In my mid-20s, I decided to become Catholic. I found Mass to be a more spiritually relevant form of worship than the informal, non-denominational Protestant tradition I’d grown up in. It was at once more personal and less intrusive. I could sit alone in the pew and worship in a way which resonated personally without having to talk to a bunch of strangers wanting to hear my testimony or sign me up for the choir.
Still, there were certainly some points on which my views clashed with church doctrine. A decently long list, actually. And yet, I signed up for RCIA anyway.
Before our first confession, we were given an opportunity as a group to ask questions. Almost immediately one of the people in class asked the big one.
What if we disagree on what constitutes a sin which needs to be confessed?
In other words, if I’ve done something the church considers wrong but I don’t personally agree, do I have to confess it?
I have a feeling this answer would vary from priest to priest, but I was surprised to be told that there was room for a parishioner to disagree with doctrine. Granted, I think the answer came with a lot of unspoken bits about coming to realize the error of our thoughts and ways in the end. Still, at the time I was absolutely inspired by the idea that I didn’t have to buy the entirety of the belief system to be a full part of the community.
Over the years, though, the list of points on which my view was in opposition to church teachings grew longer and longer until I really didn’t want to be a part of the church any more. I’m not sure exactly what the tipping point was, but there is a point at which disagreement is too toxic to permit a connection to exist. It happened well before my beliefs crossed the threshold into atheism. I simply realized at some point that my continued participation had no meaning because I could not salvage a meaningful belief from what remained.
The challenge of finding a spiritual home in an established group is that life causes us to change how we think. We can’t help it. And if the group’s beliefs don’t adjust while our own thoughts change there is a great chance that we will hit that tipping point, that threshold beyond which there is no meaningful belief to salvage from what agreement remains.
I don’t think this means that we should stay away from organized or established religion. But where religion teaches that doctrine will not and cannot ever change because it is Ultimate Truth, it sets followers up for crises of faith almost from the beginning. This is especially true when those unchanging teachings stand in opposition to the realities of everyday life because it is those points of disagreement which cause us to alter our views.
In many ways I think this suggests that a truly enlightened world would consist of either a great multitude of belief systems, all of which are understood to be ideas rather than truths, or of a few large belief systems which encourage flexibility of belief as a part of their practice. Clearly, the existence of a handful of organized religions condemning each other for heresy to the point of war is an unsustainable situation.