentioned. The point? Faith is complicated.
Like most people, I don’t like to be seen solely as a “representative” of my faith – to my friends or anyone else. I’m a sinner after all, and sometimes I might give you the wrong impression. More importantly, it might give you only a half-full picture of what it means to be a person of that faith, or any faith for that matter.
But I also don’t want that aspect me of me ignored. You won’t get to really see me or fully accept the complicated parts of me that make me, me if you ignore my faith. And it’s the same for you. If I choose to ignore the parts of you that make you, you – to make myself comfortable, then I’ll never fully see you.
In the end, we have to let people, especially our friends, see us in all our parts. I think our differences are what makes us all so interesting – religion or lack thereof. If we can approach these difference with love and respect, I think we’ll find that even when our friends are something we aren’t, our friendships can still blossom in meaningful ways. And in this context, maybe even make us proud to be humans so different from each other, and yet genuinely able to call each other, “friend.” But first I must see all the parts of you, and you must see all the parts of me too.