What would it look like for me to hold certain beliefs in the deep crevices of my being that don't align with the official teachings of the church to which I choose to belong? I think this is the underlying question I have long tried to make sense of in my spiral revisiting of the various faith traditions in the world.
I am learning about natural law and principles, and conscience has come to my awareness. Even the Catholic Church teaches that we are not to go against our own conscience. While it also says we are responsible for forming our conscience in alignment with official church teachings, the only way I can see that holding water is to expect any Catholic of good will to educate herself on what the Church teaches and why. And/but once this is done, what if my conscience still disagrees with what Catholics higher up in the hierarchy believe, those with the institutional power to announce that their revelations are straight from God while mine, as a common layperson, are subject to the influences of demonic forces (I may be exaggerating just a smidgen here)?
A person cannot be compelled to believe anything without clear evidence to support any given claim. And in a lot of cases - most I would even venture to say - what constitutes "clear evidence" is subject to interpretation.
Speaking of interpretation, I once heard this great Catholic reproof for Protestants: "every Protestant is his or her own Pope." Today, I don't actually think this is something bad. If the papacy is seen by Catholics as something positive, as a way of interpreting Scriptures, then to assign that title to individual Christians who opt to be their own pope is merely saying that a different fallible human being is interpreting Scriptures.
I will dive into the papal argument another time, but for today, what I'm trying to unpack is my initial question: what does it look like to live in line with one's own conscience while at the same time stay aligned with an official denomination?
Followingjesus.org gives some ideas. What are the possible points of contention of such an arrangement? First and foremost, when we adamantly disagree with what is preached from the pulpit on a regular basis, this would likely not be a good arrangement. If we cannot be open about our own lifestyle and expect full support from the fellowship of the church, this also wouldn't be a healthy set-up. But what if both my conscience and my church teach me to turn inward and trust God? What if they both tell me to discern the will of God in my life on an ongoing basis? What if they both tell me to empty myself of all the vices and serve others?
Do the countless differences among the various denominations really matter? It seems that trying to fit one's conscience into one's denomination or vice versa is the reason we have thousands of denominations and countless others who merely go through the motions.
That's the real sorrow of a disconnect, I think. Not that so-called "Cafeteria Catholics" disagree with the church but that they often end up feeling lukewarm because what they do believe is overshadowed by what they don't.
What if I learned to keep silent on issues that don't need to be aired out? What if I don't have to always be right? Is that part of it? I want to belong to a group where what I believe is already considered true and correct? Am I concerned about becoming a social parriah over dissent? Or am I concerned about displeasing my God by holding untrue beliefs? Because only the latter ought to give me pause.
I have explored enough faiths, both with and without Christianity to know that indeed each holds some kernel of truth as to ultimate reality.
Every time I read about the apologetics of a denomination, I see it their way. At least part of what they claim. This used to cause me a lot of flip-flopping, constantly wanting to change affiliation. But now I see that none of these denominations is the verbatim will of God. They're all just interpretations of His will.
I cannot believe that God intended for us to have so many religions and be so totally confused over who is right.... unless of course religion was never meant to be the conveyor of truth, but merely of spiritual practice and cultural tradition, in which case there is no arguing over which is better because they're all equal in His sight.
This must be what His view on the plurality of religion is. It makes no sense to on the one hand allow multiple interpretations and at the same time condemn them all. Because no single denomination is safe from condemnation by at least some other denominations. Jesus wanted unity, and here we are, 2000 years later, bickering over who deserves to sit at His right and left, just like James and John in Mark 10:37.
Let's back up for a bit. What is the spiritual/religious/faith life? What does it consist of?
There's public worship. For us that is the Mass. It includes Scripture reading, singing, communal prayer, a teaching by the priest, reception of the Holy Eucharist, and often a collection. But it is also the optional public worship, like the Festival of Praise at our church once a month, or a group Rosary or Novena.
There's private worship. This is prayer, meditation, contemplation, Scripture reading, singing and listening to Christian music. Being in nature. And anything else that brings us closer to God.
There's fellowship. In our church, we have a monthly family dinner night at the parish. There's often other workshops and classes available. There's small groups and Bible studies. There's Celebrate Recovery and other support groups. There's even a Facebook presence for the ladies of our parish.
There's service. This can be done either in connection with the church, like the monthly Casserole dinner we make and bring back, or otherwise connecting with the homeless population through our SALT program, or the various other opportunities to share our treasure, talent, and/or time. There's serving our own parish community, as well as the community at large, both locally and globally. There's charitable donations and volunteering.
There's morality and virtues. This is the way we live our everyday lives. The decisions we make. How we affect the lives of others. How we grow in self-discipline and in how we view ourselves.
There's how we live out our faith through politics and the law. This is an extension of the previous morality and virtues.
There's apologetics and evangelization. This is how we defend and share our faith and hope in Jesus.
We can, and in fact are called to, serve others regardless of their belief system, if we are to treat all others as we want to be treated, regardless if we agree on matters of faith (or anything else for that matter). Similarly we are to fellowship with others for the sake of spreading the Gospel, so we cannot cut ourselves away from those who don't already believe as we do. The only aspect of religion that seems to truly necessitate uniformity would be public worship. It would be chaos if everyone came with their own agenda to church, each standing up at will to share what was on their mind, some breaking into song, some perhaps into a dance, or otherwise everyone staying silent if no one had anything prepared. Oh, wait, I just described an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting!
It would appear then that even there we don't "have" to be uniform. We just like it that way. We like to draw a line in the sand and say "this is where we begin and this is where others begin". It makes us feel like we belong. But is this what we're called to? To belong to a human-run institution? To belong to a group of fellow humans according to agreed-upon values and beliefs? Or are we called to belong directly to God?
Now, I am not suggesting we eschew organized religion altogether, or communal worship. I am saying that I wish I could simply hear from within my church that even if we disagree, I am still loved by the Father and saved by the Son and strengthened by the spirit. What I hear instead is the need to repent of my sins, meaning anything that veers away from the agreed-upon standard. I hear from some Catholics that I'm wrong for going to New Order mass. I hear from other Catholics that I am wrong for not wearing a headcovering in front of the blessed Sacrament. Some Catholics tell me I'm wrong for having adopted embryos. Others tell me I'm wrong for eating meat on Fridays. There are Catholics that think too much adherence to tradition is scrupulous and not in line with Rome. Then there are Catholics who think too much freedom of expression is disrespectful to the holy presence of God in the tabernacle. Everyone seems to think they speak for God Himself.
And this isn't just Catholics who have a Pope. Protestants do it, based on their own interpretations of various verses. Orthodox do it based on their own patriarch's teachings. Groups that seem to have broken off even further away from mainstream Christianity, either by way of theology, as in the case of nontrinitarian Christians, or by way of lifestyle, as in the case of the Amish, also claim to have found the truth that was lacking in the mainstream.
It seems to be impossible to actually find truth among so many voices. The only way I see around the problem is to transcend the differences all together and focus on natural law and principles.