Religion, as a social institution, has a variety of social functions, as well as more spiritually oriented roles. From the perspective of society, religion provides a model for organizing society, provides both a legitimization of and check upon authority, and is a source for social norms and a means of enforcing such social norms. From the spiritual perspective, religion provides a sense of meaning and a way to deal with the transcendent.
Back in ancient times the king was often viewed as being divine in some way. In this sense, their political and religious leader was combined in one person. Religious belief reinforced the political authority of the king and the political authority of the king reinforced the religious teachings and moral norms of the religion.
As the centuries passed we moved further from the model of the king as a divine person to the king as a human being who ruled over a people by divine-right. This put God as the highest authority but left the king as God’s deputy. If God didn’t remove the king’s right to rule in the name of God, the king had full authority. Of course, you could have a situation where God removed the divine right from someone and invested it in another.
When King Saul failed to follow God’s orders, his right to be king was removed and given to David. This development acknowledged that there were limits to the king’s power. Religion was a means to enforce those limits. Religion set boundaries on acceptable behavior not just for the king but for everyone in the society. Some types of behavior were unacceptable and a threat to society. Such behavior was described as immoral and sinful by religion. Engaging in such behavior would result in punishment if one was caught. Most societies saw theft, murder, adultery and treason as terrible crimes and worthy of punishment. In many cases these offenses were handled in the religious sphere and social pressure rooted in religious belief and morals was brought to bear on the offenders. Religions of the “Book” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) tended to emphasize morality as a key element of their tradition.
Recent centuries have seen the development of a separation between government and religion. Religion is a voluntary association of individuals, who are free to exercise their beliefs if they do no harm to others, according to this model. Government derives its authority from the will of the governed, rather than any divine source. This arrangement prevents religions from making any inordinate claims on government, while preventing government from making any inordinate claims on religion. This is the model we find in the Unites States Constitution. Most of the controversy in the States over issues of religious liberty are debates over where the exact boundary between religion and government belongs.
While the social functions of religion get activists, pundits, professors, bishops and politicians all worked up, they are somewhat secondary to the faith of the average young person today. Much more important to the average young person are the spiritual functions of religion and how they play out in the community and their individual lives. It is here that we are concerned with finding a sense of meaning in our lives and a way to relate to God.
I grew up in a very Catholic family and went to our parish grammar school and one of the Catholic high schools in the city where we lived. My religious heritage had been given to me by family, teachers and pastors. It was part of the reality in which I lived but was something in which I had invested very little thought. I went to a state college and within six months of the beginning of my first semester I lost my Catholic heritage. It wasn’t so much that I rejected it. I had never understood it in the first place. It was simply part of my cultural environment and I had never been exposed to different ideas.
I soon found myself on a quest for a sense of meaning in my life and it was this quest that allowed me to claim back parts of my faith little bit by little bit. It took several years and some winding turns before I one again had a recognizable Christian faith but by that time it was Catholic and mature. It was my faith at that point and not just something that had been handed to me by others.
Several elements were very important to my spiritual journey during that period. One element was a community of friends. The other element was a deepening relationship with God through the practice of prayer and other spiritual disciplines.
For a year of two in college as I began to piece together some sense of faith, everything was still very ambiguous. Eventually, I got involved with a youth group at college. They provided structure and a sense of belonging to a community. We explored our developing beliefs together, tried to practice virtue and supported one another. We became good friends. The friendship was important because it moved us beyond simply a religious youth group to a community of people who cared for one another and were there for each other in good times and bad, day in and day out. Many years later we still stay in touch as best we can, even if it is only email and brief visits. Eventually we moved on in different directions but that time as a community of friends was critical for us. If nothing else, it helped us appreciate the importance of community in nurturing a growing faith.
While I was part of that youth group I began to develop a habit of prayer. It was mostly read from a prayer book or Scripture but it was daily. Then one day during my prayer I had a powerful experience of God’s presence. This experience stoked a desire to go deeper in prayer on a regular basis. In this quest, I moved into a more contemplative mode of prayer. I still did my simple daily prayers but now I included time for meditation and contemplative prayer forms. Over the years this has become an important part of my spirituality and religious practice.
In addition to the other ministries mentioned above, I often teach Theology or Religious Studies courses at local Catholic universities as an adjunct professor. Many of the students are on a similar quest to find a deeper experience of God and a richer sense of meaning that links them to the transcendent. The hunger for the divine is very much present in their lives. The challenge is how to feed that hunger.