The Search for a Spiritual Home

by Jon Zens
I was sitting in a clinic waiting room and an article caught my attention in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine. It is written by a lady who grew up as a disgruntled Catholic and then later in life came back to Roman Catholicism (with many criticisms of the system still lingering).  It is entitled, "The Search for a Spiritual Home," by Beverly Donofrio, in the December 2002 issue of Oprah.

I thought her opening statement on page103 was worth some comment.

"I was born in the fifties, when Catholicism was more about following impossible, nit-picking, spirit-numbing rules than it was about belief.  We were discouraged from reading the Bible, which, it was felt, could only be filtered through priests, and we were in a perpetual state of sin...."

What a concise commentary on so much religion, not only the Catholic, but the Protestant as well!

Jesus' confrontations with the Pharisees reveal that whenever religious people focus on punctilious observances and not on Christ's revealed will in the New Testament, they will axiomatically not focus on what is really important. So much religion preoccupies the adherents with bondage to trivia, so much so that what Christ judges to be the priorities cannot be practiced – visiting, clothing and feeding those in prison, and the orphans and widows (Matthew 25:34-40; James 1:27). The weightier matters will be missed when there is a fixation on human rules and traditions. There are no exceptions to this.

It seems pretty evident that, for whatever reasons, most people in churches are discouraged from reading their Bibles. Evangelical statistician George Barna has reported repeatedly that Biblical illiteracy among "Christians" is appalling. There is a Bible in many homes in America – and in many motel rooms, thanks to the Gideons – but the reality seems to be that they collect dust and are rarely searched to see what is so. Is it any wonder that human traditions rule and multiply, along with false teachings, when religious systems take advantage of constituencies who think Ephesus is a disease you get from smoking too much?

The notion that the Bible is best filtered down to those in the pew through religious experts is a long-standing assumption, and accounts in a large degree as to why people do not read their Bibles. Why should they, if they are paying a clergy-professional to spoon-feed them from the Scriptures several times a week?

Many religious leaders, both overtly and covertly, love to promote the idea the Bible is only understandable to "laymen" if mediated through the "clergy." Even the Reformers of the 16th Century, who broke away from the Catholic hierarchy, ended up with their own clergy-centered way of doing things. The cry of "the priesthood of all believers" could scarcely be heard given the dominance of those who stood behind the pulpits.

Many religious systems keep their subjects in a perpetual state of sin, or at least in a perpetual state of wondering if they've "done enough."  This way the people are forever dependent upon the hierarchy for their "assurance." But the Gospel liberates believers to serve freely from the heart, because they have been accepted by God , not on the basis of their performance, but on the basis of Christ's performance. Only if acceptance with God is not based on human works can the Christian then perform zealously in gratitude for what Christ did for him/her on the cross.

James D.G. Dunn offers an insightful, crisp summary of the critical aberrations that began to emerge quickly after the original apostles passed from the scene. The religion we have today in America is pretty much reflected in the negative characteristics he identifies.

"Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism – when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well defined ritual acts. We saw above that such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change" (Unity & Diversity in the New Testament, Westminster Press, 1977, p.351).

Ms. Donofrio came back to Catholicism, but she should have come to the Gospel and the simple community that emerges from it.