I recently chatted with a professional photographer outside the historic Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. She was not Catholic, but she confessed an almost obsessive passion for church architecture. She could detail the artistic nuances of obscure Florentine churches better than most Italians born in the shadow of Brunelleschi's dome. She recognized these sites as portals to the divine. Yet she did not want to identify herself with a particular organized religious body. A personal relationship with God was indispensable for navigating our troubled world, she insisted. She did not, however, want to petrify this relationship into cold ritual.
Like so many other Nones, this young woman is unsatisfied living as a materialistic “buffered self,” closed to transcendent reality. Sadly, while such Nones succeed in avoiding a full buffer against the divine at the vertical level, they often succumb to an atomized approach to religion, which buffers them from a believing community at the horizontal level. They tend to regard their neighbor as an obstacle to their private experience of the divine. They are suspicious of traditional ritual, skeptical that what has proven formative for generations can be assimilated authentically. Relations with a higher power or purpose, they think, should be more fluid.
The Nones’ reluctance to commit to organized religion may also stem from the moral standards a traditional faith demands. Without submission to concrete authorities, the self becomes its own magisterium. In a privatized relationship with God, the believer has little motive for self-renunciation. Whatever is difficult may be dispensed with as optional or as an unattainable ideal. The defined creed, code, and cult of an organized religion like Catholicism, by contrast, makes individual deficiencies painfully clear.
Contrary to Marxist critiques, a fair assessment reveals that traditional faiths are a poor opium for the people. Diluted substitutes, like the prosperity gospel that fuels numerous megachurches, do indeed offer a user-friendly alternative to the hard sayings of Christianity. However, more traditionally-minded Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities challenge their flocks to a self-emptying and self-giving of proportions that would be inhuman apart from the prospects of divine grace.
Fortunately, the incriminating standards of organized religion do not leave their adherents in perpetual gloom. These faiths furnish an abiding peace through a definitive moral compass. The statues and stained glass windows of a church building, for instance, remind spiritual wanderers of the saintly exemplars who have faced struggles similar to their own and have managed to triumph through divine grace.
In his visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the iconic church’s stained-glass windows. From the noisy streets, the windows seem dim and menacing. Only by entering the church can one see the images’ beauty. The visitor there comes to meet the saints, the men and women who best allowed the light of grace to shine through them, just as their glass representations are penetrated by the sun’s splendor.
The traditional believer can penetrate the buffers of the None only if he has first assimilated a repository of wisdom and moral uprightness that is beyond the None’s reach. Without a compelling testimony to the transformative force of organized religion, the None will linger curiously outside her shrines, buffered from the communities of faith that could channel more wisely those persistent upward longings.
Michael Baggot, LC is a Legion of Christ brother and a summer intern at First Things.